As I lift my face to greet the star-studded night sky, jubilant Jupiter nearly stealing the show, a harsh wind whips across my bare skin. Though passengers aboard this whaling ship the previous two nights have failed to see what we’ve come to witness, my hopes are still high. It is my love’s birthday, and this display is one of the biggest reasons why we’ve chosen to come to Iceland (instead of somewhere tropical) in the middle of January. All we need is patience—and a little bit of luck won’t hurt.
The lights of Reykjavik glitter from the shoreline behind us. Ahead, the glacial summit of the stratovolcano Snæfellsjökull juts up from the sea. The choppy waters of the northern Atlantic Ocean cause the boat to swing from side to side, threatening my equilibrium. I brace myself against the icy railings of the deck, suddenly wishing I had taken advantage of the puffy jumpsuit offered to all passengers, but as my gloved fingers begin to tingle, I doubt whether I would have been much better off.
I am temporarily distracted by the words of our captain as he explains the marvel of the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, which has evoked awe and wonder over the centuries, from voyagers and poets alike.
Glossy reaches glisten,
Glasslike, to the flashes
Of the fireworks’ fury
Far beyond the Arctic
The aurora borealis are formed when electrically charged particles called ions—mainly electrons and protons—are emitted from the sun during a solar storm and enter the earth’s magnetic shield, colliding with atoms and molecules of the Earth’s atmosphere. The hue of the lights depends on the altitude of the collision and the atoms struck by these ions. Though I’ve seen videos and photos of this natural phenomenon, I cannot imagine what it will actually be like to witness this in the flesh–just as, until a couple days earlier, I could not imagine what it would actually feel like to be here in Iceland.
Despite the fleece-lined tights under my jeans, two pairs of socks in fur-lined boots, the performance insulation hoodie that covers half of my face and the thermal insulated hat that covers the top of my head to the bottom of my ears, I am ill-prepared for the Arctic chill that begins to seep into my bones. The obnoxious, incessant chatter of other English-speaking passengers starts to grate on the nerves. Ignoring our guide’s pleas to refrain from flash photography to reduce the light pollution, camera lights and noises are going off left and right.
And then, finally, we are directed to look up in the sky toward the mountain. If I squint hard enough, I can see a faint glow lighting part of the sky, as if a waning flashlight has suddenly been turned on. Over the next couple of hours, as ions strike oxygen in lower altitudes, the light waxes and wanes, vibrantly declaring its presence like a neon green rainbow across the sky before faintly drifting away again. Later, vivid green spills across the inky black canvas like oil before the Painter of the Heavens dips his brush in the pool, making the light swirl, dance and pulse. It is like nothing I have ever seen before, and I am humbled into silence.
Though my digital camera has been tucked in my coat pocket, ready to grab at a moment’s notice, I find my urge to document yet another incredible site on this trip fading away. This is The Moment. It needs no mediation through a lens, nor manipulation or framing by amateur hands. It begs to be delighted in, adored and shared with those also bearing witness.
The Consummate Professional is creating His Masterpiece perfectly before my very eyes. The wind whispers these reminders to me: Be still. Be present. Pay attention. Breathe this all in. All other sounds, lights and motion fall away.
Unmoored. Untethered to technology. Freed from expectations. Split open wide to the warm embrace of my love as we take in the glory of nature’s dance above us.