Bitter-cold. A cold that embraces and confronts simultaneously. The thermometer announces minus seven degrees Centigrade. The snow crumps and squeaks as it compacts under armoured boots, thick socks insulating against the ice. We walk briskly, partly to stay warm, but mainly seeking darkness, away from the crowd-trodden paths.
This is the north, deep inside the Arctic Circle, where mistakes have consequences. Pine trees ahead. Flagpole straight, festooned with decorative snow boughs, the trees wait, silent and still. The earlier storm, an intense, wind-driven, scouring-howling gale that drove drifts across the roads, whipped ice crystals like sand-blasting grit into exposed flesh and obscured the fell-mountain has gone. Now all is quiet; the wind blown out, leaves only traces of its strength.
We crunch northwards.
Away from the warm bar where, moments ago, we drank ice-cold, throat-rasping beer. Then, after a moment of excitement pings out onto vigilant mobile phones, people move. Coats on, neck scarves pulled over heads, hats and gloves grabbed; we head out.
Along the smooth white track, bordered by spindly pines and gnarled, old-man, birches with immobile frozen limbs. Cross country ski tracks trace along the edges of the path, in places drifted over by powderous snow.
We’re walking fast now, leaving the streetlights behind us, leaving artificial light and heading into natural moonlight, star-light. I avoid looking at the bright, lights, trying to boost my night-vision, occasional lapses score pink lines across my retina.
Around the bend in the track, shielded by forest, we see it. Halfway between the ground and the stars, a sinewy, snake-twisted band of not-bright, not dark, hazy green.
Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, Fox Fire, Bifrost, the dance of the dead. Seen a thousand times on postcards and breathless Instagram posts, commoditised into products and click fodder; and now here in front of us. Darker and more delicate than in the pictures, our eyes are far less sensitive than Nikon or Canon’s electronic retinas.
Solar flares, ejected from the sun, solar windborne, caress the atmosphere. Most are diverted deftly by the Earth’s magnetic mantle; a protective cloak wrapped around us, but thinner at the poles, unable to prevent some particles penetrating. Once beyond the cloak, charged electron and proton particles clash with exposed earth-created molecules and flash into light. Oxygen-green, Nitrogen-Purple-Blue.
And now, a double mystic snake, lying side by side, one nearer than the other, copying each other’s form like parallel railway lines. Ghostly shapes smeared across the darkness, surrounded by a dust-like scattering of stars. Later, after I envisaged the aurora as snakes, I find that the Germans called them glühende schlangen, or glowing snakes. The lights seem to ebb and flow as we look at them, almost imperceptibly growing brighter then fading. Is it our eyes playing tricks or the lights themselves changing?
The answer is clearer than the green shapes-shifting in the sky. They are fading fast, the whole show lasted for maybe ten minutes. Solar spume ebbs away from the thin layer of our atmosphere, ephemeral, moving southwards over the fell. Fading out of sight, the aurora leaves the stage; disappearing, apart from a tantalising vestige that lurks beyond the tree-line, like a backdrop curtain behind a row of actors.
The show is over, we are breathless with the experience, left gaping at the prickling stars. We turn to walk back towards the warmth with stories to tell.
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