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I grew up in a mining town in northern Minnesota a few miles from the Canadian border. In winter the cold was no mystery to us; nor was the spectacle of the blazing starlight on clear nights. We grew up able to identify the formations of the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt and the rest.
But there was no earthly way I could have been prepared for my first sight of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, on the night before Christmas.
Families up north celebrated together on Christmas Eve in the middle of the Great Depression. The majority of the older folks were immigrants, from the Balkans of Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia and from Finland, Norway, Sweden and Italy. On Christmas Eve they would exchange visits and food and often stories of the old country. The food on their tables reflected their heritage. So did the mingled languages of English and European.
This was the time of the early 1930s. The Depression had virtually impoverished America. But steel was still needed for commerce and the men up north were able to work a few days a week in the mines. Often the table fare included deer, rabbit and partridge, game the men brought home in the hunting season. When families celebrated together there was invariably room at the table for the wine that most of them legally brewed over the fall. Now and then, the glasses featured spirits a little, well, stiffer than wine.
Usually a few days before the holidays the men invited their children to join them in finding a Christmas tree in the woods. You should remember that this was in the midst of truly hard times. The families knew there were perfectly good Christmas tree candidates in the public forests less than a mile from town; pine trees, spruce and more, part of the state forest, protected by law.
The Forest Service understood that. But this was in the depths of poor times. There were thousands of trees in the forest. If a man wanted to find a tree for the family, and the forest was only a few hundred yards away, filled with family sized pines, the Forest Rangers were not going to patrol all day. Or any part of the day.
It was understood. It was not exactly an invitation, but the rangers were aware that the townspeople would not abuse the privilege and take more.
So the forest would survive easily. At the age of eight my dad assigned me the highly important job of dragging the tree home. After the Christmas dinner at grandma’s that year, I stepped outside to explore. Somebody had told me there something amazing to see once you walked out of the alley way.
I headed for a snow-covered playground in a public field not far from the head frames of the silent mine shafts. Alone, I looked up to the sky.
It was almost ablaze with color; moving and shifting color on the giant canvas of the sky itself. I was not prepared and could scarcely breathe. The dimensions of it were overwhelming. I couldn’t have described the colors at the time, nor the vast scale of them. They enveloped and filled the skies. I tried to follow them with my eye but they were full of surprises, turning gracefully and effortlessly, never predictably. The color I remember most vividly was a kind of soft and graceful green, what the biologists might call turquoise, almost identical to what I saw decades later in the surf of the Tasman Sea, rolling onto the western shore of New Zealand.
But nothing I experienced later in life could equal the scale of this startling light show playing out overhead. There was more than the turquoise. There were hues that came close to scarlet and to orange. Then, as though some giant choreographer supervising the spectacle wanted to give the onlooker some relief, some distant light blues.
What I could not absorb was the scale of it, the immensity of that explosion of color. And yet there was a grace in the movement by these giant and shifting layers of color that were formed, I learned later, by gas particles flung out by the sun, colliding with similar particles in the earth’s atmosphere. How many miles away was the origin of this spectacle, and yet the pure grace of it was engulfing. There was nothing to hear. There was no way of knowing the size of it, except to see how it filled up what one could see of the universe. And yet it did so silently, without explanation. Without any consciousness that somebody was watching. And suddenly I felt privileged because I never have seen anything with which I could compare it. It wasn’t the entire universe in motion that I was witnessing. It couldn’t be that.
What it was, I can reflect now, was a nature that seemed almost whimsical. Yes, it was huge and mysterious in its shifting show of light and color. But it was always orderly. It seemed even to have the professional stage director’s understanding of pace and flow. I had no idea of the vast mileage that stood between a young boy and this somehow beautiful convulsion of nature—one that to the child witnessing it seemed blessed because nobody got hurt and no secrets we revealed. Granted that I had no idea then of what made all of this happen.
I do know I felt immensely privileged.
And still do.