We were lucky a couple of days ago. It was dark, we were awake, the sky was clear, and I happened to notice on the sky camera that the northern lights were active. The activity was quite low, but it can build very quickly so it’s good to catch it early, giving us time to put on warm clothes and drive a few minutes away from street lights.
Unusually we even had time to remember to take our camera. We like to take photos in the daytime, but night time photography has always felt like too much trouble. We’ve had so many people staying here who’ve been really keen to photograph the northern lights and were envious of our opportunities, so we thought we would make a bit more of an effort with photography. In preparation for this we had bought a tripod, but three months later we still hadn’t used it.
With high hopes we drove to the edge of town, to a layby on a hill where you can look down on Kiruna, the mine to one side of you and the northern sky ahead. The town is lit up like a Christmas tree, but at this distance it doesn’t seem to disturb the darkness too much. There was a pale bow of green over the town as we turned the engine off, and the car lights slowly dimmed down and then off. A cold wind and minus 14 degrees meant that setting up the tripod was a bit of a trial, and while this was going on the green bow started shooting light up and down and waving in the ‘curtain’ effect. Rolf’s hands were freezing (ungloved so as to be able to fiddle with the controls) and the camera was not cooperating, turning on the flash function every time he tried to take a picture. We are camera ignoramuses, and knowing this we really should have worked out how to use the camera at night on an earlier occasion, before the northern lights actually appeared. But we hadn’t. In the end it wasn’t a difficult decision to abandon the camera, lean back against the car and just watch instead.
The green and later pink spread in all directions so we were spinning around, wondering where it was going to appear next. As you watch it you’re also trying to do what a photographer tries to do – imprint it on your brain so you don’t forget it. Yet afterwards the brain doesn’t seem to be able to recreate the impression. It isn’t just bright colour splashed across the dark (an effect exaggerated in photography, the lens taking in more light than the naked eye ever sees, so creating photographs which greatly increase people’s expectations), or a crescendo of green lighting up the sky. The reason it’s hard to remember is that seeing the northern lights is first and foremost an experience of watching an extraordinary movement.
This movement doesn’t seem to match your expectation of anything either natural, or even anything man made. It comes and goes, but it doesn’t ‘ebb and flow’ in the way we expect. It doesn’t begin as a small line and then the line expand proportionately until it is spread across the sky – one minute it is a small line, and the next minute it is spread across the sky, but the movement from one to the other doesn’t match what the eye is expecting. The nearest movement I can think of is that of a ‘slinky’ – the helical spring toy – because the energy seems to come from within it, and is spread along a wave. The lights can move in any direction at any time (whereas a slinky can only go forward or back) and the movement is always a surprise, the eye never seeing any of the usual signs that would alert you to movement.
In trying to describe the movement I’ve described it as something mechanical, but it feels the opposite – it feels strangely human and personal. The first time we saw it Rolf and I were whispering to each other, as if our voices could frighten it away. The movement is so unusual that your brain invests it with human characteristics, or at least, the characteristics of a human ghost. It isn’t easy to catch that in a photograph.