In one of those moments of synchronicity that always make us smile, DorkyDad and I bought each other the same present at Christmas. The Aurora Chaser’s Handbook. It is a gorgeous little thing, and I would highly recommend it, for the quality images, the simple but clear science and the helpful photography advice.
Partly because DorkyDad and I have both spent time in places with low light and air pollution, we are fans of the night sky. Any time there’s a full moon, an eclipse, or an especially clear night, we stand outside on our porch and gaze up in silence. We have – together and alone – taken dozens of beach walks in the dark. We have spent hours sitting and watching the cosmos, made many wishes on falling stars.
When we lived in the UK we often talked about how much we’d like to see the aurora borealis – the northern lights. In the Outer Hebrides, where I grew up and where we visit each year, there are often spectacular displays. We were sure that one time the conditions would be right and we’d be lucky enough to catch that dazzling, dancing display of lights in the night sky.
But it never happened.
When DorkyDad and I moved last year we were so thrilled to discover that Tasmania is the best place outside of Antarctica for seeing the aurora australis – the southern lights – the beautiful, bright brother of the northern glow we know so well.
Margaret Sonnemann – a resident of Tasmania – wrote The Aurora Chaser’s Handbook, and it is undoubtedly the definitive guide on how to catch an Aurora, although as she says ‘something happened to all of us when we first saw an aurora. We went out to catch an aurora, and it caught us.’
Along with the book, there are two Facebook groups. One is a straightforward Aurora alert group, which notifies you when there is a confirmed sighting of the aurora from somewhere in Tasmania. The other group is larger and contains more discussion. People post photos, NASA graphs, solar data, and secret spots for getting the best view. They share tips about the best camera settings to capture the aurora. It is a real community – inclusive and enthusiastic – and it seems genuinely lovely.
But I have poked my head in, had a little look around and come to the conclusion that it is not for me.
Some of that is because our life right now is not compatible with being aurora chasers. Having an alarm that is set for 7am every morning and a young son who likes to sleep soundly in his bed is not conducive to hopping in the car at midnight with a bag of camera equipment and a thermos flask. So when I see all those people with the freedom to chase aurorae all over the state, I feel a little twinge of envy, which is at odds with the ethos of the group.
But some of it is also because a tiny part of me feels like the organisation and the sharing of knowledge takes the magic away.
Most of the joy, for me, in seeing anything breathtakingly beautiful in nature, is the element of surprise. The first time a fox crossed my path in a forest. The first glimpse of the Arctic icecap from a plane window. The first time I stood with my husband and son, and we watched the fireflies tremble themselves to sleep in the gentle, dusky light.
I don’t want to chase. I want to stumble upon, like so many people have before me. Of course I want to see an aurora, but I want to chance upon it, walking arm in arm with my husband one night, talking about whose turn it is to take the trash out. Or driving DorkySon, a teenager, home from some sweet, tipsy party, pulling the car over because I can’t believe what’s in front of me.
My lack of dedication means that I might live five or ten or twenty years here and never see an aurora. But that’s okay. When it happens I want my breath to be taken away. I want it to be like falling in love. I want it to happen just when I’ve decided to stop trying.
Thank you so much to Rachel Bibby at 58º North Photography for the permission to use her beautiful photograph in this post. It’s a photo of the aurora borealis taken from Ranish on the Isle of Lewis. You can find her Facebook page here and her website here. She is one of a very small handful of photographers who have done the Outer Hebrides justice.
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