• Nadia Henderson

Hoping For A Glimpse Of The Northern Lights On Halloween Weekend

No sooner had I installed the app than I’d deleted it again, smudging my index finger over the screen of my phone. Strange numbers and symbols had lit up the interface, arrows ticking back and forth on semi-circle charts. I’d understood none of it. ‘I just want it to tell me if I’ll be able to see them or not,’ I whined.

My excitement had been piqued by the morning’s weather report, the map indicating that the Aurora Borealis might be visible across most of the country that night, as far south as Stockholm. There’d been talk of a solar storm, a meteorological event with the power to illuminate the night sky with a magnificent display of colour and light. The science, when reduced to terms simple enough for me to grasp, described the northern lights as occurring when particles from the sun collide with atmospheric gases such as oxygen and nitrogen. That this might take place on Halloween weekend--in the run-up to Samhain, as the liminal veil thinned, and the nights grew darker--felt particularly significant, in ways perhaps more magical than empirical.

Sweden, particularly its rugged, sparsely populated north, has a certain mysterious allure to those of us from elsewhere. It’s a land deeply imbued with folklore; it honours nature and the seasons through the observing of many holidays and cultural traditions, celebrating cosiness and togetherness as central pillars of a functional society. Despite having a lot to answer for in its treatment of the country’s indigenous people, the Sami, and the fact that it, like any other rich Western power, has layers of political and societal inequities to contend with, Sweden largely maintains a good reputation to the outside world. I’ve found myself hooked on its magnetic pull, caught on the promise of a deepened connection to nature and a zealous devotion to mys, the lesser marketed version of Denmark’s popular hygge. I’ve hungrily sought to tick certain experiences off my newcomer bingo sheet: see a pair of moose run off between the trees (tick!), fill a basket with mushrooms picked fresh from the forest floor (tick!), glimpse the Aurora dancing across the starlit sky in a burst of hypnotic green (no tick, not even close).

I’ve always assumed that in order to witness the northern lights, one must chase them with a level of diligence and expertise many aren’t willing to commit. I’ve imagined some future version of myself wrapped in a reindeer’s hide, face turned up towards the night somewhere very far north, having paid through the nose for a guided excursion. My Swedish husband tells me that he caught the Aurora Borealis above him once, while driving on the motorway. That they chose to reveal themselves to him in such a mundane moment feels comical. I picture him leaning forward against the wheel, straining his eyes to see past the dirt on the windscreen and take in the light show in the sky.

Something about the fact that seeing such a magical phenomenon could be as simple as stepping out onto our porch on a clear winter’s night fills me with excited glee. It’s that pull again, the novelty of living somewhere with an abundance of natural beauty, potential and myth; the way that beauty sometimes masks the things we don’t want to see in ourselves and the world around us. On a clear night, we can see every star and constellation dusted lightyears above us. It can make me forget, that crystal-clear expanse; forget about the fragile balance of nature and industry playing out at ground level, rooted in ancient woodland and the tense negotiations of the coalition government. It can make me forget that I’ve longed for the artificial glow of the city of late, a nostalgia so strong it has made me question the lifestyle I’ve chosen.

There are many mythological interpretations of the Aurora Borealis, both globally and within Scandinavia. Some stories told that the light was reflected off the shields of the Valkyrie as they led fallen Viking warriors to Valhalla. In Finland, the name for the phenomenon reflects the belief that it was caused by a fox’s tail sparking as it ran through the snow. I’m enchanted by the ways we used to see things, how no wealth of scientific explanation can numb the otherworldly underpinnings of the natural events we revere. That it can be explained in these terms makes it no less captivating, of course; but I wonder if we need these urban legends and folklores, if we need to assign greater meaning to our experience of nature, lest it feel too arbitrary, too incidental. Perhaps, while we seek to box everything up as an act of science or the divine, we also want to preserve a sense of awe in the face of the great unknown.

The night before Halloween, we light candles and turn off the lights. The sky wears a heavy cloak of fog, clouding the stars underneath it. We know we won’t see the Aurora, but still, we step out onto the porch at midnight, hoping for an impossible glimpse.