One Night Stand

Bleary-eyed this morning, I buttered the bread for my boys’ packed lunches.

Like the porridge pot on the hob, Radio 4’s Today programme bubbled away in the background.

Maybe you heard it? Evan Davies was talking over the phone to a reporter about the largest Northern Lights display in England for ten years.

Once again, Evan had missed seeing it — cloud cover or something…

“So, do you think there’ll be a repeat performance tonight, or was it more of a one night stand?” asked Evan.

“No. It was certainly more of a one night stand!” the reporter replied.

If I hadn’t have been there for that particular one night stand (to use their words), I’d have been kicking myself…

— Strange Day

In hindsight, yesterday was a strange day; a day loaded with noteworthy events and coincidences.

Two years ago, I wrote about my first sighting of the Northern Lights, a post that I recently published on these pages.

Grasping a lead from my Aurora-chasing friend, Reed Ingram Weir, I’d headed up to the wilds of Northumberland to be greeted by wondrous sights.

He made a beautiful photograph of the event, one that still makes the news today.

I made the edition prints of it for him and, as a memento, Reed kindly gifted one to me, which I stowed in my plan chest at the time for safe-keeping.

Yesterday, over 700 days later, I stumbled across the print and spent a moment marvelling at it all over again. I took it straight down to Bruce (the framer downstairs from my studio) so I could hang it on my studio wall.

At that point, I wasn’t to know about the events to follow that very evening.

— Achy Eyeballs

Last night, as ever, I had a few domestic commitments. I combined them with a small trip to the supermarket.

Now, I’m a pretty driven chap and sometimes, when I have an idea that I want to pursue, it consumes me like a hunger.

At times, I can find it a little tricky to slow my mind down and relax. Sometimes, I even feel the adrenalin gently building up, creating a dull ache behind my eyes.

The usual cure is to go for a run or walk the dog to break those chemicals down and restore order.

As I wondered around the supermarket last night I felt distinctly odd — really energised and excited. My eyes were aching like mad with just this kind of adrenalin surge.

I couldn’t work it out — all my current ideas are well underway and in-hand. 😉

I got home, sat at the kitchen table and tried to massage my eyes better. A long dog walk was surely on the cards.

Briefly, it popped into my head that this was exactly how I felt two years ago with all that extreme solar activity. The thought was enough for me to get my phone out and look at the geomagnetic data that we monitor on these occasions, published by the Tromsø Geophysical Observatory.

I couldn’t believe my aching eyes.

Tromsø Geophysical Observatory

I started navigating to the keypad to call Reed and see if he’d noticed too.

He beat me to it and his name flashed up on my screen. I answered the call.

“Reed, I know what this is about.”

“Yes, Jack, I’m standing outside my own home looking at the Aurora!”

The decision was made. Within 40 minutes, I’d rallied four friends from my Aurora List and that was it, we were blasting up the A1 once more.

— Never Say Never

By 11pm, we arrived at my favourite vantage point, high up over the coast with a huge view of the northern sky.

Without the moon, the night sky was very dark and truly extraordinary. We admired the constellations and marvelled at Jupiter’s moons through our binoculars.

And, yes, the Northern Lights were there as a bright mercurial blue — gently pulsing like the light of a sleeping Mac.

However, there was no sensational structure at that stage. The architectural grandeur I’d witnessed two years ago was missing.

My friends, though, had now seen the Northern Lights for the first time, albeit on the third time of asking.

They were happy and all was good. So, at 12:45am, it was time to head home. It was a school night after all.

At this stage, it’s true that I was a little disappointed. I’d now made my third 130 mile round trip without much luck since my emotional first experience in 2012.

As we sped home through the cold, cutting air, I gradually heard words like bright and stronger being voiced in the back of the car.

I glanced in my rear view mirror and — wow — the Aurora seemed to be coming alive in a whole new way.

I pulled over into the nearest layby and we stepped out of the car into a whole new level of cold.

The night freight rumbled by us at close quarters. We constantly had to look away from the bright headlights to shield our eyes and protect our precious night vision.

Then at 1:01am sharp — as the icy air frisked us for skin — the show began.

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Northumberland, North East England

The characteristic needles of light sprung out of nowhere, not as strongly as 2012 but there nonetheless…

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Northumberland, North East England

The folding, fabric-like movement was just about discernible…

Accompanied by our ground-level oohs and aahs, the silent spectacle eventually faded and retreated north once more.

Retreated north until the next time — another occasion, like this, when I hope we’ll be able to say that we were there

3 thoughts on “One Night Stand

  1. What a wonderful post Jack, a wonderful experience and extraordinary to hear how humans are still capable of sensing such events! Beautifully written as always and a different style – thought it was great. Loved Reed’s print – gorgeous, not surprised you got it framed! Great photos from the event too! Absolutely gutted, my friend and I missed it in Scarborough on Thursday night, we were 5 minutes walk away, right near the coast – google what it looked like in Scarborough and you’ll see why we’re gutted! Obviously my powers of perception are not very strong although I did have a headache behind my eyes all day! Thank you so much for sharing! Jane

    • Hi Jane,

      Thanks for your comment and kind words. I googled Scarborough…looks like they had great views there too.

      However, the appearance of digital photographs of the Aurora has always troubled me (mine included). I didn’t go into it here as it’s quite a large topic, although I did discuss it a little in my 2012 post.

      I mentioned ‘mercurial blue’ in my post yet you will have seen the colour of my photos (and most others) is a rich green and sometimes magenta/red.

      Although viewing the Aurora at southern latitudes such as ours is undeniably stunning and moving, you soon come to realise that photographers have often enhanced their images beyond the actual viewing experience.

      So, this morning, I decided to try and find an explanation and I found this:

      “Humans use two different kinds of cells in their eyes to sense light. Cone cells, concentrated in the fovea in the central area of vision, are high resolution and detect color in bright light. These are the main cells we use for vision in the daytime. Rod cells, concentrated in the periphery around the outside of the fovea, can detect much fainter light at night, but only see in black and white and shades of gray. [Aurora] only appear to us in shades of gray because the light is too faint to be sensed by our color-detecting cone cells.”

      Furthermore:

      “Thus the human eye views the Northern Lights generally in “black & white.” DSLR camera sensors don’t have this limitation. Couple that fact in with long exposure times and high ISO settings of modern cameras = the camera sensor has a much higher dynamic range of vision in the dark than we do.”

      Interesting, huh? I found this here:

      http://intothenightphoto.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/northern-lights-eye-versus-camera.html?m=1

      Thanks again for your interest and enthusiasm, Jane!

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