Sean McHugh | Eclectic Autodidact: A glimpse of something special


Walking along the harbor in Reykjavik, we saw the Northern Lights. They were faint that night, but we could, with effort, see where they were in the sky. We were just able to make out a subtle change in the texture of the sky, the spot where they would be on a night with more activity.

While the eye struggled to see them, a camera with the settings appropriately cranked and held in steady paws could pull the lights out of the sky. The image revealed an unmistakable swath of green in the northern sky. (Curiously, a faint Aurora Borealis is one of the few things that looks better in a photograph, unlike photos of the moon or mountains, which always look too small. The camera can pick up on subtle colors the human eye can't, and since the eye has trouble seeing it, our perception doesn't create a false image in our brains distorting the size.)

No one else walking along the seafront that night could see them. A casual glance wouldn't have revealed the dancing lights, so most people simply continued on their way past, oblivious. Only the super-human senses of my lady wife, combined with her wistful desire to see the elusive lights, made us train the camera on the seemingly empty sky. Possessed as we were with this secret knowledge, we knew we had to spread it to the people.

The first people we encountered were a father and son visiting from Poland. At first, they were confused at what we were trying to tell them, but as comprehension dawned they grew excited. They, too, stared into the darkness and exulted when they found the irregular patch of sky in the northwest that could only be the aurora and eagerly set about aiding us in taking a picture beneath the distant bifrost.

The second group was an American couple. We told them how the Northern Lights were shining in front of them and they looked and made sour expressions. "Yeah, I guess," they said in disappointed tones. "Maybe." And they went on their way. I had the feeling seeing that small show was more of a letdown to them than missing it altogether.

I've been thinking a lot about these two reactions: the joy in a small wonder and the sense of disappointment that it wasn't bigger. Sure, it wasn't the CGI light show that it is billed to be, though, that really only occurs during the most massive solar storms, but it was there, and isn't always.

Is this a phenomenon that stems purely from lack of character, or only affects those who already lack an appreciation for the world? The kind of people who tap on the glass at zoos and complain that the panda isn't doing anything interesting. The sort who would refuse a wild strawberry because it's not the size of the supermarket kind.

Then again, it may be a cultural thing. The postcards of the Northern Lights show neon bands of light that hang over the city, light pollution be damned, so vivid that you can almost see the valkyries riding along them. And, of course, every travel advertisement shows each natural wonder as an isolated treasure, with no tourists visible clogging the scene except for a single photogenic couple intended to stand in for the viewer. We build up these mental images about some experiences, and the reality seldom lives up to the hype, through no fault of reality's.

Returning home after a trip abroad always makes me look at home in a new light, and not just the predawn light I'm seeing due to jet lag. Living as we do in a heavily touristed area, makes me wonder what experiences of the Berkshires leave our visitors with that same sensation of anticlimax. Do people mutter sourly to themselves when they find there is fog on Mount Greylock or rain at Tanglewood? Do they feel cheated when they discover they aren't the only ones on the ski slopes (you know, back when we had snow)? When they leave a summer play, do they sigh, "Yeah, I guess that was OK, but it didn't move me to tears or anything"?

I suppose we could always combat this by expecting as little as possible, but is that really better? One can't go through life with no expectation for wonderment. Somewhere there must be a middle ground between accepting nothing but the best and expecting nothing but the worst. And I bet you can see the Northern Lights from there.


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