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Northern Lights over Clay County


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FLEMING ISLAND – My gift for Mom this Mother’s Day weekend was manual labor. We had contractors scheduled to swing by soon to give our garage floor a colorful epoxy finish, the latest trend in interior design. Of course, this called for a sweaty, back-breaking morning of clearing everything out: the lawn mower, the workout equipment, yard tools and boxes of old clothes I hadn’t worn in a decade.

Mom insisted that a clean and clear garage was all she wanted this year. Pragmatic. Unceremonious. Not the most exciting Mother’s Day weekend, obviously.

She was outside marveling at how empty and large the garage appeared (that was the only night our two-car garage could actually hold two cars).

The job was done, but I felt a twinge of guilt.

Off the cusp, I asked her if she wanted to go see the Northern Lights that were scheduled to permeate and illuminate nationwide last weekend. I offered the suggestion with the mere intention of offering something, anything. It was 9:30 p.m. The restaurants would be closing if they hadn’t already. Too late to watch a movie either. Mom would’ve fallen asleep. I probably would’ve, too.  

When I replay the memory now, I realize I posed the question about the Northern Lights without any belief that we would see anything.

On cue, a procession of blue radiant orbs moved slowly across the sky overhead before Mom could respond. The blue lights were the size and brightness of stars in the sky, and they were clustered in groups of about six or seven, moving in parallel lines of three or four.

I ran inside, swept through the house, and forced my siblings outside to look up. I was aware that what I had just seen was a fleeting, once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. Each second inside and not looking up would be seconds gone forever. I pushed the feeling aside because I needed my siblings to see it, too.

I ran around the house screaming and searching for my sister, who was wearing headphones. She was only able to see the tail end of it. She saw the last lonely dot in the cluster, the ephemeral caboose, blue like a frozen firefly.

We stood silently in the driveway, still staring at the firmament. I was glad I corralled my family out there. If it were me all alone, I wouldn’t have believed it.

We went out that night searching for an uninterrupted view of the sky that was free of tree canopies, buildings, streetlights, lampposts, or other sources of light pollution. We settled on Doctors Lake Park and laid supine on the pier to stargaze.

I picked out a green orb of light as it moved slowly across the sky. It moved straight and unblinkingly. Although green, it was the same size and brightness as a star. My brother joked it was a UFO. Everyone in my family could see it. And then one after that. There was one more, and then none left that we could see.

The phenomenon is known as “auroral beads.” Like the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, they are caused by charged particles emitted by a solar flare that spiral into Earth’s atmosphere and interact with oxygen and nitrogen particles.

The blue auroral beads we witnessed were from ionized molecular nitrogen, and the green lights came from energized oxygen atoms.

Other stargazers were out on the pier with us, but we were the only ones who claimed to have seen anything. Unfortunately, I did not have the term “auroral beads” in my vocabulary then. I felt like Chicken Little trying to describe the “glowing green orbs” that “looked like a UFO.”

Some nodded their heads, but I could tell they didn’t believe me. We left a little while later. My only hope is that some listened. You can direct people where to look but can’t make them see.  

Mom and I felt much better returning home than when we voyaged to San Antonio, Texas to see the total solar eclipse as it swept nationwide on April 8. A blanket of gray, miserable clouds made that trip a failure. I couldn’t see the silver lining then. I see it now.  

It’s funny that the real once-in-a-lifetime heavenly spectacle occurred right over my childhood home as my parents prepared to put it on the market. It’s funny how fleeting and spontaneous life’s brightest moments are.