The Northern Lights I Did Not See

I spend a fair amount of time looking at the sky, for the sky is nearly always full of magic. Storm clouds churning, autumn leaves flying, birds performing the never-ending miracle of flight. Often at night, I am looking for the moon. Who could fail to love the moon, magnificent in all its guises, shining coolly in all its reflected glory?

What I am never looking for is the Northern Lights. I have spent nearly every day of my life in the American South. By definition, there is no reason to expect a light display down here. Even with an extreme solar storm underway, as it was on May 10, the news seemed unlikely to affect us here in Nashville. “Northern lights become visible further south as solar activity rises — but not in Tennessee,” read the headline in Nashville’s daily newspaper. To long for a glimpse of the Northern Lights in Middle Tennessee is not a helpful exercise for the muscle that performs hope in the human heart.

Besides, early media focused not on the possibility of beauty but on the potential disruptions to the power grid, or to communication and navigation systems. On May 10, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center issued a rare G5 storm warning, the highest level that space officials assign to solar storms. The last G5 storm occurred in 2003. That one knocked out power in Sweden and damaged South African transformers.

This month’s G5 solar storm caused the navigation systems in farm equipment to break down, delaying planting during the height of seed-sowing season. Otherwise, its main effect was widespread astonishment.

Credit…Will Matsuda
Credit…Will Matsuda

There wasn’t so much as a pink streak in the light-flooded sky above my house in Nashville, but out in rural Dickson County, Maria Browning, a writer who knows a thing or two about darkness, was mesmerized. “Can you see the Northern Lights at your house?” she texted me on Friday night. “Spectacular.”

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