I pray for total darkness and the clear night sky, but whenever I tap my phone for the weather, Ilulissat autocorrects to Illuminati.
The night is too cold for conspiracy—just a lonely and single degree Fahrenheit, or in Celsius, 17 degrees below zero. So says the airport, which is my last full breath of internet before I walk into the abyss of disconnectedness.
My boots crunch over the month-old ice and I am proud to have reached the part of the world that falls beyond Yahoo’s canon of well-known place names. At the same time, I feel abandoned by my phone and the comforts it brings—the apps that tell me where to be, what to do and wear, and the pocketful of invisible coders who work tirelessly to diminish the uncertainty in my life. (I thank you, math nerds, for your constant attempts at organizing chaos.)
I have a room at the hotel, so prim and Scandinavian, but I have no expectations of sleep. Tonight calls for open eyes, to wait and watch for the elusive northern lights.
I hear the other guests, one by one, all asking the same question to the bored Greenlandic receptionist, “Will there be aurora tonight?”
Imaqa. Maybe. “Shall we add your name to the phone list? We will call you if they show up.” Ah, but by then it’s too late—by the time you pull on your base layers and lace up your boots and zip up your coat and button your hood, lock your door and walk down the hall, the lights will be gone. I learned this the hard way, on my first trip to Greenland eight years ago. The phone call came after midnight and I ran from my room, down the hall, down another hallway, up the stairs, and outside. The black sky showed a beautiful glowing bruise, as if God had smudged Outer Space with a fistful of luminous blue fingerpaint. Were the tears in my eyes from the ephemeral lights, or from the cold wind biting at my face? I remember shivering barefoot, dressed in T-shirt and boxer shorts—my open coat as an afterthought. In the excitement, I had left my camera back in my room. Should I stay, and watch the amazing blue-green dance in the sky, or should I scurry back to dress more warmly, to grab my gear and come back ready to record? I stayed instead, shivering and weeping for the lost photographs. The lights lasted twenty seconds (thirty?), then faded away into darkness, impressed only in my own memory.
Now I have come back to Greenland, I must cut out the middleman and do the work myself. At dinner, I am dressed for the subzero outdoors, stabbing a fork in the smoked halibut while keeping an eye on the window, ready, my tripod set, with a remote shutter for my camera that I purchased expressly for this moment.
According to Science, the moment I am waiting for is Magnetic Midnight, when the actual (geomagnetic) North Pole is aligned between my tiny humanoid self and the fiery Sun. Mathematically-speaking, this is the best time for observing aurora, when active solar electrons are pulled into the strongest band of our planet’s magnetic field.
This time I have done my homework and know, that at this very moment in time, space, and the universe, the Earth’s geomagnetic north pole lies at 80.4 N, 72.7 W, on Ellesmere Island, not so far across the ice, over in Canada. Meanwhile, my GPS locates me at 69.226191 N, 51.098862 W, meaning I am much closer to the magnetic pole than those poor winter tourists in Alaska, or Russia, or even Norway. By my own rough calculations, I am less than 750 statute miles from the pole—the same distance as New York to Chicago, and a mere blip in space weather, when solar winds can blow up to a million miles an hour! My own bodily proximity to the pole makes me smile, as if finally, I have gotten the right answer on a test (although, the optimal location for aurora is in fact, double the distance—about 1,500 miles from the pole).
If only I could figure out when Magnetic Midnight will come . . . a simple mathematical equation. But I am so very bad at math and for this I am ashamed. I am ashamed by how much I rely on the calculator app on my phone for the simplest equations—converting kroner to dollars (divide by 7), or figuring serving sizes on packets of salty licorice.
The Internet once told me that I probably suffer from dyscalculia—like dyslexia but for numbers. Symptoms include: Difficulty reading analog clocks (check), inability to comprehend budgets (check) or balance a checkbook (yeah, check). Difficulty with multiplication tables, subtraction, division, etc., judging the passing of time, difficulty with choreographed dance steps, oh boy . . .
There is no cure for my disorder, says the Internet—once a dyscalculator, always a dyscalculator. Sucks at math, I think to myself, laying down my fork and scribbling in my notebook, searching for the answer to Magnetic Midnight.
Oh gosh—wait for it—here comes my childhood: A long time ago, on the first day of class in fifth grade, my teacher pulled me to the head of the class, and in the dim light of the overhead projector, projecting a whisper loud enough for the entire class to hear, he let me know that not only had I wretchedly failed my math test, but I had just achieved the lowest score for the entire grade. What was my problem? He wanted to know. I was speechless and embarrassed, but remained calmly confident in my disaffection for math. As a ten year old boy who spent his days dreaming of macaws and icebergs, I could not muster up even half a damn to perform lousy math tricks for the benefit of the Ohio State Board of Education. Perhaps if they’d asked me to compute Magnetic Midnight in northern Greenland, then I might have shown some interest. But alas.
Interestingly, that same fifth grade teacher taught us that 21 was the optimal age for losing one’s virginity. Given that I was only ten and the slowest mathematician in the class, I did not think to fact check his math. The man’s curt advice followed our brief-yet-poignant sex ed class, which consisted of a perky animated short with plump, smiling cartoon sperm wriggling across the screen of a rollaway TV. Looking back, the sum of my entire fifth grade education is “21”.
Everything in the world can be reduced to a number—five oceans and seven continents, 180 degrees of latitude, 8,700,000 species on Earth, 92,955,807 miles to the sun, and 7.4 billion humans alive right now. Every number points to a moment in time—tonight the sun set at 6:01 PM, but in two weeks, it will come at 7:07. The sea ice is 30 cm thick but rapidly melting while the ice cap over Greenland is 10,000 feet thick. I used to be 10 years old, and then 21, and now I am 40, traveling solo during the Arctic winter, waiting patiently for nature to light up the sky.
The lights arrive before dessert—the drunk Danish party in the corner, happily surprised and pointing out the window. “Nordlys!” they say to one another, and I leap out on deck, already bundled up, locking my tripod in place and focusing to infinity, clicking the shutter and counting the silent seconds of green light oozing towards the horizon.
Twenty seconds, then fifteen—then ten. As the glowing green aurora grow brighter, filling up the sky, my shutter speed drops, until I am shooting 5-second moments of the wispy whirl of electrons dancing 60 to 100 miles above me. Never before have I witnessed a show like this—the marvelous wash of absinthe luminosity, rippling diagonally and outlined with purple flash. Green and purple liquid smoke—oxygen, nitrogen—far greater than all the fireworks in the world. So wonderful, wow, that I must stop taking pictures and just be—let my eyes capture all the stars and behold the glaring reminder that Earth is but a shiny speck in Space, that greater forces rule, pushing and pulling, bending light and darkness, back and forth, through the night—and the colors!
The beautiful colors are also numbers on a scale—a spectrum of hot and cold captured and understood by the human retina. Moonlight is 4100 Kelvin and a match flame 1700. The bright blue summer sky in Kansas may reach 20,000, but Greenland’s brightest aurora? That is 3130, says my photographer friend, and even less for stars. I drop the white balance to 2400 Kelvin and the aurora turn turquoise, as if the dark cloth of stars was torn and leaking beautiful blue jello slime down on me . . . until the light disappears, fading into black and disappearing as fast as they came. Show finished. The End. Fin.
Nothing is static in Greenland—everything changes every second. The light, the sea ice, the snowdrifts, the temperature, and the hours of sunshine. Up here, at the top of the world, the air, water and Earth are always moving, like the aurora. Despite the layered pink granite and the solid ice, this country feels like a kind of phantasm, revealing itself and hiding away, off and on, forever.
I am left without any number to hold and I realize that my math is off. At one hour per 15 degrees of longitude, Magnetic Midnight should have reached me at 10:56 PM. But the lights arrived an hour earlier and were gone by 10:30, the last of them slithering away like a coiled green snake, pointing to the true north pole to the west of me. Did I miss Daylight Savings Time? And longitude are much smaller this far north. Is that it? Once more I have missed the answer on the test and failed to find the right number, but no matter, because I experience the aurora in all their fullness, bright and extreme, dynamic and swirling, more active than I had ever imagined possible.
So this is how I remember my own Magnetic Midnight—the golden green spectacle, painted with constellations and my own frozen breath silenced by the wind and the howling dogs. My naked hands held open to the sky, my old man knuckles swollen with cold, and me alone, overwhelmed by the dazzling purple light sent down from space—the grandest form of celestial art, and so beautiful—so very beautiful.