April 09, 2019

Estimate, Pray, Light


Estimate, Pray, Light
Northern lights in Murmansk Oblast. Y. Nakanishi 

Few phenomena allow science and faith to coexist so harmoniously as the northern lights. 

On the one hand, northerners have the Aurora Borealis, as it is officially called, down to a science. In brief, particles released by the sun interact with gas in the upper atmosphere, releasing light. NASA tracks this solar weather, and you can get forecasts for it just like you can google whether it will rain today. 

Many companies in destinations like Murmansk, an arctic city in Russia’s far northeast, will offer northern lights tours. The guides keep their eyes half on the road leading away from the city’s light pollution, half on phone apps that offer clues about where it is least cloudy. While none of these guides will make promises that you will see the lights, they can give you a pretty confident “probably,” which is numerically estimated by one company – a particularly pricey one – at 90%. 

They will also bring nice cameras, which can capture much more than the human eye, transforming a plain dark sky into a green shimmer and a visible shimmer into neon. Defying normal rules of nature, as you look at the photos your memories of the northern lights will not fade over time, but will become brighter. 

On the other hand, people believe in the northern lights. I told my bunkmate in the Murmansk hostel, a young woman who said she was a long-distance student from a Saami village and came to the city to take exams, that we were planning to go in search of the lights that night. She asked me if I wanted children. Startled by the question, I said I did. “You need to have them under the northern lights then,” she said confidently. This is considered a good omen among the Saami. At the time I thought she was being ironic. Perhaps not. 

The Saami are the indigenous people of the Kola Peninsula. We visited a tourist-oriented Saami village, and, when shown some totems, I asked our guide about what their traditional beliefs were. The guide’s reply, including an impassioned defense of peaceful, animistic religions as opposed to, in his view, war-causing monotheistic ones, made it clear my use of the past tense was inappropriate. In penance, I purchased one of their talismans that protects travellers.

A totem in the village. / Katrina Keegan

Saami beliefs about the northern lights are naturally extensive. It may be good for newborn children, but that seems to be an exception. According to Saami myths, the northern lights fought on the side of the moon and wild beasts against people and the sun, and are caused by the blood of invisible warriors fighting. Kinder explanations are that the lights are ancestors, or even a fox running through the sky. 

A possibly more modern tale on a website for Saami legends is that the sun fell in love with a beautiful girl named Lights, but the people of the village didn’t want to give her away in marriage, and detained her. The sun got angry and left, causing the polar night. The people apologized and let her go, but the sun, still angry, did not return. But the kind girl offered to shine in his absence. 

When we went looking for the northern lights, our guide was nervous. Forecasts had looked better earlier in the day, and were now falling. We had nearly lost hope until I looked out the window and wondered aloud if that was a greenish cloud, or…? We jumped out of the car. After a half hour of awestruck sky gazing, the tour guide admitted that the forecasts had been even worse than he had let on. According to science, our chances were less than 20%. 

Perhaps I should thank my talisman. 

Read more about the northern lights in Nadezhda Grebennikova’s story of one winter night’s journey through the Kola Peninsula with a photographer, Moscow tourists, Snegorochka and warm boots – one specific night illuminates every long, polar night.

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