Saturday, 2 November 2013

Expectations versus the reality

11 years ago we were living in the Studio and renting out the farmhouse. That year was the last high point in the 11 year Aurora Borealis cycle.   The family who had booked the house this particular week came from a city and they said their children had never seen stars.   At about 10.30pm one night, Farmer looked out of the window and saw that the northern lights were dancing, and as the lights were on in the house, he went and told them so that they could look at them too.    They came out and had a quick look and went back indoors again. It was difficult to know if they had experienced it as being something really special or not. 

                  This was the first aurora I photographed - in March 2013

I had always dreamed of seeing the northern lights before I moved to Mull. They were something rare and wonderful to my mind.  Like seeing a shooting star on a clear night or coming across an otter while walking along the shore.  We have been lucky and seen them several times in the 19 years we have lived here. Standing under dark skies watching an almost psychedelic spectacle, fingers of green luminescent lights reaching up to the stars.  I never took photographs of them.  

As the digital camera picks up more aurora activity than the human eye can see we have been treated to a stronger visual image of the Aurora than we can often detect with our own eyes. I worry that the advent of digital photography and the easy access to seeing thousands of images of the Aurora from all over the northern hemisphere will affect our enjoyment and feeling of wonder when we see them with the naked eye. We begin to feel that the images we have seen are what the Aurora is - but in reality, certainly here at Treshnish as opposed to Iceland or Norway, it is very different.  


I recall feeling slightly disappointed in March this year when I saw the northern lights again for the first time in a long time, that they were not as bright or dramatic as I had remembered or expected them to be.   It was only a fleeting feeling as soon the magic of being outside in the cold night air under the stars, absorbing my surroundings and experiencing the night, whilst watching the delicate dancing fingers and the glowing green aura of the Aurora replaced the 'memory' I had of the digital Aurora, and I was able to re-adjust my expectations, and to enjoy the spectacle I was experiencing.  For it is still very special, even if visually it might be very faint.  

I count each sighting of the Aurora as being a magical moment but they vary in intensity hugely.  The night of 14th October is one I won't forget. It was the most magical experience I have had watching the aurora.  The lights were really bright and easily visible by the naked eye. I witnessed a fireball explode over Calgary Hill, almost too bright and fast to be real, but I later heard others had seen it too. The moon was bright, lighting up the landscape around me - no need for a torch. Standing under the stars, watching the glowing skies and colours reflecting in the sea below, listening to stags roaring on the hill, and gentle waves slowly lapping the rocky shore.  Apart from the unseen fishermen on the boat in the bay, I was on my own and it was awesome.  

Watching and looking for the Aurora has got me out of doors at night, and enjoying the night landscape.   And learning a little bit more about night time moonlit photography.

Three nights ago, I photographed the faintest of Aurora, reds in a sparkling star lit sky, barely noticeable except as a glow over the sea.  Still, I was out in the cold fresh night air, hearing the wind in the trees and watching the stars.  Another magical moment but perhaps only because I have tempered my expectations. 

This winter is going to have more aurora events than usual.  The successful sighting obviously depends on a combination of a strong forecast for aurora activity and good clear skies to the north.  Obviously that is really difficult to predict.   Earlier in the week we had a strong aurora forecast coupled with reasonably clear skies but I couldn't see a thing.  

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