In the Vikings poems, the northern lights are said to radiate from the hands of a woman so beautiful that she makes the sea and the sky shine. The god of love himself fell in love with her and did not rest until she agreed to become his wife.
The northern lights are profoundly romantic, alone or in company. The experience is fleeting and rare and requires patience, luck, and persistence. But as with finding the right person at the right time, when nature chooses to reveal herself, it is intimate and extraordinarily beautiful.
I first saw the northern lights over Christmas in Iceland. Close upon midnight, when the feasting was over and everyone else was in bed, my boyfriend and I were wide awake, consulting vedur.is, the national weather website. The aurora forecast was good. We filled a tin with gingerbread cookies we’d decorated earlier that day, poured a flask of hot coffee, and bundled into the car to find somewhere to see the northern lights. It was a powerfully cold night- cold in the way that seems to freeze sound. For all we could tell, we were the only people alive.
“Look!” I said, peering up through my window at a pencil of light across the sky, “You can see Yoko Ono’s Peace Tower on Viðey Island from here.”
“That’s not the Peace Tower.” my boyfriend laughed. “Those are the Northern Lights.”
All you need to see the northern lights is somewhere dark. It gets black dark soon after you leave Reykjavik. The sky was freckled with stars, which lit unbroken snow to either side of the empty highway. The northern lights glowed above us, getting brighter and more colourful as we left civilization further behind. We turned, and snow and gravel crunched as our car negotiated a narrow track. We stopped, got out, and looked up.
The Northern Lights are never the same. Sometimes they change quickly, like flickering flames, sometimes slowly and with dignity. Sometimes they are green, or blue, or pink. Sometimes they are small and dim. A few seconds later, they may light up the whole sky, as far as you can see.
From below, I thought absurdly, they look like the bottom of some cosmic curtain. Or gigantic icicles, hanging from nothing. No, I thought, they look like the sound of an unimaginable number of people, all singing together.
I laughed and forgot to be cold.
Eventually, when our cheeks and noses were red, we decided it was time to get out of the wind. We sat in the car with all the lights off, and silently nibbled gingerbread while we looked up through the windshield. Nature in Iceland is overwhelming, both in its magnificence and its cruelty. It feels good to have your soul scrubbed clean by Iceland’s purity and vastness, but it feels even better to balance the ice and darkness with coziness and comfort.