If I had to choose only one scene to set before my photography clients, it would have to be the awesome, indescribable Northern Lights.
I say this for several reasons. First, seeing their awestruck faces as they witness this phenomenon for the first time gives me much joy. Second, I love to see their initial bewilderment as they try to make sense of what they are seeing. We look to the sky and are surrounded by pulsating, shifting, multi-colored displays. Curtains, sprays, bands, circles, swirls occupy the entire sky. The feeling that you are an insignificant speck of dust in the cosmos enters one’s mind. Finally, I see their frustration. How can I possibly capture this magnificence on camera? The simple answer is, you can’t and never will, at least not in its entirety, not the gestalt your eyes experience. But my role is to help them capture some semblance, some small snippets of this beautiful sky show.
This past August, in my annual photo tour that I lead in Canada’s spectacular Yukon Territory, my small group stood on a mountain overlooking the famed Yukon River, photographing the Northern Lights from midnight until the faint light of dawn. We had with us a non-photographing spouse, a woman who added so much to our collective experience. Susan Newell is a writer, poet and I would say philosopher who understands the meaning of slowing down the pace and fully experiencing the moment. She often meditated in our gorgeous surroundings as we photographers scurried to record what we were seeing.
So, as we photographed the Northern Lights that night, I saw Susan take out a blanket, spread it on the ground, and just lay there, drinking in the spectacle she was witnessing. I smiled. At the risk of sounding trite, she was at one with the Universe.
Several weeks after we returned from the Yukon, Susan sent me the following poem which, with her permission, I am pleased to share with you. Here’s my point. We photographers may capture a scene, but our art is not the be-all-end-all. Before there were cameras, storytelling and literature were and are how we communicated our experiences. And Susan Newell’s experience with the Northern Lights reinforces that notion.
Over the Yukon River
The first thin arc of light comes from the Archer, far away,
connecting south to north up high,
a band of possibility.
It falls, dripping white from endless black
in weightless folds, different from swirls of chandelier glass.
Different enough from anything to render me wordless.
Only the Dipper and Cassiopeia are familiar
until radiance obscures them too,
and the sky is only
The curtain extends and shifts,
gossamer threads woven to a luminous shawl
that syncs the heartbeat of heaven and earth.
At dawn, the Archer’s bow retracts.
The cosmos takes one long breath
and exhales the moon and sun.
- Susan J. Newell