I’ve been needing a nature fix lately.
Before I moved to central Illinois, I lived in Alaska. I’d step outside my door and see snow-capped peaks and moose grazing in the grass down the street. Before I lived there, I grew up in Washington State. Forests, lakes, rivers, hills and mountains were always just a glance or a short drive away.
I love the Midwest; don’t get me wrong. It has its own beauty–you just have to look a little harder for it sometimes.
My latest need for a nature fix was sparked by Facebook. If you hadn’t heard, a big solar flare last week created a spectacular show of the northern lights, or aurora borealis. Pretty much everyone I know in Alaska was “ooohing” and “aaaahing” and posting photos online. I was so jealous I could have cried. In the four years that I lived there, I only saw the northern lights ONCE. When you live inside the city in Anchorage, you just don’t see them that often. They usually don’t display that far south, and when they do, the city lights wash them out. Furthermore, you can only see them in the winter, since the long daylight hours in summer also wash them out.
Unless there is a really strong display, like the one last week, you have to intentionally look for them. So that’s what Marc and I did a few years ago. Scientists can roughly predict when and where aurora displays are going to be visible, kind of like the weather. So I started watching aurora forecasts. One night a moderate display in our area was predicted, so we drove out of the city into what Southcentral Alaskans call “The Valley” (Palmer/Wasilla). We drove and drove to the middle of nowhere. I kept looking on the northern horizon and saw absolutely nothing.
Disappointed and tired, we started driving home. I realized I was starving (sometimes this sensation seems to sneak up on me), so we stopped at the only restaurant near the highway–Taco Bell in Eagle River. As I was eating in the car and we were about to pull away, I noticed what looked like a jet stream directly overhead getting brighter and brighter. “I think that’s it!” I said excitedly. We gazed at the sky as the bright white ribbon glowed. It wasn’t a particularly exciting display, but it was the real deal. We drove home triumphant, losing sight of the aurora as we entered the city. Then, to our amusement, we saw it again–right above our apartment, cascading in green curtains.
Fast-forward. Marc and I were on a date last night and were trying to figure out what to do after dinner. I wasn’t really in the mood for a movie, and it was a beautiful night. I shared about my urge to commune with nature, so we went for a drive in the country. A teeny tiny part of me hoped that we’d catch one of the rare occasions when the northern lights display in the lower 48 (that’s Alaska-speak for the continental U.S.). After all, there had been a solar flare, so it was possible.
I said a little prayer in my mind–“Please let me see something inspiring, even if it’s not the aurora.”
Where we live there are no mountains. There aren’t even hills. If you’re lucky you might run into what might qualify as a bump. This might sound like the backdrop of some pretty dull scenery. But what I didn’t understand before I moved here is how stunning the sky can be. The reason is because nothing obstructs it.
As we made our way out of town, my eyes were drawn to the western horizon. Two glowing orbs demanded my attention. I was pretty sure they were planets so I looked it up on my iPhone (technology and nature can work well together!). Sure enough, Venus and Jupiter were making a celestial rendezvous for my personal enjoyment. As we drove deeper into the country we saw a field of flashing red dots–a wind farm at night. Not exactly nature’s beauty, but interesting to behold, nonetheless. We pulled into a state park and stared into distant galaxies, trying to remember the long-forgotten constellations memorized as kids. We talked about life, our kids, speculated about adventures in the next year and beyond.
As we headed for home my eyes wandered back to the wind farm. On the eastern horizon I saw a shimmering orange tent slowly rising as if it were being inflated. As it released itself from the ground, we awed at its unusual shape–a flat, wobbly disc. It was the Midwestern rising full moon, clinging to the horizon for a few moments before it assumed a more normal appearance. It can a strangely beautiful sight, deep orange, distorted by the lens of the atmosphere on the horizon. Like the northern lights, you have to see it with your own eyes in order for it to take your breath away.
I was still perhaps a little disappointed not to see the northern lights, but God answered my prayer. He reminded me that no matter where I am, I don’t have to go far to see something spectacular.
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
“To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
“Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
Not one of them is missing.”
Isaiah 40:21-22, 25-26 (NIV)