Excerpt from The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Northern Lights

The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis

by Lucy Jago

The Northern Lights
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2001, 320 pages
    Oct 2002, 320 pages

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As the six men trudged on, the snow finally stopped and only tiny ice crystals spun in the eddies of wind left behind by the fierce zephyrs now en route to central Finnmark, Kautokeino, and the Lapp reindeer camps of the plains. The clouds dispersed as quickly as they had arrived, and in the gathering twilight the Pole Star appeared, reassuring and constant. Without the cloud cover the cold intensified rapidly, and moisture frosted on their lips, while their breath trailed behind them in crystal plumes. The drifting snow made walking in boots impossible, so the men strapped small skis to their feet. The undersurface of the skis was covered in reindeer skin in such a way that gliding forward was easy but the hairs sticking in the snow prevented them from slipping backwards. Nearly two hours later they reached a gently sloping plateau at the foot of the summit. Hætta pointed to the top of the peak. In the deepening twilight the group could faintly discern the shape of a small building. The sky was almost dark and the final slope was littered with sharp, icy rocks and narrow crevices. The reindeer coughed and snorted with the effort of pulling the heavy sleds up the incline and the group stopped frequently to allow them to rest. At the steepest sections, the men put their weight behind the sleds and pushed with all their failing strength as the delicate-limbed reindeer slipped and scrabbled on the icy rocks and patchy snow. After twenty minutes of backbreaking struggle the exhausted group arrived at a small area of smooth snow, a ledge of flat ground at the base of the final peak. Above them stood their sanctuary, a black shape against an inky sky.

In the dark the men could discern a small stone building with wooden steps leading up to the doorway in a low tower. After struggling to crack away the ice that had sealed the door to the jamb, Birkeland managed to get inside. It was nearly seven o'clock by the time the stove was lit and a bucket of snow brought in to thaw. Hansen immersed his hands in it in the hope that the frostbite could still be reversed. The others unpacked the sleds and staggered up the slope with the boxes and bags.

As the last of the packages were carried in and Hætta tethered the reindeer, a crack appeared in the night. On the eastern horizon the darkness was splitting to reveal a gentle, tremulous luminescence-just a sliver, a streak. One by one the men stood still on the summit and stared at the vision appearing before them. The streamer of light began to move toward them in a huge arc across the heavens, pulsating and writhing as it advanced. The streak became a pennant with points of light coursing down in parallel lines like the strings of a harp, attached at one end to heaven and at the other to the sinuous curve of light as it crept from horizon to horizon. Then another bolt of the green-white light stretched out beside the first and both arced together. Even more wildly the strings were plucked and the shapes changed to the music-now curling, now forming great circles, then breaking again to roll away to join another arc of green-white light. No one spoke. The hairs on the backs of their necks stood up, as if awoken by static electricity. Birkeland understood for the first time why the Lights had defied neat explanation: they appeared not to belong to Earth but to space. Seemingly beyond human comprehension, they reached straight into the souls of those who witnessed them as an appearance of the angelic host or the Holy Spirit might do. The glowing banners in the sky were so entrancing that the group forgot the cold and remained outside, entering the hut occasionally to eat or drink but re-emerging to watch the breathtaking display dancing over their heads. Only Hætta did not look. He took the reins and bells off his animals and went into the hut without an upward glance.

For the Lapps, the Northern Lights were a fierce and powerful presence. They were the messengers of God, to be respected and feared. Hætta had removed the harnesses from the reindeer to avoid attracting their attention, for Lapps believed that whistling, waving handkerchiefs, or the sound of tinkling bells would provoke the Lights into attacking the offender. Stories abounded of Lapps who ignored this warning being struck down, their charred reindeer jackets remaining as a warning to others. The Lapps would chant a special rhyme repeatedly if they feared that they had angered the Lights:

The northern light, the northern light

From The Northern Lights: The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis, by Lucy Jago. © September 25, 2001, reprinted by permission of the publisher, Knopf.

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