Photographers capture dazzling skies

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

Bursting with dazzling photographs and descriptive text, the beauty and mystery of the aurora are expertly captured between the covers of "Northern Lights -- the Science, Myth and Wonder of Aurora Borealis."

The northern lights' green swaying skirts and explosive displays are seen in photographs by Calvin Hall and Daryl Pederson. Text by George Bryson channels scientific study, cultural beliefs and close encounters into a colorful essay well matched to the photographs.

The Hale-Bopp Comet hovers within auroral bands in the sky above Talkeetna. A dome tent glows orange near the base of spruce trees, while curving green and blue light spreads across a wintry sky. An eerie green hand appears to brush the tops of a Kenai Peninsula forest.

Aided by information from Web sites that would astound scientists of bygone centuries, Hall and Pederson are seasoned and selective photographers, accustomed to long waits for the perfect shot.

"I find only a small percentage of sessions qualify as new images for the 'great shot' file," Pederson writes in the photographers' notes. "It's the occasional epic show that keeps me chasing."

With an astounding array of subjects and experiences gathered during 20-some years spent behind the camera, Hall writes, "Yet of all the beautiful and amazing things I have seen, the aurora borealis is the most awe inspiring of all ... . I believe they give a glimpse of what heaven will be like."

Bryson, a writer for the Anchorage Daily News, former editor of "We Alaskans" and instructor at University of Alaska Fairbanks, explains the aurora's hypnotic draw on photographers.

"... Waiting becomes a way of life. The lights don't follow a schedule ... you have to be patient, and you have to persevere -- the whole subzero night long if necessary."

Photographs spread across the book's 127 pages reveal the rewards that come from waiting.

A spiraling glow above Anchorage. Streaks of turquoise suspended above Turnagain Arm. A flood of red across the Fairbanks sky.

The night a DC-4 crashed on the slopes of Mount Sanford is described by 82-year-old Layton Bennett. Accounts of an auroral display that night so blindingly bright that Bennett was unable to see the mountain, leave the exact cause of the crash buried in shadow.

Treading a historical path of understanding, Bryson tells of European viewers from the 1500s that fainted or were driven mad by the heavenly display. Others trekked to cathedrals, moved to penance by "signs in heaven and fires in the air." He pieces together the theories of ancient Scandinavians, early Norwegians and the Eskimos of Labrador. And he draws from Alaska's rich Native cultures.

Velma Wallis, Athabaskan author of "Two Old Women," shares the taboos of her Fort Yukon childhood.

"There were stories of people who had whistled at the northern lights ... and they were taken," Wallis said.

One night, she and her friends dared to break the taboo. The startling result sends them running for the shelter of home.

Then Bryson takes a a scientific tack, beginning with Aristotle's explanation that the aurora were earthly vapors. Research at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks began in 1953, under the leadership of British physicist Sydney Chapman and caught the attention of Japanese-American physicist Syun-Ichi Akasofu. Photographs taken simultaneously at the north and south ends of Earth have revealed that aurora borealis and aurora australis are mirror images of each other.

Finally, Akasofu boils hundreds of years of study into a few words: "Do not forget that nature is infinitely complicated. Never have an illusion that one will ever have a complete understanding of it."

Across time, spellbound viewers have turned their faces toward heaven to watch mysteriously flowing lights descend hundreds of miles toward Earth. Now Hall's and Pederson's photography, framed by Bryson's flowing essay, draws attention to the open page in "Northern Lights -- the Science, Myth and Wonder of Aurora Borealis," published by Sasquatch Books.

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