And the Universe Goes On
I sat home on the evening of November 6, enjoying dinner with my wonderful wife, Michelle, watching the returns come back about the results in our 2012 national election. I would take a few bites, then pick up the iPad and skim Salon.com and NYT.com for the latest results, while also flipping over to the tab open to Spaceweather.com. I was watching another set of numbers – the solar wind and the direction of the Bz in the magnetic field. The winds weren’t as high as I would like – only 365 km/sec – but the Bz was 7.7 south; a good number. I stayed long enough to see that President Barack Obama was re-elected to a second term – an announcement that came surprisingly early – then gathered my gear and headed out.
On my way down the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, along the fjord-like Turnagain Arm, I listened to the National Public Radio coverage of the election returns, which included some content from our local NPR affiliate, KSKA, on local election returns. Our polls had only just closed recently, so it was too early to tell for most races. Representative Don Young, the “congressman for only the Alaskans who voted for him,” was celebrating yet another easy victory that will take him into his 21st (no, that’s not a typo) term in Congress.
I did not hear any reports on how the conservatives were reacting, but I suspected that every gun shop in the United States that was still open for business in the day got yet another rush on its doors from the perpetually paranoid and afraid. I am sure that some people – in combination with the gay rights victories in Maine, Maryland and Minnesota – were ranting about the signs of the end times. And I am confident that thousands of Americans were grumbling about how now this was really going to be a “socialist” country and the end of our society as we know it was near.
As I continued down, I did the best I could (while driving at 55 mph) to check the skies for cloud cover and any hints of the aurora borealis. With the exception of what appeared to be a fog hanging over Girdwood and the Alyeska Ski Resort, the skies were clear. When I turned from the Seward Highway onto the Portage Valley road in the Chugach National Forest, I pulled over to check the latest spaceweather updates on my smart phone. The Bz had flipped to north (not good), but the “donut” was still looking like it had promise.
I checked three locations I had scouted a week before, visualizing what I would want to do if the aurora showed up. I waited for a little while at each one, then had to drive almost out of the valley before I could get a strong enough signal to check the usual websites for updates. The conditions were not promising, and getting worse. So, I picked my favorite location, set up the camera and took a couple of test shots to make sure the stars were in focus. I set my camera to ISO 100, f/2.8, manual exposure to “bulb” setting, and locked the shutter open. Then, I took a nap for about two hours. The end result was this image, with the starry sky swirling around the North Star.
When I posted the image on my Facebook page, a fan made a comment noting that while there was division in our land, I brought joy to her morning by sharing something beautiful. Her point is one that should not be lost. As a country, we just spent billions of dollars to keep our political landscape the same as it was prior to the election cycle (same President, Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans in control of the House). There was a lot of acrimony generated with little or no mention of whether anyone would do anything to benefit the beautiful world we as a species call our home. (Well, one of the candidates openly joked and mocked about the notion of the oceans rising, a few weeks before they rose in response to a super storm and swallowed New York and New Jersey.)
But fortunately, the Earth wasn’t paying attention to our elections. It continued on as it has for billions of years. It remained a place where beauty, life, solace and energy can be found for those who seek it. The streams ran, the lakes and ponds continued to freeze up as winter continues to take hold of the land, the ptarmigan kept to the willows to protect themselves from predators, the wolves kept patrolling their territory for the next meal that would feed the pack, and all other sorts of natural events continued on while the humans of this continent went collectively crazy. We are lucky to have such a place that can always be there for us, always provide the spiritual renewal we need to recover from the last crisis or cope with the next …or, perhaps, allow us to just remember what gives us life and how we can feel when we are in its presence.
Someday, though, this Earth will no longer be here. We will likely forever change its surface because of our various manipulations of it, and then one day the Earth itself will be pulverized when our sun enters a Red Giant phase and expands its diameter out to the orbit of Jupiter.
But the same stars that gave me wonder this night will always be there, shining down on this space we currently call home, regardless of what happens on or to this world.
Carl Johnson – specializes in stock and fine art nature, landscape and wildlife images from Alaska and the American West.. He is a freelance nature photographer and writer based out of Anchorage, Alaska, and is rapidly developing an extensive catalogue of wild places, including the most extensive photo library of America’s wildest national park, Gates of the Arctic. You can find his photography and blog atCarlJohnsonPhoto.com.