"Sept. 24. First saw the Northern Lights. My eye was caught by beams of light and dark very like the crown of horny rays the sun makes behind a cloud. At first I thought of silvery cloud until I saw that these were more luminous and did not dim the clearness of the stars in the Bear. They rose slightly radiating thrown out from the earthline. Then I saw soft pulses of light one after another rise and pass upwards arched in shape but waveringly and with the arch broken. They seemed to float, not following the warp of the sphere as falling stars look to do but free though concentrical with it. This busy working of nature wholly independent of the earth and seeming to go on in a strain of time not reckoned by our reckoning of days and years but simpler and as if correcting the preoccupation of the world by being preoccupied with and appealing to and dated to the day of judgment was like a new witness to God and filled me with delightful fear." --Gerard Manley Hopkins, from his note-books (italics mine)The first and so far only time that I saw the Northern Lights was driving through Ontario, making my way back to B.C. In the black mountainous thick of the wilds, the road curved either way before me, devoid of familiarity, devoid twice over: once for me not having ever driven through Ontario before, and twice for it being pitch night. Signs warning for the encroachment of moose or elk regularly went past, and my vertical axis of being grounded was also thrown out, since the road constantly went up and down.
Then there were the semi-trucks that would appear from behind and bear down. I could decipher vaguely the stronger darks of mountains against the dark sky, and at one point I seemed to come around a curve and I was staring at something ahead of me; apparently it was the sky, which again, could be seen by the negative contrast of mountains. Slowly it dawned on me that I was looking at Northern Lights.
It's not a sight you are suddenly startled by, like say a white mountain or a particularly intense sunset. It is something that hugely takes you in before you fully see it. And then when you do see what you are looking at, that is, when you are consciously telling yourself that you are now looking at that wonderful phenomena that the human race has named the Northern Lights, they do not cease to be wholly different and strange as on your first gaze, but everything around you then becomes like an abyss of hugely present peace - a scarily living peace, a strange wonderful wide world. You are looking into another time zone from the one you are in.
But Hopkins gets to what they are like - indeed, what they really are - much more clearly.