Saturday, March 16, 2013

In the Limelight

The sign reads: "Olnes City.  Population: 1."  We pull in.  Moose dash in all directions in exaggerated strides.  Silence is left behind them, the air settling softly around the crunched snowflakes in the hoof prints.  Tracks of snowmobiles ("snow machines" or "snow-go's" around here) carve an absolute mess of lines across the frozen pond.  You would need a Zamboni the size of a building to erase them.  Or a summer sun.  The air is cold but not unpleasant as the sun begins to set.  Not a soul in sight.  Chris instinctively begins to set up shots in the waist-high snow between the trees.  With no trained eye for shots nor expertise to set them I kick a path through the snow for ease of movement toward the river.  We rig two cameras at the edge to catch the sun getting darker now behind the trees.  The turbulent water allows no ice to encrust its twinkling surface.  Icicles drape from the peeling bark of a birch that hangs out over the water tempting us toward the edge.  We do not take the bait.  That's what long lenses are for.

The sun dies quickly in the forest here.  In the darkness Chris cranks a camera full back on the sticks with its lens pointed straight up like a Cape Canaveral tourist craning his neck to view a space shuttle.  The Sigma lens captures a 360 view so the trees look like giants standing in a huddle in the circular frame.  With the other two cameras he marches across the ice, over the snow, up the embankment, the snow so deep it's impossible to tell where the water ends and the land begins.  This is risky business.  There is ice, to be sure, but there is also water, the depth of which is entirely unknown as is the strength of the current.  Snow on his boots, snow on his back, snow on his belly, Chris is dedicated to the art, dedicated to this place like it's hallowed ground.  He keeps laughing to himself each time he peers at the viewfinder shouting out into the air more than at me "This place is perfect!"

The cameras set, we retire to the truck to warm up.  The temperature on the dash reads -19.  The ice in my mustache concurs, then slowly begins to drip into my mouth as Chris and I launch into another philosophical diatribe featuring lots of I see what you're saying but have you considered... and phrases like that until about 12:30.  Then the haze that was a vague strip of aurora congeals into a band of lime-green electric light and like it was bounced off a tuning fork begins to vibrate and gyrate in sweeping gestures over the bare birch limbs as we watch through the windshield.  The conversation halts.  We lean back in our seats and suddenly we're in the front row of nature's planetarium in exactly the right place at exactly the right time parked in exactly the right direction to have our eyelids peeled back by the scintillating limelight spectacular.

Over the next hour the only sound is our alternating WHOA!s and DAMN!s.  The bleeding sash of light hangs just out over the tips of the pines in peaked arches that mimic the shapes of the crowded treetops.  It answers forever for me the question of perspective and man's role in the observation of natural events; the tree is falling, we are watching it fall, it is making a sound.  The display is so perfectly framed to the shape of our windshield it feels like nothing short of a gift, fashioned explicitly for us, only in this moment in Olnes City - population: temporarily three, two of which are having their minds blown.

When, an hour later, the aurora fades as quickly as it appeared, leaving a trace fairy dust spectre across the treetops, Chris and I sit, recovering our fallen jaws in the warmth of the cab.

"That was... I mean that was..." The words to express what we've just seen completely elude me.

"Yo...that was straight pornographic," says Chris.

I couldn't have said it better.

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