Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Night Lights: Three Tales of Strange Lights by Joan M. Baril






Night Lights

By Joan M. Baril

Here are three tales of strange lights.

I sit atop the sand dune beside the Gulf of Mexico with a couple of dozen other campers and watch the so-called sunset. I do not mention to my new American friends that the typical ten-minute Florida sunset is a pitiful squib compared to the two-hour razzle-dazzle produced at the end of the average Northern Ontario day.  But here at St. George State Park in the Florida Panhandle, the sun, a small red ball, hovers above the ocean and then flops into the watery horizon accompanied by a few anemic pink clouds. Everyone claps.  Twilight lasts all of three minutes.  Then darkness.
            My camper is well-tucked into the palms and live oaks. I stand on the back step breathing in the warm air and wondering, as always, why Florida has no scent and, for a minute, I miss the pine, balsam resin, grass and water scents you snuffle up with such pleasure in the boreal forest.
No moon is showing and only a few insignificant Florida stars flicker in the blackness.   But then, as I turn, I encounter a natural phenomenon that I have read about but never seen.
Behind my camp is a large salt-water pond.  That morning, I’d walked around it looking at the birds. But now, in the velvet Florida night, the surface of the water is slowly becoming visible out of the darkness. The pond is brightening before my eyes, as if someone in the depths has just turned on a florescent bulb.  The light quickly spreads across to the far margin creating a large luminous circle.  The water, a ghostly silver-white emanates a faint greenish tinge.  Just then, a light wind undulates the surface creating bands of silver wrinkles. The light does not radiate or illuminate the ground around; the brushy edges of the pond are still unseen. The pond, a silver disk, hovers in darkness before me.
I understand I am looking at what is known as phosphorescence, probably caused by sea creatures in the water.  I know that my campsite is the only one backing on the pond so it is unlikely anyone else in the camp ground can see it.  I walk to the very edge of the water and stare at what looks like wrinkled foil covering the surface. I start to walk the path but hesitate because I know that alligators live in this pond and alligators feed at night.  Rather than blunder in the darkness and get tangled in the bushes, I run around to the road where it borders the edge to see the water from a different angle.  This takes a minute, but; when I get there—nothing.   The luminosity is gone.  I run back to the camp site and all is dark.  The show is over

I am camping in Patterson State Park in Wisconsin and it is hot, hot, hot.  My camp site is very large and remote and surrounded by a deciduous forest of oak, poplar, basswood and locust trees.  By midnight, I feel I’ve been clamped into a sweat box. I cannot sleep. I get up and open the door to see if there’s any breeze at all.  The back of the camper is only a few feet from the edge of the woods and, when the door swings back, I see a startling sight.
            Fairy lights shine in the forest before me. The leaves on the lower branches are emitting beams as if  from tiny little lanterns. Outside, a full moon floods the entire open area, softy illuminating grass, the picnic table and the fire pit. But, somehow, in the forest, it has set many of the leaves, especially the lower leaves, alight. 
I walk back and forth looking from all angles. The camper lights are off and no artificial light is in view. The leaf light does not cover the leaves but splotches them as if Jackson Pollock had tossed luminous paint here and there. On the other hand, no light spots shine from the ground or the trunks of the trees. I reach in and touch a lighted blotch and it moves but my hand does not light up. Perhaps there’s water on the leaves reflecting the moon, yet the leaves are not wet. My brain addles about searching for an explanation but at last I go inside and, for security’s sake, I must close the door of the camper before heading to my sweaty bed. The fairies and elves now have the woods to themselves.

It is pouring as it can only pour on a summer night in northern Ontario. Thunder crashes, lightening flashes and rain splashes as if a waterfall has been diverted from the river and sent flowing over my log house. I sit at the bay window and watch the water streaming across the meadow illuminated by constant crooked shards and sheets of light. The thunder is constant, moving from rumble to rumble like a long train going by. After  fifteen minutes, the ground can no longer able to absorb the rain and, by the light from the house, I see a layer of water forming in the grass.
            My teen-age daughters, along with a couple of their girl-friends on a sleep-over, are watching from an upstairs window. I can hear shouting “wow” at every fancy fork of lightening. The dog, Pippen, is cowering under the couch and I know she won’t come out for hours.
            About two hundred feet away, where the road curves down from a small hill, I see a bright flash and then a roll of light moving across the field on the far side. Foolishly, I think “fireflies’ but then shake my head to clear it. No normal-sized firefly could be visible at two hundred feet; and, furthermore, no sensible firefly would be out in such a downpour.  As I watch, a ball of fire, like a child’s ball set alight, rolls across the sodden field and disappears. I lean into the dark pane trying to see beyond the streams of water on the glass. Another ball of fire appears farther off, across the road, moves along and dies. A third and then a forth roll by and then nothing. Eventually, the thunder muffles down, the lightening stops and the rain settles into a regular heavy beat.
            A few days later, I look up St. Elmo’s fire on line but learn St. Elmo’s fire is a blue glow that appears around ships and tall buildings. What I had seen is called “ball lightning”.
According to Wikipedia, scientific data on ball lightning is scarce due to its infrequency and unpredictability. The presumption of its existence is based on reported sightings from the public. Until recently, ball lightning was regarded as a fantasy. Reports of the phenomenon were dismissed. However, several photos and videos now exist taken by people who claim to have seen ball lightning.
And I am one of these lucky few.



1 comment:

  1. Nice descriptions, Joan. Where the lights on the leaves fireflies? I've never seen ball lightning. Can they start forest fires? Enjoyed your observations and very glad a gator didn't get you!

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