“Leading lights at NASA say this December may well be the best time in a decade to view the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights,” a small dispatch in today’s Montreal Gazette informed me. “Scientists at the space agency predict that solar activity will reach a new peak in December thanks to a ‘complete field reversal’ of the sun’s polar magnetic fields.”
Which is good news if, like me, you love being awestruck when the Northern Lights put on a show on a cold, clear winter night.
I remember the very first time I ever saw the Northern Lights. It was in – wait for it – Queensborough! I was maybe six years old, and I remember my dad (who loved looking at the night sky and was very knowledgeable about it; I wrote about my happy memories of that here) walking with me a short distance up the street the Manse is on to where it intersects with Queensborough Road. And there we faced north and I was dumbfounded to see the sky filled with dancing green and yellow lights.
(This would have been before Queensborough had streetlights – whose advent I wrote about here – so the night sky would have been darker on a winter night than it is now.)
But aside from the spectacular light show, there’s another thing I always think of when I hear mention of the Northern Lights: Robert Service‘s poem The Cremation of Sam McGee. Surely you know the familiar lines:
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee.
What a tale that poem tells! A perfect yarn to entertain a classroom full of children, in fact. I have fond memories of our teachers at Madoc Township Public School entertaining us with the poems of Robert Service, most notably The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew (“A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malmute Saloon…).
(Of course Robert Service wrote approximately eight hundred thousand other poems – an exaggeration, but not that much of one – but those two are by far his best-known.)
Recitations of those and other Robert Service poems were also a popular feature of community socials – church events and whatnot – in rural Hastings County back in those days. (The same kind of event where my dad was given to reciting King John’s Christmas.) There’s nothing like listening to a speaker who can give the proper dramatic emphasis as he or she regales you with the story of what the narrator of “Sam McGee” has to go through to fulfill his promise to his frozen friend. And then the ending, when he peers into his makeshift crematorium and gets the surprise of his life! Why, one hangs on every word, and it’s a rousing good time.
I happen to know that a regular Queensborough-area reader of this blog is an extremely good narrator of Robert Service poems. I have heard him do it! I wish I had a video or a recording of his narration to share with you tonight. (Perhaps I will after a community social in the not-too-distant future!) In the meantime, though, why don’t we let none other than Johnny Cash do the honours?
Ladies and gentlemen, The Cremation of Sam McGee – with illustrations by Canadian artist Ted Harrison, from the lovely Kids Can Press children’s book of the poem; and with the Northern Lights playing a strong supporting role: