I don’t recall feeling as small and insignificant as I did when we made it to the top of a mountain peak near Prince Christian Sound in South Greenland, and shimmering curtains of green descended down on us from the skies.

A few hours before, when the sun was still out, we had commenced our hike in the knowledge that Aurora Activity Level 6 was forecasted – which is about as strong as the northern lights get.

The hike had seemed deceptively easy from the fjord where our sailing boat was anchored. But our group of eight photographers, led by regular Greenland explorer Daniel Kordan, was soon to discover that climbing 45-degree grass slopes interspersed with rocks is not something humans are built to perform as easily as goats.

To complicate matters, there are no mountain trails in this remote and largely uninhabited part of the world. So, to cite Daniel, “you just go up.”

Up we went, holding onto rocks large and small, crossing stony creeks wide and narrow, cursing ourselves for bringing too much camera gear, wondering whether we would make it to the top in time, in fact wondering whether we would make it to the top at all, and all the while getting a better sense of what it’s like to be a goat.

Fortunately, we arrived at the top just before dark. And we were not disappointed. As we gazed up, we were treated to a brief but mesmerizing display of electrically charged plasma particles from the sun hitting the earth’s atmosphere. Faint at first, then lighting up the entire fjord, the Aurora Borealis danced and swirled above and around us as we tried to capture its glowing greens with our cameras.

Clouds were moving in quickly, so we only had a few minutes to marvel at this wonder of nature before the darkness of the Arctic night would envelop us.

The wind at the top was blowing so ferociously that we had to hold on to our tripods, and we unashamedly devoured our last chocolate bars to replenish the calories that our bodies were burning to keep us warm. But that was all of secondary importance.

The Sublime

As I looked out over the fjord, with snow-topped peaks so steep they almost seemed surreal, I was overwhelmed by a sensation that normally escapes us in our hurried and troubled existence: I was completely free of any thoughts.

Modern-day philosopher Alain de Botton has referred to this sensation as the Sublime: “an experience of vastness (of space, age, time) beyond calculation or comprehension”.

As I look back on this experience, it strikes me how much of our modern lives we spend striving for significance, longing to leave our mark on the world, when the ultimate bliss may arise from feeling the exact opposite: small and insignificant. A speck of stardust – which is what we really are.

There is something oddly liberating about feeling utterly insignificant, dwarfed by the sheer spectacle of nature around you.

As De Botton puts it, beautifully:

“The impression of smallness that unfolds in the presence of the Sublime has an oddly uplifting and profoundly redemptive effect. We are granted an impression of our complete nullity and insignificance in the grander scheme which relieves us from an often oppressive sense of the seriousness of our ambitions and desires.”

Under the green skies of Greenland, there is no room for worrying whether you will meet your objectives at work this month. There is no time for contemplating whether your love for someone will be reciprocated or not, or whether your partner may leave you one day. There is no reason for competition or corporate politics. There is just sky. Vast, infinite sky.

The following nights we kept monitoring the skies for solar activity, and on a couple of occasions we went ashore with our zodiac boat, hoping to catch another glimpse of the northern lights.

We were lucky to capture their reflections a few nights, as we had sailed into marchy territories dotted with little ponds. But we never got to witness the aurora with the same intensity again as that first night up on the mountain, when we could almost touch heaven.

Not that it mattered. We had already found significance in our insignificance.

All photos in this story, which were awarded a Bronze Award in the Prix de la Photographie de Paris 2019, are available for purchase in my print store. For custom options, please contact me.

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