And Then What Happened?: Things that go bright in the night


For the Recorder
Published: 1/21/2022 4:25:19 PM

Bill Townsley has spent his whole life longing to see the Aurora Borealis. So, now retired from the military and everything else he’s worked on in life, he looked at his bucket list and decided to travel to one of the certifiably best places in the world to see it: Iceland.

And thus he did, recently spending a week in Reykjavík, with nothing but clear, black skies to gaze at the whole time he was there. It’s not that his trip was a waste, he said; there was plenty to see and do otherwise, but the fabled Aurora Borealis hid its light under a bushel and refused to shine during Bill’s entire visit.

Originally from Ashfield, Bill now lives in Virginia. Disappointed after his failed Northern Lights expedition, he decided to knock another bucket off his list, driving to Texas to visit friends.

While there one evening, he got a call from his cousin, Roland Townsley, who was at that moment standing on his front porch in the Apple Valley section of Ashfield, crowing that “Oh, you should be here! The Northern Lights are gorgeous tonight, right here in Ashfield!”

What? Well, if that wasn’t the epitome of impossibly unfair!

“Yup! It’s got red in it, too! This is the big one!”

Red light? Roland knew that the only thing that could create red light in the Aurora Borealis would be a sun flare. The apogee of the Aurora Borealis experience, right there in the little town he’d grown up in … and here he was in Texas, after missing it in Iceland. The misery was deafening.

That is, until a few days later, when Roland called him back to admit he had to eat that very crow he had been cawing earlier, as it turned out that the Northern Lights he’d seen were actually coming from closer east, down Main Street in Ashfield to be exact, manufactured in a house right across the street from Belding Park. Which is, um, how the red light got in there.

“But,” Roland rationalized, “A woman clear over in Colrain posted on Facebook that night that she, too, had seen the lights, believing them to be the real thing. It wasn’t just me who was mistaken. Those were some powerful lights!”

And it turns out they are — intentionally so.

Richard Lilly and Daniel Chess like lights. When they owned a house on Fire Island, they wrapped hundreds of little red lights around a huge log and propped it up against their house, calling it the Devil’s Tower and drawing confused attention from boats out at sea, uncertain if that red, glowing monolith was something they were supposed to be alerted to, or by.

Now Dick and his husband, Dan, live in Ashfield, drawn here by Dick’s ancestry. He’s a descendant of Jonathan Lillie, one of the original proprietors of the town. Dick and Dan bought Dick’s mother’s Main Street house after she died, now dividing their time between Ashfield and New York City.

Dan is a mathematics professor and loves the calculations of how lights work. Last summer, he had three LED light cannons installed on their little house — large, flat wheels of light that rotate on command.

“LEDs are far better than what we have here for streetlights,” he said. “Those are sodium lights that vibrate the atoms in the air, creating light pollution. LEDs don’t do that; they’re clean light.” He’s behind a drive to replace Ashfield’s old-school streetlights with LEDs in order to, interestingly enough, make the town darker at night.

Dan doesn’t shine his lights across the lake anymore. He used to enjoy lighting up the ridge behind the Ashfield Lake House, but got complaints.

“My intention is not to irritate people,” he says, “It’s only to make the world pretty and unimaginable.”

People honk their horns when they drive by, recognition Dan takes as a show of approval, though they have been visited by Police Chief Beth Bezio a couple of times, which was how they learned the lighting of the ridge wasn’t necessarily universally loved.

A huge fan of light-artists James Turrell and Daniel Flavin, Dan explained, “People paint their houses in colors that show up in the day. We paint our house at night, instead” with 75 colorful lights installed below the eaves of their roof, illuminating the house below while the light cannons animate the skies above.

It’s a little weird for quiet old Ashfield, maybe even for some of the new people who have settled here in the last couple of years.

But for others, even a replicated Aurora Borealis brings a little cheer in these darkest years of pandemic isolation, replicating for some of u, the distant magic of the lit-up universe. On a cold, dark night, you can always pretend you’re in Iceland.

Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found home and community following Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached at


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