What is a Sunset?

Life’s brilliant backdrop


Once, a long while ago, I accompanied my Uncle Nils to California. He was a truck driver and came through New Mexico to say hello as he passed by. I must have been in my teens at the time, still living at home (in Albuquerque).

The trip was amazing. I remember coming upon the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea on Highway 1 as the sun came up and the town was blanketed in mist and mystery. It began my lifelong Coastal Highway love affair. Anyway, on that trip we ended up picking up a young woman and her bicycle. She was part of a group from Europe traveling across the United States on bicycle. She was behind the rest and needed a little boost along her journey.

She and her group had come across the top of the United States – from New York to Washington state, down through California and in all that time the weather stayed overcast and sullen. They never saw a sunset, legendary and layered, that occasion of brilliance dropping gold across the world.

How can that be? I can imagine a lot, but to never see a stunning sunset, nope.

Growing up in New Mexico that sky is the laughter, the beauty, the backdrop of life especially as the sun goes down. It causes the “purple mountains majesty” and the gold which cannot stay. We learn too that when we try to capture that sunset, whether with paint or photography, it loses its individual magic and becomes just another sunset – unless, of course, the painter or photographer is phenomenal.

“No sun outlasts its sunset but will rise again and bring the dawn,” writes poet Maya Angelou.

A sunset is not only a beautiful part of our world, but it also conveys so much meaning and so can become an artistic symbol as well in a painting, poem, story or photograph. It can signify endings, change and transformation – reminding us that change is part of life and everything has an ending.

“Every sunset brings the promise of a new dawn,” naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson said.

Our New Mexico sky can be such an inspiration in all its forms. Just to look up and breathe is to fill your lungs with the art of New Mexico air. It’s hard to quantify.

Scientifically, what we see in the sunset is a result of light scattering, which occurs when light rays hit particles in the air, changing the direction of the light. The color we see is determined by the different wavelengths of light, plus the size of the particles in the atmosphere. At sunrise and sunset, when the sun is low on the horizon, the rays of sunlight pass through more air in the atmosphere than when the sun is higher. And when sunlight passes through more atmosphere, there are more particles to scatter the light.

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky,” writes Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali poet.

According to National Geographic, there is a beautiful sunset to be seen just about every evening everywhere. We just can’t always see it from our perspective on the ground. This can happen because on the ground, you are in the boundary layer of the atmosphere, where large particles tend to get trapped. As you leave the boundary layer, as on an airplane, that same sunset suddenly looks more vivid because your position and perspective have changed.

“I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also,” the late Sen. John McCain said.

Every sunset is an opportunity, not only for artists and writers but also for the human psyche. Our whole imaginations can be stimulated by those colors. The Greek Hesperides were goddess-nymphs of the evening and the golden light of sunsets, entrusted with the care of the tree of the golden apples and other treasures of the gods.

“Sunset is a wonderful opportunity for us to appreciate all the great things the sun gives us!” writes Mehmet Murat Ildan, Turkish playwright.