What is a sunset? | exposure to the desert


By Elva K. Austria

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

The trip was amazing. I remember coming across the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea on Highway 1 as the sun was rising and the town was shrouded in mist and mystery. This is the start of my lifelong love affair with the coastal road. Anyway, on this trip we ended up taking a young lady and her bike. She was part of a European group traveling by bicycle through the United States. She was behind the others and needed a little help along the way.

She and her group had traversed the summit of the United States – from New York to Washington State to California and all the while the weather had remained overcast and gloomy. They have never seen a sunset, legendary and superimposed, this occasion of brilliance dropping gold across the world.

How is it possible ? I can imagine a lot of things, but never seeing a beautiful sunset, no.

Growing up in New Mexico, this sky is the laughter, the beauty, the backdrop of life, especially when the sun goes down. It causes the “majesty of the purple mountains” and the gold that cannot stay. We also learn 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 the photographer is phenomenal.

“No sun survives its setting but will rise again and bring dawn,” writes poet Maya Angelou.

A sunset is not only a beautiful part of our world, but also conveys a lot of meaning and therefore can become an artistic symbol as well in a painting, poem, story or photograph. It can mean endings, changes and transformations – reminding us that change is part of life and everything comes to an end.

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

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

Scientifically, what we see at sunset is the result of light scattering, which occurs when light rays strike 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 sun’s rays pass through more air in the atmosphere than when the sun is higher. And when sunlight passes through more of the atmosphere, there are more particles to scatter the light.

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

According to National Geographic, there is a beautiful sunset to be seen almost every night everywhere. We just can’t always see it from our perspective on the pitch. This can happen because on the ground you are in the boundary layer of the atmosphere, where large particles tend to get trapped. When you leave the boundary layer, like on an airplane, that same sunset suddenly seems 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 too,” the late Sen. John McCain said.

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

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

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