larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next

September, 2016

Sunrise, Sunset

by Valerie

Times of transition hold a special fascination for our species. Just as we enjoy the equinoxes and solstices between seasons, annual holidays and recurring events, so are we attracted to the brief span between night and day. And, while the seasons change almost imperceptibly, making those markers more of an intellectual exercise, the rotation of our planet needs no more acknowledgment other than observation. It is a visual show; a regular, but ever changing daily occurrence.

Long before our primate ancestors developed brains large enough to appreciate patterns, colors, shapes, objects and phenomena just for their aesthetic value, they left the majority of mammals to become diurnal. Abandoning the safety of shadow for the realm of light was accompanied by changes in vision that favored color discrimination over the ability to see in darkness. So now we are attracted to vivid and varied hues, while the extensive neural networks in our brains seek out complexity in all its forms. The moments when the Sun first appears at the horizon are far more engaging than the hours it takes to cross the sky. So, too, is that brief spectacle when our solar system's star disappears on the other side of the planet.

I tend to be a morning person, so I've seen plenty of sunrises. Perhaps because various activities often take precedence in the evening, I seem to focus more on the sky during the early part of the day. My daily commutes to work were opportunities to witness the dawn, and my preferred time for exercise walks is during the same period. Of course I've also seen some spectacular sunsets, and factors such as location and outdoor engagement levels make a big difference in awareness.

The adage that clouds are the canvas for the luminosity at crepuscular times is certainly true. Sometimes, though, especially during our hottest and driest periods, there are no clouds at all. As the sun starts to rise, but well before it actually appears, I can't help but think of it as a "watermelon sky." The sliver of scarlet that quickly fades into the deep indigo of the night has for decades made me think of the way a slice of watermelon shows the ruby flesh transitioning through a thin line of yellow to the dark outer rind. Moments after that first intense color shows, it rapidly fades through cantaloupe orange to a lemony yellow. In no time at all, the shades are just a memory as the sun appears in a typical blue sky. This kind of sunrise is more of a subtle experience than a magnificent work of art that can be captured in photography.

With the addition of clouds, though, the emphasis certainly changes. The play of light and moisture creates endless variations. I still remember, many years after I was driving to work at sunup, noticing how the bank of low clouds on the eastern horizon looked so solid it could have been mountains in the distance. That would have really been something, given our location in central Texas! Other times, the clouds split the Sun's first or last light into distinct rays. Yes, it looks just like those stylized sunset pictures that little kids draw. Well, actually it looks a lot better.

Maybe I am fixated on fruit, but, along with my watermelon sky image, I also occasionally experience "peach mornings." It is rare, but sometimes the light inside our house glows with a warm orange color. It's like being inside, well, a giant peach. Just to clarify, I was unaware of the Roald Dahl story when I first thought of this. Perhaps he had the same reaction to this kind of morning light.

Constantly changing clouds present infinite possibilities on how they affect each unique daybreak and nightfall. From subtle to gaudy, the hues and intensities never fail to at least draw notice and sometimes even mesmerize. Colors in combinations that would look ridiculous if used in manmade objects form cohesive and satisfying displays when they appear in our sky. I can't help but appreciate Earth's thin atmosphere, especially since it makes our existence possible in the first place.

I guess I should mention, too, that smoke can incite some terribly dramatic displays. The destructive wildfires that rampaged through the Lost Pines area east of Austin back in late 2011 produced awesome morning skies from the city. Because of the damage, the emotional impact of those sunrises was difficult to separate from the sheer visual spectacle.

Watching the sun wax or wane over water adds another dimension to the event. The airborne droplets in clouds fashion the character of the light while the undulating surface below mirrors it. It's no surprise that people are drawn to ponds, lakes and oceans; there is already an allure of the environment that surpasses any typical urban setting. In places where the water extends to the horizon, the sense of immensity can be transcendental.

In our busy lives, it is rare to take time and simply look at something that is not on a screen. Being both ephemeral and deliberate, dawn and dusk are consistently familiar and yet wonderfully special. As we measure our lives in moments, months and years, the passage of time is made all the more obvious by the recurring celestial events at the beginning and end of each day. The Sun's relentless path in our sky inspires poetry while needing no words at all.

larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next