On Sunsets

It’s been a year of pretty sunsets, spread across a hundred different places. I’d love to say I make a habit of taking time to watch the sun set, pausing as it dips below the horizon, but the reality is that the only times I catch it in the act are when someone else points it out to me. Too often my attention is drawn towards the humdrum daily thoughts that flood my mind as I’m lost within the confines of human habitation.

The sunsets that have stood out this year have been enjoyed in the company of others and have spanned the entire year, starting in late January performing on the South Island of New Zealand at Luminate Festival with Hello Tut Tut. The festival was a booze-free, meat-free affair, six whole days spent in luxurious presentness (mostly deep within a book if I have to be honest) and embracing heavy beats whilst meeting musicians from as far afield as Denmark, the US and Brunswick. I observed the sunset from a luxury yurt in the artist’s camp and then wandered to the site office to ask for a spare sleeping bag to weather the five degree night. By the third night I’d reconnoitred four spare sleeping bags and was sleeping in a veritable pile of duck down. These sunsets were spent on a vast plain in the midst of a state park, thousands of eyes turned North West to salute the sun as it disappears into the forest above the doof stage.

I went to Wilson’s Prom in November with a group of ex-housemates who excitedly plan hiking trips a couple of times a year and then complain their way through the actual days of walking. The celebrations start when the trekking finishes and we line up at the pub for a hearty meal and a beer. Then we talk about how much we enjoy hiking and how we can’t wait to do it again. When hiking, the sunset signals the end of activity, for we rely on light to function and to fight our fears (on a side note, a wombat ate a hole in our tent this trip). We eat slimy packages of dehydrated food in the dusk-light as the bushland fades to peace and retire to bed by eight pm.

I spent a particularly pretty sunset with my partner in Queenstown, New Zealand. It was the midst of winter and the towering mountains that surround the town caught the sun high up in the air as it set in giant shadows across the opposing mountainsides. It took several hours for the darkness to descend on the town and we wandered through the crisp clear air with a flurry of tourists and night shopping. The local ice-cream shop was a surprise hit, a trendy establishment with a line of almost a hundred patrons spiralling out the door and around the corner. A flock of ski-jacketed youngsters blow warm air into their gloves, waiting for scoops of rum and raisin while an enterprising busker attempts to pull the change from the wallets with pre-prepared dance moves against a pre-prepared beat.

There was the sunset that I drove into for almost two hours on my journey home from my Spring tour. I’d made the dubious choice of leaving Yamba in NSW at eight am and attempting to drive as far as home as I could before stopping. I drove for fourteen hours and paused in Canberra for dinner, then decided to push on for the last six hours. By this point it was just past six o’clock and the sun was a hand-span above the horizon and I assumed it’d be gone soon. Instead it floated in my vision till almost eight, burning small glowing holes in my retinas and leaving a sunburnt strip between where my sunglasses end and my moustache begins.

My sixth grade science teacher told me that sunsets are more magnificent when the air is polluted, but of course it has to be some sort of sliding scale. Too much air pollution (ala Beijing, or Sydney circa December 2019) and the sun disappears completely, replaced by the orange wash of smog. Too little pollution and the sun is a perfect ball, slowly being lowered from its zenith to the encroaching horizon. Shades of The Cyrkle’s Red Rubber Ball abound, a song that had always felt wildly familiar, something about the cadence of the words just tickles a certain itch. Of course I found out recently it was written by Paul Simon, which makes total sense.

In some inane attempt to get in touch with my childhood I’ve been reading Wilfred Thesiger’s book ‘Arabian Sands’, a meandering memoir of his time spent exploring Rub Al Khali (The Empty Quarter, a massive desert that covers parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and The Emirates) in the 1940s. While many parts of the book feel problematic, I’m attempting to view it through a lens of the time period (remnants of European Colonialism, Capitalism and WWII conspire in an uneasy mix). One particular passage stood out:

“When moved, Arabs break easily into poetry. I have heard a lad spontaneously describe in verse some grazing which he had just found: he was giving natural expression to his feelings. But while they are very sensible of the beauty of their language, they are curiously blind to natural beauty. The colour of the sands, a sunset, the moon reflected in the sea: such things leave them unmoved. They are not even noticed. When we returned from Mughshin the year before, and had come out from the void of the desert on to the crest of the Qarra range and looked again on green trees and grass and the loveliness of the mountains, I turned to one of them and said, ‘Isn’t that beautiful!’ He looked, and looked again, and then said uncomprehending, ‘no – it is rotten bad grazing.’ ”

I wonder at this reality, for I feel I often do the same, albeit from a viewpoint of heedless distraction rather than a pragmatic sensibility. But isn’t that always the way? We live in the shadow of the moment, relying on occasionally being shaken out of comfort zone to notice the beauty that lies around us.

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