Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 12/6/1998

     A sunset over water is worth waiting for.  Of course, conditions are not always right for a vivid display of color. Cloud cover and haze often block out the setting sun. In such cases, it then can be beneficial to the human spirit just to quietly observe the slow transition of day to night.

     But when there is a scattering of high clouds and moisture that is just right for colors to blaze, the best place to be is on or beside a body of water. The reflection of the sky onto a river, lake or sea doubles the effects of the color display with a magnificent mirrored image.

     After looking at the high-frequency blue end of the light spectrum all day long, I am convinced that it is healthy for our eyes to take in the lower frequency spectrum of oranges and reds at the end of the day. We should deliberately take time out from busy schedules to do this for ourselves. I have no research to back it up, but it is my strong intuition that gazing at  sunset colors creates for us a healthier transition from day to night and probably even positively influences the quality of our sleep.

     On some occasions a sunset can be an opportunity to look directly at the sun. A lower atmosphere laden with moisture and dust can reduce the intensity of the sun's rays that would normally be harmful to our sight, but still project the sun's image when it is just above the horizon. It is a great moment of wonder and meditation to be able to observe the sun directly.

     ONE MUST TAKE CAUTION to make sure that the intensity of the sunlight coming through is agreeable to one's vision. It is as if this mighty king grants us a few moments of opportunity to be ushered into his presence to behold him face to face!

     A sunset can teach us much about slowing down. The transition from day to night is a lingering process beginning with the long shadows that are cast across the river in late afternoon and ending with the eerie blackness of both sky and water. The entire process of the dimming of sunlight can take as much as two hours. This change seems extremely gradual if one is consciously focused on it.

     It is our requisite slowing down to observe this gentle transition that is often most helpful. There is no better teacher in this respect. Watching the transition of day to night will certainly reveal to us the identity of any restless stirrings of the heart.

     I find a personal encounter with natural beauty to be my defining spiritual experience.  Often such an encounter with beauty is ephemeral and the epiphany dissipates quickly. In such a case, only focused gazers will discover this experience. To search for beauty mandates a slowing of our pace, but with patience, a sunset becomes our instructor.

     To capture the moment on film is an art as well. I have found that on all my major river expeditions, I photograph sunsets more often than any other river phenomenon.

     The moment of a sunset's peak color is both fun and a challenge to photograph. Usually this pinnacle of display lasts only a minute or two. A long trail of shimmering color on the surface of the water appears to reach out to dazzle the watcher's point of view. Sometimes it occurs with the sun just beginning to dip below the horizon. More often I find it to be up to 20 minutes after the actual sunset, depending on the arrangement of clouds in the sky.

     And then there is that special sunset over water when there are no clouds, haze or trees to block the horizon. It is easier to observe this unique phenomenon on larger rivers like the lower Neuse and Cape Fear where the channel is several miles wide.

     Then the sun appears to sink directly into the water and melt at its base like a pat of butter as it merges with the horizon of water and sky. With no clouds, the color display is quickly over, except for a light dusting of gold from suspended particles in the air. Often a few early stars appear in this kind of rarefied atmosphere.

     I wonder if only humans can appreciate the beauty of a sunset. Does the rest of the animal kingdom, or even members of the plant kingdom, possess our urge to pause and revel in the golden glow of a sunset? Could this pausing be one of the factors that make us uniquely human? Or does a colorful wood duck, flying high above the canopy of Eno River, think to itself, "My, what a marvelous view I have of the sunset this evening!''

     Or is the disappearance of the sun meant only to signal the changing of the guard from the diurnal to the nocturnal animals? Or could it be that the wood duck has a physiological need to see the red end of the spectrum as I feel that I do?  This is something to ponder as a pair of wood ducks burst forth from the surface of the river and fly away, squeaking into a pastel river sunset.

     In his recently published book, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Dr. Robert Sapolsky illustrates how the emotional stresses of modern life often drag us into depression. He presents an interesting definition of human depression that I find quite appropriate: "The defining feature of a major depression is loss of pleasure. If I had to define a major depression in a single sentence, I would describe it as a genetic neurochemical disorder requiring a strong environmental trigger whose characteristic manifestation is an inability to appreciate sunsets.''

     How long has it been since you went out of your way, to park yourself on a river bank, lake or ocean shore to observe an evening sunset?

Photo by Riojosie: Riverdave at sunset by the Sea of Cortez, Santa Clara, Mexico