By James McGuire
On a recent early evening, as the sun sank below the horizon and day headed into night, my wife called to me from the living room.
“You gotta see this sky!” she exclaimed. “It amazing!”
I was in the kitchen, out of view from the main room’s wall of west-facing windows. They overlook the Stillwater River, the sycamore-clad island across the channel, and the low hill and a vast expanse of sky beyond.
Her summons had been loud and urgent, excited. I knew it had to be something special, so I immediately ceased my coffee refill to hurry her way.
Wow! What greeted my eyes was indeed extraordinary! A truly incredible sunset!
The entire panorama, from the far horizon, to directly overhead, was one gigantic glowing canvas of dazzling colors—reds and oranges, yellows and golds, pinks, purples, and blues ranging from cobalt to turquoise. There were even some greenish tints in there!
Such a technicolor sunset needed viewing in the whole—as immersively as possible; not through a layer of window-glass. Though it was in the low-40s outside, without a second thought, or taking time to grab a coat, we headed onto the deck.
What a show—what a marvelous sky!
Colors in streaks and daubs, puffs and swirls and squiggles. Colors that have no proper name, but must be located somewhere on the spectrum between ultraviolet and infrared.
A painted sky so saturated and dazzling—so phenomenal!—neither brush nor talent could ever do it justice; no gifted artist of any era would be capable of rendering it to canvas.
The nearby river caught and reflected this incredible panoply of hues, carrying them on the current, mixing and animating. Even the surrounding air seemed suffused with color.
In my lifetime I don’t think I’ve witnessed more than a half-dozen sunsets I’d count as its equal. It was surely one for the memory books.
That sky was simply stunning—a breathtaking wonderment. Glorious, transfixing. As I stood there gaping, this astonishing spectacle seemed to engulf me. I felt my inner being fill with the dramatic beauty spread everywhere before us.
It was, indeed, an experience as visceral as it was visual.
Of course, it didn’t last long. Late autumn’s breathtaking sunsets never do. However, in this instance, that was probably a good thing, given the penetrating cold and our lack of outerwear.
When the colors began to dial back and fade, we reluctantly retreated inside, shivering, more than a little numb. But as we stood close to the woodstove, basking in its delicious radiant heat, we felt grateful to have seen something so rare and fleeting.
Sunrises and sunsets, sundogs, moondogs, sun pillars, halos, coronas, and glories. When it comes to such displays—these natural miracles—probably no other time of the year provides us with as many thrilling examples of sky phenomena. Now is emphatically the season to look up and be regularly thrilled!
Pliny, the naturalist writer of ancient Rome, thought such vivid sky colors could only be caused by fire.
“It has often been seen,” he mused, “that the sky itself catches fire when the clouds have been set on fire by exceptionally large flames.”
I always wondered about that “exceptionally large flames” part, because I thought it begged an even greater puzzle: What was the source of those gigantic flames? Forest fires? Erupting volcanoes? Meteors? Possibly the bonfire at one of Caligula’s wilder orgies?
In truth, the predominant flamelike colors of a spectacular late-season dusk or dawn sky are caused by the way horizontal light scatters as it passes through the atmosphere. The lower seasonal angle of the sunlight necessarily shines through a greater mass of atmosphere. Atmospheric gasses scatter more of the blue, shortwave colors, while still allowing the reds to penetrate through to earthbound observers.
So the prosaic answer is we can thank weather and shifting fronts, airborne moisture, moving clouds, and the lowered angle of the sun with its raking light for the seasonal sky shows.
However, this scientific explanation takes nothing away from the awesome theatrics.
We don’t have to know the how and why of most things to be thrilled by them or enjoy their beauty. Understanding is unnecessary…at least sometimes, for some things.
I could, however, use some help understanding crows. For some unfathomable reason, a gang of crows has lately decided to make interrupting me during my morning writing stint part of their daily routine.
Early mornings are typically my day’s most distraction-free period. They’re also the time when I’m at my word-herding best—though always, any modicum of literary clarity I can muster is tentative and fleeting. And a handful of loudmouthed crows fussing and bantering just beyond my deskside window makes concentrating impossible.
Why have the confounded birds suddenly elected to start paying me regular visits?
They have no legitimate business to conduct from the close precincts of the dooryard box elder—nothing new to see, nothing to eat, and nobody other than me to harass.
I am bedeviled and frustrated. Stymied in my work. Though not normally paranoid, I’m starting to think it’s personal—evidence of malice aforethought.
They arrive regular as clockwork, soon after after my wife leaves for her office job. I’ve just settled in front of my desktop computer and started my own labors.
For the next twenty minutes, they caw hoarsely and clamor about, flapping and jockeying among the leafless branches. I can’t marshal a thought long enough to get it down.
They first appeared the Monday morning after we switched from daylight savings back to standard time. What’s odd is on Sundays, or mornings when my wife has the day off and she can sleep in—they never show up; conspicuous by their absence.
Mind you, I’m not making any connection. But you have to admit crows are regularly complicit in all sorts of shenanigans. Am I missing some message?
Like I said, I wish I understood crows a bit better…
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