Friday evening I had the opportunity to take a cruise on Big Island Pond, a pristine and beautiful lake in Atkinson, Hampstead and Derry, New Hampshire. There’s a ritual that is both familiar to me and yet still new. Those who live there with boats tend to cluster out in a certain spot at a certain time of day to watch the sun drop below the horizon. Sunsets and water do go well together, and this one was perfect. And so I participated in yet another sunset ritual. I recalled another time last summer when I was in a spot very close to where I was, watching the sunset on the same boat with a couple of friends, Dan and Dave, when Dan got a call from his mother saying his father had fallen down. We abandoned the sunset for service, and the three of us drove over to his mother’s house to help. His father passed away a couple of weeks later, leaving a remarkable legacy behind him.
Over the last 18 months I’ve sought out sunsets in faraway places and right back here at home. Joining the party on Mallory Square in Key West, and making our own party on a pontoon boat in New Hampshire; wrapping up the day in assorted faraway places from Sagres on the edge of continental Europe to Buffalo, on the edge of Western New York. From 25,000 feet above New Brunswick back to sea level on Buzzards Bay. I’m a shameless seeker of sunsets, and celebrate the moment for all that it represents.
Last night I was wrapping up a day of yard work and watched the bright, last rays of the sun shining horizontally through the woods, illuminating the western trunks with a remarkable glow. I saw deep in the woods a bright red pole rising out of the forest that I’d never seen before in twenty years looking back into these woods. It was the bark of a white pine tree glowing in the setting sun with a red brilliance I’d never realized before. I was struck by the uniqueness of the moment and almost walked out into the woods to visit the tree before reason took over and I remained where I was.
This morning I finished reading Walking, by Henry David Thoreau. It was a quick but lovely read, based on a lecture that he’d done several times before publishing it. I was jolted in the final paragraphs when Thoreau described a scene very similar to what I had experienced last night:
“We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold, gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon…. while our shadows stretched long over the meadow east-ward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever, an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.”
“…We walked in so pure and bright a light, gliding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening.
So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walking
It isn’t lost on me that I’ve been drawn to Thoreau at this stage of my life. It may be that I’m just now refocusing on the world around me, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I think he’s just been waiting for another person to dance with, and I’ve indicated a readiness to tango. His analogy of stepping into heaven to the brightest beams of a sunset isn’t uniquely his, but his phrasing is lovely. Some day we’ll all catch our final sunset, and reflect on the life we’re leaving for whatever lies beyond the horizon. But please, not today.