Season of Sunsets

text and photographs by Brian Willson

For how many millennia have we stood transfixed at the vision of a spectacular sunset? What indescribable thoughts of awe and wonder have swirled around the brains of humans—even protohumans—as the light of the setting sun set fire to clouds hovering above the western horizon? How did the solitary Neanderthal, looking up from the entrance to his cave, explain this fleeting display? Was the sun god dancing with the cloud goddesses? Was some celestial battle going on? For most of our history, the sunset simply happened, inexplicable, theoretical and dreamy, fireworks as the autumn daylight died. Now science is here to explain it all away.

No matter. Inevitably I see mountains and caverns and cities and worlds in these embers in the evening sky. Even in today’s sunset, lovely but relatively undramatic, I imagined things. Each sunset is swift yet momentous. Like birth, or death. A beginning. An end.

After an oddly busy day filled with hopscotch errands, dog and I were glad to get out in the calm and the chill. The light in the sky had already begun to dim when we pulled into the Beech Hill parking lot. A mostly clear sky lined here and there with interesting clouds. We had the trail to ourselves today—although the red squirrel showed up again to give us another scolding.

I expected few birds but encountered many, beginning with a gaggle of happy chickadees. Then came the voices of a small flock of goldfinches up along the road—hadn’t heard them in a while. Yellow-rumps at the wood-edge. A hairy woodpecker knocking on a hardwood trunk. Three robins flying over, south-bound.

I heard crows and jays off in the invisible distance. We stopped so I could scan the lake for coots. (Still there.) And then a little bird appeared on the trail ahead of us, poking around then darting away. It didn’t look like a sparrow exactly, so I whipped out my binoculars—and right away saw it was a snow bunting. It had the telltale markings. Likely a first-winter bird.

Perhaps fittingly, tomorrow’s forecast calls for snow.

We circled the hut and I took some sunset photos. This seems a season of sunsets—at least lately here at the 44th parallel. The color rises, the color subsides, and the twilight that follows is sweet and brief.

As by magic, mist began to sweep through the valleys between the western hills. As we neared the road again, I happened to spot a crow-sized bird angling across the colorful sky in our direction. It wasn’t flapping like a crow but rather propelled itself with quick, intermittent wingbeats. I knew what it was before I focused my binocs: a pileated woodpecker headed off to roost.

Like an evening kiss at the end of a fruitful day.