Measuring Sunsets

When visiting family in Central Montana I found that the best part of a sunset came after it dropped below the wheat stubbled field. Then, moving fast enough to keep ahead of the mosquitos I’d walk west on the ranch road as the sky bruised purple, red, apricot and yellow and wondered if the sun’s passage wounded the blue prairie sky.

Summer dusk in Montana dragged on long enough to discourage sleep. Not so in the Florida Keys where I just spent a week camping and bicycling. There the wise watch sunsets from their front porch or carry a flashlight. You can’t rely on a lingering dusk to help you find the trail home. I couldn’t rely on lessons learned on the prairie to measure sunsets in the Keys.

On the Keys the real beauty happens with the sun still a long necked beer bottle length above the Gulf of Mexico when an orange to apricot light colors the under sides of clouds but the sky still holds blue. Then pelicans, egrets and gulls reduced to black make small migrations across the sun. Just as it eases into the horizon the sun sends a reflection all the way to the beach.  After that it drops quietly into the sea and night takes charge.

One evening, while waiting for a sunset I tried to draw pelicans and cormorants drying themselves in the last heat of the day. The ever moving pelicans made poor models but the cormorants would form an iron cross with their wings for minutes at a time and the herons and egrets could be counted on for short periods of stillness as they stalked prey in the water.

After catching and swallowing a bait fish one great egret turned as if to watch me draw. In minutes he hopped up to share the dock with me, showing me first one profile than the other. He then struck a series of 30 second poses, some with neck stretched to full length and others with it folded into an impossible curve. His Great Blue Heron cousins in Alaska wouldn’t so much as share a large inlet with me. I know there is something wrong with this hunting bird actions but they still marveled. 

The next morning I watched the sunrise over the Atlantic. The sky colored to apricot a half an hour before the sun appeared and then started paling to white. This stirred the birds who flew in long thin wedges across the bay and then over my head. Pelicans flew with beaks stretched out and egrets held their long necks in a “s” form so they looked like paper airplanes in the soft morning light.  All continued on over the roaring traffic on U.S. Route One and under fighter jets taking off from the naval air station.    

Later we visited a butterfly garden in Key West where a bronze blue heron waded in a Koi pool. Single drops of water fell from the heron’s beak into the pool to send out predictable ripples that rolled over the surface. I found myself wondering why a person living in the land of real fish, heron and egret would create something that could only remind one of true natural beauty. Then minutes went by with me simply watching the ripples distort the orange, red and black of the Koi fish gathered in the heron’s shadow.  

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