In this summer of terrorism, both foreign and domestic, the Virginia Piedmont’s natural beauty offers even more solace than usual. As the sun sets over the Blue Ridge, the earth still spins on its axis and all seems right with the world.
What is it about sunsets?
They happen every day, of course — and everywhere — but in the workaday, urbanized, modern world we seldom notice. Only when we’re on vacation, or lucky enough to be already in a place like the Virginia Piedmont, do we pause sufficiently to marvel. It’s the celestial equivalent of stopping to smell the roses, or reverently focusing on the sermonizing words of a Sunday preacher. In the meantime:
Your computer’s screensaver is likely a virtual sunset. Or maybe there’re photos or representational art on your office wall picturing — what else? — horizons whose skylines are infused with color. Schmaltzy sunset scenes are as ubiquitous as Elvis on velvet. Even postmodernist artists and critics, normally disdainful of conventional notions of beauty, have been reported to indulge in sunsets — a middlebrow guilty pleasure.
The more linear our lives, synchronized to digital devices, the more we apparently like to be reminded of nature’s reassuring cyclical rhythms, particularly if they’re pretty. Or perhaps not so reassuring but a useful reminder, memento mori: each day’s end, a little death.
Certainly, the travel industry knows the powerful allure of the setting sun. “Savor the spectacular sunsets while partaking of our exquisite cuisine on the restaurant’s splendid veranda,” goes a typical marketing pitch. If the sunsets aren’t described as spectacular, then try these adjectives: brilliant, bedazzling, stunning, magnificent, amazing, fabulous, fantastic, breathtaking, marvelous, dazzling, astonishing.
Purple prose and sunsets seem fated to be linked. So anyone attempting to write about sunsets, as I am now doing, inevitably courts sentimentality, or worse. It’s like painting by numbers. Precisely because the response to sunsets is so universal — that is, common — it doesn’t take a refined sensibility to appreciate.
When the Piedmont’s first inhabitants saw the sun set over what we now call Chester Gap, Mary’s Rock, or Afton Mountain, were they full of fear of what the night might bring or thankful for the day just past? Was the experience spiritual? The sunset connects us to them — the Native Americans, the colonists, the frontiersmen — then and now, the living and the dead. We, being human, no doubt share the same thoughts and feelings. Universal is the appreciation of a sunset’s beauty — one of the few things that can unite us in this age of civil discord and global disorder. It’s a beauty that is peaceful, not colored by racism or any ideological prism.
Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, the sun surely sets without a single witness. But for beauty an audience is needed. Only people can confer beauty. No other animals — no black bears or whitetails, no squirrels or skunks, no red-tailed hawks or cardinals — stop and stare.
I’ve seen cars pull off the road heading south on Route 29 in Culpeper and Madison counties in order for the occupants to give proper attention, indulging their sense of sight, to sun setting over the mountains on their right. In summer, the setting sun is as due west as it ever gets at this latitude, almost exactly perpendicular to the highway.
Another time, at a garden party in nearby Orange, I can’t help but notice that all the guests, though still chatting with one another, shift their stance and gaze westward as the sun began to set, as if focusing on the sermonizing words of a Sunday preacher. Old reporter that I am, I imagine my interviewing them all, commingling with philosophers and artists I’ve studied:
Why do you think your eyes are drawn to the setting sun? How does this particular sunset compare with yesterday’s or the day before’s? Where and when was the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen?
“Beautiful is neither the best nor the precise word,” I imagine the older, somewhat frail, man with a cane responding with a German accent. “Sublime is the correct word.”
“Sublime is just another masculine abstraction,”counters an attractive young woman, perhaps a gender studies major at the University of Virginia. “Sunsets need no words.”
“Vitality!” says a landscape artist with a jaunty French beret. “Sunsets are the purest expression of primitivism.”
“It’s simple: Sunsets provoke pleasure that is a survival response programmed in our genes, making sure we’re aware that night is about to fall,” says the evolutionary biologist. “Do we have enough firewood? Are our weapons handy?”
“Nonsense!” spits out a bespectacled, bearded man in a ratty tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. “Beauty has nothing to do with survival and self-preservation. Indeed, that which is most beautiful is often the most dangerous. In this case the most beautiful sunsets signal the most polluted, unhealthy air.” Pointing to the summer haze shrouding the Blue Ridge, he then quotes the early 20th-Century Welsh poet William Henry Davis:
“What glorious sunsets have their birth in cities fouled by smoke.”
“Flirty, look-at-me colors! That’s what sunsets are all about, no more, no less,” laughs an especially attractive young woman dressed in what looks to be a Versace cocktail dress, visiting from Manhattan no doubt.
Paying not the slightest attention to the setting sun, however, is my dog, a rescue beagle-mix that I take everywhere, even to garden parties. She remains fixated on begging for the hors d’oeuvres with slices of locally raised, grass-fed beef.