We have a great view of the sky from our desert yard. Yesterday evening the sky was still blue overhead even as the horizon darkened to a dusky purple. Canyons of cloud were lit fluorescent orange along their rippled edges. Over the stone mountains of Kata Tjuta in the distance, the sky was the strange greyish-yellow that often foretells hail. Virga hung in the sky in the north and to the south-east.
I used to be a bit of a coward with sunsets. As a young woman I took refuge in the quote “No man can watch a sunset for more than fifteen minutes,” as a justification of my restlessness. When I tried to find out who said that (Hemingway? Goethe?), I found another quote by a Dutch ethologist that put me in my place. Adriaan Kortlandt said, “Once I saw a chimpanzee gaze at a particularly beautiful sunset for a full 15 minutes, watching the changing colors [and then] retire to the forest without picking a pawpaw for supper.”
My wife Claudia, on the other hand, is a cognoscente of sunsets. She has taken too many photographs of sunsets to count. We’ve lived in many places of exquisite sunsets — houses on the New South Wales south coast, in Tonga, Vanuatu and in the Indian Ocean. We’ve watched magnificent sunsets over cities — Sydney has great, dirty sunsets, as does Los Angeles. But I think the sunsets of the Western Deserts in Australia are the best of all. She has called me out of the house a thousand times with, “Nelli! Come see the sunset! You can’t miss this.” Sure enough, I would join her in a world transformed by the strange, golden twilight or come to meet her under a blaze of red clouds. I’m grateful that nowadays she’ll stand with her arm around me for some of our sunsets—it’s nice when she doesn’t have to be at work.
In 1992, Yothu Yindi, the seminal Arnhem Land band had a big hit with their song Djäpana (Sunset Dreaming). Their album was joyous and exciting, being the first best-selling album featuring Aboriginal language.
Inspired by the music and my reading, I travelled to Arnhem Land as a medical student not long after, to experience Yolgnu culture. I found that the languages of the Yolgnu, collectively called Yolŋu Matha, are complex, with challenging grammar. An Indigenous friend told me that the Yolgnu have a huge body of work (perhaps a song cycle, many hours long) about sunsets. That idea captured my imagination. I’ve never quite let it go.
So now when I watch a sunset with Claudia, I try to imagine the kinds of stories that could arise from that sunset. Last night’s sunset might have been connected to a song about a journey or a battle. I feel a longing for that body of knowledge, as if it were a mother tongue I’ve lost.
My Dad likes clouds and has encouraged me to explore the work of The Cloud Appreciation Society I know there are many different types of clouds and they have wonderful names.
The exquisite high Cirrus clouds that catch the colours of the sunset longest are made of ice crystals. It always fills me with wonder to see them from the warm, red desert sand. I don’t know whether my idea that they signal a change in the weather coming is scientific or one of my grandma’s fisherwoman observations.
Claudia has spent years on the sea and is an excellent reader of clouds. She has an almost instinctual understanding of physics, including optics — probably the fruit of her career as a diving instructor, when she absorbed the potentially life-saving knowledge of the physics of breathing. She learned to study air bubbles and the movement of light through the water. “That part will light up next,” she’ll say, indicating a bank of cloud or a spreading fan of filament. Or she’ll point to a gap under the cloud on the horizon, and say, “After the sun’s gone, those clouds will be lit up again. Wait and see.” If I wait patiently, the mauve-grey cloud of the approaching night will indeed sometimes become lit up with roses, scarlets, crimsons and oranges. There are riches beyond description in the visual pleasure of it.
We live near Uluru, world-famous for its sunsets. Sometimes after work we’ll drive to the Sunset car park where tourists from around the world watch the great red rock change colours in the sunset. Because of Claudia’s fine appreciation of the colours which come after the sun has set, we’re always the last to leave. All the cars and campervans drive off noisily. It’s the nearest we have to peak hour as they race off for dinner. “You see?” she’ll say, waving her hand at the purplish Rock and the rubicund sky, as the first stars come out. “They missed the best part. It’s all just for us.” And she’ll be right.