A guy once told me that the sunset was so vibrant because the air was polluted. I like to think I said something sassy, such as, “Your face is polluted,” but probably I just sat there irritated as the sun went down.
That take on nature’s nightly show has haunted me, like the ghost of Jacob Marley, Certified Public Accountant. One, it was before I knew the term “mansplaining.” Two, it’s not exactly true. Many factors contribute to the strength of the sunset, including but not limited to: time of year; weather patterns; atmospheric layers; Pinot Grigio.
Mostly, it felt cynical to insist that even life’s most exquisite gifts were somehow mired in man’s mess. But lately, I’m coming around to the idea that beauty and pain are inextricably linked.
To wit: Saharan dust. A gigantic dust cloud from the Sahara Desert has been moving west, expected to reach Tampa Bay and push into the Gulf of Mexico around Wednesday. Perhaps this sounds ominous in 2020, when the weekday routine is to roll over, grab your phone and anticipate an alert about Flesh-Eating Wasp Badgers on Motorcycles.
First, here’s the pain: The dust can kick up reactions for people with allergies and respiratory conditions, confusing in COVID-19 times. Another great reason to wear a mask.
It also can cause algae blooms, contributing to red tide. It’s possible, when my editor sends me out to wade through dead fish and birds on the beach, that I will write a column about how Saharan dust is the worst. I will sit on a park bench at sunset and explain it to someone, haunting him for the rest of his days.
But here’s the beauty: It briefly puts a pin in our hurricane season, which as you know was off to a rollicking start. The dust sucks moisture out of the air, moisture that storms need to develop.
Then there’s the sky. The smattering of orange and red particles is likely to make sunrises and sunsets look like something out of Tatooine.
It’s like that out here on this unrelenting spin around the sun, where forces of good and bad push and pull. So if you will indulge a woo-woo moment, maybe the dust is a must. The dust is the assembly in the street, sometimes messy and urgent, seeking change that’s stagnant and overdue. The dust is the virus that exposes holes in our readiness, in how we treat each other. The dust is the amorphous force sucking the life out of the storm.
The poet John Clare wrote about optimism in The Instinct of Hope:
Is there another world for this frail dust / To warm with life and be itself again? / Something about me daily speaks there must / And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?
Clare, who died in 1864, had a difficult life by all accounts and was preternaturally able to crystallize slivers of clarity on the page. The poets, they knew the dust-ups are what get us to breathtaking sunsets.
If that’s the case, bring it on.