There are two events of light upon which our entire existence depends. These events create our days and our nights, and sustain all life on our earth. We humans are so preoccupied most of the time that we take them for granted. When I was in Namibia’s Messum Crater last March, 2017, I had the opportunity to have nothing to do except witness the sunrise and the sunset. In this post, I share images and words about those events with you, yet one more incredible experience provided by Frikkie von Solms. All photos my own unless otherwise noted. The poems from the Bushmen are taken from Pippa Skotnes’ Heaven’s Things, a Story of the /Xam.
In total we spent two nights in the Messum Crater in two different locations. The first night we found an area behind a large wall of stone. Both east (in this photo) and west were in our view. The day was waning and the sky was cloudy. We didn’t know what we might see – would it rain? would the moon rise? how many stars would be visible?
As I turned to the other side, it seemed that the east and west were in conversation about the array of colors on their respective sides of the sky.
I noticed a large standing stone with a crack in it and caught this burst of setting sunlight coming through – soul on fire!
Eventually the sun slid down behind the mountains, leaving a sheen of gold sky and lavender-rose shadows.
With the sun the only source of light for hundreds of mile around us, it grew quite dark quickly. Frikkie prepared a camp fire and we sat around it feasting on chops, sausages, fresh bread, and beer. I reflected that the sun was the source for this fire and realized that everything in the world, for example, trees, coal, flesh is essentially condensed sunlight, star bits, latent fire. We strike up fire from stones or matches and quicken the sun fire in wood or coal.
In spite of the clouds the moon rose – and think of the moon as the sun’s mirror. We sat and watched the night sky for quite a while and, in the course of that time, were amazed by seeing, not only this moon shrouded in clouds still pink from the sunset, but also strike after strike of lightning fire works behind the distant mountains to the east, accompanied by sky shaking rumbles of thunder. And then it began to rain – the most gentle warm rain I have ever experienced. Later, the clouds cleared away and the stars appeared. I fell asleep looking at them and did not wake up that morning until the sun was high in the sky to the east.
Why do we say that the sun “rises” and “sets?” There is a scientific answer which tells us what is really going on. In early days when we did not know the earth was a round, rotating sphere, we conceived of the earth as flat and it certainly appeared that the sun rose up from the east and went down in the west. It took centuries before humans discovered that the earth is round and orbits around a star we call the sun and that earth not only travels around the sun (it takes 365 days, our year), but it also rotates on its axis every 24 hours. So the phenomenon of sunrise and sunset is actually a consequence of the earth’s turning away from the sun and turning back towards it every 24 hours. The sun doesn’t move at all. Internalizing this information and making efforts to visualize it has helped me experience the process as much more dynamic than the idea of a static flat surface with the sun going up on one side and down on the other. It is more like a dance, the earth turning towards the light and then away from the light by which action our moon and the stars – all those countless other distant suns – become visible to us while the other side of the planet is bathed in daylight.
On our next night in the Messum Crater, Frikkie chose a different spot for our camp. I find it difficult to put into words why being in this vast space untouched by human technology is so exhilarating for me, although I’m certainly grateful for the car and the battery operated cold chest in the back of it. But in this space all the noise and bustle of human civilization is absent and it is a wonder to be in the presence of the earth itself, the home of the primordial elements – it draws out and expands the soul as far as it can go. Soul meets soul here.
This day waned and the lowering sun turned the mountains before us ocher red. The sun is 93 million miles away from the earth (149,600,000 km) from the earth. It takes light 8.3 minutes to travel from the sun to the earth. Then that light, which is white, encounters the earth’s atmosphere – full of tiny pieces of matter and molecules of air. The sun’s light is white which contains blue. Blue light has the shortest wave length and meets the atmosphere first so the blue waves scatter first which is why the sky is blue in the daytime. When the earth is at the moment of turning away from the sun (sunset), or toward it (sunrise)the light waves take longer to go through earth’s atmosphere as it is turning away from the sun, so it is the longer waves – the reds and golds – which break and scatter and produce the array of colors seen at sunrise and sunset. But reflect for a moment on another facet of this process – the eye, the organ which the earth created over the millennia by which it could see itself. Is it not a wondrous miracle beyond anything that science can explain for us? The miracle of the eye which creates what we see by its interaction with the sun light moment by moment.
Frikkie drove the car up on a ridge at the base of a mountain and we had a campsite which was like a second story deck from which we could see east, north, and south.
The shadows increased in the east as the sun in the west declined. I walked down from our campsite to see what it looked like in the west.
I try to envision the reality of what I am seeing. The sun is not sinking; rather, the earth is turning away from the sun. Imagine that the mountains you see in the photo are turning their “shoulders” away from the sun. The radiant beauty is the same; however, the experience deepens when I, as a tiny human, try to realize what is actually happening. I feel a grounded connection to the earth, can almost sense its movement. Imagine the earth as a vast surf board – we balance on it as it turns in the sea of stars.
There was a curve in this mountain and, using the outdated wording, I thought of it as a cauldron into which the light was pooling —
Now I try to see it as the earth turning forward away from the light. However, what I remember from standing there was the sensation of the cooling air on my skin, the silence, and the peace of the night approaching.
I stayed until the only thing I could see was the embers of light in this photo. I felt my way along in the dark and climbed back up to our campsite.
By the time I arrived, Frikkie had begun dinner preparations. – more delicious chops and sausage. How thankful I was to have this experience with such an excellent companion and how comforting it was to have a human friend to share the experience of being in this vast and wonderful place.
And so we share another campfire in the Messum Crater. It’s a bright warm tiny piece of the sun released from coal and wood through a red phosphorus and sulphur mix in a match head. The flame of a match lasts but a few moments, a campfire burns as long as we have fuel to add to it. The flame of the sun, however, will take a whole lot longer to burn out. It is estimated that the sun will continue to burn for another 5,000,000,000 years. It started to form about 4,600,000,000 years ago, Our sun is still considered a young star, but it is approaching middle age. As the night deepens, we watch the Milky Way unveil itself above us and look for constellations we might recognize. The visual memory I retain of that night is of that river of silver light above us of which we are a part, billions of stars and planets in the untold vast dimensions of the universe. I feel asleep gazing at the stars…
and was awakened by the light of an early morning moon. It was about 5:00 a.m. and I felt rested and wanted to watch the sun rise – or ride the earth as it turns towards the sun for the gift of another day. It was cool and fresh and quiet and the air was a balm on my skin. I sat cross-legged on the ledge waiting for the first glimpse of light.
A rim of pale orange underscored by lavender appeared over the eastern mountains. Actually, I took photos before this one, but they were grainy – finally, for this one above there was enough light to get a photo of what I saw that morning. When I edit a photo I crop it and increase or decrease the exposure, the saturation, etc., but mostly what I am trying to achieve is not an “enhanced” version of the scene; rather, I try to work with the photo until it looks like what I remember seeing. This is what my first glimpse of this sunrise in the Messum Crater looked like on that day last March.
and then the fire began to rise and can you see that tinge of pink above the yellow?..
that tinge of pink became the rosy-fingered dawn brushing the vapor bodies of the clouds. The phrase “rosy-fingered dawn” is an oft repeated phrase from Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
My first glimpse of the vibrant yellow of the rim of the burning disc of the sun. How long does it take for the earth to turn fully toward the sun? I know I sat and watched for more than an hour not wanting to miss a moment of the ascendancy of light.
I did not want to hurry through this, was content for the process to be infinitesimal – immeasurably gradual.
I try to transition my perception – imagine the steady turn of the planet towards the face of the sun…
I sense that the soul transcends the body, although the soul is called forth through the body’s sentience – on all levels- physical sensation, emotional response, memory, cognition, intention and so on. So when I say that I experienced this “sunrise” as soul meeting soul I am not making a comparison between two humans meeting; rather I am trying to articulate that soul is a dimension of presence not only in the human body, but in all things. Soul is not personal – it is beyond personal, yet deeply intimate. And so it was on this morning, and on every morning – soul is inflamed by soul and the fire of existence continues.
Fully risen – and in the words of one of my favorite poets, G.M. Hopkins: I kiss my hand / To the stars, lovely-asunder / Starlight, wafting him out of it; and / Glow, glory in thunder; / Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west: / Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder, / His mystery must be instressed, stressed; / For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
As the sun became more fully visible in the east, shadow fell from the mountains and filled the narrow valley between our campsite and the base of the mountains. It wasn’t so much shadow as lavender light and I wanted to walk down into it…
Walking down into this light has become one of my favorite parts of this experience. Of course, I was following a phenomenon which my eye helped create and which continually preceded me which increased my longing for it and I kept taking photos of it. I was walking through it, could feel it on my skin, but only in the continual distance could I see the lavender.
more lavender and pale rose-apricot… that air, that color were a presence of soul.
And then morning filled the whole crater with daylight and shadow made a slow but graceful retreat. It was time to roll up sleeping bags, make the sure the fire was out, take the rocks from behind the tires which kept the car from rolling down the slope during the night, get fresh water bottles, climb into the car and commence our untamed adventures.
Frikkie introduced me to a bush in the Messum Crater called the Bushman’s Candle. It is actually a type of succulent which bears green leaves and flowers at other seasons. Here it is down to its bare bones – branches and thorns. A little desert warrior. If you look closely, you will see areas on the branches which are light greenish brown. These areas are waxy and smooth and serve as a protective succulent skin. It is called the Bushman’s Candle because, after a piece of it has dried, it can be lit and burns for a longer time than wood – hence, it could serve as a candle – a tiny sun stored inside the branches. The plant took in sunlight and stored it in its cells as latent fire.
even the flower is an echo of the colors of sunlight.
Frikkie broke off a piece from a Bushman’s Candle for me to take home to Sacramento. It made its way on the plane wrapped up with other dead looking twigs. I planted it and in a month or so it produced little leaves. It now has a bud on it which I think is never going to open!
The Bushman’s Candle sheds its waxy exterior periodically – these also burn well and emit a delicate incense.
When I need inspiration I light a piece of Bushman’s Candle. In 1873 Lucy Lloyd took dictation from //Kabbo of the /Xam Bushmen. He recited the story of the Day-Heart Star. Here are some lines from it: …we are stars – we must walk the sky for we are heaven’s things…I do go by day that I may stand in the red sky. I am like fire ..thou dost resemble a fire’s child for thou art my little heart…Therefore the Bushmen say we are the Day Hearts.
Again from the wisdom of the Bushmen. !Tsau is the word for star and the word for lion. In a story told by //Kabbo there is a human and a lion – … the lion makes the star as he stands, he is the human, for he is the lion… he makes the star, he in future becomes a star…both are stars, they hence-forward both become stars as they stand for they are two lions… The Lion, the face of the sun on earth. For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.