Inspiration and Contemplation, 21st Century Style

By Maria Montalvo | Jul 30, 2013
A sundog

I saw a sundog today. Made me wonder…what causes it? Why are they called sundogs? Is anyone else inspired by a rainbow around the sun? I think, therefore I go to Wikipedia.

We see a sundog when ice crystals in clouds act as a prism and reflect light in a circle around the sun. The same phenomena can happen with the moon and planets.

Although no one seems to know who first started referring to this beautiful sight as a sundog, the prevalent theory is that the reflection follows the sun like a dog follows its owner.

Apparently, about 2,350 years ago, Aristotle described what was then called a mock sun, as a phenomenon that appears nearly always on the sides of the sun, nearly always close to the horizon, and nearly always at sunrise or sunset. Yet today, just after 1:00 pm, a large, bright, full round of a sundog hangs over the center of the sky, above the tips of the trees, in Edmonds.

400 years after Aristotle, the philosopher, Seneca, referred to a sundog as an example of the beauty of the world amidst the struggle of the human condition.

And even Descartes, who took self-contemplation nearly as far as Thoreau (how do you get a gig to hang out mostly alone at a lake for two years and see what happens?), was so inspired by a series of sundogs seen in Rome in 1629 that he wrote a book called The World.

Each of these thinkers interacted with his environment and was inclined to ask and then answer his own questions. I was inspired enough by a sundog to take a photo, research its origins, and share my observations. Somehow today, the exercise seems less relevant. Is it because finding answers is easier and quicker? Because not many read my answer? I did stop short of considering whether or not the sundog was actually visible only because I was here to see it.

Maybe this moment of observation was an attempt to find meaning in the simplest of experiences in a given day, or (more difficult) to find meaning period. The philosophers of the past seemed inspired to write and teach, to guide societal thoughts and norms, science, and religion. Great thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries have applied vision and ideas to physical inventions that have transformed the human condition (for most). So is there a point to contemplating a sundog?

I am not a philosopher, nor an inventor or a visionary. I am a typical American—I work in an office; I have a busy schedule; I have little daily use for the wealth of information available other than to offer in conversation. My only real struggle is allowing myself to enjoy the life I am lucky enough to have.

Bringing in the new thoughts or reflections connects me to this world. Taking the time to consider things somehow lessens my doubts and fears. Maybe Thoreau really did figure it out at that pond—we have to slow down, experience, and consider rather than always work toward something. There isn’t always something at the end of the rainbow, and in the case of a sundog, the rainbow does not even have an end.

A few hours later on this hot, sunny summer day, while watering in the backyard, I learned how to make a round rainbow in the sky that does not follow the sun—this round rainbow follows my dog as I spray water from the hose for her to chase and the drops fall to create a reflection around her. In that moment, the thinker in me smiled.

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