Category Archives: Observations

Shadow of the Equinox

As today’s Autumnal Equinox passes in silence, and daylight stands in balance with night for one day, golden fields of corn and soybeans are but days from harvest. The land yields to open space without windbreak or cover for pheasants and deer. A darkening sky will soon foretell snow instead of rain as a primeval chill settles upon the land. Autumn will reluctantly give its domain to winter as colors fade, sunlight contracts, and the spirit of the land retreats into itself to wait for spring. As it bids a brief greeting, fall exclaims its essence in vibrant symphonies across the prairie.



The transition of autumn is glorious and inspiring, yet it is laced with endings. Perhaps that is why it seems to be the shortest season. Photos: Kane County, Illinois and Jo Daviess County, Illinois.


Farewell Cassini

At about 6:55AM CDT this morning, the NASA Cassini spacecraft mission came to an end.  After 13 years of stunning science, the craft was sent into the ringed gas-giant planet.  Low on fuel after 294 photographic orbits around Saturn and its rings and moons, the decision was made by NASA to let Cassini self-destruct in Saturn’s atmosphere to avoid contamination of possible life-bearing Saturnian moons (particularly Titan and Enceladus).

Cassini made roughly 450,000 photographs during its voyage, adding untold amounts of knowledge about stormy Saturn (upper atmospheric wind speeds of up to 1800 kph/1100 mph), hazy moon Titan (with an icy-rain atmosphere and cold lakes of hydrocarbons), and amazing moon Enceladus (spouting salt-water geysers from under its surface), among other targets.

NASA is offering a free eBook with images from the mission here: Cassini 

Science like this has the benefit of providing both knowledge and philosophy.  Ponder if you will the significance of Cassini’s accomplishments, in terms of pure science and discovery.  Although discoveries still await us here on our home planet, we have only begun to touch the final frontier of space with a human hand.  As this small hand reaches toward unknown realms, we will, perhaps, be prompted to attain some sense of unity here on Earth.  The hand we reach with is one, that of humanity, shorn of petty politics, racial divisiveness, and ignorance.  If we so choose, we can let the grand accomplishments of this small spacecraft advance our knowledge . . . and our sense of oneness.    

Farewell, faithful traveler.

The ultimate Time Shadow?

Unless you’ve been hiding in a closet, you know that yesterday was the “Great American Eclipse.”  Although that moniker sounds like something developed in an advertising agency (perhaps it was), the event is a rare and spectacular occurrence.  It has been 99 years since a total solar eclipse crossed the entire United States, and 38 years since a total solar eclipse was visible anywhere in the continental US.  Whether your interest in this event is from a cultural, astrological, or astronomical point of view, there is no doubt of its significance.

I’ve been pondering if a total solar eclipse is the ultimate time shadow.  At this blog (and via my novels and other writings), I am interested in the notions of time, shadows, twilight, and horizons, and the multitude of ways those topics can be explored, understood, and marveled upon (see the title and subtitle at the top of the page).  Surely, an uncommon total solar eclipse, which is a shadow sprinting across the land and its horizons at roughly 1700 miles per hour, would have to be Time Shadow Numero Uno.

But as I contemplated the idea further, I decided otherwise.  A total solar eclipse is indeed a time shadow of high order, as I define the concept.  But my ideas, relevant as they may be here and there, are merely ephemeral dust in the wind.  I suspect one would have to nominate the journey we embark upon at the end of our physical lives as the ultimate time shadow, since it is, after all, a one-way crossing of an unknowable horizon into an unknown realm. 

However, a total solar eclipse remains awe-inspiring no matter how we define it.  The photos and video of yesterday’s event are phenomenal.  Those who were fortunate enough to be in the 70-mile wide path of totality have notched a bucket-list item into their lifelines.

(Photo from the NASA Internet feed, Carbondale IL, during a brief moment of open sky at approximately 1:22PM CDT)

Fragments of timelessness

In a land of limitless horizons, there are moments when the arrow of time seems to vanish.  A crystal point of distant horizon appears, and the clouds and wind are moving yet going nowhere.  These fragments of timelessness occur most readily in high summer, in the lateness of afternoon, or the onset of evening, when the long hours of daylight passing into twilight are still ahead and the deeds of the day are behind.  An intangible shard of temporary eternity floats out of the sky and settles all around, comforting in its insulation.  It is neither before nor after, but only “now,” a single thread of the fabric of the present.  Its essence is both so small as to be immeasurable, and so vast as to be incomprehensible.  One can feel it, wrap oneself within it, breathe it in, and partake of its singularity, but it cannot be held or prolonged.  There is no influence upon it save its own, and it will vanish as readily as it comes, replaced by the forward motion of time’s arrow.  And then one longs to meet it again.  Teton County, Wyoming.

Birthday wishes: August 1, 1939

The late Robert James Waller would have been 78 today.  He was born on August 1, 1939, in Charles City, Iowa.  In my post below on the day of his passing (March 10, 2017), I commented on him and his contributions to the world; we would be poorer without the literary, musical, and academic gifts he shared.  If the novel “The Bridges of Madison County” were all that he gave us, it would have been more than enough.

In March, Robert, you set forth on the ultimate journey.  If you could, I know you would write an essay to describe the wonders now surrounding you, and you’d share it with us, perhaps in the pages of the Des Moines Register newspaper.  I’d be pleased to see just one more byline with your name on it.  But we must be content with the words and music you left us.  And we are.

Perhaps I will see a peregrine today, or I can let my face be caressed by the warm southern winds as I hear a distant train.  There will be a waltz running through my mind.

You were my friend, and my hero.  Happy Birthday, Robert.  I would have sent a card, but I don’t know the address.

Three languages, one dictionary

On this day in 1799, a black granodiorite rock slab bearing inscriptions in three languages was found near the town of Rosetta, Egypt, 35 miles east of Alexandria.  It was soon determined that the inscriptions were more or less identical, but written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic, and ancient Greek. 

Although the stone was broken, and parts of each text missing, there was enough of each inscription to allow scholars, for the first time, to cross-translate the heretofore undeciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Credit for this work has been given to French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion, although other scholars were involved in the effort. 

The Rosetta Stone, as it came to be called, was in effect, a dictionary, and it could be argued that no other discovery was more significant to the study of Egyptology.  When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, the find was widely publicized because of its magnificence and nearly complete array of contents.  But from a scholarly perspective, the Rosetta Stone discovery and subsequent translations was a watershed event.

There are other undeciphered ancient languages awaiting their own Rosetta Stone.  The Indus script of ancient India, and the Rongorongo symbols of Easter Island are probably the two most well-known.  Despite much effort by scholars, these two languages remain largely unreadable.  Are there “Rosetta Stones” waiting to be uncovered which will allow us to read these ancient words? 

The thought that such an object is “out there” somewhere is tantalizing to those who are interested in these subjects.  As well, romantic notions of exploration and discoveries like these are what led to my own lifelong passion for archaeology.  The sublime thrill of discovery, of being the first person to see an artifact, a tomb, a city, in thousands of years drives many a historical researcher in their quests.

What is out there, yet to be found?  We cannot say.  My personal wish list includes The Ark of the Covenant, The Hall of Records, The Holy Grail, and Atlantis, among others.  Fanciful yearnings possibly, but the inspiration and excitement generated by the stories of search and discovery of treasures like these remains as strong inside of me now as it did when I was a boy.  And that is what matters.         

(Rosetta Stone photo in the British Museum by Hans Hillewaert)

Getting down with downloads

In my recent interview with author/artist Uvi Poznansky (see below), we talked about my writing habits.  I mentioned how, when writing fiction, I receive what I call “downloads” from the universe.  These moments of inspiration often arrive whole, and I’m given an entire scene in my mind, complete with plot, setting and dialogue, all at once as I’m working at the keyboard.  I received several of them as I wrote my latest novel, The 26th Game.

The compelling facet of these downloads, other than their arriving in totality, is that they are most often scenes of which I had no prior thoughts.  Not even an inkling.  As I work my way through a piece of fiction, many of the scenes have been planned ahead of time.  I’ve made notes on setting, scribbled snippets of dialogue, developed plot points, usually in longhand in a small notebook or on a legal pad.  But as I stir these into a readable stew, invariably, ideas that had never crossed my mind appear in the work.  This occurs in real time, as if I am merely recording them from wherever they’d already been written, out there in the ether.  I have composed numerous sentences, paragraphs and scenes, word for word, out of thin air, without ever having previously contemplated the particular idea.

How is this possible?  Some metaphysicians have said that all books are already written, and the author becomes connected to the place where these works are “stored,” at some kind of “celestial archive.”  The author merely transcribes the text, acting as a conduit from the archive to the paper or Word document.  Since I know this process happens, having experienced it countless times, for me this explanation is as good as any.  Because I truly don’t know how it works.  I only know that it is real.

The late Robert James Waller told me he wrote The Bridges of Madison County in ten days.  He was quoted as saying, “The universe just gave it to me.”  While Bob might have used different words to explain the source of his fiction, I am certain he was describing the same download process as I have.  No doubt, many other authors can attest to having experienced this spontaneous creativity.  It is part of the beautiful mystery of creation, and every author owes a debt of gratitude to the Muse, Celestial Archive, Source, Universe, or whatever name he or she chooses to call it.

This singular moment

As this August sunset unfolded over Winnebago County, Iowa, I was the only person for miles in any direction, and the only person recording this scene with a camera at this place.  There is no other record of this event.  An eternity of sunsets will follow, but this image is the singular record of this one day’s sunset moment at this one place in the heartland.  Is that important?  Would it matter if this one scene had passed unnoticed and unrecorded?  After all, it is always sunset somewhere on the planet, and sunset is nothing more than a happenstance of light source, clouds, and the viewer’s position.  There will be another one tomorrow.  Five minutes after this photograph was made, the sun was gone from this August day.  The long twilight faded and darkness came . . . but the sunset remains.  It is an image of a moment never to be repeated, a threshold at the end of this day which can not be had again.

Our “Mote of Dust”

This is a photo of Earth, as viewed through the rings of Saturn. The image was made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, peering over its shoulder toward a home it will never see again. Astronomer Carl Sagan said it best in his 1994 essay “Pale Blue Dot,” which is condensed here: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” (NASA photograph)

When the world was young








There was a time when many of America’s children gained their education in one-room schoolhouses.  As much a fixture of rural life as the horse and plow, the schoolhouses vanished as the number of farms dwindled, as people migrated to cities and towns, as the agrarian dominance of the country’s workforce passed away.  Most have been torn down, but here and there an isolated and empty schoolhouse remains.  If you listen closely when it is quiet and the wind is just right, you can hear the voices and laughter of children, carefree and young and full of delight at knowing the world was limitless and it belonged to them.  Ogle County, Illinois (left) and Stephenson County, Illinois (right).