Countless vacant and abandoned houses are scattered over the American prairie and plains, headstones marking the passage of a rural way of life nearly gone as the face of agriculture has changed. Each house has stories to tell, imprinted in front porch wood, kitchen walls, or the stones of an empty hearth. A faded curtain moves in the breeze, and for a moment, murmuring voices are heard. In the arid southwest, homes carved into cliffside ledges mark the presence of an entire civilization. These Anasazi ruins speak of the passing of “The Ancient Ones,” a people whose origin and fate are unknown. Stories live here as well, told in voices so old they are part of the land itself. The Anasazi stone houses, empty now for about a thousand years, are likely to outlast the abandoned rural home of far newer vintage. When this prairie house is torn down or burned, what will become of its stories? Photos: Livingston County Illinois, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Apache County Arizona.
In the beginning, according to ancient Egyptian texts, the universe was a dark and watery nothingness, a shapeless and inert cosmic sea of blackness. From this void rose a mound of dry land, the Great Primeval Mound, upon which the sun god Ra materialized into form as the deity Atum. This was the moment of creation, the “First Time.” In ancient Egyptian theology, both the Great Pyramid at Giza and the natural rock outcropping upon which it is built correspond to the Great Primeval Mound. It is said to be a place of birth, death and rebirth, where time itself began.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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).
Many years ago one could travel nearly anywhere by train. The journeys could be long, sometimes involving connections with other trains and different railroads, but the process was reliable. That era has passed, as impatient travelers of today think only of destination and little of journey. Railroad stations, the portals at the beginning and end of the train-travel journey, have slowly disappeared from small towns and big cities alike. Now empty, the stations wait along abandoned tracks for trains that will never arrive. Weeds grow where passengers once stood. The travelers have gone elsewhere and the portals have closed. Lee County, Illinois.
My friend and fellow author Robert James Waller has died at 77. Most will recall him as the author of the best-selling novel “The Bridges of Madison County.” Recognition for this was well-deserved. But Bob was more than that. A true Renaissance man, he was also a talented musician and photographer, as well as a master of economic theory and management. He was a romanticist, even as few people truly understand the meaning of the word. Go well, my friend, along the rivers and the long dusty roads, through the Iowa rains and past the old westbound trains.
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Tagged Fiction, Iowa, Robert James Waller, romance, Writing