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St. John’s Catholic church in our village is constructed of yellow sandstone. It’s a graceful steeple and stained-glass presence in one of our older neighborhoods.

The same sandstone supports the footbridges over Six Mile creek and the new development on my COVID-Easter hill has piles of the same crushed sandstone just beyond the very very fine “starter” houses standing at hopeful debutant attention, waiting to have their dance cards filled. Stately sandstone sifting and winnowing in the buildings on campus.

It’s six hundred million years old. Imagine being buried in a tropical sea, sealed into stasis by time and pressure and frozen most recently under a mile of ice, to emerge in a Midwestern searing summer sun under a blast of shattering explosives and the grumbly steel clatter of fossil-fueled toothy monsters. Hand tooled sandstone forms the bricks in the derelict barn foundation at the county park where we all take folksy high school graduation photos.

My mind wanders.

Seems like only a month or so ago that Carol and I sat on a bench by one of the bridges, taking in a humid-evening free concert. Big-band music from the gazebo under the bur oaks. I watched the sandstone and wandered deep. I watched the bur oaks filter the sky and wondered if there was a prairie-fire story for why they all stand where they do, in the lee of the creek. I watched a young woman, maybe ten years old, wading in with a legit stream biologist’s sampling net. She netted up a crayfish and took it to the creekside grass to study it closely. She wore waders that fit her – indicating that someone loved her very much.

Six Mile is home to enormous spiny soft-shell turtles, turtles that have changed very little since they shared the world with dinosaurs. They crawl into the uplands to nest in the spring. They survived the great extinction. Occasionally you need to help them over the curb.

My mind wanders.

It seems like only a week ago we were in Boston for her graduation.

Distance has two dimensions. You measure it in hours of air-travel and days and seasons that pass.

On the last day you know you must say goodbye the whole time and you don’t know what to do with yourself. Every minute is a step in that direction. Your heart slowly squeezes as you try to make light. Your chest hollows itself out. It’s as inevitable as watching her grow up. Her whole life — celebrating every victory even as steps advance. Then you hug her to yourself and smell her familiar hair.

You find refuge, you talk cheerily about next time and lay a balm over the moment.

Then you drive away and wave backward over your shoulder and try to breathe again.

My mind wanders.

It was only a week ago and I was standing in the pre-dawn driveway waiting for Carol to drive us both to work. Shirt-sleeve weather a day before and now frost. I bowed to suburban expectation and raked first-pass leaves while they were scorching reds and yellows. The stragglers are now frost-curled and brown, and they aren’t going anywhere, at least for now.

The lines to vote at our campuses were long. I saw it. My Gen-Zers stood anyway, slumping into their smartphones for hours. But they stayed and stood in the gap (God bless ‘em) and proved to themselves their own agency. I felt a generational shift. We need to do better for them.

Fall is a series of seasons. September glows warm. October slips and becomes cold with convictions. It feels familiar through distance. One hard freeze and a sleety rain will strip the last brown leaves and it will be November no matter what the calendar says. I am here for the ride again.

Sunday morning was cold – the real cold that creeps up your shirt and over your ribs and makes your fingers ache. Sunday evening was darkness and veggie chili and football with a blanket over my wool socks.

And here I am at 3am again. Wide awake. Trying to make this essay take shape. I fret over the storm of obligations on my near horizon, but a next time is there too. It’s the same every year, a rhythm in my academic and vocational responsibilities. It shouldn’t be this light in the window.

First snow. Again.

If time is a river, its motion is the laminar movement of nested flows, directional and tumbling into eddies and obstacles, as connected as a fluid and as distinct as we choose to believe.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Beautiful and thought provoking Tim. Reminds us of Jim Croce:Time in a Bottle— I want to be like you dad.

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    So many images,thoughts, feelings….I would say more but you have caused my mind to wander this morning…..

  • jim day says:

    So much thoughtful provocation stated and unstated. Thankyou, Tim.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    Fretting at 3:00 am…we should all start a club.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Your essay “took shape” and we readers are grateful. Powerful evocative writing that resonates where I didn’t know there was a lace to resonate! Thank you.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    The essence of poetry does not need the common notion of a poem. Language used as the evocation of being itself: poetry.Thank you, Tim. Shalom

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Thanks for the comments all. Much appreciated. In the interest of accuracy, the sandstone is closer to 600 million years old. Should have caught it. It’s been corrected now, but the some readers may have only seen the original, mistaken number.

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