Monthly Archives: July 2020

Trailing Ice and Glory

By now you have to know about Neowise, the comet that came into view just about the time the pandemic hit hard in the US, March 27. It’s now, for a short time, the darling of astronomers and star gazers. I count myself among those who get joy by looking heavenward. Are you part of our tribe?

The past couple weekends, Myron and I have driven 90 miles south of Chicago to corn and soybean fields, parked on the edge of a farmer’s healthy crop, and set up our chairs. I’ve unfurled my tripod and pointed my camera to that blank spot right below the bowl of the Ursa Major, the great bear—better known as the Big Dipper.

neowise DJ Lee
Neowise from a soybean field south of Chicago

The first weekend, clouds were moving across the southern Illinois sky, and I was able to snap only a glimpse of the comet before the cirrus formations swallowed it up. Couldn’t complain, though. The clouds have been so spectular in the COVID skies, I know people around the world are astounded at what our atmosphere looks like without contrails, without heavy pollution. As National Geographic put in in April:

“AS THE NOVEL coronavirus tears around the world, it’s exploiting our biggest weaknesses, from creaking health care systems to extreme social inequality. Its relationship with one pervasive and neglected problem, however, is more tangled: Air pollution has intensified the pandemic, but the pandemic has—temporarily—cleaned the skies.”

Some people in China and India and indeed the entire globe  are seeing things they’ve never seen before:

“From China’s Hubei province to industrial northern Italy and beyond, pollution levels have plummeted as lockdowns aimed at slowing the viral spread have shuttered businesses and trapped billions of people at home. In India, where air pollution is among the world’s worst, ‘people are reporting seeing the Himalayas for the first time from where they live,’ Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said in an email.”

Image credit: Gerald Rhemann

I don’t know about you, but I can’t get enough of those cloudy gems delivered everyday without fail. The night in the soybean field, though Neowise made just a brief appearance, I was just as happy to gaze at those clouds.

The following weekend, we went for round two, same field, same time of night. I knew a little bit more about Neowise by then: she was here for only a few weeks, visiting from her orbit around the sun, and she wouldn’t return for 6,800 more year. As she snuggled close to the sun, her body warmed, pulling things like gasses and rocks and dust and ice–yes, ice–from her body. Those materials created a long, sparkly tail, and a secondary tail made of pure, ionized gas and solar wind. That ionized tale is pure magic.

But what wouldn’t leave me after we came home and crawled into bed is the idea of Neowise shedding ice. I kept thinking about the other formations, the ones that move to geologic time instead of cosmic time, shedding ice on the earth. I kept thinking of the beauty of Lilliehookbreen, off the west coast of Svalbard, that I visited in 2017. A fjord. A glacier. Also shedding ice.

Lilliehookbreen on the west coast of Svalbard

Turning Back and Turning Ahead

Now that I’m in Chicago and not in Moscow, Idaho, where I spent the last four months during various lockdowns, I’m remembering how I felt a few years ago in October when my friend said it would be the last time we could ride the Chipman Trail, an eight-mile bike path between Pullman and Moscow. I was riding the path daily as a way to destress, and Thursday afternoons I felt light, free, sailing down the bike path after a week of teaching and lecture writing and meetings and sleep deprivation. The ride kept me sane. “It will be too dark,” he said and reminded me of that we would be turning back our clocks.

DJ Lee Bill Chipman Trail Moscow Idaho
Bill Chipman Trail, Moscow, Idaho. Cedit: All Trails

Now, after turning our clocks forward, I wonder about the words “turning back.” I wonder about this time, during the pandemic, and how all of us will turn back to this time and see how it has influenced us, changed us. How all of us, even now, are turning ahead to an uncertain future.

I recall the gloomy day every autumn when I turn back time, the day I am robbed of one bright evening hour and am supposed to call it “savings time.” Time is not money. You can’t save time, waste time, or spend time, even though the metaphors used to describe the two suggest it. Time don’t heal; it don’t change circumstances. Time itself don’t exist except in the now.

I also recall that the thought of daylight savings time closing in caused me to call another friend and say, “I want to ride that rail bed before they turn back the time.” I would have gone alone but I was afraid in this isolated place known as “channeled scabland.”

The rail bed is officially called the Columbia Chateau Trail. Constructed in the early 1900s by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway Company for a steam train connecting the three cities, and then used by the Burlington Northern Company, the railway was simply abandoned in 1987. Washington State Parks took over then, turning it into a bike path that retains the spooky, edge-of-the-world loneliness characteristic of old train lines.

We met on the Sunday at mile post 355 near my cabin, and, bundled in fleece, rain gear, and backpacks with food and water, started down the dark gravel rail bed that cat-scratches one-hundred and thirty miles of Ice Age floods along the north bank of the Snake River then curls into the northwest corner of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, wrens, wood pewees, western bluebirds, yellow warblers, pygmy nuthatches, red crossbills and chipping sparrows.

We peddled in silence for hours along basalt rocks, quaking aspen, hidden lakes, harvested wheat fields, and ponds screaming with migratory birds, until felt like there was no turning back.

But then, when the sky began to darken and heavy-winged owl flew suddenly from the brush, we did.

Organizing a Difficult Draft

“Is anyone else having trouble focusing?” I’ve talked with a few people these past weeks and months who’ve had difficulty with their writing. “I sat in front of my computer for three hours and only wrote one sentence,” someone noted on an online writing forum I follow. “Same,” another chimed in.

I’ve been stymied by an article on wilderness and literature that I signed a contract to write over a year ago with a deadline of May 30, 2020. But anything, everything, seems more important than writing. A fly landing on the curtain rod. The hum of the air conditioner. The dishes stacked in the sink. That old trunk I’ve been meaning to clean out for the last ten years. The easy chair on my front porch. Maybe I’ll sit there and read for a while. I plop down and my eyes close instantly.

DJ Lee writing space outdoors

My front porch writing space in Oak Park, IL

As the days pass, the article recedes into the nowhere of pandemic worry. I swallow my shame and loathing and write repeated messages to the editors—people I admire—requesting extensions. More than once I’ve struggled with dark moods that left me disoriented and paralyzed. When that happened before, I broke my work down into small segments, baby steps.

Which is how I’m finally able to get through this task. My process:


I first did a long free write without looking at notes or books. It helped me take stock of what I know and don’t know, helped me find a voice. Then I mapped it out.


Everything in one folder, previous writing and notes along with articles I’ve annotated.


I approach outlining like it’s a piece of art. I don’t outline everything I write, but when I do, I use OmniOutliner, which lets me move things around easily. With this piece of the outline, I didn’t care too much about the hierarchy. I was mostly interested in grouping ideas and quotations.


In between many naps and online shopping for things I don’t need like moss from Etsy and coyote urine to keep the squirrels away from my plants. This kind of radical editing takes a week or more. I also cleaned up the footnotes.


I read aloud several times to make sure the rhythms are just right. I also find a lot of repetition I can excise.

When I’m finished, what I realize is this: I love the discoveries, both intellectual and personal, I’ve made in the struggling and the writing.

What small, incremental steps are you taking to keep moving forward in your writing and work?

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