Steven Simpson’s Blog

Please check every Monday for my most recent blog posting.  Most entries will be about nature or other environmental topics, but occasionally I will write about writing, family, travel, or the Driftless Region.

Four Weeks Down, Twenty-One To Go

A chronicle of the obstacles unique to a bi-cultural interracial marriage would be a book, not a blog, but since I am in the early stages of one specific challenge, I thought I would write about it. When one spouse is from the United States and the other is from Taiwan, time away from each other is just a part of the deal. Currently Manyu is in her fourth week of an extended visit to Asia. When she visits family members who are spread across Taiwan, mainland China, and Thailand, her trip is never just for a long weekend. Usually she is gone for seven or eight weeks. This time it will be for six months. The lengthy stay is because she needs to be in Taiwan now for a family matter and wants to be there in February for Chinese New Year. Ordinarily these two commitments would involve two separate trips, with a return to the United States tucked in the middle, but because traveling during the pandemic is so difficult, her trip turned into one long visit instead of two shorter ones.

My state of mind during her travels tends to pass through three stages. The first two weeks are a great joy at having time to myself. The last two weeks are an hour-by-hour longing for her to return. The time in between is a neutral numbness where I’d rather we were together, but I get along fine. The problem this time is that Manyu’s absence is nearly twice as long as any previous separation. For all I know, there may be a stage I’ve never experienced before. 

If the world was a normal place right now, I’d join Manyu in Taiwan for part of her visit. Currently, however, foreigners without essential business are not allowed into the country. Even Taiwanese nationals returning home from abroad have to spend two weeks in isolation followed by a third week away from restaurants, hospitals, and other public places. These protocols may seem extreme, but Taiwan has almost no COVID. 

Manyu’s time away has been made easier for me because Clare is home. All of Grinnell College’s classes are online, so she is back in the house. This puts the Simpson diaspora completely out of whack. My wife and I should be together, but we are apart. My twenty-one year old daughter should be anywhere except with either her mom or dad, but here she is studying in a room down the hall.

Still I should not complain. Life for me during the COVID crisis has been easy. No one dear to me has been sick. My pension and Social Security checks continue to show up every month. My daily routine (e.g., writing, walking my dog, riding my bicycle, fishing) is largely unaffected by social distancing. I have been extremely lucky in terms of the pandemic. The worst impact is having my wife on other side of the world.

Thoughts About the Prairie

It has been two weeks since my trip to the Fort Pierre National Grassland. The unique landscape left me with conflicting sensations. On one hand, the shortgrass prairie is enchanting. On the restored prairies near home, the big bluestem sometimes is over my head, so I cannot see more than a few feet in front of me. Even when I can see for a distance on these postage stamp-sized plots, there is always forest or ag land only a few hundred yards away. On the wild prairies of central South Dakota, the vegetation is waist high at best, and the vistas from any ridge top is grasslands for as far as I could see.

 On the other hand, the mystique of the endless prairie has an uncomfortable starkness to it. I am not sure how long I’d be happy in a place without forests or shorelines or, to my surprise, people. I usually avoid other people when I go to nature, but I want it to be my choice. The shortgrass prairie does not offer solitude so much as mandate it. When my traveling companions were off hunting and I was left by myself, I was at peace. Still, when I looked for miles in all directions and saw fence lines as the only evidence of a human presence, I had an inkling the isolation might be too much over an extended period of time. Even as I enjoyed my time alone, I was glad my stay was short-term. Maybe I could say the same of most backcountry trips, but I felt it more strongly on the endless prairie. Only fifteen miles from Interstate 90, I was more alone on the prairie than times I’ve been dropped in the middle of nowhere by floatplane. On the floatplane trips, I was embraced by the northwoods. In South Dakota, the grasslands were indifferent to my presence. I found myself wondering what the first white settlers must have thought when they realized the Dakota Territories was their new home. I also wondered whether today’s South Dakota ranchers feel claustrophobic when surrounded by trees. 

As I tromped across the rolling South Dakota hills, I often watched out for prairie rattlesnakes. This would seem a reasonable precaution, except for the fact that I live in a place with timber rattlers and massasauga – and I’ve never given either one of those venomous reptiles a second thought. What was the difference? All I can think of is that we fear the unfamiliar. My daughter Clare was studying abroad in New Zealand before the pandemic forced her home. She said her New Zealand friends were shocked to learn she hiked in areas with ticks carrying Lyme disease. In their minds, she might as well been describing a hotspot for malaria or dengue fever. (Coincidentally I have not heard a single mention of Lyme disease since the COVID pandemic.)