News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 16, 2009

The Off Season: A night spent exploring the universe

By Mike Lunsford

Despite being reared in an age of great scientific and technological discovery, I have always believed that walking into a breeze or looking up at the stars trumps the laboratory explanations for their being. That idea was reinforced in me again a few nights ago.

I am a walker, not at the mall or on the local high school track, but along our country road; I have written of that place often in this space. My wife, when she is not pedaling her bicycle along that same sliver of blacktop, most often joins me.

We do not dodder; we really pick them up and put them down as we race the sun.

But on an evening last week when she was typically working late at cleaning up the messes her elementary school library visitors had left for her, I struck out from our back step to walk into what was left of a gorgeous day, most of which we had spent behind the wheel of our car.

I knew the walk would help me work the kinks out of my back, but I felt that, even more, I needed to work a few out of my head, too. Most of us live in a noisy world; I fear we, as a species, have begun to fear hearing too little rather than too much. A typical downtown street corner usually blasts it pedestrians with 70 decibels or more of roar. Ratchet that up a few notches higher when adding trains and obnoxious car stereos.

We may be beginning to fear quietude, and, unfortunately, many people now link it to inactivity and idleness and boredom. I am concerned that fewer and fewer of us want to listen to the wind and to the skitter of corn leaves or to the chorus of fall’s last bugs. Just yesterday, it was the annoying drone of motorbikes and four-wheelers that I heard over the gentler sounds of our countryside.

Anyway, on that night, I laced my shoes, grabbed our Black Cat nightlight and an apple to help my stomach get through to suppertime, and took off with schedules and appointments and obligations on my mind. But within a quarter of a mile, I caught a scent of smoke in the air. It wasn’t from someone’s smoldering leaf pile or trash barrel or fencerow clearing; it was coal smoke, and the trace of it in the breeze soon had me sniffing the air near my grandparents’ house 40 years ago. They heated with coal, and it wasn’t odd at all to hear a huge truck loaded with the stuff ramble up their drive to dump its glistening black cargo into a basement doorway that led into a dark and lifeless room under their house.

Shoveling coal into their furnace is a great memory for me, as was the welcoming heat of their house after a walk up the drive to their place in January, but it was the scent that the coal gave off as its smoke wafted into the breeze through their cinderblock chimney that I recall the most.

Then, for the first time that night, I noticed how soft the evening breeze was as it touched my face. It was a kind wind, air that was so much more pleasant than the bitter slap that will greet us on our walks a month from now. It made me glad that I had forgotten my old khaki-colored ball cap as it sifted through my hair and moved the creaking stalks of uncut corn and skipped turkey oak leaves along the pavement with a scratch.

After I’d made my turn to head homeward and away from a sunset that had been painted in a color I have decided to call “Dreamsicle Orange,” I walked into a place where the woods reach out to border the road, a spot where I actually had to turn on my light to see, as well as to be seen by oncoming cars. The cool of that dip in the road had me zipping my sweatshirt up to my neck, and I walked with an odd, hunchbacked gate since my hands, including the one that held the flashlight, minus a finger or two, were stuffed into the pockets of my blue jeans.

As I hustled along, straining to listen for cars, I heard something — apparently startled by my scuffling shoes — crash through the woods, luckily away from where I was. It was probably a deer — they are on the move in herds right now — but it just as easily could have been a coyote. Whatever it was, I was happy to emerge into the pale light at the top of the rise. The incident had not startled me enough to find the need to whistle the rest of the way home, but it did make me realize that I was out of my element now that the sun was down. My eyes simply do not work as well as those that were undoubtedly trained on me from the shorn soybean fields and tree limbs I walked past.

I had saved my apple for the return trip, and so I pulled it out of a jacket pocket. I had bought a big bag of them — Fuijis, I think — from an orchard down the road from us, a place that I thoroughly enjoy visiting for its wonderful scent alone. It is a mixture of fruit and cider and earth. I crunched my way through a good half-mile or so before I tossed the stripped core into a ditch, and I realized that, because of its taste, I had apparently not tried very hard to keep the juice from dripping down my chin.

I have heard that as we age our senses grow dull, that the years rob us of sounds and flavors and fine print and the scents of our kitchens. I have had to explain for years that my own poor hearing was the direct result of a fever-filled weeklong illness before I ever went to school, and that well before I reached the age I am now, I began to grow accustomed to losing both music and conversation to a monotonous hum that is always with me.

The great astronomer Edwin Hubble once wrote, “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him, and that adventure is called Science.”

I didn’t feel like a scientist on my walk into the breeze the other night. With my four-and-a half senses at work, I did feel like an explorer, though.

You can e-mail Mike at hickory913@aol.com and can write to him c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. He will be reading from and signing his second book, “Sidelines: the Best of the Basketball Stories…,” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Rockville Public Library. Visit Mike’s Web page at www.mikelunsford.com.