The Off Season: Because we ‘are prone to forget’

Talisman: A fossilized crinoid stem fragment lies amid the sand and gravel of a Parke County creek sandbar; it will serve as a reminder to the writer of his visit. Tribune-Star/Mike Lunsford

In his elegiac and, perhaps, last book, “Horizon,” adventurer, environmentalist and writer Barry Lopez includes a chapter simply called, “Talismans.”  

“Over the years,” he writes, “I’ve carried home a handful of mementos that signify for me, each one taken from a moment or an event that might seem innocuous at the time to someone else looking on. A dozen or so of these sit atop a tall Japanese tansu [storage cabinet] in my home. I’ve arranged them to make intuitive sense together, the way you might arrange scenes in a short story. In this matrix they suggest to me some deeper truth about life, one that always lies just beyond my reach.”

Although I have not traveled the world, nor won a National Book Award, nor written so eloquently, so passionately, about the human condition — and its uncertain future — as Lopez has, I too have collected talismans from journeys and walks and adventures. Those expeditions, tame by comparison, have been no less significant for me.

According to my yellowed dictionary, the word ‘talisman’ was first used in 1638 and means, “an object held to act as a charm to avert evil and bring good fortune.”

But I probably use the word — and I think Lopez does, too — for its secondary definition: “something producing apparently magical or miraculous effects.”

I don’t mean that I keep good luck charms — a rabbit’s foot or four-leafed clover — in my pocket, but rather surround myself, as Lopez does, with objects that I connect to, particularly things that I can touch or look upon to regain a sense of what I felt the day I first saw them or rolled them over in the palm of my hand. Unlike Lopez, I have no real arrangement for these things, no timeline or order to them at all, and I have considerably more than a “handful,” as well.

Some may think I simply own an expanding assortment of useless junk that serves little purpose but to burden my children after I am dust, but most of my talismans are of the natural sort. If garage sales and auctions don’t appeal to my progeny, then they can merely toss the things back on the creek bank or wind-blown woods from which they came.

Whereas Lopez writes of a piece of green schist he picked up in western Australia, or the cardita shells he discovered on a South Pacific island, or the 7.62mm NATO cartridge casing he pocketed in the Falkland Islands, or the 17th- century eight-real silver coin from Mexico, I have kept things that, perhaps, only a wandering boy might find valuable enough to stash in a cigar box of keepsakes. That is, if the term “boy” can also include old men who still love the crunch of a sand bar under their feet.

On my cabin shelves; on a desktop in what was once an old breezeway; in an antique tool box my dad pulled from a trash heap years ago; and, along the top of my great-grandmother’s ancient chestnut pie safe, sits an assortment of shells, hawk feathers, bird nests, and fossils. Most of these things hold memories that now run together, yet others still take me back to exact places and times, like the egg-shaped chunk of granite on my porch rail that transports me to a sunny but cool day I spent poking along a roaring Vermont river. It may have been the Black, or could have been the Hoosic, but I recall being happy in the fresh pine air, glad I had taken the time to park the car for a stretch of the legs.

Some of my talismans constitute collections. I have blue-green Mason jars filled with buckeyes and smooth Lake Michigan stones. I have pressed leaves, and turtle shells, and deer antlers, all found on walks and rambles, most often alone, but sometimes in the good company of a patient wife or nature-loving daughter or question-filled son.

Along a window sill, near my writing desk, I keep a pile of small horn snail shells that takes me to a day I chugged up the Wabash with my brother. There also is an arrow head I found in the sand of my home place a half-century before, and a 1904 Indian head penny we discovered just this summer in the mud as it clung to a rock I brought home from my father-in-law’s farm.

A few weeks ago, I took my oldest grandson for a day of adventures that ended with us walking along the creek in the late afternoon sun. I came home with a pocket of small stones and a bit of driftwood, remembrances of a day we waded together, one on which we saw an eagle, inspected the tracks of bobcats and coyotes, and saw overgrown green dragonflies hitting the water in still places.

Just before we left, we stooped to salvage a bit of glass that had been rock-tumbled to a milky green, and he saw a bone lying among some driftwood and leaves. Like the glass, its edges had been ground smooth and it looked older than it was. Although I told him it probably came from a deer, he was convinced it was prehistoric, a remnant of a once ferocious raptor. He eagerly held it as we bounced our way home in my truck, and it now resides on a shelf in his room.

Before Lopez is done pondering his talismans, he writes: “These mementos of travel sit apart from one another on the tansu. The generous space I’ve left around each is meant to leave each room for its aura. As I pass them by, year after year, going back and forth to a room where I work, each object remains piquant for me, eloquent in its silence. The staggering diversity of life, the stony flesh of the ancient planet, the lethal violence of human behavior, the growing inutility of war in the modern era… I glance at them because I know I am prone to forget.”

My talismans are less organized, less dramatic. But we keep these things for the same reasons.

Contact Mike Lunsford at; his website is Mike will be signing his books at the Local Author’s Event at the Clinton Public Library on October 24 from 6-7:30 pm.

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