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Column: A Sense of Where I Am

Strafford

I had gone outside into the last light of a chilly November afternoon on an errand so brief I left my coat inside. You can do that, even in winter because when you leave the glow of a woodstove to go outdoors, the warmth stays with you for a few minutes. There was no wind in the trees, no sound at all but the crunch of my shoes in the fresh snow as I crossed the yard. But then I heard a mysterious sound behind me and turned to see an apple tumbling across the driveway. It had dropped from the tree with a muffled thud and rolled nearly to my feet. Why should this be remarkable in a year with wild apples everywhere in the trees and on the ground? One must fall every minute, like shooting stars in August. But this one surprised me and made me think.

For the most part, my senses aren’t as sharp as they used to be. Soon I’ll need a stronger prescription for reading, and in a noisy and crowded room I can’t always follow a conversation. These are natural losses. Because most of us are born with keener senses than we actually need, we can afford some erosion; but the question that still lingers from that late afternoon is whether or not I would have heard the apple drop when I was young.

Did you ever play a game where you speculate which sense, sight or hearing, you would give up if you were forced to make a choice? It’s an exercise best suited for adolescence when losses can seem romantic and false dilemmas are so engaging. I always imagined eyesight as the one to give up, quite a paradox for one who lived for sports and who loved to read. There were compelling models, of course, like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder or Homer and Milton; but I think it was the loneliness I imagined I’d feel without my hearing that led me to my youthful clarity. Silence felt like outer space.

In the next stage of my life, I better understood the subtle and different ways the senses serve as pathways to the intellect. As a classroom teacher I encountered students who were deaf or blind, and the romance quickly melted away. Watching their heroics, I couldn’t help thinking I would never do so well without sight or hearing.

Now I am in a third stage where that old game has returned to haunt me, and I suppose if I live long enough I could lose them both. I watched my father go blind in his final years, not completely but into a darkness where he could no longer drive or read or even find the peas on his plate. Because he had family to help, it didn’t terrify him; and with his loss he showed patience and dignity. He listened to books on tape, had his mail read to him, and learned how to be a passenger in his own car.

In my thinking now, it seems I’ve returned to my boyhood notion that hearing trumps all other senses. With the foliage now gone from the trees, sound travels in strange ways, and on still days I can hear the freight trains rumbling along the White River, nearly 10 miles away. It’s a timeless sound that makes me think of Thoreau, who believed romantically that the tracks along the end of Walden Pond connected him to the whole world through commerce. To prove his point, he devoted pages to a catalog of goods rolling by his cabin to their destinations.

But this time of year there is so much to see! There are always deer at sunrise under the apple trees, sometimes one, sometimes three, placidly eating; on cold mornings their breath make plumes around them as they lift their heads to chew. I’ve read that their ears are better than their eyes, so they are probably listening for danger when they do this; but to me they look contemplative.

It’s no easy matter, sorting through the senses for the one that means the most. I think it’s best to hang onto them all.

And I know the answer to my question. Forty years ago I would have been too busy to hear an apple drop on a November afternoon. I might have heard the hoot from the distant train, but I would have missed the echo of Thoreau’s words and missed the chance to slip back into his century to see “…some tall pine, hewn on far northern hills, shot like an arrow through the township” rolling by on a freight car. The sight of deer under the apple tree would have sent me scrambling for my camera and film, and the chances are I would have missed something interesting. It’s not that I’m smarter now, just a little less sure of the truths that once seemed so clear.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.