I’ve been thinking about topophilia of late. “One’s mental, emotional, and cognitive ties to a place,” as University of Wisconsin geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who coined the term, defines it. Where I’ve had this feeling, of being tied to and restored by a place, is just outside my door.
This morning I can’t see much of the place because I’m out in the pre-dawn hours, walking. In a walk around the block that’s not a block, a block that’s bigger than a block (a road sign calls the street Wagon Wheel Lane, but it’s more oval than a circle) in a thirty-minute walk consisting of four laps, I cover a mile and a half. It’s just me and the road, thirty dark houses, the sky, and the shadows.
What is it about walking in the not-quite dark? The sky feels closer, and deeper. This morning there’s a bright full moon in the west. On the east side of the earth, Venus outshines the stars. I carry a small flashlight with me, in case a car or jogger or dog walker comes by, to announce my form, but at this hour I’m all by myself. A mile away, on Telegraph Road, a heavily loaded truck slowly accelerates. I hear an owl in a tall pine close to the road. Otherwise, quiet.
I am temporarily and self-consciously alone.
Later today my wife and I will walk together. This time of year we have to walk carefully, because the walnuts are dropping.
We have a short-long walk (five miles) and a long walk (eight miles), in and around and out of the neighborhood. Depending on how we feel or the time of day or the weather, we alternate these two routes. All through June and July, along the short-long route we take note of the walnut trees bearing the best fruit on limbs that are low enough for us to reach. “There’s one,” Tizi says. “Look at those,” I say. And we point up into branches heavy with walnuts, hard green globes, some almost the size of tennis balls.
We tell ourselves we’ll have to remember these spots. Ballantrae Road. Inveray Road. Inkster between Quarton and Lone Pine.
Late July and early August, when the nuts are ready, we come back in the car, stop by the side of the road, and pick 75-100 walnuts for a liqueur our daughter makes. Grain alcohol, split walnuts (including the pungent lime-green jackets), orange peel, cloves, some sugar, and a long infusion period. In six weeks to two months, the mix will turn brown, then black, until it’s time for filtering and bottling. Nocino, the Italians call it. A digestivo.
By the end of September, the rest of the walnuts have softened. They drop from the trees and break open, revealing their ugly black innards. The roads and sidewalks are a smear with these drops. For weeks, where the best trees are, we’ll walk single file, carefully stepping around the inky splotches underfoot.
While we walk with difficulty, we talk. Also with difficulty.
Single file walking was not made for a person hard of hearing. This morning, ten feet ahead of me, Tizi asks me a question.
My answer: “Huh?”
In certain spots along this sidewalk you can hear the thud of falling walnuts. Fat rain. What if I got hit on the head by one?
She repeats the question. I know it’s a question because of the rising intonation at the end of the sentence, but I still didn’t get it.
Since I started thinking about being beaned by a walnut, I’ve been humming to myself, an affliction I enjoy–readily available music in my head. I ask her: “Who sang that song, ‘The raindrops keep falling on my head’?”
She answers, without turning, “Burt Bacharach.” For some reason, I hear and understand this.
“He wrote the song,” I say. “Someone else sang it.”
“It was a guy.” I find out later that it was B.J. Thomas. I have to look it up. I think for a second, then start to sing, to the tune of that song, “Black walnuts keep falling on my head.”
“Watch out. Here’s a bad spot,” she says, pointing at a section of sidewalk shaded over with walnut trees, patches of cement stained black. So bad she slows down a little, closing the distance between us.
And I’m still singing: “But that doesn’t mean my hair will soon be turning black…”
I’m sure she would like to change the station. It’s a sappy song, truly. And she’s got it in for Burt Bacharach, whom she thinks of as one of the kings of sap (Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, she does not cotton to you either.)
It’s warm this morning. She stops, pulls off her jacket and hands it to me. “Hold this,” she says.
I can’t help myself. It’s not heavy, it’s her jacket. I sing this, to the tune of “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” She shakes her head. Whereas I can never have too much music, even music I don’t particularly like, she can. I’m testing her patience.
“Do you have a calorie counter on that thing? That’s what I wanted to know, back there.”
My Fitbit, she means. I can tell her how many steps we’ve walked, and yes, probably how many calories we’ve burned. I’m still learning the device.
Behind me another walnut hits the sidewalk. We carefully resume our steps, and I think: What if I got hit on the head by a walnut and it miraculously restored my hearing? Not just normal hearing. What if it made me a super-auditor? I could hear everything Tizi says, on our walk, in the house. I could hear those two guys working inside that house across Lone Pine road right now, those two women walking in our direction, a quarter mile away. In restaurants, two lovers at a table in the back, whispering to each other.
These things happen–a bump on the head, then miracles–on tv, in the movies, in medical literature. Suddenly this guy knows the square root of any number you give him. Suddenly this woman speaks perfect Portuguese. In medical literature, this phenomenon is called “acquired savant syndrome.” Scientific American calls it “brain gain,” citing the example of a woman who suddenly feels the need to draw triangles, which evolves into accomplished abstract design in the manner of Frieda Khalo and Picasso. A boy hit on the head with a baseball can suddenly compose piano concertos.
Or what if I could suddenly remember everything–the names of all the teachers I ever had, the kids in every class I ever sat in, as a student and as a teacher; all the significant conversations, even the most trivial small talk; the words to every song I ever heard. Right now, on the jukebox that is my brain, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” is playing. It’s a song I’ve heard 500 times, and I know only these words: “I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told…something or other, something or other, then “In his anger and his pain, I am leaving I am leaving,” something or other, something or other, “…lie lie lie…lie lie lie…”
On the home stretch down Van Ness, Tizi says something like ikle blat.
Again, ikle blat.
I have to catch up. We’ll stop under a large maple tree where every morning she smells something she can’t put her finger or her nose on. “Do you smell that?” she’ll say. And I’ll say no, no I don’t. In addition to auditory, do I have olfactory deficit? What would a surfeit of smell be like, being a super smeller? Maybe wonderful. Possibly terrible. Any such surfeit could be a curse.
“Broken glass,” she says now. “I wondered if you saw the broken glass back there.”
All but four of the thirty houses have yard lights on at 5:00 a.m. It’s a neighborly contribution of light, I know, in the interest of safety. But the moon is more than enough. The shadows of the tall cottonwoods make the road look wet, like giant walnut stains, also like islands or continents that I walk across.
Part of the time out there I’m thinking about green beans and when I ought to get a haircut (soon). Then again, I can’t look up at that sky and not feel something, not be awed by the depth of its emptiness and also by a kind of presence. Back home I consult my Emerson for help, Emerson, who referred to “over-soul,” not god, but something mystical that helps man and woman “weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but live with a divine unity.” I seriously doubt that I’ll get there, but I’m opening my defective eyes and ears, all my poor senses on these strolls in the dark, looking up in wonder.