MAXWELL:  Country ears awaken you to nature

6/14/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

The year was 1985, and I was living in the woods nearly 25 miles from Gainesville. I was lying in bed a few minutes past midnight. With no street lamps within a mile or more, the night was pitch black, and the only light in my bedroom was the blue glow of my clock radio.

Gazing out the window at distant stars, I slowly became aware, for the first time, of faraway sounds. I could hear them distinctly _ a Ford pickup headed southwest on Archer Road, a horse whinnying in a stable, a television tuned to CNN, a couple fighting about how much the husband had spent on a new riding mower. And, incredibly, I could hear a train rumbling along the tracks near Chiefland, 15 miles away.

I wondered if I were imagining these things. In my journalism class the next morning at the University of Florida, I told a classmate, a good old boy, about the experience. Expecting him to laugh, I was surprised and pleased when he explained my condition.

He told me that I had “put on country ears.” It is a condition that true country dwellers and seekers of solitude inherit. The longer the person lives in the country, the more attuned he becomes to the colors and odors and sounds of nature. The person knows that he has put on country ears when he becomes aware of the environment’s natural state of silence, the moments when he and nature are one.

During those moments (and they grow longer and more profound over time), a small miracle occurs: Consciously, the person learns to empty his head of all internal noise. He can lie in the darkness, alone, and hear nothing from within. For some people _ especially those who have known only the external distractions of the city _ these can be frightening moments, long spaces of time when consciousness itself seems to slip into a black hole, when the person truly is alone.

“The value of solitude,” writes poet May Sarton, “is . . . that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within . . .”

Country ears make the person truly alone, at least temporarily.

A few nights ago, I spoke by telephone with Greta Taylor Boyd, a friend in Chase City, Va., who explained that 10 years ago, when she lived with her husband in the woods about 5 miles from town, she remembered the moment that she put on country ears. She was lying in bed and heard a truck more than a mile away as it turned left off the highway. How did she know the direction of the truck? How did she know it was a truck?

“I just knew,” she said. “I could hear as plain as day.”

At first, as I had done, she distrusted what she was experiencing. But after speaking with friends and relatives, she grew confident in her new awareness. Soon, she began to hear many other things in the distance _ trains, cars, animals, people talking as they walked along remote roads.

As Greta said, and I agree, country ears are not a nighttime phenomenon only. Indeed, I would sit on my porch at noon and, blocking out the screaming cicadas, listen to the good old boys in the parking lot of a convenience store near the Bronson Speedway more than a mile away. There, they swilled beer and lied about their sexual conquests, their dove and deer hunting and their fishing. I knew which trucks were there, when they left the lot and in which direction they drove. Their secrets were carried on the circuitry of the wind.

Needless to say, I often heard things I had no business hearing. Take, for example, the teenage couple who routinely made love five streets away in the boy’s Chevy pickup. I recall the night when the girl’s father caught them. He slapped the girl several times, punched the boy into a bloody mess and threatened to shoot him “dead” if he touched his daughter again. When a sheriff’s deputy asked if I had heard anything, I said that I had not. I did not hear their lovemaking again after that night.

A married couple near State Road 24, about eight roads away, fought every Friday night after cashing their paychecks and drinking too many Old Milwaukees and tequila shots. Their name-calling was some of the most profane I have heard outside the Marine Corps.

During the seven years that I heard them, however, I was certain they loved each other. They were all passion, booze and mouth, never hitting each other.

For the serious writer living away from the city, country ears are a godsend. They are reliable companions, compass points in the collision of personal experiences and society’s information overload. Here in the city, where country ears are hard to develop, internal noise is a familiar companion for the writer and everyone else.