Saturday, 29 September 2012

"I dance on this embodied earth" (2006)

Devil's Dyke, with the last of some low-lying cloud

      In 2006, the summer continues. The air is warm without the thunderous punctuation of rainstorms that we’ve had in more recent years. As the days, and eventually, the weeks go by a sky that had felt like lead, was beginning to feel something like air. Nothing was fixed or settled. I had no plans. I didn’t know what I was doing, or indeed what I was going to do. I had jumped over the side of the boat because the water looked inviting, but I had no idea of its depth or what lay beneath its glimmering surface. For now, the water was warm and I could swim. Almost everyday I would head out running, return, grab the dogs and take them out walking. This would earth the static that could build up over a matter of hours. On every run, my sillage was pollinated with these electrically charged particles that only a run could shake off.
     It is a couple of weeks later and I am becoming increasingly anxious about my new job due to begin in a few days. I have new courses to write, with new lectures, new students, new friends to make, and I couldn’t feel less ready than I do today.
     The air has turned. There are one or two bronze leaves in the street when I step out the door, but I don’t start running. I am going to drive up to the Downs. I want to do eight miles along the peaks into West Sussex.
    I am running something like twenty miles a week. This is the base from which I can start to think about marathon training. I could hold at this mileage for the next few months, up my training in January and do a marathon in the spring. What for, I don’t know - I just want to. It is five years since I have dared to think this. Practically the moment I applied in 2001 I was taken down by illiotibial band syndrome, more commonly known as runner's knee.
    On the drive, I worry if I have underdressed for the run; the air is always cooler on the peaks.
    The car wheels scrape at the chalk and flint of the car park as it skids to a halt. I don't have to park tidily, it feels like the world is locked in offices and classrooms. I wonder at how the earth can be so obtrusive in its presence, yet so few seemed to want to notice it. But then, neither am I sure that I am noticing much, so consumed am I by my internal ecology.

A knot of wild clematis stems.

   The colours in the trees seem a shade darker than a week ago. The leaves are showing the first signs of rust. The view, a little greyer. Summer, it seems, has departed for another continent, one ready, no doubt, to welcome it.
     The seasons trouble our idea of time's linearity. We take sharpened chisels to time: we chop and chip it for our own convenience. We find in it, days, months, weeks, years, all neatly manageable.
      At the beginning of the twentieth century, the geologist Eduard Suess was struggling to make sense of the model of deep-time that had emerged around the Victorian period. In a massive four-volume study The Face of the Earth, he argued that our problem in trying to understand the earth’s past was that we tried to conceive of it in human terms. It is a beautiful notion.

"The year is a measure of time furnished by the planetary system; but when we speak of a thousand years, we introduce the decimal system, and this is based on the structure of our extremities. We often measure mountains in feet, and we distinguish long and short periods of time according to the average length of human life, that is, according to the frailty of our bodies; [… W]e are prone to forget that the planet may be measured by man, but not according to man."

      Our inability to conceptualize what we currently think to be about 4.6 billion years derives from our frailly-human temporal and spatial perspective. The poets of the nineteenth century, though, had already got there. Though published later, Hardy's 'Proud Songsters' is a poignant reminder of the substance of life, of living being a temporary loan of fluid- and borrowed-matter, always in motion, stopping here before moving on to there. Always exercising itself between the senses.
      The poem expresses the same kinds of super-interconnectivity where the speaker of the poem fleetingly reflects on the web of the natural world. One April dusk, the poet listens to a round of birdsong and reflects on the workings of the world and of time,

"These are brand-new birds of twelve-months’ growing,
       Which a year ago, or less than twain,
       No finches were, nor nightingales,
   Nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
   And earth, and air, and rain."

The South Downs, looking north west.
   The earth, air, grain and rain in only a year or two becomes the 'proud' birdsong. Nothing conveys ephemerality for Hardy quite like birdsong (it was an image that he repeatedly returned to in his poems on time). For Hardy it is matter that is constant, not God, and certainly not us. But the wonder of life for Hardy is its uncanny ability to turn matter to energy, what was once soil and earth is now a fleeting song. Like the nightingale, the poet departs, leaving us on a floating moment: that what was finch, nightingale and thrush will in 'twelve months' be 'particles of grain, and earth, and air, and rain.' All is separate, but connected; different, but the same. Life is not finely individuated into species, plants, minerals, and elements, but all is part of a larger and contiguous structure. And, like Matthew Arnold’s waves that make the ‘grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, […] Begin, and cease, and then again begin’ for ever more, in ‘Dover Beach’, the cyclical process in Hardy’s poem continues far beyond the boundaries of our anthropocentric imagination.
     The flight of time's arrow is unthinkably long. And there is no archer's bow, nor a target on which for it land. Neither it seems does it travel at an uninterrupted speed.
      The seasons introduce to us a kind of punctuated equilibrium. They remind us that time travels in phases, for months it is summer and then, overnight, autumn begins apace. I feel like I have had my summer of equilibrium, and this is its punctuation. Leaves must die and fall from the tree. There will be winter. Then the hope of new growth will begin.
       In the distance, to the west, is a thicket of telephone and TV masts that I am going to negotiate my way to, up, down, and along the winding chalk paths that look like exposed bone.
      A troubled knat, for miles I dance on the skin of this embodied earth. I would get down onto my knees and suck on its lifeblood if I knew how to break my way through its leathery skin.
       I can see for hundreds of square miles around. How can so much of this world be present, here, and yet it is so quiet? But there are depths of incompleteness to this withering silence.
      I can hear the wind whispering by my ears. A little more brittle, the leaves rustle with a drier sibilant edge they lacked only a few days ago. The air is part of a landscape in ways that we cannot always see, but it strums upon our perceptions of what is around us, thrumming chords that chime across our senses, deep into our hearts and memories.
      I can hear, too, the patter of the rabbits as they dart to their burrows. I always used to think they ran from my dog, Ben. He is always present up here. With the chill in the air I am reminded, too, of the misty December morning a couple of years ago when we sat down, here, the two of us in the long moist grass. Pulling gently at his ears, stroking him across an eye, scratching his ruff as we looked at the view together for one last time. Only five years old, I drove him from here to the vet who discovered, as suspected, many of his organs fused together by a massive lymphoma.
      A run seems to draw these memories up, but it also gives them air so that they can return once again to the deep waters.

The South Downs, facing north east.
    I pass the communication masts and the huts that I have never discovered the function of. I start my journey back to the dyke, wading through all of the past and the present with not a thought for the future. As I curl and climb the chalk path, the hills' sheep stare at this intruder like they cannot decide if I am predator or idiot - I cannot give them an answer.
      Climb. Fall. Climb. Fall.
      Then a long slow climb back to the peak.
       I begin to feel a stiffness across my knee. Wearily, I recognise it; but perhaps I'm mistaken and it is just tiredness. But it is on the lateral side of my left knee - the slightly longer leg that bows as my heel slams into the ground. I slow. I alter my gait to give my body a rest, but the stiffness increases. If I can make it to the top of the... but the stiffness closes around my joint like the handle is spinning on a vice, restricting its movement so much that I am practically limping to keep running. I stop and walk for a few steps; relief. Again, I make for the brow of the hill but the handle has spun to a stop; the vice has closed. The knee will not move anymore.
Every stage of this process I know well. I have been here before, maybe ten or fifteen times. This is the end. I cannot run for weeks. My fear and fury will keep me from it for months. The knowledge that this is how it always ends may keep me from it for years.
       All this time, it is like I have been trying to outrun a tidal swell, but the wave breaks, engulfing me, and my body says, 'No, that is enough. No more.'

Devil's Dyke at sunset 

Friday, 7 September 2012

Sillages - (a podograph from 2006)

Sillage - noun (from the French)  (a) A surge raised in the sea or other piece of water by the passage of a vessel. (b) The air current caused by the passage of an aircraft. (c) The sound of the surge of water. (d) in perfumery - a veil of scent that a person leaves behind when walking.

No traveller has rest more blest
Than this moment brief between
Two lives, when the Night's first lights
And shades hide what has never been,
Things goodlier, lovelier, dearer, than will be or have been.
(Edward Thomas - The Bridge)

THE DOOR SLAMS behind me with the tremulous percussive accompaniment of letterbox flaps, door knockers and dogs' paws.  The ‘naughty girls’ (my friend’s dogs) are furious that for the first time in months I am leaving the house without them.  The seagulls caw in complaint because I have disrupted their street party.  They have been jabbing and tearing at the bin bags that were left out overnight.
I kid myself that there is something coercive in the air today, something drawing me out of my temporary home.  There isn't.  I am running away from last night, from the phone calls, the shouts, from the indecision.  Running, too, from a Rilke sonnet that I read the day that I left and came to stay, here, in my friend’s house - to walk her dogs while she lies comatose from chemotherapy.

[…] Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for there’s no part of it
that does not see you. You must change your life.

(Rilke - ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’)

Since I read that poem there has been nothing but chaos, anger and mess.  The spewing rubbish bags with their stinking bones and carcasses and yoghurt cups mask the stench of today's sillage, the pollinated, charged, and multicoloured emotional scent trail that every runner leaves in their wake. To say it, is like a kiss.  You pronounce it 'see-arge', but not with the hard English 'g' like in 'large' or 'age', but with a slow French 'g', like the soft 's' in the middle of 'pleasure'.  
All runners have sillages, complex trails of emotional scent that are shaken off and left behind on their runs, and everyone’s is unique. But they are not like fingerprints.  While every runners' sillage may be different, unlike the microscopic curls, peaks and valleys on their fingertips, their sillages do change.  Slightly from day to day, but over decades they change their identity altogether.  Just as everything changes: what we are running away from, or what we are trying to leave behind, like a dog as it violently swirls and curls the water from its waxen fur.

The Downs aren't really accessible from here, not on foot, so I am heading for wide open parkland, and it's miles away.  Miles of ugly miles away.  The road is straight and very long.  For half an hour I have to crawl by four lanes of growling traffic.  This is life in greyscale.  The buildings all look like they have been drawn in pencil and sap the colour from the few trees that surround them. The cars are all gunmetal, lead, or dried blood.  My back arches as I run like I am flinching under the weight of all this.  The noise forces into retreat anything that may want to float up to the surface to be let go of and released into the air.
I reach the beginning of the park and can turn off from the pulmonary rush of the main road.  
If Brighton had a Royal Park this would be it.  There is a tiny village at the other end of it called Stanmer.  It has an old manor house and a church, bits of which date back to the fourteenth century.  The park is the last remaining soft green cushion between Brighton’s borders on one side and the ever-growing universities on the other, one of which is just over the brow of the hill.  Humphry Repton scalped and shaped this land in the early nineteenth century, succouring the Romantic sensibilities of the Earl of Chichester and his friends.  Now, the long and deep vale filters out the noise and architecture of other centuries and presents only itself to the visitor.
Why do I come here?  Why do I want this?  It’s like a kitsch version of the past; one fabricated and artificially protected by laws and fences.  A theme park done with dignity.  Welcome to Freedom Incarcerated.
Leonardo Da Vinci had a deeply engrained fear of imprisonment.  Some of his earlier designed machines from the 1480s were for ripping bars from windows, another could effect escape from within a cell. But in one of his notebooks he suggests a guiding desire behind such designs: freedom, he wrote, is 'the chiefest gift of Nature'; not beauty, a landscape, nor the scent of a rose, but 'freedom'.  From what?  
I would guess feeling enclosed, trapped, ‘time-torn’ (as Hardy put it in one of his poems), demanded of, desired and desiring.
The exercising of different kinds of freedom has been its own reward for many.
Walking was for the poet and philosopher of nature, Edward Thomas, a means of escape from crippling depression.  It all-but ruined his relatively short life (born 1878, he enlisted in 1915, and was killed in action two years later at the Battle of Arras).  He had a terrible temper and his illness did not hide itself from those around him.  His widow, Helen Thomas, remarked that ‘his greatest pleasure, and certainly his greatest need, was to walk and be alone.’ 
Modern life is like a centrifuge that spins us away from the earth.  Time passes, it gathers momentum, and we are left to struggle ever harder against a force that we cannot see.  
This kitschy place, with its perimeter fences that keep out the modern world is the promise and the reminder that things might be different.  It may be cordoned off from the world, but life bursts into the frame from every angle.  Ancient oak trees reach to the skies, there are orchids, fungi, grasses, cows and sheep, foxes, cabbage whites, adders, kestrels, badgers, deer, ducks, red admirals, wild clematis, bees, robins, wrens, sparrows, and bright red poppies like the landscape is wearing a clown suit. Life goes on, today, tomorrow and the next. 
The inorganic is not at home here; cars look strange and out of place, but we don’t. I don’t.  I share more in common with this wildworld and wildlife than I do with my overdraft or my Facebook status. 
When I run in it, I don’t feel that I am taking possession of this landscape, but I do become a part of it in ways that I can’t yet work out.
I am half way through the run; my diaphragm has loosened so much that it feels like my lungs fill all the way down to my hips.  My breathing is tantricly slow.  I feel like I could do this for the rest of the day - like I could stay out here until sunset, and may never have to go home.  I turn towards the hill and the tall meadow whose flowing waves, winnowing in the breeze, look like the sea.
Slowly, I climb towards the brow.  I flatten my hands to caress the tips of the long indigo grass as I glide by.  Between my fingers, the fronds are neatly combed, collected, and are gone.  Gently, like I am feeling the pelt of some sleeping animal that I fear to wake. Like someone has billowed a sheet of silk, the grasses shiver.  It seems to come from beneath the surface.