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.