"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 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Adam says:

    I love walking on the South Downs – so beautiful. You're inspiring me to return!


  2. Do! Do! It is the most miraculous place. It is never far from my mind.


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