After a week of fluctuating symptoms of flu, yesterday I was reminded of the healing power of a bike ride. The weight came off my shoulders as I cycled through the southerly reaches of Greater London, through back streets of spring sunshine, between grid-lines of daffodils, dodging traffic on green lanes and perking up parks. Has it been so long since that summer we shared?
The feeling was of a reflective moment during the playing of an old song: a moment of calm and clarity. It made me pick up the phone this lunchtime and call an old friend, stitching something together where it might have severed. That’s what a bike ride can do: that’s what being in-the-world can do – for me, at least.
It also ties the first loop in a chain of habit; today I walk out of my (borrowed) front door and into a wood.
I write this surrounded by a contradiction. At my feet are brown leaves and scraps of plastic wrapping, empty nuts dug up from autumn and yellow paper. The field is not a field; it’s an island between main roads swallowed in traffic. Everyone is going somewhere and I am going nowhere.
The only things taller than the trees are the electricity pylons strung out into the deeper countryside. A man pushes a trolley up hill; another coasts his bike down. The trees are bare, still stalks in the ground, still waiting for spring. The birds are alive, calling, chattering. A Thameslink train moans past.
On the horizon, a tower block, a signal light, a church spire. The sun is hot, the air is cool. The clouds tussle over patches of blue sky. A police van and a red mini. A woman waiting for her dog to find her: I’m here, I’m here, baby. The wind is from the south-west and carries the scent of muck. The houses at the foot of the hill all have conservatories that need their glass cleaning; one is halfway through a loft conversion.
I could put my hand down and pick up a dried piece of wood, take it home and put it on a shelf, keep it there as a reminder that we’re living a contradiction, of how it feels to be human in an inhuman world. Torn between wilderness and civilisation. Feeling as if we are surely the only ones to have ever felt like this, wondering why everyone else is carrying on with their bus journey or their loft conversion, or pushing their trolleys up hill when they could be coasting down.
Two mopeds head south. A builder thumps a piece of wood. A bird makes for the clouds. The pylons carry the hopes of a nation. Two trees beside me hold on for spring; another lies beneath me, as alive as it is dead, rotting into the ground that supports my feet and a tournament of beetles.
I don’t take that piece of wood. I leave this quiet noisy place and descend into the suburbs, knowing that at any moment I could choose to return, knowing that most moments I won’t. It will still be here, while I’m at my computer, or wondering why so-and-so hasn’t called, or microwaving salmon for lunch. This will all still be here. It won’t come up as a notification, but it will call me back. No less urgent than an email alert, but somehow less pressing.