Most of the Worcestershire land which I cycle through has barriers as much as space. What feels like countryside when coming from the town is often the managed land of farmers’ fields, donning the various colours and textures of different crops in different seasons. My main road route along Droitwich’s Crutch Lane is mostly hemmed by fences or hedges of varying threads and thicknesses throughout the year.
The same is true of the tow path that I cycle from Droitwich to nearby Hawford Lock. The canal and the countryside around it have managed borders. And yet these managed borders are reinforced or broken by nature, functioning best perhaps when man and nature act together or around each other’s characteristics. The same is true of the poet working with language and words aware of their strengths, and their potential weaknesses, using choices such as form, letter sounds and line breaks to reinforce a poem’s boundaries where needed or deliberately spill over if necessary.
Even though I know my tow path route over years of cycling, like a poem, every corner (or line break) will often reveal something startling and unexpected. Butterflies and beetles that pause briefly on flowers and leaves, as well as small creatures that run across the tow path faster than my eye can register well enough to identify them but which still leave me with a sense of discovery and awe.
As a child, I grew up with dogs, and my grandparents had a farm with horses, geese, sheep and cattle. But I was mostly oblivious to other animals. Age 42, I see my first live badger in the wild, while I’m out cycling just before dusk. It crosses the road in front of me, disappearing into the ditch between tarmac and fields. This encounter evokes the closing lines of Angela France’s ‘Brock says’:
to aquern and wort-cropper
beingless to me’
Another early autumn evening, my cycle ride is cut short by a diabetic hypo – an unexpectedly low level of sugar in my blood that means I can’t carry on until I’ve had glucose. I stop at the end of a farm track at the road-edge. The light is dying, and I know I’m unlikely to finish my full 25-mile route now. I swallow some glucose tablets and lie my bike down. Then I sit cross-legged on my coat, close my eyes and start to meditate.
The sun comes out – I feel its warmth of my face. Birds are singing. I can still hear the hum of the M5 – never completely silent, it’s an unsettling reminder of metal, pollution and fast movement – but the constancy of its presence does make it easier to tune out. Besides, my body’s relaxing into the warmth, into the moment, into the mantra sounding in my head.
My machinations don’t stop entirely. If my bike wheels are like small metal water mills temporarily stilled – no fluid air flowing over, no miles it can grind – then my thoughts are finely ground flour that keeps trickling even after the mill and grindstone have stopped; I simply observe them flowing, without trying to grab or follow them.
When I open my eyes, the same world is entirely different. I definitely won’t finish my full ride now but that doesn’t matter because the peace inside me is bigger than 25 miles; it’s bigger than me as an individual. I also know that I’m in the right time, right place, right landscape.
This moment passes. But there are others, in continuous flow if different in texture – both blissful, and more anguished. As cycling, walking, meditation and spending time in nature open up both my attention to the present moment, the world around me and my memoryscapes, this allows me to tap into some enormous sources of potential inspiration – for writing, art and protecting the environment.
Bibliography – Part Three
France, Angela, ‘Brock says’, The Hill (Nine Arches Press, 2017), p.25.
Some of the photo-poems in these articles were previously published in: ‘photo syn thesis: an eco exploration of future light earth water’ on Molly Bloom (https://mollybloom17.weebly.com/sarah-james.html, Sept 2018).