Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Lyrical Pause

Yes, I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

This poem by Edward Thomas, written just before the start of the First World War, is extremely well known and may even be one of the nation's favourites (not that I have any finger on the pulse of the nation's taste in poetry). Sometimes it has been used as an exercise in nostalgia: of steam trains, the peace of the countryside and the golden summer before war ripped the european world apart, but that is conflating the time of its composition with its meaning. I like it instead for its timelessness: not being about any era but instead describing those caught moments that I am sure have affected everyone throughout history - those moments when things pause and you are suddenly more aware of your surroundings.

These sort of moments that give me more pleasure than almost all others but they can not be anticipated or planned for. They happen unexpectedly through cracks and cannot be deliberately sought. For me though, running increases the chances of them coming. One of the habits of my pottering long runs along the canal is to stop at the furthest point,  sit on the arm of the lock gate, take a drink and look around. At such times a sense of peace can wash over me. Not always but sometimes. I know I am lucky in the beauty of my surroundings and it is more difficult to imagine such moments on streets of undistinguished housing. But it is not impossible. Anywhere at any time we can see things more clearly.

For one fleeting moment.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Tarahumara and a Lost Opportunity

Tarahumara Runners. Souce Norawas de Raramuri
The next day we played a very fierce game of volleyball with the nuns, really serious, they almost killed us. I've played volleyball but this was like all their sexual aggression coming out.

I picture the nuns in full garb jumping, smashing and aggressively intimidating their opponents puts a smile on my face. Maybe I am remembering the leaping nuns of the order of St Beryl but nevertheless the image deserves a place in my collection of sporting descriptions.

The quote is from the photographer David Montgomery who accompanied Norman Lewis on a journey to Mexico to write about the Huichol tribe and comes from the biography Norman Lewis by Julian Evans. Norman Lewis was one of the great travel writers of the Twentieth Century whose subjects included the Mafia in Sicily and the the VietCong as well as the tribal societies of South America.

One of the tantalising what-ifs of our knowledge of Mexican Indians is that in the 1970s he heard about a tribe who ran up mountains and wanted to make contact. Unfortunately because it was a serendipitous idea and he did not have enough time to wait, he never found them. I assume this tribe were the Tarahumara, recently made famous in Christopher McDougal's book Born to Run.

Over the past couple of years Born to Run has been a best seller and a phenomenon in the running world, given huge impetus to the barefoot running movement. One would therefore assume that Norman Lewis's failure to meet-up the tribe was unimportant because Christopher McDougal has now done the job. But I do not feel that; I regret the lost opportunity.

The reason is mainly one of style and sharpness of perception, i.e. the core of the writers craft. Although I am interested in the subject of 'Born to Run' I have not finished it as I could not get past its hyperbolic style and the desperate straining for similes. An example: early on he described watching a video of his own running -
"In my mind's eye, I'm light and quick as a Navajo on the hunt. the guy on the screen, however, was a Frankenstein's monster trying to tango. I was bobbing around so much my head was disappearing from the top of the frame. My arms were slashing back and forth like an ump calling a player safe at the plate, whist my size 13s clumped down so heavily it sounded like the video had a bongo backbeat."
I read it and thought "No! You may not have been elegant but you were not at all like that". The odd bit of overindulgence I can accept and might even enjoy but in this book every paragraph was the same and all the time I was pushing against it.

Towards the end of his career Norman Lewis worried about the "attentioncalling" style of the new generation of travel writers represented by Paul Theroux. I don't know what he would think now, now that the general level of volume has been cranked up to 11.

Norman Lewis's prose was not simple but his style was modest and underplayed, as if it had faith in the extra ordinariness of what he was describing. I wish Christopher McDougall had had the same faith. The Tarahumara are certainly a extraordinary tribe.

I need to put my squeamishness aside and finish the book. However I can still regret that story was not written by  Norman Lewis 30 years ago.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

What We Can See

"It is overcast this afternoon  and there is a fine, misty drizzle that feels fresh on my face. The still air amplifies the sound of water dripping on maple leaves. The leaves are still bright green, but will transform into a kaleidoscope of yellow, orange, red, salmon and purple in another week or two. The goldenrods along the dirt road are just starting to fade, and several species of wild aster are beginning to flower instead. I note the splashes of their lavender, purple, and blue flowers. There are usually bumble bees in these flowers, but today these cold-hardy bees remain torpid in their underground nests deep in the woods.
Watching a large orange and black monarch butterfly feeding at an aster, I wonder how much sugar it is getting from the nectar to fuel on this stop on its migration from Canada to Mexico. The butterflies like human ultramarathoners need regular refuelling stations. While it is warm and sunny, during the last couple of weeks, I've seen the monarchs floating by on lazy, soaring wing beats. These individuals are at least the third generation of those that left Central Mexico last spring to come north to breed. All of hem are now journeying to their communal wintering area in the cool mountains near Mexico City from where their ancestors had come. There they conserve their energy reserves through winter by literally putting themselves in refrigeration that slows their metabolic fires."
The extract is from the opening of a book called 'Why We Run' by Bernd Heinrich and describes the start of a run after a sedentary day. I quote it out of envy.
I wish I was a naturalist who could get all the juice from what I see: know the exact stages of the wildflowers and what they were, see passing animals and know their life cycle. But I am not. My eye for identification is pathetic and I have to rely on my wife to tell me which flower is which. She is not there on most of my runs. 
I do however have certain birds and animals that give me pleasure when I see them. Foremost amongst these are herons. They always lifts my spirits. I don't know why: probably something to do with the ungainly, boney shape that almost looks two dimensional. I doesn't matter. I know I like them and luckily they are a fairly common sight by the canal.
I saw this one yesterday. I was not running - but never mind; that is a mere detail.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Ferrets, Running Ancestors, and Philosophical Assumptions

Yesterday I wrote about an article showing that ferrets do no produce endocannabinoids when they run and gently mocked the triviality of the finding. Although I posted it, I was not too happy with the quality of my work: it was slightly too heavy handed to let the absurdity speak for itself but not earnest enough to engage with all that irritated.  But I left it because  I am interested in any evidence about how we evolved as runners even if comparisons with the brain function of a small furry creature with little legs can't take us very far.
The reason I like reading about our running ancestors comes from when I first encountered the idea that we were more efficient than many other species over long distances. It was one of those little light bulb moments that made me think more clearly about our nature of animals. Until then I had tended to think we were a bit rubbish: others species were faster, had sharper teeth or claws and were more ferocious or stronger. In a fair fight we would lose but we could over-compensate with the use of cunning and tools.
Finding that ancestors were capable of chasing a gazelle all day until it became immobile was a revelation that made me realise that we were a big beast with physical capabilities to compete. Learning that before the development of spears we used to catch and then strangle the prey was even more astounding. It was clear we are nothing more or less than another species of animal with and evolutionary niche and its own adaptations.
This might not sound like a very unusual insight  (surely everyone knows that!) but it had to combat many teachings I had absorbed from childhood, all based on the underlying assumption of human exceptionalism. Humans were civilised, humans had language, humans had intelligence, humans were distinct from the rest of creation. All of these ideas were part of the ideology I imbued. To this was allied its natural partner the philosophy of dualism, which saw the mind and soul as separate from the body, so that the body's role was that of a vessel. 
It's funny how we have these ideas buried so deeply within us that we hardly notice. When something comes against them we tend to reject it without knowing quite why. That we could have been magnificent animals was such a challenge. That our bodies and mind are indivisible was another. But accept them I did. However once I had done that there was a corollary, a glimmer of a hope that I might have the potential to be a better animal than I thought I was. 
I am no longer convinced about the corollary (I am too far gone) but running is a way of working through these ideas.