Thursday, June 28, 2012

A journey to the heart

My last journey is always by bicycle. Whenever I return from travel, I step off the bus, unlock my bicycle where I left it, sometimes days before, and ride the few miles home; a slow transition from one state to another. The trip is usually in the dark, but at this time of year the skies hold a memory of daylight which persists almost to midight, an inky hue in the north-west that seems like an absence of colour, a draining-away of light. In the half-darkness, I hear the curlews trilling their welcome in the fields of bog-rush: treeee-treee-tree-tre-tre-tre. I breathe in the smell of mown hay and wet tarmac, of soil and the scent of hawthorn blossom; great lungfuls of the stuff, chasing the taint of trains and cities from my lungs, giddy on the sweetness of memory, the moth's-wing kiss of damp summer rain brushing my face.
Above my head, bats stitch the darkening sky, their chaotic and purposeful flight sensed rather than seen; a series of dark dots left on the retina by their passing, a darkness in the space they have just been. The last of the evening's swifts are shrieking their ascent into another ether, a higher existence of which we can only dream, circling higher and higher in the summer sky until they are tiny black specks against the charcoal clouds, no bigger than the mosquitoes on which they feed restlessly, banished to constant motion through the brief night.

As I ride home, I am thinking again of pebble labyrinths; beautiful and intricate patterns of rounded boulders half-buried in turf, hefted into shapes that hold purpose and meaning. They are scattered across the northern lands, symbols of a culture which has always lived in an uneasy balance with the sea. Even the newer labyrinths found inland, away from the sea, somehow owe their existence to a knowledge of the dark ocean which shifts restlessly at the edge of the hills, lapping at the fringes of the forest. They are like Odysseus' oar, abandoned inland in a place that knew little of the sea, remnants of a maritime life, a life of travel and deprivation, of adventure and uncertainty, an existence of which our modern shore-tethered lives know so little.
It is said that, amongst fishing communities in the west of Scotland or Norway, or the East of Sweden, the pebble labyrinth was a talisman for a successful voyage, a pact made with the unpredictable forces of the sea. The youngest member of the crew would walk to the centre of the labyrinth whilst the rest of the sailors hung impatiently over their oars, the boat chafing against the worn timbers of the quay. From the centre, this young boy would run as fast as possible out the waiting ship and push off onto the slick, waiting water, leaving the malevolent sea sprites stranded and confused at the centre of the labyrinth, unable to disrupt the coming passage.

I love the sense of reverence in this image; this genuflection to the unknown forces of the natural world. It is a reminder that everything is not known, that we cannot control the outcome of a sea passage, cannot summon the forces of the wild world to act in our favour. Instead, we must show the necessary regard through ritual and observance, through a slow and gentle sense of mutual respect. In this way, my bike ride is my talisman against the dislocation of travel, a time to haul breath into my lungs and feel movement in my limbs at a pace which feels in tune with my body; a journey back to the heart of the labyrinth.

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