It’s time for the annual musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap in 2020, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Emily Warner.
I would never normally mark the passing of a year in miles covered on foot, because at some level I wouldn’t have realised I was doing it. In July I went from running kilometres a week, plus more in inconsequential ambling, to what felt like house arrest. Made worse by the confusing feeling that I was still capable of running or walking, but it was no longer a good idea. Running has been a low-key part of my identity for the last 10 years and it’s a strange feeling to be injured and unable to run, especially when the reason I can’t is that I accidentally did too much.
Losing something I love, no matter how often the logical side of my mind reiterates that it is only temporary and really not that bad, has been surprisingly destabilising. With great subtlety running has woven itself into the balance of my existence. There is something about the physical motion that gives me so many things. Day-to-day life can often feel as small as the 17-inch computer screen that I spend my time gazing into, analysing data, writing, reading. Whilst my mind is at the top of Cumnor Hill, looking over Oxford and away to Farmoor reservoir, or amongst the ancient trees in the Chilswell Valley. Or roaming further afield, back home to the Black Mountains, travelling along ridges to vantage points over the repeating profiles of each hill. But it feels like there is no point to these yearnings if I don’t know when they can be fulfilled. Being without the freedom and, at this point months later, the physical condition to attain this release has at times pushed me to ridiculous depths of desolation.
In the last six months, feeling immobilised and frustrated, I have been forced into a different relationship with my surroundings and myself, patching together a set of experiences and sensations that collectively go some way to filling the void left by an absence of running. Very little of why I run is about the basic fitness that it provides. It has become about feeling connected to myself and to the places around me, giving me a chance to move through wilder spaces and for my mind to unfurl. In contrast, I have spent countless hours stationary, cycling on my housemate’s turbo trainer, tucked against our house in the hundred square metres of our garden.
A cycle timed to make the most of the early morning cool in mid-summer now just about coincides with sunrise. The three silver birches directly alongside me catch the first rays of the November sun in the tops of their branches, leaves half gone and dropping around me to form golden constellations on the patio. At first individual fronds traced threads of yellow in the green of the canopy, until whole branches followed suit and the entirety of each tree committed to the arrival of autumn. In the summer months hoverflies hung in the air around me, appearing totally still between erratic jumps in position. One morning, as I sat cooling off, a bright yellow moth with large black eyes engagingly surrounded by a fuzz of canary fur appeared on my arm and rested with me. I have seen a mouse skitter across the garden, jumping from the shelter of a shrub into the longer grass. Squirrels use our fences as highways, whilst the neighbourhood cats cut straight across the grass, treading an unspoken pathway from a hole in the fence to our neighbour’s shed. Occasionally a robin watches me from the shelter of the laurels along our fenceline, and once a flock of tits plundered the birch catkins and bathed enthusiastically in our gutters.
The enclosed space of our small garden has provided surprising solace at a time when I have needed a connection back to a freer self. But hunkered down in the shadow of our trees I have also felt frantic for escape. Oxford sits in a low-lying hollow, water flows round and through it, forming networks that criss-cross or encircle almost every neighbourhood, and there is a perpetual feeling that the city is on the cusp of transitioning back to marshland. A loop of the Thames arcs away from the river and passes a hundred metres from the front of our house on its way back to the main channel. From here my housemates and I launched inflatable canoes and spent one of the last warm days of the year afloat. Our inlet was quiet and free from other boats, willows, alder and rushes forming thick fringes along the water’s edge and giving us privacy from the world. On the level of the water we travelled down this tree-lined tunnel, sheltered, yet buffeted by the noise of the ring-road passing close by and people’s voices from the adjacent fields.
But what I have really missed is the sense of elevation that I intuitively seemed to seek on every run, gaining a wider perspective and distant horizons. I have had to find other ways to attain space and perspective, and my old town bike has been introduced to potholes, hills and road-covering floods as I have left the city behind. I follow a roundabout route avoiding busy roads, circling the city before veering out to the wetland at Otmoor and then heading back into town. In August, the lanes thrummed with the noise of grasshoppers singing in the verges. I have caught sunrise over Port Meadow on different occasions, slanting perfectly over thickly gathered mist above the floodplain. Buzzards lift off telegraph poles as I pass underneath in the lane, red kites circle overhead, and I once caught a glimpse of a fox standing with alert poise, focussed on the far distance. In these late autumn days, flocks of starlings have congregated in their daytime roosts in a row of lime trees as I pass by, and there is joy in their early morning cacophony. This is one of my favourite parts of the ride, a steep hill climb before the lane follows the edge of an escarpment with Oxfordshire unrolling below, the waterlogged plain of Otmoor visible in the foreground.
It has been strangely hard to constantly want to do something I can’t do, to challenge myself not to mind that something huge and important is missing from my life. In a year’s time I hope I will find myself on top of a hill, filled with the elation of being out in the rawness of midwinter, looking at the view or immersed in mist, feeling like myself again.
Emily Warner an ecologist. She is currently studying for a PhD, assessing the effect of reforestation on biodiversity and ecosystem function, with a particular focus on native reforestation in the Scottish Highlands. You can follow her on Twitter here.