I run through Jesmond Dene a few times each week when running regularly. It is a long, thin and deep-delved park with the Ouseburn river running through it, a manicured end near Armstrong Bridge with a petting zoo and café, where it leads into Armstrong Park, a tree dominated, steep sided pathway of green, before the more open Heaton Park, with its Santana’s Italian restaurant in the old club house, and disused bowling green and open picnic spaces, packed full of students in summer and dog walkers all year round.
I begin the run by looping around the outside of Heaton Park and then dropping in at its southern gate and then run through in that direction, south to north. There is an access road between Heaton and Armstrong parks, and as I approached today I saw a police line blocking the way, where the top half of a tree had broken off and fallen. To the left, just inside Armstrong Park, stood the cracked tree stump from where the top half had fallen. Wind? Lightning? The broken stump, snapped like a lollypop stick, still sticky with sap, lay across the wall of Armstrong Park and into the road. It was already being dismantled. Many of its branches had been sawn off and lain in rows. The stricken tree itself was resting on the wall, perhaps five or six feet off the ground.
That’s when I should have gone round. But instead I crossed the blue line of plastic tape and went under the tree to carry on my run. That’s when I realised that the tree could still be ready to tip off the wall on which it had come to ret. It was still precariously balanced, perhaps and perhaps the branches I was hopping over and disturbing were not in fat detached, but still connected, and helping the tree balance. If it did come down on me it would rush me, no doubt. And for a moment the stupidity of what I was doing was apparent.
But then I was through, and running again, into Armstrong Park, then the Dene, following the cerise sunset, another clear night sky in the clear January, and forgetting the risk I’d taken to not divert my route. Perhaps there’s something about running that encourages risk in me – something I found out when I got stuck in the mud off Holy Island last summer, both legs up to the things and one arm, all sinking into a stretch of the mudflats they call ‘The Cages’ (the clue is in the name), a mile from any other human life and unable to reach my phone in my back pack.
I escaped from the mud. The tree didn’t fall on me. Yet both times this act of running had awakened in me, as it does for many, a desire to explore a world that is dangerous in ways that we insure ourselves against, with blue tape and pathways and an aversion to the animal feeling of simply not wanting to die; to live. And yet to test that feeling. I know that I needed something last summer, a shaking experience, something to waken me from lethargy; a near-death experience ought to do it. Consciously I was aware of a need for shaking up. Consciously I also was aware that my deeper brain systems wanted to seek out something dangerous. And so even though I didn’t intend to go through the mudflats, after I had, I was glad.
It is why, I think, in some ways, that through running and through experiences that bring to the fore this feeling in me—basics, all shared by we animals, we mammals—that I have to be able to empathise with the bodies of other animals and their needs. Other animals other than humans, but also humans.
Stepping under that tree as it lay fallen and with the threat of falling on me, I felt, for a moment, the same sense as what it must be like for a crow or a starling nesting in its branches in the wild wind. There’s something about the surprise of it that also threatens, and in that threat and surprise our physical animality and mortality is foregrounds. What a weak word. Lived. There is also, as Bessel van der Kolk makes clear in his book The Body Keeps the Score, the way we all, humans and nonhuman animals, keep ourselves from trauma is by mobilising against the threat. Face, fight, flight, run on, into the Dene, and in the dark half where most people do not wander, to run on, to leave the threat behind.
I did another 25 miles after being trapped in The Cages. All I lost was a sock. But what did I gain?
Image (cc) Deb Collins