I’m walking down the lane with an empty hessian sack. Up ahead, a bunny bounces into the nettles and dock. It’s always intrigued me how stinging nettles and dock leaves always grow together. I guess the scientific explanation is that they require and thrive in similar habitats.
My trail runner’s explanation is that it is a fantastic feat of fraternity. The bite of the nettles is unmistakeable as you run through the bush. I’ve tried many times to just ignore it, but the sting lingers. So, you find a nice big juicy dock leaf, crush it, and rub the soothing sap all over the sting. Instant relief.
Today I’m heading down the lane to fetch grain from the farmer next door.
It’s a short walk but this will take time. There will be conversation. This is about connecting, not transacting.
When I get to Eugene’s farm sheds no one is about, but I don’t shout. This is a quiet family, used to moving with the rhythms of nature and the hours of the sun. I find him tinkering with the old tractor he bought. He says he’s no spray-painter but proudly shows me it’s smooth finish with no orange peel patches to be seen. I tell him the isiZulu word for tractor is ‘ugandaganda’. He shakes his head and chuckles quietly.
Before we head to the grain shed, we detour to see his Angus stud bull. The peaceful, powerful and unapologetic presence stares us down with calm confidence. Eugene proudly shows me the calves who look just like their sire. Later he’ll bring them over to graze my little front field that borders on the salt marsh where the sparrows breed.
The huge grain pile has shrunk as the neighbouring farmers have come to buy feed through the winter. It has also dried out, encouraged by time and the huge fans that constantly rotate at the rear of the shed. The driest grain is around the edges of the pile where I scavenge until my hessian bag bulges with an assortment of wheat and barley.
Back home I brew a coffee, dripped slowly through the simple, conical filter of the Chemex. The week is always too rushed for this method, but now, in the alternative rhythm of an artisanal atmosphere, the aromas gradually drop their way into the large, open kitchen. My Mom emerges sleepily and plops down onto the chesterfield couch. I put the kettle on for tea. She’s never drunk coffee.
Mom moves over to lean on the kitchen island as I set up my Komo Fidebus. A gift from my family for my birthday last year, this little stone mill grounds me. Mom and I converse as we mill flour. The warm, nuttiness wafts up in little clouds.
As I knead, the dough develops. Mom butters my Dad’s old cast iron Dutch oven. The dough rises in there, the yeast fighting against the heavy, organic flour. We could have supplemented more light, store bought stuff, but it’s the fundamental , fermented flavour we’re after.
While the dough proves and rises in the pot, I make a wood fire in the outside oven. First, I sharpen the small axe on my Grandpa’s whetstone. “There’s no hurry now,” I can hear him say with his deep Scottish brogue. Then I stack the kindling and larger pieces of dry oak into the wood oven. It was a piece of concrete culvert pipe which we clad in recycled red Belfast bricks. Now it welcomes old black pots with new rising bread.
When I turn the steaming brown bread out onto a cooling rack, Mom ignores my pleas to let it cool. She cuts off an edge and uses the breadknife to smear it thick with dark yellow Irish butter.
Later that night, Eugene brings two calves with big, dark eyes down the lane to graze the little front field. I invite him in. We sit and eat a thick slice of fresh bread with vintage Irish cheddar cheese washed down with a triple distilled Irish whiskey. “I don’t normally drink whiskey,” Eugene chuckles as we pour another.
You might say I didn’t get much done today. You might point out that, if you cost my time, I baked the most expensive bread on the island of Ireland. You might remind me of the client work needing my attention. Or the log pile that needs splitting. You’d be right. And you’d be wrong.
This was a good day. It gave me perspective on my priorities, distance from my dilemmas, and reconnected me with the earth and my neighbour. Running trails does this for me too.
Running trails takes more time and makes more mess than road running or going to the gym. You can pound the pavement and be back in the shower by the time it takes to drive to the trail head. You can keep your shoes cleaner in the gym. You might say you’ve more urgent things to do with this time than trail running takes. You’d be right. And you’d be wrong.
In a chaotic, broken time of my life I met TRAIL magazine, by pure coincidence just as it was born. We’ve covered many trails together, watched each other mature. Now, on TRAIL’s 40th birthday, I know that so much of the peace and joy I now feel comes from all the trails I’ve run and the 40 reflections I’ve been privileged to write here. The truth is that running trails gives perspective on priorities and distance from dilemmas. It reconnects you to the earth and to your neighbour.
There is a place for efficiency and optimisation. Then there is a place to live well. The trail is that place.