Monday, 20 August 2007

Running and all sorts of animals

I've had some strange encounters running with, to, by and from animals during the past four years. But none as strange as last Saturday's.

I've almost stepped on a snake in Princeton, and saw it jump from me as precipitously as I jumped from it. I've bounded over turtles. I've run alongside dolphins as they've leaped from the waves, just ten metres from my shoulder, on the coast of North Carolina, running on the beach at dawn. I've run into a vulture (not a buzzard, mind, a real hook-beaked, arch-winged, fleshy and bulbous vulture) eating roadkill in Virginia: I had to run at it shouting before it finally conceded lazily to flap its wings and clear the road.

One Sunday in Virginia a dog started to follow me. I was about 8 miles into a 20-mile run over mountains. I tried to persuade her to leave, but she wouldn't; and in any case I couldn't see where she had come from. I reasoned that she must know what she was doing. 12 miles later she was visibly exhausted and still following me. She flopped onto the floor when we got home. My kids ran into the house and she barked protectively, defending her new master. I checked her name tag. It read "Sunday". It was a Sunday. It's providence -- I thought -- I've been given a dog. What on earth am I going to do with a dog, and how am I going to get her back to England? There was also a phone number on the tag too, so I called it. Sure they were in, and they were wondering where she was, and they gave me their address. I opened the back of the truck and Sunday leaped right in; she knew how to do this. I started driving into the hills. And then I thought: what if Sunday's owners are a couple of careless, or, worse, callous and cruel Virginian rednecks who don't care if their dog wanders off? What if Sunday chose me? Will I turn the car around and drive away? They seemed ok, though, so I left Sunday with them. Weird, perhaps, a couple of young Jewish kids in a redneck neighborhood.

I was once attacked by an overprotective goose: he flew at me and hammered me in the sternum with his beak. Onlooking hikers panicked and turned away.

Then there was the morning I was chased by a buffalo. It was a beautiful misty morning on a farm in Virginia. It was about six, and I was running gently past a field with bison. The tranquility was disturbed a little by the emergence through the mist of a great bull, towering above me. He began to get really jumpy as I passed. Now these beasts are behind an electrified fence (at least, I thought it was electrified), but the fence is really quite flimsy, and the cable holding the charge quite narrow. Then the bull starts to flex and bound. The animals around him get really jumpy too, and start to jog. That's an awful lot of muscle on the move (and it's doing no good to the meat, either). I realise that this is a bad idea and turn off onto a different path. I descend a short, steep hill, and there emerges in front of me ... a baby bison. This one, however, is not in the adjacent field but on the path. It's slipped under the fence. I hesitate. The bison starts the panic, spinning around. I think about turning back. Then its mother shows up at the fence. I turn around and ascend the hill. The baby starts to run at the fence, and can't find a place to ease under, so it comes towards me; the mother panics. The mother's friends and relations panic. They all start to run alongside me, on the other side of another flimsy fence.

I put in a good six-minute mile up that hill.

Once I ran past a hedge in Cambridgeshire and was suddenly and overwhelmingly surrounded by a cloud of yellow butterflies that spawned from its leaves, thousands of them, swarming and dancing in and out of the hedge and all around me for a quarter of a mile.

A grey heron once accompanied me for miles, taking off from the path, gliding in that inimitable languid style (there's a great Derek Walcott poem about that), and landing ahead of me on the path, only to do the whole sequence again. A couple of weeks ago I saw a miniature donkey trying to mount a pony. And I've seen many other kids of animal and insects.

But Saturday was decidedly strange. I was going a gentle seven-mile run accompanied by my youngest, E, on his bike, from our house, through Fen Ditton, over Baits Bite Lock, and back along the towpath. We were crossing Midsummer Common when I saw, not far from the path, a half-naked obese couple having sex in the grass. He was staring into her eyes, while her legs reached from the soil like the rainforest's fallen and rotten trunks. A prim woman on the path was on the phone with the police. What was wrong with them? Well I don't know: they were obese, and they were having afternoon sex on midsummer common.

Oh the things you see that might pass you by if you did not run.

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