Contour Lines and Skylines: R.S. Thomas and the Poetics of Strava

Among Winter Cranes
The Quarterly of the Christian Poetics Initiative
Vol. 3 Issue 4
Autumn 2020

Contour Lines and Skylines: R.S. Thomas and the Poetics of Strava
By Ben Egerton

I once tried to convince a sceptical congregation that running in the mountains is worship. In hindsight my detour into medieval iconography, whilst explaining how the exercise tracking app Strava works, is probably where I lost the faithful, along with any reference to Psalm 121. But, the poor quality of my sermonising notwithstanding, the notion of ‘running as both a spiritual pursuit and a writing discipline’ is real and—for me—entirely necessary. Although I commit, it also means I can keep my options open.

In a similar vein, the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, during a BBC interview from the mid-1990s, says of himself:

I’m supposed to be a poet but, when the poems aren’t going very well, I say, ‘I’m a birdwatcher’… and when there’s no birds I say, ‘actually I’m a poet’.1

Thomas goes a step further when, in Autobiographies,2 he compares twitching3 to praying: for, much like not knowing when the rare bird will appear, he writes, “great patience is called for, because no one knows when God will choose to reveal himself”. Thomas, of course, was a great noticer of birds and a great noticer of the absence of God—frequently feeling “the draught that was God leaving”.4

*

Also Thomas:

Here are mountains to ascend
not to preach from,
not to summon one’s disciples
to, but to see far off the dream that is life…5

I live Thomas’s line of thinking. When I’m running Mt Kaukau—sometimes three or four times a week—behind where I live in Wellington, New Zealand (a mountain in name rather than stature)6 I pray and think. It’s draughty up there—especially when a southerly blows up from Antarctica—but I hope to catch God before he leaves, and hope to see far off. And hope to better my personal records on Strava.7 

I chase God; my dog chases rabbits. Unlike the rabbits, God isn’t always on those hills—or at least he doesn’t always choose to reveal himself to me. I’m supposed to be spending time with him. But when he’s not there I say, “I’m still a runner and a poet” and, when the running isn’t going well—or no lines of poetry appear—well, I say, “I’m up here looking for God”. And on the rare good days from the summit of Mt Kaukau I can stand and watch, as Thomas describes in ‘Waiting’, those “winged yachts hovering over / a gentian sea”. 

*

In the clear view, in the low cloud, in the auditorily-tactile crunch of trail shoes on gravel, in those fearful spaniel-worried rabbits, in tūī and blackbird song competing with the gales, I’m learning to be alert to God.

I’m working on a series of poems. A series that is attentive to the act of running, one that seeks to map the Wellington mountains I’m so fond of, and seeks in some sense to map those movements towards encounter. I compose them in my head every time I’m out running. Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? And how quickly? What’s the Strava leaderboard? What would it look like? What about Strava’s reward badge icons? The segments? Are there useful poetics in this language of app-based measurable ascent? Is this language itself a useful metric for exploring me exploring God on a mountain? Can (my) poetry write these questions? 

One day I’ll take these contour lines, skylines, meditations—all things post-run sweaty-typed into Notes on my phone—and write up (or write down) these songs of ascent and descent. But for now, I run out and back finding, or not finding, God in the hills, chasing Strava glory, measuring my ascent and descent—one direction, of course, always much quicker and easier than the other.

Dr. Ben Egerton
Lecturer, Te Puna Akopai | School of Education
Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington
ben.egerton@vuw.ac.nz


1 From Bookmark, BBC TV, December 1995.
2 R.S. Thomas, Autobiographies, Phoenix Poetry, London (1998) p.100
3 ‘Twitching’ is a British term for birdwatching—specifically pursuing a rare bird. The North American equivalent rather wonderfully, particular with my context here in mind, is ‘chasing’.
4 R.S. Thomas, ‘Perspectives’, Collected Poems 1945-1990, Phoenix Poetry, London (2000) p.402
5 R.S. Thomas, ‘Waiting’, Collected Poems 1945-1990, Phoenix Poetry, London (2000) p.468
6 Mt Kaukau is 445m/1460 ft in elevation. There is no universally acknowledged definition of a mountain.
7 Such as the segment ‘Pool to KK Summit’, a climb of 251 metres in just 1.97km. PR: 20m 51s.

 

Image Credit:

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Momoyogusa = Flowers of a Hundred Generations.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-cb13-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99