My friendship with today’s guest began back in 2014 when we were both shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford Award. Her book, Seeing the Elephant, was later published by Margaret River Press. Its poignant story and the lyricism and beauty of the prose have stayed with me ever since.
When Portland sent me this post, she wrote, ‘It’s not really about writing. I hope that’s okay.’ But when I read the piece, I disagreed—sorry, Portland! It’s very much about writing, and how running is a form of meditation, a way of recalibrating and reconnecting with the natural world. All of which goes hand-in-hand with our creative selves.
Please read on for a beautiful reflection on running, nature and writing.
Portland Jones is a writer, horse trainer and lecturer. She lives and works in the Swan Valley with her partner, Sophie, and three children. She has a PhD in Literature and her first novel, Seeing the Elephant, was shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford Award and published in 2015 by Margaret River Press. She has also co-authored a non-fiction book, Horses Hate Surprise Parties.
Together, Portland and Sophie run Sustainable Equitation, a business that privileges ethical, evidence based training methods. They are also volunteers with the Australian organisation HELP, a charity that offers support to elephant trainers across Asia. Portland is currently working on her second novel and two non-fiction books.
You can read more about Portland on her website.
Why I Run
Every morning, some time after five, I pull my runners on in the dark and collar the dog. Even in winter she is joyful at the prospect of running several cold kilometres and that joy, while sometimes surprising, is still contagious. Running is a habit I have kept in some form throughout my adult life and it’s bonded to the practice of writing in a way that is indirect, but no less indelible. Indirect because I don’t know exactly why I need to run in order to write but indelible because I do.
In winter I run with a head-torch as there are no streetlights in the semi-rural area where I live. Your sense of smell is heightened in the dark. When the red gums are in flower the air is thick and sweet, and the smell of them like toffee. I can sometimes smell cigarettes or aftershave in the occasional passing car and in autumn the first dew smells like the promise of rain. Almost silent in this scented ellipse of light the dog and I run at the cusp of another world. A secret nightime world populated by the animals whose lives play out around us almost invisibly. I am just an observer here, an anthropologist on another planet. A storyteller watching stories unfold.
At the bottom of my street, in the neighbour’s overgrown paddocks, I often see kangaroos grazing, their low eyes shining back the torchlight and their bodies surprisingly solid in the shadows. In summer, families of them dine on trellised wine grapes as if at a buffet, their small paws full and the side-to-side grinding of their jaws. They leave strange hooked tracks in the sand at the side of the road and effortlessly bounce five strands of wire when startled.
Sometimes I see foxes heading home from their night’s hunting, long-bodied and mangy coated. Imagine the smell of an old fur coat lying in the sun with something long dead in the pocket. That’s the smell of a fox; it’s hot and musty and makes you want to hold each breath in for longer. Once I saw a trio of feral cats that leapt and skittered through the long grass and when it rains there are small frogs, waiting I suppose, for the insects killed by passing cars.
When I turn for home and the dawn light is all glinty over the hills, there are magpies singing their morning songs from the trees and the dark shapes in the paddocks gradually become cows and goats and horses. I’m a horse trainer by trade but, still, horses are music made real to me. Or poetry. Or some other form of art that catches the light and holds it there, in your chest. I think if one day I can write a sentence that adequaely captures the beauty and fascination of the horse I will finish my writing career satisifed.
The youngest of my three children is 15 now but I still haven’t lost the habit of pointing out things of interest to people smaller than myself. One of the many great thing about dogs is that they don’t mind it when you do things like point out clouds shaped like dragons or new born calves, they’re still just waggy for the words. But at a certain point in my run I stop pointing – there’s a kind of silence in my head that I guess some people would call meditation. While in the beginning my mind might be flooded with words and thoughts, by the half way point those thoughts have dwindled to a trickle, thanks largely to the competition for blood and oxygen going on elsewhere in my body. If ideas survive a run they are worthy of more time afterwards. I think of it as a form of natural selection for ideas.
Some days I’ll turn the music up loud and run hard for home till the air hurts and there’s not much else but the road ahead. Those are good days – though I often wonder at the end if, after so much sweating and panting, John Butler and I should be sharing an awkward cigarette while exchanging phone numbers and reassurances that we’ll call.
If you’d like to read more about running and writing, you might be like this post from a couple of years ago, in which Rebecca Freeman talks about why she runs and how it connects her to the girl and person she was pre-motherhood.