Thursday, June 17, 2010

the mindful poetics of mountain biking

I suffered some technology snafus this week, but they taught me a valuable lesson about the allure of mindfulness.

I've written about my never-ending struggle to build up my bike on my own. Now the left shifter has gotten all tweaky. Heck, it's 5 years and 30,000 miles old, so perhaps it's made its last jump from the 53 to the 39. Jake at the Midtown store is looking at it, so I took the old mountain bike out of the garage and rode two laps at Swanson park, a suburban Omaha oasis that hides about 5 miles of twisty single track. But I forgot to move the Garmin 350 Edge from the road bike to the mountain bike, so I rode without a speedometer or a hart rate monitor. (Editor's note: the misspelling of "heart" was NOT intentional, but Vanessa's comment ((see below)) was so cool, I'm retaining the homophone for its metaphorical qualities.)

I just rode. I didn't pay any attention to exertion, or pace, or cadence, or any of that mathematical crap that cyclists use to justify how much they hurt or don't, how much they've improved or haven't. I just tried to find a peaceful calm amidst the trees. I pushed myself--maybe harder than I would have--but I also noticed a lot more:

Two yearling bucks sauntered away as I approached, but they stopped and let me contemplate them for almost 3 minutes.

Yes, I know--I was riding a highly engineered dual-suspension bicycle that was made in Taiwan and shipped here with fossil fuels. I snapped this picture with a freaking iPhone, itself the target of several investigations of unjust labor practices in the Chinese factory where it was made. No part of this day on the bike would've been possible without technology--but I was still riding a bike. Not driving a sports car or revving around on a powerboat, but riding a bike, one of the simplest and least invasive pieces of transportation technology we've invented. No one farther than 10 feet away would've known I was even there.

The bike immerses you in your environment. It doesn't box you up like a car, or dazzle your senses with incomprehensible speed. It places you squarely inside the particular bit of space you happen to inhabit in that moment. And becoming hyper-aware of the variables embedded within that space might help a dedicated student of mindfulness. So would sitting still, but my mind rests most effectively when my body is in motion. (Wordsworth wrote while walking around.) 

I felt like I was a part of that forest, just as integral to its micro-climate as the deer and poison ivy. I was covered in bugs, nettles juices, dirt, and mud. In the moist air I was sweating profusely and laboring to retain any fluids. Even my jersey and base layer were coated in humidity and sweat. Which posed a problem when I saw this sign:

The imperative voice (the command) omits both subject and object of the verb. It basically says, "hey, you, don't ride!" But the adjective "wet" creates an ambiguity. The sentence means, of course, that one shouldn't ride the trails when they are wet, because doing so creates ruts and increases erosion. But in the absence of an object of the verb "to ride," the imperative voice makes the verb transfer to the implied you: "Don't ride (when you are) wet." I guess I should've stopped, because I was soaked to the skin.

These are the sorts of things I think about while riding without a computer.

But I thought a lot more about trees, and hills, and other Romantic stuff like that. Which got me thinking of something besides syntactic ambiguity: the benefits of serenity and mindfulness. I've been writing a lot of poetry lately, much more than any time since my early twenties.  (Missives of forlorn longing,  "written in black ink on black paper: 'O Moon, pity me not!'" Dreck.) Sitting up nights at my grandmother's deathbed offered me any number of powerful emotional cues to catalyze my writing. And some of it's pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. I read a lot of poetry, so I should know, sort of.

Wendell Berry, a working farmer in the Kentucky foothills and a founding father of both the environmental and agrarian movements, is also one helluva good poet. He has this to say about immersion in one's space as a prerequisite for creating art. And make no mistake -- riding a mountain bike on technical terrain is an art:

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   

Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   

Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

Now, if only I could respect that silence just a bit more--I almost always say something inane like "Watch it!" or "Careful Careful!" when I'm about to crash on my mountain bike.

But I do a pretty decent job of living, on my bike, a "three-dimensional life."  And now, I know why we should sometimes "stay away from screens."

(Thanks to Carole for most of these ideas. When her Sabine finally sees the light of day, everyone else is gonna thank her, too.....)


  1. Is your misspelling of "heart" as "hart" a purposeful foreshadowing of the yearlings ahead? Awesome either way!