if you marked your time in breaths

Two years ago, J bought a camellia bonsai grown on a ball of moss. It was a most beautiful thing. This solitary tree with its windy branches, proud and silent on its own planet and surrounded by a narrow watery reflection.

Some four months ago, the leaves on one of branches started to wither. And in less than a week, the camellia was dead.  There was no explicable cause.  The conditions that had kept it alive had not changed. At least not to the human eye. J snipped the weak branches off but continued to keep the dish filled with water. But other than that, we did not pay much attention to the ball of moss with the deadened plant. It was partly out of habit that J watered the moss, and partly out of hope - if it had died so suddenly, there could be a chance it would just as suddenly revive.  And so, with such gentle encouragement, the bright green carpet moss continued to grow and glow, joined soon by one or two other species of moss-like weed.

A month or so ago, another new life sprouted. It looked neither like moss nor the camellia. And it steadily multiplied, this weed with its leaves of purple hearts. At night the hearts folded, slept. In the day, they opened to receive the sun. Maybe it had lain in the ball of earth, waiting for the right time to emerge. Or maybe the winds carried it here.

It was also almost four months since our last run at the Macritchie nature reserve. Our last run was when I had just started on my new job. Four months is a long time, a third of a year. Time moves along faster when you are busy navigating a new environment and people.

So although we woke up this Saturday morning to a light drizzle and a uniform grey overhead, J and I persisted. We were determined to make it to the reserve. Packing our bags for a quick shower after the run was, at least for me, like getting ready to meet an old friend. And even the louder-than-usual tourists and the busier-than-normal crowd of fellow morning runners didn't raise a complaint from either of us. This was a day to wake up to.

It is difficult not to romanticise and objectify nature. It is the antidote to our plastic urban lives. Or it is that mirror to our concrete jungle. It is the life-giving mother, inscrutable but ever generous. It is where we are meant to be, that garden and eden. It becomes its own religion. It is mysterious. It is beastly. It can kill. It does not care. It suffers our not caring. It is ____.

I won't deny that running in the Macritchie nature reserve carries with it some of these notions. And at the most basic level - for me - it is tied to breathing. To be precise, for someone who isn't all that fit and great at running, it is tied to the difficulty of breathing!

I started the run with a modest pace, reminding myself that it's been four months. And in this way I tried to keep my breath steady. For the first kilometre or so into the reserve, the damp from the steady morning's steady drizzle had seeped into the earth and was slowly rising. The air carried the smell of a slow decay - somewhere between laundry not properly aired and smoked tea. I cannot decide if I found it unpleasant or I was quite glad for its company.

If nature was indeed like a mirror to our concrete jungle, I thought, and as such, we have never quite left the jungle, we would be like the undergrowth, the saplings, the creepers, the climbers...Very few among us grow to become trees and to enjoy the sun. But even when trees fall, the jungle doesn't mourn. Ashes to ashes, rot to rot.

This thought didn't get very far. The slopes were becoming more punishing. And I had to concentrate on breathing - com'on, my body says, stop wasting energy on thinking and focus on getting oxygen to your calf muscles instead!

Soon the air grew lighter and just that shade of a degree celsius cooler. I stopped smelling the damp and decay. Okay, it felt like my body was getting used to this and I could go on running for a long time more.

But I had to stop. A tree had fallen, struck down probably during Friday's fierce but short-lived thunderstorm. It may still recover if it remained rooted to the earth.  If not, it was most certainly be dead. The topmost branches of the tree laid across and blocked off the trail path.

Thankfully, there were navigable gaps between the branches. Step over one, go between two, slide across another, brush off some leaves, and for the finale, duck under. In the process, take the chance to catch up on and slow down your breathing. Breathe deep. Exhale.

For those brief moments, it felt like being at the top of a tree. I thought, this must be what the banded leaf monkey feels like - high up on a tree top! The damp of the leaves and that smell - an incredible freshness of a fallen tree, but not death. This is how green smells like, that intensity of life - even if just before death or decay.

An old lady in track pants and t-shirt, and holding on to an umbrella, greeted me as I emerged through the branches. She asked why this had happened. I explained Friday's thunderstorm. She said it never did happen, paused, then agreed that there was a somewhat short and violent one. The weather, she shook her head, unpredictable the weather.  Then with the umbrella, she parted some branches and attempted to go on her way. I said something like "Be careful".  The rest of the run went on, as (un)eventful as each breath.


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