A Backwards Look at Durham

In August of last year, I was at home in San Antonio, digging through the various books accumulated by my mother over the course of her life. I found one on keeping a nature journal, and was immediately absorbed—the prospect of tracing the world around you as it happened seemed like a good way to live, and the book promised my lack of drawing ability wouldn’t be an impediment.

As it happened, I sketched a window box while sitting on the porch one morning, then dropped the idea entirely. I realised that trying to take up nature journaling would simply be creating another rod for my own back, as leisure activities tend to become when they’re something you suddenly have to do regularly. I wanted to appreciate nature, not feel guilty that I hadn’t drawn any birds lately.

Still, the journaling guide knocked something loose in my brain about the subtle changes in nature over time, and when I came to Durham in January, freshly laid with snow, and the indoor world—excepting my apartment—closed to me, I began to keep the seasons in my heartbeat and the feeling of the air on my cheeks.

In January, I slushed through the snow to flat viewings, watched the sun set at 4 o’clock, had cosy, wine-filled evenings with my friend who was housing me until I could house myself, helped a neighbour clear the ice from his driveway. I walked for the first time the walk that would become a tattoo through my time in Durham, down Benthouse Lane to the fields and the Old Durham Gardens, saw trees lining the drive to Benthouse Farm reaching into the grey sky with their long, scraggly fingers.

In February, freshly-flatted, I cried sitting alone in the dark of my living room as I hadn’t bought any lamps yet and didn’t want to run up my energy bills. I had never lived alone before. I worked to make my flat my home, bought door mats and table linens. The sky was always white and the trees open, making it easy to spot the robins. My weekly walks with friends were punctuated with mud—so much mud!—that my sweet little hiking boots are still stained six months later. Fresh blankets of snow came and melted, and the ground looked exhausted.

In March, the sky started to showing blue sometimes, and I had finally begun to feel at home, both in my flat and in my PhD. For the first time, I had a sense I knew what I was doing (this is before I realised that this feeling fluctuates; here in August I have no idea again). I began reading exclusively children’s books and drinking a lot and I baked a loaf of sourdough that resembled a hockey puck. I saw the first blossoms of spring on a massive tree outside Hild-Bede and stopped to take a photo; they felt momentous. At the end of March, I optimistically bought a swimsuit for a trip to the sea my friend and I promised to take on Easter Sunday. I saw tiny calves in the barn I liked to hike past.

In April, the swimsuit arrived in time for a forecast of rain for Easter Sunday. I started making springtime quiches and risottos. I suppose I did some PhD research as well; the work has always been a low hum, an undercurrent of sameness in the background of things changing. In my memory of Durham, I barely think about being indoors. In one of the many. walks I took by myself, I saw the rapeseed fields finally coming in, finally shrugging off snow to become a green and pleasant land. I planted a window box that succumbed to aphids. My boyfriend finally came to visit. I began to take regular trips with friends to a pub we had to hike to, in High Shincliffe. We would sit outside in the brisk air and say hello to the calves and lambs on the way home. The world was waking up. The first warm day was April 21st; I left all my summer clothes in Texas, so I wore my new swimsuit as a tanktop.

On May 1st, I saw tiny baby bunnies by the river. I finally saw ducklings; the trees were coming into full bloom along Benthouse Farm’s drive and outside Hild-Bede. The sky seemed always blue. My boyfriend moved up from London and began house-hunting for a place in Edinburgh. The days in Durham started to feel contingent. The day restaurants opened indoors, my boyfriend and I went to the new McDonalds by my flat. Pigeons finally found the birdfeeder I’d hung up in February and would throw birdseed everywhere. Jackets became a thing of the past. We took summer picnics in Old Durham Gardens. The rapeseed had burst into yellow, the whole world was yellow.

In June it was sun and sea and I can’t believe it was two months ago. Things felt almost normal again—my bank account was emptied at the pubs. The fingerlings of bare tree branches became difficult to remember—surely England was always this lush, this green? Surely it would always be this way? The sun will forever set at 10 o’clock, slanting into my living room and catching my glass of wine in its certain way. The bunnies are gone from their riverbank den now. I find myself at a lot of garden parties; I find myself saying goodbye to undergrads. I discover the old bathhouse. I think of the possibility of thinking of myself as a writer.

Suddenly, Phil is gone, moved to Scotland, and I am suddenly thinking about needing to be in Scotland, and time is running out to find a flat—and then I have covid. My downstairs neighbours speak directly to me for the first time and bring up my grocery deliveries for me. I look at a computer screen for 14 hours a day for 10 days, numbing myself. Flavourful food makes me nauseous. I try to remember that these are my last days in my apartment, I try to appreciate how it houses me and keeps me safe while I feel so ill.

In July, my covid breaks and the sun is voracious. The poppies have burst through the faded rapeseed. I shuttle myself between England and Scotland. I bag us our flat. England are in the Euros, we’re all jubilant, I start to think about missing my friends while Jack Grealish runs across the screen to shouts and cheers, I think about the trees on Bent House Lane in full greenery arrayed, I think about the explosion of life in the forests around Durham, I write crap poems about it, there are baby alpacas at the alpaca farm, I see the full grown bunnies all around—I’m tired all the time, I sleep by the cathedral and outside an art museum in Edinburgh, I go to Barnard Castle for the hottest day of the year and feel like maybe it is possible to have too much sun—

The last day of July I go for a long walk through a misty forest with my friends. Is summer ending, or is it still here? We’re all in coats, anyway.

In August, I load my friend’s car and we laugh as his dashboard Jesus bounces furiously all the way to Edinburgh. I take the train back to Durham, ruin my manicure cleaning my flat to its bones, I get my second jab, I give wine to my neighbours, I live in Edinburgh now.

Anyway, this blog can’t be about the PhD, really, because the PhD is something that happens inside, and inside can’t be real life, not after this year anyway. It’s funny to me that I never wrote anything here while I was in Durham, but I was too busy waking up, I think, and trusting myself that I belong somewhere enough to make a claim on it. It’s fitting, in a way, that my writing exist in orbit of the space of my PhD, never quite existing in its heart, always a little removed from it. Or at least that’s my excuse.

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