• Olly Pyle

An Ode to Oxygen



It was in my late teens that the uninvited, malevolent visitor arrived: asthma. Unaware and un-bothered till then, it became an inconvenient, capricious, and - at times - dangerous guest over the next two decades. Always lurking until, imperceptibly, it packed its bags and left. Ten years ago, I think, but it's hard to tell. For good? I hope so. Inhabiting a world where Vodafone is subordinate to Ventolin, and liberty lies in a salbutamol capsule, you learn an awful lot about breathing. And air. Life.


The strong, amber sunlight of evening is deceptive in April, and today is no exception. A strengthening northerly wind reminds me that despite recent friendly temperatures, summer is remote; a measurement all too easy to make at times like this. Dressed appropriately, it is the perfect evening for walking. The cold, thin air lends a crisp, searching quality to the light and invigorates my stride. Breathing unobstructed, sparkling air is perhaps one of our greatest privileges; nostrils widen to alpine tunnels, head and chest distend with oxygen.


I am walking down a country lane across the Borde Hill estate, just a stone's throw from home, thrilled to expel the feelings of restriction for an hour. Restriction, restraint, tightening, suffocation - thoughts of my ex-asthma, and the ubiquitous respiratory virus that invades our thoughts and locks us down. But now is a time to breathe, and breathe big. Borde Hill is a working country estate in Sussex - formal gardens, farming, shooting, eventing. Open views extend across the Sussex Weald, ending in soft-edged ribbons of blue and violet that melt into the sky; where land finishes and the sky starts is impossible to tell. Beautiful? Yes, but only the warm up act, not the main show in town. Following the lane downhill, lined with stately Scots Pines, a Douglas fir, ivy-choked beech and oak, my ear becomes attuned to the chatter of twigs and new-season leaves jostling and dancing on the breeze. This walk, this landscape, is all about trees; stunning examples of as many varieties as you could care to mention. Breathing could not be easier in this organic oxygen tent; natural-world ventilators and nebulisers pumping their life-giving elixir into the atmosphere. This is the freshest of fresh air.


Walking past Lullings Farm and the charming gamekeeper's cottage at the western edge of the estate, the path heads across broad, rolling fields. Open space, wide views, post-and-rail fence. This evening, I stop here. I always stop here. Looking west, you cannot help to notice several magnificent oak trees standing proudly in their own company. They are not ancient oaks, maybe one hundred years old, one hundred and fifty at most. They have aged well; neither ivy, nor storm has landed a telling punch yet. At this time of the year, and late autumn too, trees are at their most helpful to the painter. In spring the fresh foliage is still sparse enough to create apertures through which I can view the landscape beyond, peeling back enough for me to glimpse their impeccable structure of trunks, boughs, branches and twigs. The monotonous density of summer trees, every shade - the only shade - of Brunswick green, has little interest compared to the limey, sunlit freshness of an April evening. These really are stunning trees, deserving of attention, and for me it is a luxurious pleasure to stop, to look at an English oak. Haste and insouciance are never desirable attributes, but they are highly inappropriate in the presence of these beautiful organisms. Never rush through the landscape.


Through a gate, the path takes a turn to the left, down the side of a field to another gate leading into a dark wooded area. Or does it? A case of public footpath ambiguity; signs of its continuation across the field have ceased, and the rusty chain and padlock on the gate suggest the woodland is off-limits. Yet the me-sized gap between gate and gate post has something to say to me, and just behind the gate, either side of a wide path, are two rhododendron: to the right, white flowers with the palest of pink fringing the blooms; to the left, deep, vibrant cerise. It seems that both bushes - woodland sentinels perhaps - are extending a hand of floral welcome, beckoning me to walk their way. A light dinner permits a comfortable squeeze between gate and post, and I am in the wood.


The scent of wild spring flowers is strong on the evening breeze. Bluebells, unmistakable. An unfamiliar sherbet perfume becomes clear; it is heady and beautiful but I can't quite make out its source. The walk through the wood is brief, and the open gate on exit helps to assuage my trespass-guilt. Across the field, the landscape is on fire. As a tonal counterpoint to the woodland shade, the evening sun is licking the distant trees and fields with flames of scorched yellow and orange. A couple walk their dog, seeming to ignite as they walk into the inferno. Coppiced (but not recently) hazel and beech trees are stark, intriguing dancers, twisting ever-upwards in front of this luminous, combustible curtain. It is a stunning scene to paint; the deep siennas, umbers and blues of the shaded floor and foreground make a lovely contrast with the warmth of the distance. The reverse is often the case; cool blues, greens and purples in the distance give way to warm greens, yellows and reds as the depth recedes; the principle of chromatic perspective, to use the artist's vernacular. This is an unusual inversion of the principle, and just goes to show that sometimes it pays to break the rules. At the gate a sign is nailed at an awkward angle on the gate post. It shouts 'Private Property. Do Not Enter.' Where? The wood I am in, or the field beyond? I can't win this one, so press on into the open field.


Walking around the perimeter of the wood it is quite evident that this part of the estate is indeed private; public land does not have pegs for guns. I had hoped to plot my way to the Ouse Valley railway viaduct, but this would be a trespass too deep. I walk on a little further, then turn back. The sun is starting to slip away, the air much colder now. The quietness is making itself heard; the chatter of the trees is still there, but after a while it becomes unheard. No planes overhead. This smooth, audible surface is only perforated, now and then, by the metallic coughing of a pheasant, thrilled that the shooting season has come and gone. My progress is arrested once more, this time by an elegant stand of lime trees, silhouettes almost (main picture.) A cascade of yellow-green light is being poured though a gap in the fence. Primroses - my favourite flower - everywhere. I'm glad I came this way; 'sometimes it pays to break the rules.'


A profound sense of privilege overwhelms me as I turn for home, walking back up the farm lane past the old Dutch barn. A hare scurries into the hedgerow. Today, many are unable to access open tracts of countryside like this. Urban isolation or disability prevent it, and I wish that there was a mechanism to share it; perhaps the short prose and paintings help a little. My old respiratory limitations seem long gone but it has amplified my appreciation of fresh air. Spending time in hospital, years back, introduced me, violently, to the importance of oxygen. There is nothing more fundamental, more vital than being able to breathe. It is life. When you are concentrating on the techniques required to take your next breath you will never regard oxygen with the same carefree indifference again. Fighting for air is frightening. While this is certainly a time to feel thankful for being able to enjoy the country air, such feelings would be rather self-centred. Many have experienced, and are experiencing respiratory complications, worse than I ever did. Far worse. Our medical workers have swapped the fresh air of fields for the fetid, viral atmosphere of hospital wards, masked-up, working assiduously, with great care, for those grasping for oxygen. They have my utmost respect and gratitude. Thank you - I wish you all well.


An ambulance passes slowly on the main road. Friends and family, colleagues, neighbours, those we knew and those we didn't have lost their fights to find oxygen. Next time you are outdoors, breathe in the fresh air. Breathe big. Think of those that can't. Remember those that couldn't.


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