I live in Edinburgh at the precise point in the city farthest from any hills, in a tenement flat overlooking the sea. The view includes bits of bridge at Queensferry, a glimpse of Ben Ledi, the rolling loft of the Ochils, the lumpish Lomond hills, assorted coastal villages and towns, the islands of Inchmickery, Inchcolm and Inchkeith, Oxcars Lighthouse and sundry buoys that flash green and red at night.
Empty cruise ships sail eerily up and down the Forth, with no apparent destination in mind. Are they like cars? Do you have to drive them around to charge their batteries? I wonder about the crews stuck on board. Is it wretched and isolated, or a prolonged party with a free bar and all the entertainment great ships can provide? Does life on board seesaw manically between the two extremes?
Like many I am working from home. I'm a project manager by day and I'm meant to be the one with my shit together, but it doesn't feel at all together. New projects spin up on top of the still dying corpses of the old ones, my sense of clarity is ebbing away, a toxic battlefield gas drifting over the tattered remnants of my career. As a contractor I've been afraid to take a holiday because in the current climate it feels like every working day could be the last. But I'm not sure this is worth it.
Being denied the sea (no more coastal rowing) and the distant hills (no trail running, hill walking, or mountain biking) part of me is slowing down to embrace the essence of where I live; my neighbours, an increasing number of random, thoughtful acts, the birdsong and the blossom in the gardens out back, the colours and moods of the sea.
But hills have always been my lifeline at difficult times, providing with their steady challenge a grounding point and freedom keenly felt for its well defined, physical constraints. I love them for their brooding age. For naked rock, slick crags, vivid beds of moss, tree filled gullies, airy places and secretive, boulder strewn clefts. Being in these places is deliberate. It is a choice, in a way that being in the city is not.
Because of the absence of nearby hills, my daily exercise allowance has morphed into a marathon training plan. My runs have grown longer, reaching far across town to include Arthur's Seat, Blackford Hill, the Braids, Craiglockhart and Corstorphine Hills. I'm enjoying new trails in parts of the city I don't know well, made more unfamiliar still by early mornings and the lack of traffic. And I've found that with an extra twenty miles of riding, I can manage a satisfying round of the Pentlands on the mountain bike. A surreptitious sounding of sky larks and curlews, stolen, to carry with me through the week.
On these excursions I'm engulfed by the sweet and sour scents of spring. They smother me with the intimacy of entwined bodies, the sweetness of gorse blossom overlaid with the acrid smell of cow parsley in full umbelliferous flower. This spring is a good one, already heady, and hasn't yet reached the pungent peaks of mid May when extra warmth releases plant pheromones into the air in an ecstatic, overwhelming flood.
In the quiet of the pandemic I've been imagining the city as a garden paradise. A place you'd barely need to leave because it would be at once forest and home. I wonder at the rusting presence of my car on the street outside, what place it could really occupy in a sane society.
Without cars, the main road between my flat and the sea has become peopled by first-time cyclists and duckling strings of tots on bikes and runners doing the pandemic weave among the other pedestrians. Many are suffering a great deal during this pandemic, but as I find myself cheerfully wishing my fellow humans good morning, I know that a return to normal is not what I want.