Hans Dieter Schaal

In his book Paths and Passages Hans Dieter Schaal visualises what a journey can feel like. In his fine black and white drawings different spaces are imagined not as they exist but as they are experienced. Some pathways are more detailed than others. In one, a linear line splits into different islands of conscious awareness. In another, a forest track starts out plain white until it is populated with tree stumps and logs. Throughout, paths unroll and become motion.

December is a month filled with light. A lot of the time I think of them as lights used to combat the darkness thickening outside. In front rooms there are fires and televisions. Perhaps there’s also a Christmas tree decorated liberally with shining baubles and fairy lights which flash blue, red, white. Then there’s simply the warming yellow of the electric bulb, allowing for conversations around the kitchen table to extend well into the night. When I set off up my parent’s road, wearing as much clothing as I can without inhibiting my movement, there are lights strung out in front garden hedges and trees or on the houses.

It is only a short ride to the outskirts of town. After a dip in the road I reach a narrow bridleway and, apart from the lights on the bike, everything turns to black.

Schaal suggests that we spend much of our time unaware of the pathways we travel, especially if they are ones we return to frequently. In the Introduction to his book, he writes:

Each path is prefabricated motion, a system of guideposts which, usually, we follow without being aware of it […] The paths of everyday life, in particular, are narrow and well-trodden. Only in fleeting moments of awareness do they expand…

Night cycling makes my surroundings unfamiliar. Those tracks which, in daylight, would require no thought at all, are transformed. The path is more rutted than I remember and thinner too, although I couldn’t tell you what is on either side of it. I need to pay more attention but also to know where the edges of my bike and my body lie. The darkness folds around me but I feel certain and solid, I move through the space with a complete awareness, not only of my body (the condensation of my breath, the tingling feeling in my hands, the tightening of calf muscle) but the path too.

The beam of my front light is too weak to see beyond a few feet. There’s the sensation of being inside something. There may be offshoots from the main path, but I cannot see them and so, in these moments, they do not exist. There is only one track which unfolds in front of me, and my belief that it will and must keep going. The light is in front of me, but I am always in the darkness, forever moving towards it but never reaching it. This is, still, a path that is prefabricated, as similar to any that I have travelled down hundreds of times before. And yet, to travel in this way feels like an act of resistance, a way of giving myself this time instead of spending it in limbo - as if I only exist within set places, the home or workplace, the shop or the pub.

When I cycle at night I am constant movement with only flashes of recognition. A tree root system lithe and slippery. White chalk ground beneath me. A drain to the side of the track. A collection of trees but I can’t look up to see more than the immediacy of their upright trunks. At the end of the path I shoot out onto the hillside and beneath me the town flickers. Underneath me my bike light turns the grass lichen white, and it feels foamy and soft.

Photo by Jack Bush

If I were to visualise this journey, it would not be a loop. It would be linear, from point to point, leaving and then finding my parent’s house again. It would start with a long procession of orbs, then a U-shape and then a tunnel. Then, out of an archway, the high point and a line blooming with small circles.

To disrupt and to make unfamiliar feels more important to me now than it ever did before. Today cycling provides this, but it could just as easily be writing, or dancing, or shouting in a silent house. It is a way for me to pay attention to the route I am travelling, to draw my own Paths and Passages and to be moving towards the light for a little while, rather than to be surrounded by the hum of it. In the darkness it is as fine as a tightrope, and I am able to bound across it, without the fear of falling.

Essay writer and arts professional living in London. Interests include existentialism, photography and cycling. Get in touch if you'd like me to write for you!

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