While on residency in Arteles Creative Centre in Finland last September I got to know the quiet dirt roads of the area by bike. The bikes available at the centre had no gears and only back pedal breaks, which made stopping on gravel surfaces challenging, and the rare downhill swoops felt specially daredevilish. The bikes had upright black frames and made me, in my black coat and jeans, feel like an Edward Gorey character pedalling through the open farmland surrounding the centre.
Cycling was a way to explore, and a chance to get some air after long days spent in my workroom. Having no gears meant I was forced to decelerate from the speeds I usually cycle in Dublin’s city centre. At first it felt hugely frustrating. I couldn’t get anywhere in a hurry. I waved at the few people and cars that I passed, and usually got a wary side-eye.
On those wide open flat landscapes you can watch the weather coming. I often found myself frantically pedalling to get to some kind of shelter – a bus stop, or a particularly lush tree – while heavy bluegrey rainclouds swooped at me over the open farmland. Another challenge was the pockmarked surface of the dirt roads themselves, with copious potholes from, I’m guessing, the harsh winters. Those bikes were not made for swerving, especially on gravel.
Over the weeks, thanks to the residency’s policy of no phones and limited internet access, I settled into the luxury of living at a more tranquil pace. I became happier with my slow cycling. I stopped trying to get anywhere, and started to just explore all the little back roads and woods nearby.
From my first days in Finland, I’d noticed many rowan trees laden with their distinctive red berries among all the silver birch. Irish and Finnish flora seems to have quite a lot in common – between the red rowans and the browning bracken, I felt at home.
Since my automatic impulse to find out more by tapping ‘rowan’ into a computer wasn’t available to me, I enjoyed my ignorance and settled with mentally saluting each rowan I passed on my slow bike.
Cycling back to Arteles one day during my last week there, I wove in and out of the gravelly potholes and imagined filling the holes in the road as a thank you to the centre, to the people living around it – knowing that even if I did the coming frozen winter would reopen those holes, or create new ones, or both. I began to imagine filling the holes with rowan berries instead – to make something beautiful and surprising for the people passing, and also to celebrate the futility of my trying to actually repair their road.
But by the time I’d had this idea, the majority of the rowan berries were already shrivelled or gone – the short autumn was already giving way to frost. I only managed to collect enough berries to test out one pothole, so when I left, I left instructions for next year’s harvest.