One of the perks of cycling is that I end up close (sometimes too close) to nature. For example, most mornings recently I’ve been close enough to a badger to see the dew on its fur. Unfortunately, it’s been the same, dead badger every time.
Our cultural acceptance of roadkill is material for another post entirely; but it’s always been a source of sadness, disappointment and anger to me, that the only badgers I’ve ever seen in real life have already been thoughtlessly killed by drivers. So my experience on the outskirts of Oxford city centre (no less) just before Christmas could be described as quasi-religious.
If you walk north out of the back of Oxford train station, a footpath takes you onto a small estate consisting almost entirely of Rewley Road and its ribs. You enter on one of the latter, and cross over the spine onto a companion rib, which at its end leads onto a waterside footpath. In front of you is a motley, spidery collection of not-quite-river and not-quite-canal waterways, a sudden, exciting wilderness where you least expect it. Eventually it evens out to canal paths and the floodworthy estates where Lucy’s Factory used to be, but for now there’s overgrowth, hillocks of dense trees, and black, secret pools, forming an archipelago of non-civilization.
On that night in December I was making my way from the station to the Old Bookbinders pub in Jericho, and it was already completely dark. I passed through the gate from twee cobbled estate to footpath, and the enclave of countryside opened up around me. It was in that unfolding half-second,with its sweeping sleight of hand, that I saw a young badger on the tarmac footpath between me and Rewley Road bridge. It immediately flinched, like it could feel my eyes on it, and then darted off before I could react, towards the bridge and then into the bushes.
Older badgers, as far as I’m aware, have terrible eyesight and pad around with a rolling, sailor’s gait; this one, on the other hand, saw me in near darkness, and had a powerful sleekness to its propulsion, almost like a bullet-headed, portly-hipped otter. Its gaze briefly contained animal incomprehension, alien and panicked, eyes wide.
Then it was gone: a second of a live badger, weighed against commute after commute past dead ones; yet not found wanting. Whenever K. and I pass by roadkill, I tell her that for every poor corpse you have to imagine dozens of live animals, just like that one but quick and sleek, hiding in the woods and loping over the fields. And now, every time I see grey-and-nicotine fur against the grass verge, I’m finally able to do just that.