‘The dry leaves in the ditch simmered and boiled in the same breezes’- Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Norcombe Hill—not far from lonely Toller Down—was one of the spots which suggest to a passer-by that he is in the presence of a shape approaching the indestructible as nearly as any to be found on earth. It was a featureless convexity of chalk and soil—an ordinary specimen of those smoothly outlined protuberances of the globe which may remain undisturbed on some great day of confusion, when far grander heights and dizzy granite precipices topple down.


The hill was covered on its northern side by an ancient and decaying plantation of beeches, whose upper verge formed a line over the crest, fringing its arched curve against the sky, like a mane. To-night these trees sheltered the southern slope from the keenest blasts, which smote the wood and floundered through it with a sound as of grumbling, or gushed over its crowning boughs in a weakened moan. The dry leaves in the ditch simmered and boiled in the same breezes, a tongue of air occasionally ferreting out a few, and sending them spinning across the grass. A group or two of the latest in date amongst the dead multitude had remained till this very mid-winter time on the twigs which bore them and in falling rattled against the trunks with smart taps.

Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter II

Hardy is a wonderful nature writer. It might sound like
damning-with-faint-praise to dismiss a novelist with the sobriquet of
“nature writer,” especially for a novel that is as full of social
dynamism and new ideas as Far from the Madding Crowd. Its
heroine, the wonderfully named Bathsheba Everdene, inherits a farm and
chooses to defy convention by managing it herself. But his able
descriptions of the world around his characters don’t insulate them
from the social pressures of the 19th century; rather, they energize
them by linking his characters’ contemporary dreams and aspirations
with the enduring land.

Certainly, as someone who has put his own two cents into describing the Boreal breeze, I can’t help but
admire how Hardy’s description comes out of direct observation. By
comparing a ditch full of dry leaves to the immanence of a cookpot he
illustrates the power of the north wind through difference: we know
the static nature of a pile of leaves in a ditch, and we know what a
stew looks like cooking away on the stove. The north wind, Hardy says,
is the difference between those two: a figurative comparison that
exercises the humanity of our observation and our essential unity with
the world around us, just as Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak are
one with their Wessex habitat.