‘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.

Mini Maelstrom

This gallery contains 6 photos.

It’s not a doozy of a dust storm today, just a little one, the kind of atmospheric event that makes folks wearing facemasks look kind of foolish. The wind was coming from the south in the morning but over lunch switched to the north. Boreas, my an… Continue reading

Drafting redux

Lucky me, I was passing by the distribution yard and saw yesterday’s assist
driving by. I was a bit slow taking out the camera and
getting the snapshot, which is why the version you’re seeing is blown
up and cropped like the climactic scene in “High Anxiety.”

Just a tiny bit of drafting today, behind a contractor’s giant-bed
pickup truck as I passed the end of the straightaway near the fire
station. As soon as we got out of the built-up area, he sped up and
disappeared, leaving me to develop an unintermediated personal
relationship with my friend the North Wind.

What I have been meaning to mention for a couple days now, as I get
closer to my 500-mile goal for January is what you could think of as the
“ninety-nine-and-a-half just won’t do” problem. If you fail at a goal,
it’s most likely not because you got to 45%, but because you couldn’t
get past 90%. So in my situation at 89% (two rides left, basically)
for the month, I need to focus and keep up the solid cycling, day
after day, because otherwise I’ll get distracted and won’t make the
goal. I can always laze away once I’ve made the goal, right?

But just simple goal-reaching doesn’t help me explain to a reader like
you how seriously I take this getting the speed up and riding fast. I
could just slack off a little bit and who would notice, and there are
days like Wednesday where I just can’t get fast, but mostly I take this real
seriously, trying to push myself harder on each lap. It helps to have
an implacable antagonist like the North Wind, but pretty much it’s all
my doing. There’s no coach screaming at me or team to keep up with. So
when I finish a ride like today’s, with a steady wind from the north,
with two laps at faster than 18 mph, I feel pretty good about myself,
having recovered nearly completely from the slow-slash-rest day on
Wednesday. And I suspect that every time I put myself in that frame of
mind, where dogged persistence and determination are needed to push to
the finish line, I’ll find that it pays off for the next time.


Yes! At the very end of my ride today, I fell in behind a yellow JCB
10K forklift as the road wended northwesterly, into the Boreal teeth.
It was perfect drafting, making up for having to beat the nasty
crosswinds in both east and west directions on my own. Overall, I did
my best but finished both seven-mile laps at a 17.2 mph pace.

 I started late but still finished before sunset, but the brown-tinted
sunglasses I was wearing made it seem on the last westbound lap as if
I was riding into the secret heart of a dust storm. That and the nasty
chill the wind started to collect. I’m glad I’m back in my lodging,
drinking coffee and finally eating M’s chocolate bar from September
’08. Question inutile to bring it home.

V-for-velocity, M-for-metaphor

What can you say about speed? Stereolab songs, racehorses, gazelles and orbital velocity, and pistons, just to name a few off my recent postings. The more I work on the blog here the more I see speed as a kind of metaphor I’m using more frequently for other things in my life, things that I’m still trying to put their own words to.

Every time I come up with a new metaphor for “fast” it is as if I’m asking myself to identify the mystery object in a game of 20 Questions.

Going faster entails the promise of liberation, the hope of improvement, the badge of hard training, and the motivation to keep pushing. You may not be subject to all these varied forces, but I feel them keenly here in the secret city, my little exile’s bubble.

As you can see from the accompanying chart, this has been a pretty good week for biking. The pink line is January’s rides, the fastest seven-mile lap on each day, and the green line is December’s rides, same procedure. (I have no idea what the background is or where it came from, only that it’s a photograph I took.) My personal theory to explain the improvement is that by writing about going faster, it makes it easier to do it. I hope it works for you, too.

Today, matched against a modest Boreal breeze, was a particular red-letter day. Much as I enjoy complaining about it, I slightly prefer riding with the north wind to the south wind because it means I get an extra ten minutes to warm up before I start doing laps. Today I brought my heart rate up to just over 70% as I turned the corner into the headwind and managed to sustain that level for the next 44 minutes as I fit two entire laps into that time period. I haven’t before done two laps at that speed, more than 19 mph.

As I go over the ride in my head, it seems to be composed of the same little episodes that every ride shares, many of which I’ve written about already: e.g., the Funny Hat People doing their little afternoon run; the potential lapse in concentration (avoided!) on the firehouse straightaway; the flip around onto the back stretch and accompanying realization that I’m making good time and can ride fast with the wind for the rest of the way; even the soundtrack for today, Tune-Yards’ “Fiya,” off the same record that “Sunlight” comes from, this one with a monster ukulele riff. Somehow I put everything together like a good little editor and wound up on a pace to be proud of.

Boreas vs. Me

I complain a lot about the wind here on this blog, but today was the north wind’s roughest attempt yet to keep me off the road. Today was a bright, sunny cloudless day. I got out on the bike a little early this afternoon and I could notice the gusts even down here in the canyon. When I got up to the plateau there was one smooth bit where I had the wind at my back, and everything was beautiful and quiet, and I could listen to the wheels rushing against the pavement and the chain spinning around the sprockets.

Then 10 minutes later, after passing the dump, I came around and headed directly into the Boreal fury. I’ve noticed about the flat desert around the airfield that there’s no letup. Nothing stands in the way, apparently, between me and Greenland, or Kamchatka, or whatever they call the House of the North Wind these days. It’s relentless, completely different from the gusty winds that blow, careless about their direction and force, back home.

I’m reminded of one evening back in 1988 when I was walking along 14th Street in the middle of the night (on the way to Nell’s, if I recall correctly) and ol’ Boreas was blowing right off the Hudson and wrapping around my bones, poking and twisting with his cold fingers between my muscles and ligaments, like my grandmother taking apart a chicken.

Pictures are stealth-camera shots, taken with my cell phone, on the same 14th Street.