“There is almost nothing that has such a keen sense of fun as a fallen leaf.”
By Maria Popova
In the first years of the twentieth century, a strange book titled The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens enchanted readers with its fusion of whimsy and dark humor, its way of addressing adults in a way that honors the eternal child alive in each of us, and especially with one of its characters: a small boy named Peter Pan.
Four years later, six of its chapters sprouted a new book, not for adults but for actual children. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (public library | public domain) — the story of baby Peter, who, “like all infants,” was part bird but has now to learn to live an earthbound life — was published in 1906 with illustrations by the wildly imaginative, wildly prolific Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939).
A year later, Rackham would revolutionize the technology and economics of book art with his Alice in Wonderland illustrations; Peter Pan became the R&D lab for his revolution, working within the limitations of the three-color printing process then available to create worlds of wonder with his meticulous ink lines, populating London’s familiar landscapes and places with otherworldly creatures of haunting tenderness and strangeness — Shakespearean fairies and talking mice and, of course, his signature enchanted trees.
Here was a tall gaunt man who looked like a priest and carried himself like a professor, neat and precise, Victorian to the bone, wresting from his unquiet mind something of such wildness and such defiant beauty that one is staggered into remembering that consciousness abides no exteriors.
Upon seeing Rackham’s illustrations, Barrie found himself “entranced.”
“I am always your debtor,” he wrote to the artist.
Rackham, for his part, felt betrayed by Barrie in the land of the imagination, faulting the author for creating two entirely different Peter Pans — the baby of Kensington gardens and the eternal child of Never-Never Land, which he felt had “entirely eclipsed” the first Peter despite Never-Never Land being a “poor prosy substitute” for the original world.
“I regret that the chance has been let slip of permanently peopling Kensington Gardens as the book might have done it,” Rackham rued of the rise of the second Peter, overlooking the fact that it was the first, as rendered in his own enchanted art, from which the second had sprung, both in the public’s imagination and in the author’s. Without Rackham’s fairies, there might be no Wendy; without Rackham’s Queen Mab, there might not be half of Disney.
“There had never been such a quiet day before. It was the quietest day in the world.”
By Maria Popova
Margaret Wise Brown (May 23, 1910–November 13, 1952) never did anything half-heartedly. When the love of her life fell mortally ill, she did the hardest thing in life — facing the death of a beloved while remaining a pillar for their passage — the best way she knew how: she wrote her a love letter in the form of a children’s book.
On the last day of spring in 1950, three years after Goodnight Moon had enraptured the world with its bright playfulness, The Dark Wood of the Golden Birds (public library) appeared, somber and numinous with its elegiac prose, and its haunting duotone of otherworldly greens and yellows, and its the simple dedication: “For Michael Strange.”
In the decades since, the book has fallen out of print in a culture that has no room and no language for grief, and no tolerance for the darkest dimensions of life, which crack open our vastest capacity for light. It would take an act of countercultural courage and resistance for a modern publisher to bring this work of uncommon beauty and tenderness back into the fold of life.
Illustrated by Brown’s longtime collaborator and friend Leonard Weisgard, and written with her singular poetics, the story begins:
It happened in the woods
a long time ago.
In the dark woods
where the golden birds
sang all through the night
and the day.
This magic forest grows behind the house of “an old man with white hair and green eyes,” who is “never a year older or a day younger,” and who keeps honeybees and grows asparagus for a living.
The people who flock to his house for honey and asparagus never dare venture past the edge of “the wood of the golden birds,” believing it to be a magic wood — “the unknown from which there is no return”; of the few brave souls who have wandered in, none ever returned. The old man himself never goes into the dark wood, but sometimes — at night, or early in the morning — he can hear the golden birds sing.
And in their song he heard all that was beautiful to hear,
the ringing of bells
and the soughing of the wind;
he heard the echo that is hidden in a sea shell,
the deep sea music;
he heard laughter and singing
and the songs his mother sang to him long ago.
But even he is too afraid of the song to go into the woods looking for its source.
While she was writing the book, Margaret Wise Brown was watching her beloved flicker in and out of consciousness. She must have wondered about the mystery of it all, about the harrowing unreality into which Michael vanished when she slipped into a coma her doctors at first took for permanent death.
One day a lady had gone into the woods
just a little way. But when she came out
she spoke in words that none of the other people
And she was never herself again.
But the people who had gone only to the edge of the woods
had heard the golden birds
and had been happier for hearing their song.
One day, a brother and a sister whose parents have died wander to the old man’s house.
The old man was sorry for them;
and when he heard their happy laughter
and saw how they ran with the bees from flower to flower
he loved them.
And he took them to live with him
and gave them a home.
The children find happiness working in the old man’s garden, but as time unspools, they grow more and more curious about the dark wood of the golden birds. The bees, they reason, go into the magic forest every day and not only return, but return with wildflower nectar for honey that “makes the sick people well and the sad people happy,” “the slow people fast and the noisy people quiet.” There seems to be a secret magical vitality in the dark wood, but none of its enchantments beckon the children more powerfully than the song of its golden birds.
In a passage revealing Margaret Wise Brown as one of the great unsung poets of the twentieth century, sonorous with her secret devotion to poetry, the boy tells his sister:
At night when I hear them singing far off,
I remember strange and quiet things,
the way the wind bends the grasses
as it blows across the field.
I hear the sound of the rain,
I remember the warm sunlight and the long evening shadows.
I think of the grey night and of the vast sea
and I remember all I have forgotten
that ever made me happy or sad.
When the children plead with the old man to condone their venture into the woods, he only reminds him that it is not to be done, for no one has ever returned. When they ask what lies beyond the dark wood, for there is surely an other side, he simply tells them that “on the other side of the dark wood is the land that no one knows.” When they press on with their restive curiosity, he grows angry, then falls silent, falls ill.
Day by day, the children grow more and more worried about the old man, until they decide that only one thing could revive him.
If only he could hear once more
the song of the golden birds…
Then he would remember all he has forgotten…
He would remember the sky and the sunlight on the grass.
He would remember the kindness in people’s hearts
and the sweet drowsy humming of the season of the bees.
And so, the boy decides that he must bring the song of the golden birds to the old man. One morning, “without telling anyone goodby,” he leaves the house and heads for the woods.
Days go by and he does not return.
His sister busies herself in the garden to keep the tears of loneliness and anticipatory loss from coming.
In a gentle nod to The Quiet Noisy Book, which she had published earlier that year, also illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, Brown writes:
Then came the time of the great silence.
No winds blew
and even the bees seemed to stop their buzzing.
The sun was warm on the earth.
The old man slept
and all the little girl could hear
was the sound of her broom
as she swept the house.
There had never been such a quiet day before.
It was the quietest day in the world.
The night came on
more softly than ever
with shooting stars
and no winds blowing.
There were no colors now,
everything was dark in the night,
and the night was black
and heavy and silent.
Then, just before dawn, a voice comes from the wood, “clear and more golden than the song of the golden birds.” The little girl hears it in her sleep, and smiles; listening at his window, the old man “remembers all he had forgotten and knew more than he had ever known before.” So it is that Margaret Wise Brown contours the outlines of the transformation, but she lets the reader fill it in with their own meaning, for it is a transcendent experience she writes of, and half a century before her William James had qualified ineffability as one of the four features of transcendent experiences.
The next day when the sun shone
on the house in the field of grass
it woke up the bees and the old man
and the little girl.
And it woke up the boy
who was once more asleep in his own bed.
He had returned with a golden feather piercing his heart and the secret knowledge of the dark wood — the knowledge of life in its totality, ravishing and savage — a magic forest in which darkness and light are forever aflicker in a single enchantment.
As the boy weeded the asparagus
there were times when he sang as he worked.
Sometimes his song was happy
as the birds in the air.
Sometimes his song was sad
like a spring mist in the night;
or like the depths of a lake at noon, very quiet.
But always the songs he sang were such
that the people who came to buy in the afternoon
stayed to listen
and then had to hurry home to their suppers before dark.
And as they walked along the paths to their homes
the winds seemed softer
and the evening star seemed brighter
for their having listened to the boy’s song.
Michael Strange lived through that summer before entering the dark wood in the last weeks of autumn never to return, remaining, as every great love does, imprinted on the song of Margaret Wise Brown’s life.
“Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”
By Maria Popova
Even if we recognize the statistical-existential fact that death is an emblem of our luckiness, most living beings are emphatically averse to the idea of dying. Since the dawn of our species, in our poems and our psalms and our dreams of eternal life, we humans have been petitioning entropy for mercy, for exception, for a felicitous violation of the laws of physics. In prior ages, this was the task of religion, and it was a necessary task — all major religions arose at a time when most children never survived childhood, most people had lost a panoply of parents, children, siblings, and spouses by the end of their twenties, and most never lived past their forties. People needed a pleasing consolation just to live with such staggering levels of loss, and they found it in the soothing notion of an immortal soul that survives the body. In our own epoch, secular notions like cryogenics, transhumanism, and technological singularity have taken on that role, trying to get to immortality through the wormhole of some very slippery semi-science.
But what if the key to immortality was already ours, hidden in the very heart of our humanity, not in our science but in our art? So argues the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler (December 4, 1835–June 18, 1902) — a writer of uncommon foresight into our common future, epochs ahead of his time in his thinking, and still ahead of ours — in a lecture he delivered under the brief “How to Make the Best of Life.”
Butler begins by facing the magnitude of the question:
Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. One cannot make the best of such impossibilities, and the question is doubly fatuous until we are told which of our two lives — the conscious or the unconscious — is held by the asker to be the truer life.
In a sentiment Richard Dawkins would come to echo two human lifetimes later, Butler adds:
I do not deny that we had rather not die, nor do I pretend that much even in the case of the most favoured few can survive them beyond the grave. It is only because this is so that our own life is possible; others have made room for us, and we should make room for others in our turn without undue repining.
But then he offers a wondrous perspective on our longing for immortality, both counterintuitive and grounded in the most fundamental truth of life, which is our creative conscience:
Death gives a life to some men and women compared with which their so-called existence here is as nothing. Which is the truer life of Shakespeare, Handel, that divine woman who wrote the Odyssey, and of Jane Austen — the life which palpitated with sensible warm motion within their own bodies, or that in virtue of which they are still palpitating in ours? In whose consciousness does their truest life consist — their own, or ours? Can Shakespeare be said to have begun his true life till a hundred years or so after he was dead and buried? His physical life was but as an embryonic stage, a coming up out of darkness, a twilight and dawn before the sunrise of that life of the world to come which he was to enjoy hereafter.
Homer and Shakespeare speak to us probably far more effectually than they did to the men of their own time, and most likely we have them at their best.
Considering what determines whether a person is making “the best of life” in this way — whether they are living up to their highest human potential, which ensures they go on living in other lives — Butler locates some of the key in “in the wideness of his or her sympathy with, and therefore life in and communion with other people.” We are able to recognize such everlasting lives “in the wreckage that comes ashore from the sea of time” — but they are not always those who reached greatness in their own lifetime, or those worshipped by the greatest number of posterity:
I do not speak of the Virgils and Alexander Popes, and who can say how many more whose names I dare not mention for fear of offending. They are as stuffed birds or beasts in a museum; serviceable no doubt from a scientific standpoint, but with no vivid or vivifying hold upon us. They seem to be alive, but are not. I am speaking of those who do actually live in us, and move us to higher achievements though they be long dead, whose life thrusts out our own and overrides it. I speak of those who draw us ever more towards them from youth to age, and to think of whom is to feel at once that we are in the hands of those we love, and whom we would most wish to resemble.
If we are attentive enough to our inner lives, we can each recognize the influential dead living within us, whose life’s work has shaped and is shaping our own. (Figuring most dominantly in my own private retinue are Rachel Carson, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Thomas, Carl Sagan, and Rilke.) Those who attain such immortality, Butler intimates, are passionate lovers of life, enamored with all the dazzlements of nature and human nature:
We never love the memory of anyone unless we feel that he or she was himself or herself a lover.
People stamp themselves on their work; if they have not done so they are naught, if they have we have them; and for the most part they stamp themselves deeper on their work than on their talk. No doubt Shakespeare and Handel will be one day clean forgotten, as though they had never been born. The world will in the end die; mortality therefore itself is not immortal, and when death dies the life of these men will die with it — but not sooner. It is enough that they should live within us and move us for many ages as they have and will. Such immortality, therefore, as some men and women are born to achieve, or have thrust upon them, is a practical if not a technical immortality, and he who would have more let him have nothing… He or she who has made the best of the life after death has made the best of the life before it.
With an eye to the imperceptible means by which we come to live in others, as others have come to live in us, he writes:
Unconsciousness is no bar to livingness. Our conscious actions are a drop in the sea as compared with our unconscious ones. Could we know all the life that is in us by way of circulation, nutrition, breathing, waste and repair, we should learn what an infinitesimally small part consciousness plays in our present existence; yet our unconscious life is as truly life as our conscious life, and though it is unconscious to itself it emerges into an indirect and vicarious consciousness in our other and conscious self, which exists but in virtue of our unconscious self. So we have also a vicarious consciousness in others. The unconscious life of those that have gone before us has in great part moulded us into such men and women as we are, and our own unconscious lives will in like manner have a vicarious consciousness in others, though we be dead enough to it in ourselves.
It is by the force of our creative vitality, and by the generosity of spirit with which we share it with others, that we attain such immortality in the consciousness of others. Recognizing this as he looks over the landscape of his own creative field — the art of literature — Butler arrives at a common truth for all art:
Will [any artist] hesitate to admit that it is a lively pleasure to her to feel that on the other side of the world someone may be smiling happily over her work, and that she is thus living in that person though she knows nothing about it? Here it seems to me that true faith comes in. Faith does not consist, as the Sunday School pupil said, “in the power of believing that which we know to be untrue.” It consists in holding fast that which the healthiest and most kindly instincts of the best and most sensible men and women are intuitively possessed of, without caring to require much evidence further than the fact that such people are so convinced; and for my own part I find the best men and women I know unanimous in feeling that life in others, even though we know nothing about it, is nevertheless a thing to be desired and gratefully accepted if we can get it either before death or after… Our life then in this world is, to natural religion as much as to revealed, a period of probation. The use we make of it is to settle how far we are to enter into another.
As the life of the race is larger, longer, and in all respects more to be considered than that of the individual, so is the life we live in others larger and more important than the one we live in ourselves. This appears nowhere perhaps more plainly than in the case of great teachers, who often in the lives of their pupils produce an effect that reaches far beyond anything produced while their single lives were yet unsupplemented by those other lives into which they infused their own.
A wonder-smitten reminder “that for all the horrible chaos of the contemporary political scene this world is full of kindness.”
By Maria Popova
In the early nineteenth century, the teenage Mary Godwin and her not-yet-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley left England for the Continent, traveling by foot and by mule, on the wings of love and youth. Through their constant poverty and hunger, through the frequent accidents and illnesses, they slaked their souls on beauty — on the shimmering grandeur of mountains and rivers, fiery sunsets and moonlit nights. It was on those dirt roads, under those open skies, that they became Romantics.
A century and a half later, another indomitable spirit of uncommon sensitivity to beauty, in nature and in human nature, took those dirt roads and wound them halfway around the world, discovering the romance of reality along the way.
In January 1963, as Central Europe was entering its harshest winter in eighty years, Dervla Murphy (November 28, 1931–May 22, 2022) mounted her bicycle named Roz and left Ireland for India, by way of France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Along the way, narrowly escaping death by landslide and wolf pack, by Taliban and six-foot icicle, she encountered people from wildly different cultures, whose boundless hospitality affirmed what she had to have already known in her bones to endeavor on so dangerous a journey at all: “that for all the horrible chaos of the contemporary political scene this world is full of kindness.”
Her unassumingly titled account of the experience, drawn from her itinerant diaries — Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (public library) — is one of the most dazzlingly, unsummarizably wonderful books I have read in a lifetime of passionate reading: the kind that rekindles your faith in the human spirit and reenchants you with the staggering beauty of this world.
A typical entry reads:
I slept very well last night in my roadside tea-house, curled up in a corner of the one-roomed building, with moonlight streaming through the doorway that had no door.
To her, a ferocious storm is but a mirror for the poetry of reality:
By now the thunder had ceased and when the wind dropped the overwhelming silence of the mountains reminded me of the hush felt in a great empty Gothic cathedral at dusk — a silence which is beautiful in itself.
She departs with only a saddlebag of luggage, containing her passport and camera, a map, one spare pair of nylon pants and nylon shirt, toothbrush, comb, writing paper, two pens, and a copy of Blake’s poems.
The very outset of her journey is emblematic of the spirit of the whole: When her planned departure date arrives with temperatures far below any she has lived through, Murphy decides to wait a week, hoping the cold would remit. When it does not and each grocery outing becomes “a scaled-down Expedition to the Antarctic,” she presses forth and departs anyway — the first bout of the touchingly stubborn persistence that would mark her entire endeavor.
With an icicle firmly attached to her nose, she makes her way to a Yugoslavian youth hostel, gets blown off her saddle by the most ferocious wind she has ever experienced, tumbles down a fifteen-foot sloping ditch and into a stream frozen so solid that her impact produces not even a crack on the ice, crawls back onto the bicycle, eventually accepts a nightmarish ride in a rickety truck across “250 miles of frozen plain which stretched with relentless white anonymity,” and resumes on two wheels after the truck crashes into a tree. All along, she slakes her soul on the austere beauty of the landscape:
At the valley’s end my road started to climb the mountains, sweeping up and up and again up, in a series of hairpin bends that each revealed a view more wild and splendid than the last.
On the morning of my third day in Belgrade, there came a rise in temperature that not merely eased the body but relaxed the nerves. Never shall I forget the joy of standing bareheaded in my host’s front garden, watching tenuous, milky clouds drifting across the blue sky.
Immediately after fighting off a pack of wolves, one of which had attached itself by its teeth to the shoulder of her windbreaker, she again orients to beauty:
All around me the mountains, valleys and forests lay white and lifeless under a low, grey sky, in the profound stillness of a landscape where no breeze stirred, there was neither house nor bird to be seen and the streams were silent under their covering of ice. I stopped often to look around me, and savour the uncanny sensation of being the only living, moving thing in the midst of this hushed desolation, where my own breathing sounded loud.
Sometimes the enchantment of nature almost blinds her to the menacing brutalities of its forces. In one of myriad passages that radiate both her felicitous spirit and her tender relationship with her bicycle as an anthropomorphized companion — relatable relations for those of us who live on two wheels — she writes:
From the near distance came a dull, booming sound, as soldiers blew up the gigantic accumulations of rock-hard snow which, unless artificially loosened, would have dammed the river and sent its overflow rushing through the nearby town of Cuprija. It was awe-inspiring to see the wide, angry Morava swiftly sweeping its tremendous burden of ice and snow-chunks through the vast wilderness of sullen, brown flood-waters, and my awe was soon justified when a massive wave came crashing across the road, swept me off Roz and rolled me over and over, choking as I swallowed the muddy water and gasping as its iciness penetrated my clothes. Next a branch of a little roadside tree appeared above me and pulling myself up by it I found that the water, though still flowing strongly, was now no more than three feet deep. I looked for Roz and, during one appalling moment, thought that she had disappeared. Then I saw a yellow handlebar grip in a ditch, and hurried to rescue her.
By February, she has made her way to the barely discernible border of communist Bulgaria, on the other side of which lay my mother in her crib, about to turn one. Murphy enters the “the insignificant little house which is Bulgaria’s Northern Frontier Fortress” and knocks on one of the doors. When no one answers, she knocks again. A delightful scene ensues:
Again my knock remained unanswered, but this time, when I opened a door leading out of the hall, I found a policeman happily dozing by the stove, with a cat and two kittens on his lap. I immediately diagnosed that he was a nice policeman, and when I had gently roused him, and he had recovered from the shock of being required to function officially, I had my diagnosis confirmed.
In December, the Bulgarian Embassy in London had issued me with a visa valid for only four days. Now this genial policeman, who spoke fluent English, took one look at the card, said that it was ridiculous, and issued me with a new visa entitling me to stay in Bulgaria as long as I wished! After which we sat by the stove and amiably discussed our two countries over glasses of brandy.
She proceeds to cycle almost all the way to Istanbul, save a few short lifts from busses and trucks between blizzards in the Turkish highlands. On one of them, she barely escapes “being entombed in snow” when the bus tumbles into a ditch on the side of the mountain road and the snowplough dispatched to rescue it careens off the cliff, killing both men onboard. Even in such proximity to death, her buoyant spirit and largehearted humanity shine through:
As we waited the snow piled higher and higher around us, its silent softness contrasting eerily with the whine of the gale through the pass. It is on occasions such as these that I thank God for my sanguine temperament, which refuses to allow me to believe in disaster until it is finally manifest, and I noticed that my comrades in distress were equally well fortified against panic by their fatalistic acceptance of Allah’s Will. Yet perhaps we were all more apprehensive than we had allowed ourselves to recognise, for we cheered very loudly when the second snowplough eventually appeared.
(You can tell by now that I have fallen wholeheartedly in love with this bygone stranger.)
When she crosses over to Persia, presently the Islamic Republic of Iran, she shares a squalid bed with “a host of energetic fleas” in a box of a room at a roadside dosshouse, where she is awakened in the middle of the night by “a six-foot, scantily-clad Kurd” who has peeled her bedding from her and is leaning over in the moonlight. Without hesitation she pulls the pistol from under her pillow, fires it at the ceiling, and closes the scene. The next thing she writes is another exultation in beauty:
On the following morning came one of the most glorious experiences of the entire journey — a fifteen-mile cycle-run in perfect weather around the base of Mount Ararat. This extraordinary mountain, which inspires the most complex emotions in the least imaginative traveller, affected me so deeply that I have thought of it ever since as a personality encountered, rather than a landscape observed… Cycling day after day beneath a sky of intense blue, through wild mountains whose solitude and beauty surpassed anything I had been able to imagine during my day-dreams about this journey.
Particularly I remember the unique purity of the light, which gave to every variation of every colour an individual vitality and which lucidly emphasised every line, curve and angle. Here, for the first time, I became fully aware of light as something positive, rather than as a taken-for-granted aid to perceiving objects.
Punctuating all this natural beauty are the most unhandsome manifestations of human nature: amateur bandits seize Roz, but a pistol shot Murphy fires into the air makes the scatter “like rabbits”; a “gorgeously uniformed and braided” young police officer summons her to his quarters in the police barracks on the pretext of some bureaucratic business and attempts to force himself on her, which she escapes by grabbing at his trousers and deploying “unprintable tactics to reduce him to a state of temporary agony.” Elsewhere, turbaned youths stone her within moments of her arrival in their village, further maiming her already ailing right arm, blistered with sunburn from all the long hours cycling steadily eastward.
“Today a deep depression has moved over Dervla,” she writes with third-person remove in one of the handful of entries in which she allows herself anything other than absolute buoyancy of spirit. Upon arrival in Teheran, she is told at the embassy that “under no circumstances whatever would they grant a visa to a woman who intended cycling alone through Afghanistan” — six years earlier, a Swedish woman motorist had been found chopped up to pieces, prompting the government to ban all lone woman travelers. With her usual wry rationalism, she points out that “women get murdered in Europe with monotonous regularity and that the hazards of travelling alone through [Afghanistan] were probably no greater than the hazards of doing likewise in Britain or France.” Her unassuming persistence grants her an audience with “a sufficiently senior man,” to whom she declares herself solely responsible for her fate, waiving all governmental responsibility. Her account of the exchange is one of the most multiply charming in the book:
Fortunately, the victim of my machinations was an upholder of Free Enterprise and the Liberty of the Individual. He looked at me in silence for a moment, then said, “Well, I suppose if visas had been required in 1492, the New World would not have been discovered. All right — I’ll play ball. But remember that all this is very unofficial and unbecoming to my position and I’m depending on you to come out alive at the other end, for my sake – which I somehow think you will do.”
And off she goes, into the hinterland, her heart heavy with the news that two women have just been killed in the Mullah-provoked riots against women’s emancipation. Once again she turns to the nonhuman consolations of nature in this uncommonly beautiful corner of the globe:
Every mile from Teheran was pure joy — as much the joy of space and silence as of visual loveliness… These extravagantly sweeping lines of plain and mountain are intoxicating to an islander and the blending of shades on the barren hillsides is a symphony of colour.
Over and over, it seems like Murphy’s bright spirit is her natural amulet against misfortune. Stopping by to rest at a local village, she reaches across the barrier of language, culture, and age to reduce the local children to giggles by pretending to be a sheepdog, before metamorphosing into a donkey to crawl around the sand on all fours with three toddlers or her back.
She takes a detour to Omar Khayyám’s hometown, “to pay homage,” where she is mobbed by eager local youths begging her help — which she gives eagerly — with their English, waving their dictionaries and their copies of Jane Eyre, and bombarding her with complex pronunciation problems as she relishes the town’s stunning gardens full of “smooth lawns, pale green cascades of weeping willow and brilliant beds of carnations, roses, pansies and geraniums.”
Everywhere she goes, she is a spectacle — some have never seen a bicycle, some have never seen a lone woman traveller, and none have never seen, nor could even conceive of, a woman traveling the world alone on a bicycle. In her baggy hand-me-down shirt and boots donated by the U.S. Army in the Middle East, she is often taken for a man — because, she speculates, “the idea of a woman travelling alone is so completely outside the experience and beyond the imagination of everyone.”
Murphy observes these cultural peculiarities without the slightest bit of personal offense or judgment, only with largehearted curiosity, reserving her only instance of unconcealed contempt for an encounter with a member of a wholly different culture:
American: “What the hell are you doing on this goddam road?”
Me: (having taken an instant dislike to him) “Cycling.”
American: “I can see that — but what the hell for?”
Me: “For fun.”
American: “Are you a nut-case or what? Gimme that bike and I’ll stick it on behind and you get in here and we’ll get out of this goddam frying-pan as fast as we can. This track isn’t fit for a camel!”
Me: “When you’re on a cycle instead of in a jeep it doesn’t feel like a frying-pan. Moreover, if you look around you you’ll notice that the landscape compensates for the admittedly deplorable state of the road. In fact I enjoy cycling through this sort of country – but thank you for the kind offer. Goodbye.”
As I rode on he passed me and yelled: “You are a goddam nut-case!”
I regard this sort of life, with just Roz and me and the sky and the earth, as sheer bliss.
For all the levity Murphy brings to her challenges, she is also moving through the world — a world so very different from the one she knows — with the deep-thinking, deep-feeling person’s unassailable sensitivity to the underlying complexities of culture. Often, her natural generosity of spirit leads her to layers of nuance that evade even the most forward-thinking of persons, even today; always, she meets the unknown not with judgment but with curiosity — that hallmark of true grandeur of spirit. Finding herself “quite sorry to be leaving Persia,” she reflects:
Beneath all the physical dirt and moral corruption there is an elegance and dignity about life here which you can’t appreciate at first, while suffering under the impact of the more obvious and disagreeable national characteristics. The graciousness with which peasants greet each other and the effortless art with which a few beautiful rags and pieces of silver are made to furnish and decorate a whole house — in these and many other details Persia can still teach the West. I suppose it’s all a question of seeing one of the oldest and richest civilisations in the world long past its zenith.
Even through the slow and difficult climb to Herat — a city “as old as history and as moving as a great epic poem” — she drinks in the beauty that remains her most steadfast fuel along the grueling journey:
It took me four and a half hours to cover the thirty miles… but I enjoyed the wide silence of the desert in the cool of the morning. This is a city of absolute enchantment in the literal sense of the word. It loosens all the bonds binding the traveller to his own age and sets him free to live in a past that is vital and crude but never ugly.
So begins her love affair with Afghanistan, which casts a lifelong enchantment on her with its aura of unremitting beauty: the beauty of its nature, the beauty of its art, the beauty of its people — “by our standards, the best-looking people in the world,” endowed with a soft kindliness she has never encountered before:
I already love the country and the people and somehow language barriers don’t matter when one feels such a degree of sympathy with a race which responds so graciously and kindly to a smile or a gesture of friendship.
The country would soon emerge as her favorite leg of the journey by many orders of magnitude, beckoning her to return:
This is the part of Afghanistan I was most eager to see, but in my wildest imaginings I never thought any landscape could be so magnificent. If I am murdered en route it will have been well worth while!
This morning I went to the outskirts of the town just to wander among the green woods and sit on green grass beside a little stream in a beautifully kept public park. Many of the streets are lined with enormous pine trees and a glorious garden of lawns and lavishly blooming rose bushes stretches in front of the mosque… I sat on the shady side of the enormous courtyard for almost an hour, enjoying the mosaics and the gold of the brickwork glowing against the blue sky. It was very peaceful there with no sound or movement except for a myriad twittering martins swooping in and out of the cool, dim passages between the hundreds of pillared archways.
The predominant colour here is blue of all shades, with yellow, black, pink, brown, green and orange tiles blended so skilfully that from a certain distance a façade or minaret looks as though made of some magic precious metal for the colour of which there is no name.
Cycling through the most beautiful part of the Hindu Kush, she gasps once more at the otherworldly mesmerism of this world:
The glory of those mountains makes one feel that it must all be a dream. Every peak and slope and outcrop is different in shape, texture and colour, the rock and shale and clay shaded purple, rose, green, ochre, black, pale grey, dark grey, brown, navy and off-white. Then, below those arid, soaring cliffs… graceful with willows and poplars, and soft with new grass and filled with bird-song and the rush of the river.
But hers is no rosy enchantment with nature — she is equally attuned to its impartial brutality that comes even-handed with the beauty, ready to reduce human lives to trifling minutia in a matter of moments:
For about the first twenty of this afternoon’s forty miles we were going through a narrow gorge overhung by mountains eroded to many grotesquely beautiful shapes — some were like the ruins of colossal Gothic cathedrals, others had crags worn by wind and water into parodies of sculptured human faces and always there was that incredible display of colours. Then the valley widened slightly and we came to a region of devastation, a shattered wilderness where giant rocks, the size of cottages, lay strewn everywhere, and wide fissures in the mountains warned that at the next earth tremor — and they are frequent here — the whole appearance of the area would change.
And yet, through the flat tires, the broken rib, the “extreme hunger than extreme thirst, which almost drives one mad,” the food poisoning, the pain of “mental loneliness,” the storms of ice and dust, the fingers burned on the metal handlebars while cycling through unbearable heat at 7,000 feet elevation, “the terrifying dehydration of mouth and nostrils and eyes until… a sort of staring blindness came on,” she never loses sight of why she has endeavored to do this in the first place — why she has obeyed the clarion call of wakefulness to life. In an entry emblematic of the spirit in which she has undertaken her journey, she writes:
Another fabulous dust-storm is performing now and all electricity has gone off again, so I’m writing by oil-lamp in a bath of sweat.
Again and again she orients to beauty, writing from Pakistan:
Behind us, almost overhanging the mess buildings, rose a 9,000-foot mountain wall of stark, grey rock which was repeated on the other side of the narrow valley; it’s this confinement which keeps the temperature so high despite an altitude of nearly 5,000 feet. Down the valley snow-capped peaks of over 20,000 feet were sharply beautiful against the gentle evening sky and as the setting sun caught the valley walls they changed colour so that their pink and violet glow seemed to illuminate the whole scene.
While we were having dinner on the verandah a full moon rose and by the time the meal was over the valley looked so very lovely that I took myself off for a walk — to the unspoken disapproval of all those present! Having descended steeply for about half a mile my path turned west along the valley floor, leaving the shuttered stalls of the bazaar behind. Tall mulberry and apricot trees laid intricate shadows on the sandy path and the silence was broken only by the snow-enraged Gilgit River. The sky was a strange royal-blue with all but the brightest stars quenched, while on either side the mountains were transformed into silver barricades, as their quartz surfaces reflected the moonlight.
Two days later:
Today’s landscape was a series of dramatic contrasts. The valley floor around Gilgit Town showed the fragrant abundance of early summer – fields of trembling, silver-green wheat and richly golden barley, bushes of unfamiliar, lovely blossoms and, most beautiful of all, a rock-plant with tiny, golden-pink flowers, growing so lavishly in the crevices of the walls that it was like a sunset cloud draped over the grey stones. Then the valley narrowed to exclude the early sun until there was room only for the river between the opposing precipices and we were alone in a barren, rough, shadowy world, where nothing moved but the brown flood-waters.
Two weeks laters, from amid the glaciers of Pakistan’s challenging Babusar mountain pass:
I saw two magnificent eagles and the air was filled all day with lark-song… Scintillating snow-peaks and regal fir trees, brilliant green meadows right up to the snowline and glistening glaciers in the gullies, waterfalls tumbling and sparkling everywhere and jewel-like wild flowers, rippling bird-songs and the faint, clean aroma of some unfamiliar herb.
The overtone of the book, of the journey, of this uncommon consciousness moving through the common world, finds its distillation in a single line from the same entry:
What a wonderful place this world is!
I could go on — Full Tilt is one of those rare books, a handful in a lifetime if one is lucky, brimming with so many touching human moments and such astonishments of natural beauty that one cannot help but have more passages underlined than not. Read it — your life will thank you for it — then revisit composer Paola Prestini’s choral masterwork celebrating the history of the bicycle as an instrument of emancipation and Maria Ward’s nineteenth-century manifesto for bicycling, featuring photographs by her visionary friend and lover Alice Austen, who paved the way for women like Dervla Murphy.