Over the summer, Jon Hays and I started working on a new project to build a places database that can power location check-in apps. It’s based on OpenStreetMap, but focused just on places. We call it Meridian, and it has the amazing domain name latl.ong.
For years I’ve been using Foursquare to check into places like coffee shops, restaurants, and landmarks. I love having a record of places while traveling, and I’ve published many of them to a special blog. I just don’t like depending on a single company for this data.
Meridian is open source and separate from Micro.blog, but it will form the foundation for location check-in features in our apps like Sunlit and Micro.blog. You can see a little of what we have planned for Sunlit in these screenshots:
Why build something new like this? There seemed to be a missing platform for small location apps. Foursquare is increasingly interested in business customers. Google is full of ads. OpenStreetMap is a great start, but also has quite a learning curve. If all you want is nearby places, it’s too much work to bring along all the overhead of a full mapping API.
The architecture of Meridian will allow other platforms like Micro.blog to host their own copy of the data, feeding back into Meridian and OpenStreetMap. The goal is to design something as distributed as possible, where multiple people using different apps can add new places to grow the database, while still having an API that is simple to use. We’ll iterate on it slowly but there are already some pieces in place to start experimenting with. Should be fun!
Last week has been pretty busy, especially the weekend. Hence why this post is a day late.
This last week I’ve got back into Unreal and Blender in a big way. All the tutorials and time I spent learning the basics during lockdown last year have come in useful for learning / navigating other types of tutorials that I’ve been watching this week. Yoloing in to stuff that you have no idea how to do, at all, based off the back of a 10min tutorial is super fun.
This week I modelled myself in Blender using some reference photos, and then imported that file into Unreal Engine, rigged it, and made myself into a Metahuman.
It’s not great but it is good enough (I think). I need to work on the nose.
It’s weird, playing about with it in Unreal engine, every now at the right angle I’ll think “Oh hey that does look like me” but then it’s gone. Like recognising the features of someone you know in a stranger at a concert. A flash of recognition.
You won’t be seeing the *actual* meta human version of me in the final form anyway. So this weeks MVP is ticked off an a success.
I also scanned my face using an android photogrammetry tool (polyscan). Its fairly mediocre to be honest. I’ll finally scan myself with my proper 3D scanner this week I think.
The Blender tool I used was called Facebuilder and is 150 bucks a year. My demo runs out on Friday
Costs are mounting for the new show but I think it’s going to be worth it? Hope so, all this work is time not doing freelance work.
If you would like to help me achieve my creative goals, and support my current projects please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Sadly my 2019 gaming laptop isn’t powerful enough to run Nvidia’s Omniverse ‘audio2face’ app. I had hoped to make it a key tool in the new shows workflow.
Does any one know if there are any other tools? I’ve applied for early access to the recently announced Omniverse Cloud App but I worry the wait might be a little long?
Does anyone following want to collaborate on some virtual production for my new interview/podcast? Unreal 5 based.
These ambient LPs from the 80s is their focus on enhancing, and shifting, existing environments. Rather than offering a reprieve in the form of an escape, many of these Japanese artists practised sound design as a way to complement or alter physical locations into spaces of serenity and stillness.
I finished reading His Last Command by Dan Abnett.
I ditched reading Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by the poet Jane Hirshfield. The version I have is a poor quality PDF a friend sent me. I got so frustrated one evening this week that I impulse bought a hardback on eBay. Shipping was extortionate, should arrive some time in October – holiday reading, hopefully.
I’ve finished The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell. Fantastic book. I’ve been recommending it to loads of people.
I was given a copy of Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull over the summer. It’s a book by the founder of Pixar. I’m about half way though. Super interesting.
I have no context at all for Horse Lords at the time of writing. I see they have 2 albums and an EP out since 2014. But I was sent a link to this tack by a subscriber and told ‘Listen to this’. A single of their forthcoming album Comradely Objects.
If you click play on the track below, what you will find minimalist, strangely tuned string instruments, pulsating synths and tight percussing that blend and merge to create a hypnotic sound object. Like a rock and roll Terry Riley or something.
Weird, strange. Can’t wait to do the dive on their back catalogue. Excited to hear more.
Subscribe to receive new posts straight to your inbox
I’ve had a number of Casio watches over the years, from really cheap ones that my parents bought me as a kid, to rather expensive G-Shock watches that survived deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army.
I’ve always had a couple of Casio watches knocking around the house. When Joel published his post, I had 2. A G-Shock M5610 and a Green W-218H. But for the most part, I was rocking a series 5 Apple Watch.
After all the talk of Casio watches within Joel’s thread, I decided to drop the princely sum of £15 on a Casio F-91W. First released in the late 80’s, this fantastic little watch has proven itself time and again to be a great device.
I made a small modification where I switched the standard strap for a NATO strap, as I much prefer them – I have one on my G-Shock too.
Ditching the Apple Watch
I recently wrote about all of the Apple devices I now own. Honestly, it’s a little excessive. So I thought this was a good time to try ditching the Apple Watch, since it’s the Apple device I’m the least impressed with.
After switching to the F-91W, I quickly realised how often I subconsciously checked the Apple Watch for notifications. I have all audible notifications (except for phone calls) disabled on the watch, but I still kept checking it more than I thought.
It’s now been around a week since I stopped wearing the Apple Watch and the only thing I really miss is the ability to use Siri in the car to change music. It’s a pretty small thing, I’m sure you will agree. So I’ve given the Apple Watch to my wife and she’s happily using it.
Why is the Casio F-91W the best smartwatch?
Now, strictly speaking, the humble F-91W isn’t a smartwatch. But to me it does a few things that I personally think are really smart that put ahead of the Apple Watch.
I didn’t pay for my Apple Watch; I got it via a rewards program in work. But even now, a refurbished series 5 Apple Watch is at least £300 on the Apple store.
My Casio F-91W was £15 for the watch itself and another £15 for the NATO strap. So 1:10th of the cost of my Apple Watch. And guess what…they both tell the time!
That’s pretty smart if you ask me.
I had to charge my Apple Watch every single night. At a push I might have gotten 2 days out of it, but unlikely. Let’s give it the benefit of the doubt though, and say I could get 48 hours out of a single charge.
My F-91W sports a 7 year battery life. That’s 61,632 hours, folks! So on a single “charge” my F-91W will last 1,278x longer than my Apple Watch.
C’mon – that’s pretty bloody smart, no?
Size & weight
This is the pièce de résistance of the Casio F-91W, folks. It’s so bloody small and light that I barely even feel it on my wrist. So much so that my (small by G-Shock standards) M5610 feels like I’m wearing a house brick on my wrist.
It weights just 21 grams, including the strap. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, weights a chubby 50 grams. It’s also a lot bigger than the little Casio.
I’m not a fan of big watches, I never have been. So the Casio suits me perfectly.
It’s also so cheap that I don’t need to really worry about it. If I scratch the screen for example, it’s not the end of the world. I can get a scratch repair kit, or just buy a new one if it’s really bad.
So the Casio F91-W is way smaller, lighter, cheaper and has a battery that lasts over 1000x longer than the Apple Watch. Plus, they both tell the time!
Casio really nailed it with this watch – for my money, it’s the best smartwatch out there. 🙃
I know the Casio F-91W isn’t actually a smartwatch, so please don’t email me whinging about the fact it’s not a “real” smartwatch. I’m just having fun; it is a great watch though.
“It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.”
After 16 years of marriage, J told me (in a moment of anger, which I’d learned by then to provoke in order to get honest answers) that all he really knows about me is that I like books and coffee and dark chocolate.
He was selling himself short, though.
He also knows that hydrangeas are my favorite flower.
When we got married, I wore orchids in my hair.
My bouquet was hydrangeas and orchids and hypericum berries, and some others I’m forgetting. I wore a sleeveless, scoop-necked, simple dress with no beading or train. It clung and draped in all the right places. We bought it at David’s Bridal for $400 and it was perfect. I wore light pink shoes with kitten heels and one of them slipped off so I kicked the other one away and ran up the aisle barefoot and laughing with my new husband.
I love hydrangeas. They remind me of places I grew up and places I loved as a child. I love how massive they grow, how they take up space, how they change colors, how they bloom for months, and how even in winter they hold their shape.
I also love daffodils, which my mom always called jonquils. I’ve never heard another person call them jonquils. I love brave crocuses and droopingly sweet lily of the valley. I love orchids, the runway models of the flower world. I love Queen Anne’s lace picked from a roadside ditch. I love peonies, heavy with rain or dew, peppery sweet and lush. I love eucalyptus leaves and snapdragons and all kinds of lilies and fallen tree branches and waving grasses and palm fronds. I love moss, how soft it is, how it smells like the woods.
I love flowers I don’t know the names of and I love green things living and growing and I love the cold-shocked shapes they leave behind in winter.
I love the smell of sycamore and I love the way an oak tree claws the air with its gnarled branches.
At some point in my early 20s I told J my favorite flower was a hydrangea. When he got me flowers, which he did several times a year, it was always hydrangeas.
Because he knew that about me. He knew that I love hydrangeas, and he knew that I love coffee and books and dark chocolate, and those things are true.
What is it to know a living thing?
Is it to know their name, their list of attributes? Is it to rattle off family, genus, species? Is it to memorize averages and preferences? To learn their history, to sketch their shape?
I study what I love because it helps me love it more. But studying is not loving. Memorizing is not knowing.
To know a living thing, you have to forget everything you’ve learned about it.
Listen to the creak of branches in a storm. Listen to the tone of a voice. Breathe the same air and learn the different smells after rain or under a bright noon sun. Hold someone’s hand and feel the muscles tense or relax. Notice the petals droop in the evening and wake up in the morning. Notice what makes someone withdraw into quiet and notice what makes them laugh without reserve.
It is the same with flowers, with trees, with people, with all living things.
Studying allows you to be a collector. Knowing is what it takes to be a lover.
A wonder-smitten reminder “that for all the horrible chaos of the contemporary political scene this world is full of kindness.”
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.
donating = loving
For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.
The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.