The student of nature has in the bicycle a very serviceable friend.
I’ve got a special bookshelf devoted to my favorite oddball classics of cycling literature. It includes copies of F.W Bockett’s Some Literary Landmarks for Pilgrims on Wheels, J.W. Allen’s Wheel Magic, and Charles Brooks’ A Thread of English Road, all works that no-one could call “great” books--they’re too weird and uneven--but that are nonetheless wonderful in some strange way.
That’s where I’d love to someday put a copy of William S. Beekman’s Cycle Gleanings: or, Wheels and Wheeling for Business and Pleasure and the Study of Nature (1894). I say someday because it’s almost impossible to find extant copies of this book. I got to look at one of the seven existing copies listed in the worldcat via interlibrary loan, but good luck trying to acquire a copy for yourself. It’s rare and expensive (years ago I saw a copy online going for $700), which makes it even more of a gem, if you ask me.
The author William Beekman refers to himself as a “chemist” and clearly has a science background, judging from his interest in geology and astronomy. However, he’s more than just a science guy. Much more. As the sub-title suggests, Beekman is also devoted to the study of Nature (with a capital N), and he’s an avid photographer thereof, evidenced by the dozens of (unfortunately low-quality) black and white landscape photos included in the book. Plus he’s an ardent fan of poetry, modernity, and existential philosophy, with a side interest in extraterrestrial life and what we might today call theories of well being. Not your typical chemist.
But more than anything, Beekman loves bicycles and bicycling. He makes the case that these machines are marvels of modernity and that riding them can enhance our understanding and appreciation of Nature, the cosmos, and ourselves. On this, he possesses the evangelical enthusiasm of a true believer.
Cycling has become one of the features of higher civilization, and consequently is ably supported by a constantly growing class of vigorous, intelligent people.
Beekman wasn’t alone in this view. At the end of the nineteenth century, before automobiles became widely used, bicycles were seen by many as a revolutionary technology, one that could transform how humans got to work, travelled, and played. It’s how Beekman explores this view that is unusual, through a strange mixture of argument, dialogue, lecture, photos, narrative, and sermon.
The structure of the book feels totally random. It contains a mere 49 pages of text, consisting of eight chapters, some of them polemics, making the case for the superiority of the bicycle (with subtitles such as “An Improvement on Nature’s Legacy of Walking” and “The Importance of the Wheel and Wheeling”); others are curious dramatic exchanges between “Mr. X, Mr. Y., and Mr. Z,” reminiscent of Izaak Walton’s The Complete Angler, in which the voices discuss astronomy, poetry, graveyard etiquette, aesthetic theory, and the boundaries of the Seen and Unseen. Still others are almost purely descriptive trip reports of journeys around New England. At the very end, there’s a short piece called “How My Wife Learned to Ride a Bicycle,” by Beekman’s friend Eric Allan. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the book and feels completely out of place.
The word “gleanings” in the title, though, is perfectly apt, as amid all this curious jumble, the book is studded with some lovely and memorable sentences and sentiments, nuggets that glimmer and shine among the chaff of Beekman’s odd ramblings.
It [the bicycle] carries one into new fields, it allows one to view the kaleidoscopic panorama of Nature’s face, as one will.
One of the most memorable chapters is a short one called “The Cycling Seasons, When Nature Is at Its Best.” Beekman makes the argument, not uncommon at the time, that riding a bicycle enables one to experience Nature in a completely unique way. He claims that being astride a bicycle gives one “a keener zest for beauty” and “a quickened spiritual impulse.”
It is the cyclist who finds warmth in the woodland paths that the ordinary tourist cannot maintain, nor the carriage-driver approximate.
Beekman’s favorite season is spring, and he believes that cyclists experience its wonders before, and more intensely, than anyone else. His passion for firstness extends to his preference for riding “during the very spring of the day” come the heat of summer--mainly because morning is when one can smell all the best smells (wildflowers, mown hay) of the natural world before they “are wafted away by the vibration of the air.” Beekman is big on vibrations.
[T]he main object in riding should be to acquire the habit of seeing all that forty miles can show, than to ride the hundred with only the end in view.
A close second for Beekman is autumn, again because of opportunities for experiencing Nature in her richest forms.
No one can enjoy the exhilaration produced by the embraces of this life-extenuating air, or see more of the picturesque grandeur of the country, enlivened by the still more beautiful foliage, whose colors at a distance often resemble the unstudied effect of a palette, belonging to some professional artist, than the touring cyclist.
Regardless of the season, cycling fosters contemplation and a sense of perspective, Beekman insists. he conveys a stronger attraction to the stars in the sky than to his fellow human beings. Time and again, Beekman starts off talking about cycling and ends up pondering the constellations, often sounding more like a poet than a scientist.
One can never be alone if acquainted with the stars.
Beekman loves cycling at night, under the stars. It’s a special form of the connection to Nature he says cycling allows. He was writing during an era when “moonlight club runs” were surprisingly common. Large groups of club cyclists would head out after dark, lead by a club bugler, and using acetylene or carbide bicycle lamps to light the way, when the moon wasn’t enough. Beekman fondly references such outings several times in the book.
Fortunate, indeed, is the man who is gladdened and inspired as he wheels along, communing with these wonderful mythological deities.
Star cycling seems to fit Beekman’s personal and cosmological sense of scale when it comes to calculating time and space: he sees life in the context of geological epochs and galaxy-spanning distances.
Two chapters consist of trip reports from tours in the New England area, but even these are unusual in that Beekman is an unusually geological traveller, always commenting on undulations of the land, the particular types of granite, notable erratics--those anomalous boulders forgotten by glaciers. Words like tourmaline, beryl, and gneiss pop up with regularity. But even at his most geological, the poet-philosopher-mystic in Beekman emerges amidst the drumlins and eskers.
We cannot transcend experience. Of the future, no problem taken from the finite world can foretell the Infinite, and we must remain ignorant, because of the future we can only surely state that we know absolutely nothing at present.
Don’t get me wrong. As much as I love it, this book is super-weird. At times, I have no idea what Beekman is on about. But if you can roll with that, you’ll find in this little book many little nuggets of wisdom and poetry and beauty.
I mentioned at the beginning that it’s almost impossible to find this book. I find it curious that it’s also exceedingly difficult to find information about Beekman himself. For a writer who was so interested in tracking historical traces across the land, it’s interesting that Beekman and his book seem to have left so little for us to know him by--just a few magazine articles, a couple of obscure documents and photographs on the web, and, of course, his rare and precious volume of gleanings, a true erratic in every sense of the word.