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Paddlers' Pearls from the Man Who Loved Bicycles

by Farwell Forrest

Can a book about bicycling have anything to say to canoeists and kayakers? It can—and more than you might think. So this week Farwell returns to The Man Who Loved Bicycles to see what he can find. And you're invited to come along for the ride.

By Farwell Forrest

June 13, 2017

Article by Farwell ForrestToward the end of last week's rather rambling column, I quoted a short excerpt from Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles, and this week I'm going to dip a few more cups from that well. What can a cyclist possibly have to say that might interest canoeists, you ask? Quite a lot, I reply. Read on.

But first, a few words about, er… words. Ever since Tamia and I first started writing for what was then, we've used "paddling" as the portmanteau word for all forms of water recreation in which the paddle is the principal instrument of propulsion. In the early days of In the Same Boat, "paddling" therefore encompassed both "canoeing" and "kayaking." Later, it widened its embrace to include SOTs (SOTting?) and SUPs (SUPping, surely)—though we've had little or nothing to say about the last, for the simple reason that neither of us has ever SUPped. Or is ever likely to, for that matter.

Be that as it may, I've never been altogether happy with our choice of portmanteau label. This has nothing to do with "paddling" per se, and is the perfect name for this site—instantly recognizable, easy to remember, and comprehensive. It's just that, before had become an established Internet presence, we got occasional e‑mails from folks expressing disappointment that the site was not as advertised. It seems they were looking for an online counterpart to what the Brits call "spanking mags." It's been years since we got such an e‑mail, but I'm still reminded of Schoolgirl Capers—readers of Mortimer's Rumpole stories will understand the connection—whenever I stumble across the word "paddling" in any of our columns. And since I'm doing the writing here, I'm going to jettison it and substitute "canoeing"—in its original, inclusive sense, viz., "to paddle or propel a canoe," where "canoe," too, is used inclusively, as suggested by the measured cadences of this definition from the venerable Oxford English Dictionary:

A small light sort of boat or skiff propelled by paddling, used chiefly for recreation in Europe, North America, etc.
The ordinary canoe is made of thin board, galvanized iron, caoutchouc, paper, etc., and like the kayak of the Eskimoes [sic] is covered in, except the small space occupied by the canoeist; it is propelled by a paddle having a blade at each end; but so-called 'Indian' or 'Canadian canoes', which are open, and hold several persons, are also in use as pleasure-boats, and are propelled by a single-bladed paddle.

The advantages of adopting "canoeing" as my portmanteau word for all varieties of paddlesport are manifold. It should save space (no more "canoeists and kayakers") and time (my time, that is; I'm a clumsy typist), as well as adding a touch of borrowed Old World elegance to my rather shapeless Amerish prose. That, at least, is my fond hope.

Back to business, now. What does Behrman, the "Man Who Loved Bicycles," have to say to canoeists? Well, to begin with, he points out the not-so-hidden messages with which the Mad Men mesmerize the masses into pursuing powersport at any price. Here, for example, is his take on the iconography of the sport car, …

that contradiction in terms, the overhead-cammed, mid-engined, wide-tired wheelchair for the dead tired. … The sport car is nothing but plastic surgery[,] … a four-wheeled phallus, … the ultimate prosthesis.

He is, of course, speaking of cars, but with just a few changes (drop the wheels, add a couple of 'rudes), he could have been describing the latest offerings from Walleye Warrior or Waterski Warehouse. Nor did he confine himself to questions of power and potency. Behrman addressed issues of substance, as well:

Run an automobile on steam, electricity, sunshine, or the morning dew, it'll still get you. Put on bumpers of eiderdown, bring back the man on horseback waving a red flag ahead of every motorcar…, the automobile will still be lethal. … [Man the hunter] could run a horse into the ground, he could plow a hundred acres, take a reef off Cape Horn, shovel four tons of coal in a single shift, he could do all of that and more. Not any more. Now he sits and twitches a finger and a toe. Yet his genes and his metabolism have not changed during the nanosecond of his biological history that has seen him reduced to a lump of helpless cushioned cosseted flesh.

I think of this passage whenever I watch a parade of pontoon boats endlessly circling a postage-stamp-sized lake at little more than a walking pace, the sultry summer air heavy with the stench of their exhaust. These are the plodding Clydesdales of powercraft, but they do as much damage—to both their human ballast and the larger, living world—as the myriad stinging flies (aka jetskis) that dart and weave around them. (Always something of a contrarian, I refuse to label those things "personal watercraft." I know a personal watercraft when I see one, and it looks nothing like a Kamikaze Cockchafer or a Sea-Poo Scarab. It looks like a canoe.)

OK. It's obvious from the last quoted excerpt that when Behrman wrote The Man Who Loved Bicycles, he was reveling in the unaccustomed role of polemicist—a happy warrior, tilting at windmills and delighting in the freedom to do so. You can sense his newfound joy from his abandoned use of the comma splice. Scarcely a paragraph in his book lacks at least one example. The words spill out in a fluid stream of consciousness, with little apparent regard for their appearance when frozen in type. This is perfectly understandable. Behrman spent much of his working life churning out reports for UNESCO—staid white papers that, quite probably, no one besides himself ever read from beginning to end. Those were duty dances with a dowager aunt. The Man Who Loved Bicycles was a tango with his true love. It shows.

But I digress. The two quotes from Behrman's book that I've given so far touch on the downsides of motorsport, and while they speak to the concerns of at least some canoeists, they don't do so directly. Does Behrman ever have anything to say to us that doesn't require a helpful gloss? Well, yes, he does. Like this advice, for instance:

Follow the rivers, follow the water. … To know the continent, you must ride the rivers into its innermost fastnesses.

Short and sweet, and though Behrman was, as always, speaking to (and of) cyclists, his words might just as well have been addressed to canoeists. Of course, there are as many reasons for canoeing as there are canoeists. Some of us turn to the canoe for exercise. Others see it only as a fishing platform, while still others paddle solely for fame and (occasionally) fortune. But for a few of us—we happy few, we band of brothers—the canoe is transportation, pure and simple. It transports us from the here and now into the there and then. In other words, it carries us where we most want to go, surmounting all the barriers erected by miles and years. And in so doing, it opens the innermost fastnesses of every continent to leisurely, loving exploration. That should be enough for anyone, I'd think. It's certainly enough for me.

Now, before I take my leave, I've got a favor to ask. I've quoted Behrman at some length in the foregoing, but there's a lot more in The Man Who Loved Bicycles to interest both cyclists and canoeists—these are not, after all, mutually exclusive tribes. If you'd like to read it, however, you'll have to search far and wide to find it. The book is out of print, and few libraries now hold copies. Behrman died in 1990, and my copy is a discard from a high school. I suppose they needed to make room on their shelves for the 20th copy of Hairy Snotter and the Gobbet of Ire.

No contest, right? Fantasy sells. Yet Behrman still has something to say to anyone who prefers to live in the real world, and what he has to say is more important today than ever before. Which is why I'd like to see his book back in circulation. Indeed, I'd undertake to reprint it myself, if I could find out who owns the copyright. So if you know, or if you know someone who might know, please drop me a line. Thanks!

And the subjects of next week's column? Passion, paddling, and pasta, though not necessarily in that order.

Questions? Comments? Got something to add? Just e‑mail Farwell.

Copyright © 2017 by Verloren Hoop. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

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