Monday, June 23, 2014

Thomas Hardy and the Color Run

In college, I binged on Thomas Hardy, reading all of his novels in a single semester. It's been a decade now but running the color run Friday brought The Return of the Native to my mind freshly as if I'd just read it. That's one of the joys of literature: what you read stays with you; you carry it around inside you, and, at certain times, it comes back in force.

In this novel, the jilted lover Diggory Venn turns to the road and the reddle trade. Reddle is a ocher powder used to dye ownership markings on sheep. "Reddle," writes Hardy, "spreads its lively hues over everything it lights on, and stamps unmistakably, as with the mark of Cain, any person who has handled it half an hour." On the color run, volunteers flung powder at the runners with great aplomb turning me into a veritable rainbow. One color-flinger hit me full force in the hip, such was his enthusiasm. By the end of the race and subsequent color mosh pit, I felt a bit like the unfortunate Venn, though died green rather than red. Luckily it only took a long hot shower for me to return (mostly) to my normal coloration.

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"Reddlemen of the old school are now but seldom seen. Since the introduction of railways Wessex farmers have managed to do without these Mephistophelian visitants, and the bright pigment so largely used by shepherds in preparing sheep for the fair is obtained by other routes. Even those who yet survive are losing the poetry of existence which characterized them when the pursuit of the trade meant periodical journeys to the pit whence the material was dug, a regular camping out from month to month, except in the depth of winter, a peregrination among farms which could be counted by the hundred, and in spite of this Arab existence the preservation of that respectability which is insured by the never-failing production of a well-lined purse.

A child's first sight of a reddleman was an epoch in his life. That blood-coloured figure was a sublimation of all the horrid dreams which had afflicted the juvenile spirit since imagination began. "The reddleman is coming for you!" had been the formulated threat of Wessex mothers for many generations. He was successfully supplanted for a while, at the beginning of the present century, by Buonaparte; but as process of time rendered the latter personage stale and ineffective the older phrase resumed its early prominence. And now the reddleman has in his turn followed Buonaparte to the land of worn-out bogeys, and his place is filled by modern inventions."

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