‘There is Something More’

Simon Coleman

 

quantock photo

Photo by Richard Wiltshire: https://www.trover.com/d/1m11S-quantock-hills-somerset-england

‘The sun in silence rising over the sea makes me feel a sense and a sympathy with some larger life, and to imagine some larger scheme.’

So wrote Richard Jefferies in his notebook in early 1887, in what would be the last year of his life.  He was bedridden much of the time, suffering from a progressive tuberculosis which had affected his intestines, spine and, finally, his lungs.  But his mind was as active as ever, his memory providing him with crystal-clear images from his past wanderings on the downs of Wiltshire and Sussex, and by the south coast – images that burned with the brilliance of the sun and the wandering constellations of the night.  In some of his notebook entries he employs the elements of nature, as well as the flowers, trees and birds, to focus his thought on the problems that have beset the human race through the centuries: the great fear of death and the ‘superstition’ of organised religion; the domination of wealth and the extraordinary pursuit of money and goods; and the failure of our moral and intellectual systems to make any real sense of the role of mankind on the earth or to find ways to reduce human suffering.

He senses the existence of this ‘larger scheme’, or ‘Greatness’, but what is mankind’s role in it, or relationship with it?  These questions are not to be answered by the conventional ideas of deity, as he already made clear in his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’.  In another entry in the notebook, Jefferies writes:

‘Thought and Soul Instinct tell me [that there is] Something More.’

Something more than the ideas of deity and immortality is what he means.  He has concluded that the latter two concepts are essentially the product of the ‘dream’ approach to metaphysical enquiry.  They are not based on actual experience.  Similarly, the materialistic ideas emanating from science of his day he finds equally inadequate.

‘To believe that there is nothing Beyond – that all is mud matter – is as senseless as to believe in the Deity and the dream basis.’

The conviction that there is something beyond all experience, life, death, and all that can be thought and imagined, is what seems to sustain him during his last months.  Increasingly he refers to ‘the Beyond’ as a noun, to recognise its reality.   At times he equates the Beyond with ‘the Idea of the Whole’ but it becomes clear that he sees it as undefinable, something ‘other’ that is outside our minds.

‘I see that this life is entirely different to what I understand.  I see that the other Nature or Beyond is entirely different.  I see that the whole scheme is quite outside.  A tree – an outside idea at once in itself.’

The startling last sentence suggests that Jefferies is starting to apply the ‘Beyond perspective’ to ordinary observations.  If it were possible to look at a tree in the absence of all previous perceptions and knowledge, its riot of twisting branches and rich glow of leaves would surely impress upon our minds a sense of its ‘otherness’.  Perhaps nature and the elements, the rising and setting sun, might in some way offer clues to the existence of this Beyond.

‘To look at the sun alone over the trees – sunset – enough of itself to prove other ideas.’

The Beyond or the Scheme, he senses, has nothing to do with good and evil or pleasure and pain, or human life at all.  He cannot understand the Scheme because of his own personal judgements about his experiences: they are good or bad.  But by breaking through this heavy chain of narrow, personalized thinking, Jefferies feels that it might be possible ‘to realise the edge of the scheme’.  If he himself is of no consequence to the Scheme, then it cannot be judged by the criteria that are applied to human experiences.  Naturally, it is outside and beyond such matters.  He would rather identify himself with this Scheme, rather than hope for anything from it which is the typical approach of most religions.  Whatever the Scheme might be, it has nothing to do with concepts of god.

He finds ‘more rest’, he says, in trying to identify with the Scheme.

‘In this sun over the sea all my earth-feelings seem very small and almost nothing: I can feel a high existence.’

In his later years Jefferies wrestled continuously with his ambivalent feelings toward nature and the elements.  While, though their beauty, he is able to live a more intense life, ‘as if every grass blade and leaf were a torch….’, still he finds no purpose or plan in nature.  In short, it is without soul, or anything resembling the human heart.

‘There is no heart in nature (the Universe) [Jefferies’ brackets].  Man must supply it, heart.  That seems to be his peculiar position far more so than intelligence which is shared by so many other things.  Canon.  The Heart (above all creeds and reasons).’

Jefferies ‘burned life like a torch’ – he was solar in nature and wanted to see a powerful heart energy ignite the human race.  We would then labour not for money and goods or for imaginary heavens after death, but for the fulfilment of our souls’ desire here and now.  This dramatic change of heart would undoubtedly help bring about a better human life for those to come in future times.   If the soul were able to free itself from all the ideas of materialism and religion, it would surely be satisfied only with the great unknown that is the Beyond or the Scheme.

‘This life – this now – is itself beyond – since it is an idea outside my ideas…Birds on tree -…they are Beyond.’

Day after day, as he inches ever closer towards death, Jefferies grapples with the problems that he presented in ‘The Story of My Heart’ in 1883.  His mind has been nailed down to past ideas of materialism and superstitious religion; he doesn’t understand nature and the universe, or why it seems empty of human ideas and sympathy; and is there anything to pray for that is not a deity?  Perhaps he has come up against the Buddhist idea of the void, but, as yet, is unable to see the other side of it, which is the world of tangible things – of ‘suchness’.  I don’t want to pursue this idea now, as I admit I don’t fully grasp it.  However, I feel that Jefferies was moving into this territory and, had his health recovered, might have produced an even more remarkable book than ‘The Story of My Heart’.  This follow-up work was clearly in mind when he was writing many of these later notes.

I am not able to provide any satisfactory conclusion to this post.  But I do feel that, in the two final quotes above, Jefferies is expressing some fresh and powerful perceptions, again demonstrating the originality of his thought despite the intense difficulties with which he was afflicted.

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Jefferies, Socialism, and Climate Change

Rebecca Welshman

july wheat

“Ending climate change requires the end of capitalism” wrote Phil McDuff in the Guardian, who then went on to mention [1] sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg who has given a new urgent voice to the climate crisis. For decades climate change scientists, environmentalists, and thousands of others have been saying similar things, but have been ignored and sidelined, or dismissed as paranoid hippies or scaremongers. Thunberg’s speeches are, to many of us, like raindrops falling on parched land. It’s almost too late, but there is still a chance that something can be done. Thunberg has been picked up by the media and been given a platform. For this to happen, something must have shifted. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new phase of climate change politics. We are not used to hearing the words ‘the system must change’ or reading that capitalism could (and should) come to an end.

Thunberg began as a lone voice, and many more joined her. Jefferies was a lone voice too. He foresaw the need for the death of capitalism, and this hope was embodied in an iconic image in his novel ‘After London’ (1885).  When Felix’s quest brings him to the ruined, poisoned city of London he stumbles upon skeletons and blackened heaps of useless money.

“These skeletons were the miserable relics of men who had ventured in search of ancient treasures, into the deadly marshes over the site of the mightiest city of former days. The deserted and utterly extinct city of London was under his feet.” (After London or Wild England)

The detestable creed that ‘time is money’, the endless spinning of economic wheels that was only going to result in the exploitation of natural resources and eventually the demise of society itself, was a theme of his work in the 1870s and 1880s. A more meaningful existence, something other than oiling the greedy wheels of capitalism, was surely the right of everyone born into the world.

How did Jefferies manage to get these ideas into print in late-Victorian England? He donned the uniform of ‘Nature Writer’ and ‘Nature Journalist’, which gave him an acceptable (and at the time, innovative) role in the media. His printed natural history works always contained elements of mystical longing and awakening. Even as early as 1875 in the Pall Mall Gazette, in his article ‘The Commonest Thing in the World’ he walks the Wiltshire Downs, picks up a flint, and imagines what wonders the stone has been witness to. But as his career developed he no longer held back his views or his radical hopes for change. Some of his greatest works are pieces of prose that seemingly describe a rural scene ‘Walks in the Wheatfields’ for instance, but are laced with a sharp critique of social and economic systems. ‘St. Guido,’ is another example – a golden-haired boy wandering the fields, musing on what he finds, talking to the wheat, the brook, and the birds. The ethic of the piece cannot be missed, and is well demonstrated here in the speech given to Guido by the Wheat:

“the flowers go, and the swallows go, the old, old oaks go, and that oak will go, under the shade of which you are lying, Guido; and if your people do not gather the flowers now, and watch the swallows, and listen to the blackbirds whistling, as you are listening now while I talk, then Guido, my love, they will never pick any flowers, nor hear any birds’ songs. They think they will, they think that when they have toiled, and worked a long time, almost all their lives, then they will come to the flowers, and the birds, and be joyful in the sunshine. But no, it will not be so, for then they will be old themselves, and their ears dull, and their eyes dim, so that the birds will sound a great distance off, and the flowers will not seem bright.

“Of course, we know that the greatest part of your people cannot help themselves, and must labour on like the reapers till their ears are full of the dust of age. That only makes us more sorrowful, and anxious that things should be different. I do not suppose we should think about them had we not been in man’s hand so long that now we have got to feel with man. Every year makes it more pitiful because then there are more flowers gone, and added to the vast numbers of those gone before, and never gathered or looked at, though they could have given so much pleasure. And all the work and labour, and thinking, and reading and learning that your people do ends in nothing – not even one flower. We cannot understand why it should be so. There are thousands of wheat-ears in this field, more than you would know how to write down with your pencil, though you have learned your tables, sir. Yet all of us thinking, and talking, cannot understand why it is when we consider how clever your people are, and how they bring ploughs, and steam-engines, and put up wires along the roads to tell you things when you are miles away, and sometimes we are sown where we can hear the hum, hum, all day of the children learning in the school. The butterflies flutter over us, and the sun shines, and the doves are very, very happy at their nest, but the children go on hum, hum inside this house, and learn, learn. So we suppose you must be very clever, and yet you cannot manage this. All your work is wasted, and you labour in vain – you dare not leave it a minute.

“If you left it a minute it would all be gone; it does not mount up and make a store, so that all of you could sit by it and be happy. Directly you leave off you are hungry, and thirsty, and miserable like the beggars that tramp along the dusty road here. All the thousand years of labour since this field was first ploughed have not stored up anything for you. It would not matter about the work so much if you were only happy; the bees work every year, but they are happy; the doves build a nest every year, but they are very, very happy. We think it must be because you do not come out to us and be with us, and think more as we do. It is not because your people have not got plenty to eat and drink – you have as much as the bees. Why just look at us! Look at the wheat that grows all over the world; all the figures that were ever written in pencil could not tell how much, it is such an immense quantity. Yet your people starve and die of hunger every now and then, and we have seen the wretched beggars tramping along the road. We have known of times when there was a great pile of us, almost a hill piled up, it was not in this country, it was in another warmer country, and yet no one dared to touch it – they died at the bottom of the hill of wheat. The earth is full of skeletons of people who have died of hunger. They are dying now this minute in your big cities, with nothing but stones all round them, stone walls and stone streets; not jolly stones like those you threw in the water, dear – hard, unkind stones that make them cold and let them die, while we are growing here, millions of us, in the sunshine with the butterflies floating over us. This makes us unhappy; I was very unhappy this morning till you came running over and played with us.

“It is not because there is not enough: it is because your people are so short-sighted, so jealous and selfish, and so curiously infatuated with things that are not so good as your old toys which you have flung away and forgotten. And you teach the children hum, hum, all day to care about such silly things, and to work for them and to look to them as the object of their lives. It is because you do not share us among you without price or difference; because you do not share the great earth among you fairly, without spite and jealousy and avarice; because you will not agree; you silly, foolish people to let all the flowers wither for a thousand years while you keep each other at a distance, instead of agreeing and sharing them! Is there something in you – as there is poison in the nightshade, you know it, dear, your papa told you not to touch it – is there a sort of poison in your people that works them up into a hatred of one another? Why, then, do you not agree and have all things, all the great earth can give you, just as we have the sunshine and the rain? How happy your people could be if they would only agree!”

The Independent Labour Party published a special edition of this essay in 1908, with an introduction by the M.P. J. Ramsay MacDonald – the first Labour Party politician to become a UK Prime Minister.

In 1883 Jefferies’ socially challenging autobiography The Story of My Heart only narrowly went into print, and never succeeded as a book during his lifetime, but after his death became the most reprinted of all his books. This extended essay, written from the heart, is an attack against capitalism through the lens of nature itself and through the vision of a beautifully sensitive and open mind. He wished to make the world a better place for future generations; hence the often-quoted “How pleasant it would be each day to think, to-day I have done something that will tend to make future generations more happy.”

Jefferies knew his friends would be in the future. A sad little note to this effect can be found in his notebooks – as if he knew that he was, at that time, already speaking to us.

Jefferies may have spoken for the lone wanderer, but he spoke for wider humanity too. After his death at age 38, from Tuberculosis, his heroic effort to reach people, to try to make a change for the better, was recognised in Justice, the weekly newspaper of the Social Democratic Federation. In an article titled ‘The Irony of Individualism’, published on 1st October 1887, the magazine laments the lack of opportunities afforded by society to men (and only men) of the time:

“In Spain, as in other countries,” write Richard Ford in his famous Handbook, “the fate of the man of letters is hard. When living, his countrymen refuse him bread; when dead, they vouchsafe him a stone.” Richard Jefferies, the most charming writer on rural matters of our own or perhaps of any generation, died of overwork and poverty. His public was too small to secure him a livelihood, or to allow him to make provision for his children. He dies, and happily the Government grants £100 a year to his wife. But how many men of genius who might delight mankind by their works are even now being crushed out by overwork without ever having had an outlet for their faculties?  … Our anarchical competitive society stunts the individual, wears him out with overwork and uncertainty, and deprives humanity of the educated intelligence of her noblest sons.”

From Jefferies’ perspective it must have been an incredibly lonely and difficult vocation – a radical thinker writing against a tide of late nineteenth century inequality, stale dogma, and poverty. Let’s not forget, then, that the actions and words of a single person can and do make a difference. We all need hope, but as Greta Thunberg said recently, “once we start to act, hope is everywhere”.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/18/ending-climate-change-end-capitalism

THE GROOVED VALLEY

Simon Coleman

south-downs-firle-beacon-getty

The South Downs.  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/east-sussex/south-downs/articles/The-South-Downs-pub-walks/

 

The following passage from Richard Jefferies’ autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’, provides a perfect example of how a particular landscape can induce a calm and creative state of mind.  The landscape in this case is chalk downland, where sharp valleys can suddenly cut into wide stretches of smooth, rolling surfaces.  I feel that the sides of the narrow valley help to ‘shut out’ the everyday concerns of his life, the memories and personal perspectives, allowing a concentration of mind on the blue sky, the earth, time and the power of the sun.  His life is no longer personal – he is part of all that there is, and belongs to all that there is.

 

‘Sometimes I went to a deep, narrow valley in the hills, silent and solitary. The sky crossed from side to side, like a roof supported on two walls of green. Sparrows chirped in the wheat at the verge above, their calls falling like the twittering of swallows from the air. There was no other sound. The short grass was dried grey as it grew by the heat; the sun hung over the narrow vale as if it had been put there by hand. Burning, burning, the sun glowed on the sward at the foot of the slope where these thoughts burned into me. How many, many years, how many cycles of years, how many bundles of cycles of years, had the sun glowed down thus on that hollow? Since it was formed how long? Since it was worn and shaped, groove-like, in the flanks of the hills by mighty forces which had ebbed. Alone with the sun which glowed on the work when it was done, I saw back through space to the old time of tree-ferns, of the lizard flying through the air, the lizard-dragon wallowing in sea foam, the mountainous creatures, twice-elephantine, feeding on land; all the crooked sequence of life. The dragon-fly which passed me traced a continuous descent from the fly marked on stone in those days. The immense time lifted me like a wave rolling under a boat; my mind seemed to raise itself as the swell of the cycles came; it felt strong with the power of the ages. With all that time and power I prayed: that I might have in my soul the intellectual part of it; the idea, the thought. Like a shuttle the mind shot to and fro the past and the present, in an instant.’

 

This narrow, ‘grooved’ valley experience was clearly of major significance in Jefferies’ early life.  The autobiography returns to it more than once.  It can be seen as a symbol or motif for his desire to become absorbed in a greater, limitless, non-personal reality.  Later he is in London:

 

‘Burning on, the great sun stood in the sky, heating the parapet [of London Bridge] , glowing steadfastly upon me as when I rested in the narrow valley grooved out in prehistoric times. Burning on steadfast, and ever present as my thought. Lighting the broad river, the broad walls; lighting the least speck of dust; lighting the great heaven; gleaming on my finger-nail. The fixed point of day—the sun. I was intensely conscious of it; I felt it; I felt the presence of the immense powers of the universe…’

 

In the final paragraph of the book, the valley motif appears once more, perhaps with an even sharper clarity of meaning.  He has found a new grooved valley, this time in the Sussex South Downs, near the sea, and its discovery seems to add a deeper level of perception to the whole book.  In the intervening years between these two valley experiences, his desire for natural beauty and immersion in a greater reality has never diminished.  The language in this last paragraph now seems calmer and more certain.  This desire is of the soul and it knows no limit.

 

‘…the sweet short rain comes mingled with sunbeams and flower-scented air. The finches sing among the fresh green leaves of the beeches. Beautiful it is, in summer days, to see the wheat wave, and the long grass foam—flecked of flower yield and return to the wind. My soul of itself always desires; these are to it as fresh food. I have found in the hills another valley grooved in prehistoric times, where, climbing to the top of the hollow, I can see the sea. Down in the hollow I look up; the sky stretches over, the sun burns as it seems but just above the hill, and the wind sweeps onward. As the sky extends beyond the valley, so I know that there are ideas beyond the valley of my thought…’

PILGRIMAGE IN COUNTRY AND CITY

SIMON COLEMAN

 

Here is a fine passage from Richard Jefferies’ autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’. His economical prose takes us through a variety of scenes, the emotions clear but restrained. Places of pilgrimage in nature were essential to him – places where he could experience beauty and feel connected to the ‘immense forces’ that are the four elements. He alludes to unhappiness but his search for beauty is unceasing. In the heart of London he finds nature to be ‘deepened by the crowds and foot-worn stones’. I find something very inspiring about this perception, and the whole of the last paragraph. I hope others do as well.

 

“Afterwards, I walked almost daily more than two miles along the road to a spot where the hills began, where from the first rise the road could be seen winding southwards over the hills, open and uninclosed. I paused a minute or two by a clump of firs, in whose branches the wind always sighed—there is always a movement of the air on a hill. Southwards the sky was illumined by the sun, southwards the clouds moved across the opening or pass in the amphitheatre, and southwards, though far distant, was the sea. There I could think a moment. These pilgrimages gave me a few sacred minutes daily; the moment seemed holy when the thought or desire came in its full force.

 

A time came when, having to live in a town, these pilgrimages had to be suspended. The wearisome work on which I was engaged would not permit of them. But I used to look now and then, from a window, in the evening at a birch-tree at some distance; its graceful boughs drooped across the glow of the sunset. The thought was not suspended; it lived in me always. A bitterer time still came when it was necessary to be separated from those I loved. There is little indeed in the more immediate suburbs of London to gratify the sense of the beautiful. Yet there was a cedar by which I used to walk up and down, and think the same thoughts as under the great oak in the solitude of the sunlit meadows. In the course of slow time happier circumstances brought us together again, and, though near London, at a spot where there was easy access to meadows and woods. Hills that purify those who walk on them there were not. Still I thought my old thoughts.

 

I was much in London, and, engagements completed, I wandered about in the same way as in the woods of former days. From the stone bridges I looked down on the river; the gritty dust, the straws that lie on the bridges, flew up and whirled round with every gust from the flowing tide; gritty dust that settles in the nostrils and on the lips, the very residuum of all that is repulsive in the greatest city of the world. The noise of the traffic and the constant pressure from the crowds passing, their incessant and disjointed talk, could not distract me. One moment at least I had, a moment when I thought of the push of the great sea forcing the water to flow under the feet of these crowds, the distant sea strong and splendid; when I saw the sunlight gleam on the tidal wavelets; when I felt the wind, and was conscious of the earth, the sea, the sun, the air, the immense forces working on, while the city hummed by the river. Nature was deepened by the crowds and foot-worn stones. If the tide had ebbed, and the masts of the vessels were tilted as the hulls rested on the shelving mud, still even the blackened mud did not prevent me seeing the water as water flowing to the sea. The sea had drawn down, and the wavelets washing the strand here as they hastened were running the faster to it. Eastwards from London Bridge the river raced to the ocean.”

 

COSMIC LIONS

Simon Coleman

trafalgar lions

Richard Jefferies wrote two great essays on the theme of Trafalgar Square in London.  One of them, ‘Sunlight in a London Square’, has already been featured on this website.  The following quote is from ‘The Lions in Trafalgar Square’ which explores the relationship between human life and the great unknown, with Landseer’s huge lions symbolising a link between ourselves and the cosmos.

 

‘At summer noontide, when the day surrounds us and it is bright light even in the shadow, I like to stand by one of the lions and yield to the old feeling. The sunshine glows on the dusky creature, as it seems, not on the surface, but under the skin, as if it came up from out of the limb. The roar of the rolling wheels sinks and becomes distant as the sound of a waterfall when dreams are coming. All the abundant human life is smoothed and levelled, the abruptness of the individuals lost in the flowing current, like separate flowers drawn along in a border, like music heard so far off that the notes are molten and the theme only remains. The abyss of the sky over and the ancient sun are near. They only are close at hand, they and immortal thought. When the yellow Syrian lions stood in old time of Egypt, then too, the sunlight gleamed on the eyes of men, as now this hour on mine. The same consciousness of light, the same sun, but the eyes that saw it and mine, how far apart! The immense lion here beside me expresses larger nature—cosmos—the ever-existent thought which sustains the world. Massiveness exalts the mind till the vast roads of space which the sun tramples are as an arm’s-length. Such a moment cannot endure long; gradually the roar deepens, the current resolves into individuals, the houses return—it is only a square.’

 

Here is a link to the full text.   http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27516/27516-h/27516-h.htm#THE_LIONS_IN_TRAFALGAR_SQUARE

 

I really encourage people to read the essay because it possesses a true strength of heart and mind.  I can’t fully explain what I mean by that; nor can I clearly explain why the essay has such a powerful effect on me.  Jefferies celebrates the lions as great art:

 

‘…these are truer and more real, and, besides, these are lions to whom has been added the heart of a man. Nothing disfigures them; smoke and, what is much worse, black rain—rain which washes the atmosphere of the suspended mud—does not affect them in the least. If the choke-damp of fog obscures them, it leaves no stain on the design; if the surfaces be stained, the idea made tangible in metal is not. They are no more touched than Time itself by the alternations of the seasons. The only noble open-air work of native art in the four-million city, they rest there supreme and are the centre.’

 

He then launches into an attack on the fashionable art of his day which he finds shallow and untrue to nature.  This short outburst is the one small blemish on the essay.  Having read the work a number of times, I began to see that it’s not really about visual art.  What I sense it possesses are poetic ideas of real importance.  I’m not a poet but I do think that poetic ideas exist in all people, whether or not they are ever recognised or expressed.  The belief that we can go beyond the given, the defined, our own private and petty fates, the expected outcomes of thought and action, and confront the unknown – belongs to the poetic insight and this, I feel, is what holds the essay together.

 

The mind, the idea, expressed by Jefferies’ lions, opens up possibilities for accessing new realms of thought and imagination – ‘cosmic’ realms where human life might know something of a greater Nature.  Time collapses, but the experience is fleeting as all true insights are.

 

How urgently we need poetic ideas in our data-driven world controlled by an ideologically-focused mass-media, not necessarily to escape it but to feel beyond it towards larger and freer channels of thought.  We can’t all be poets in the literary sense, but accessing the poetic archetype is surely a human necessity.

The Park in Early Summer

Rebecca Welshman

Tryon, Kate Allen, 1865-1952; Burderop Park, Wiltshire

Painting of Burderop Park by Kate Tryon

This extract is taken from Jefferies’ first book of critical acclaim The Gamekeeper at Home, first published in serial form in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1878. Jefferies befriended the gamekeeper Benny Haylock, of the Burderop Estate near Coate, Swindon, and accompanied him on his rounds. This extract connects with our previous post about the Roman Brook. The skeletons that come to light, and the idea that the tapestry of our environment is thickly interwoven with dead or past states, resonates even more as we step deeper into summer. The brightness of the hawthorn bloom, the lights of the horse chestnut candelabra and the flowering crab apple have emerged out of the season of loss and decay that preceded them. Human conflict has stained the ground, Jefferies says, yet the flowers still bloom.

“In summer from out the leafy chambers of the limes there falls the pleasant sound of bees innumerable, the voice of whose trembling wings lulls the listening ear as the drowsy sunshine weighs the eyelid till I walk the avenue in a dream. It leads out into the park—no formal gravel drive, simply a footpath on the sward between the flowering trees: a path that becomes less and less marked as I advance, and finally fades away, where the limes cease, in the broad level of the opening “greeny field.” These honey-bees seem to fly higher and to exhibit much more activity than the great humble-bee: here in the limes they must be thirty feet above the ground. Wasps also frequently wing their way at a considerable elevation, and thus it is that the hive-bee and the wasp so commonly enter the upper windows of houses. When its load of honey is completed, the bee, too, returns home in a nearly straight line, high enough in the air to pass over hedges and such obstacles without the labour of rising up and sinking again.

The heavy humble-bee is generally seen close to the earth, and often goes down into the depths of the dry ditches, and may there be heard buzzing slowly along under the arch of briar and bramble. He seems to lose his way now and then in the tangled undergrowth of the woods; and if a footstep disturbs and alarms him, it is amusing to see his desperate efforts to free himself hastily from the interlacing grass-blades and ferns.

When the sap is rising, the bark of the smaller shoots of the lime-tree “slips” easily—i.e. it can be peeled in hollow cylinders if judiciously tapped and loosened by gentle blows from the back of a knife. The ploughboys know this, and make whistles out of such branches, as they do also from the willow, and even the sycamore in the season when the sap comes up in its flood-tide.

It is difficult to decide at what time of the year the park is in its glory. The may-flower on the great hawthorn trees in spring may perhaps claim the pre-eminence, filling the soft breeze with exquisite odour. These here are trees, not bushes, standing separate, with thick gnarled stems so polished by the constant rubbing of cattle as almost to shine like varnish. The may-bloom, pure white in its full splendour, takes a dull reddish tinge as it fades, when a sudden shake will bring it down in showers. A flowering tree, I fancy, looks best when apart and not one of a row. In the latter case you can only see two sides and not all round it. Here tall horse-chestnut trees stand single—one great silvery candelabrum of blossom. Wood-pigeons appear to have a liking for this tree. Nor must the humble crab-tree be forgotten; a crab-tree in bloom is a lovely sight.

The idea of a park is associated with peace and pleasure, yet even here there is one spot where the passions of men have left their mark. As previously hinted, the gamekeeper, like most persons with little book-learning and who take their impressions from nature, is somewhat superstitious, and regards this place as “unkid”—i.e. weird, uncanny. One particular green “drive” into the wood opening on the park had always been believed to be a part of a military track used many ages ago, but long since ploughed up for the greater part of its length, and only preserved here by the accident of passing through a wood. At last some labourers grubbing trees near the mouth of the drive came upon a number of human skeletons, close beneath the surface, and in their confused arrangement presenting every sign of hasty interment, as if after battle. Since then the keeper avoids the spot; nor will he, hardy as he is, go near it at night; not even in the summer moonlight, when the night is merely a prolongation of the day.

There is nothing unusual in such a discovery: skeletons are found in all manner of places. I recollect seeing one dug out from the bank of a brook within two feet of the stream. The place was perhaps in the olden time covered with forest (traces of forest are to be found everywhere, as in the names of hamlets), and therefore more concealed than at present. Or, possibly, the stream, in the slow passage of centuries, may have worn its way far from its original bed.

It is strange to think of, yet it is true enough, that, beautiful as the country is, with its green meadows and graceful trees, its streams and forests and peaceful homesteads, it would be difficult to find an acre of ground that has not been stained with blood. A melancholy reflection this, that carries the mind backwards, while the thrush sings on the bough, through the nameless skirmishes of the Civil War, the cruel assassinations of the rival Roses, down to the axes of the Saxons and the ghastly wounds they made. Everywhere under the flowers are the dead.”

horse chestnut tree

hawthorn bloom

‘A ROMAN BROOK’

SIMON COLEMAN

paola dastra brook in the woods

Here is the full text of Jefferies’ subtle and poignant short essay, ‘A Roman Brook’.  This is a work that, for me, opens up creative pathways for thought – pathways into deep questions about life, death, love and time. The brook nourishes both the life of the fields and human life and it seems to wind through time as well as through the fields.  Jefferies explores the highly visual character of his memory which seems to acquire greater importance after he has reminded us that the brook possesses no memories of him.  Throughout there are references to hidden, forgotten or disappearing things.  He observes that nature’s beauty does not exist for human admiration, but for purposes beyond our ideas – a recurring theme in his late works.  The brook, having been associated with so much life, at the end reveals its melancholy secret.  Death, however long concealed, exists side by side with life.

 

The deceptively simple descriptions are coming directly from memory, shaped so as to present us with clear images – memory pictures.  His imagination adds some touches that point to a real depth of perception, such as  “…something that carries the mind home to primitive times”, and “… just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.”  And, typically, his beloved Homeric Greece is not left out.

 

‘A Roman Brook’

 

“The brook has forgotten me, but I have not forgotten the brook. Many faces have been mirrored since in the flowing water, many feet have waded in the sandy shallow. I wonder if any one else can see it in a picture before the eyes as I can, bright, and vivid as trees suddenly shown at night by a great flash of lightning. All the leaves and branches and the birds at roost are visible during the flash. It is barely a second; it seems much longer. Memory, like the lightning, reveals the pictures in the mind. Every curve, and shore, and shallow is as familiar now as when I followed the winding stream so often. When the mowing-grass was at its height, you could not walk far beside the bank; it grew so thick and strong and full of umbelliferous plants as to weary the knees. The life as it were of the meadows seemed to crowd down towards the brook in summer, to reach out and stretch towards the life-giving water. There the buttercups were taller and closer together, nails of gold driven so thickly that the true surface was not visible. Countless rootlets drew up the richness of the earth like miners in the darkness, throwing their petals of yellow ore broadcast above them. With their fulness of leaves the hawthorn bushes grow larger—the trees extend farther—and thus overhung with leaf and branch, and closely set about by grass and plant, the brook disappeared only a little way off, and could not have been known from a mound and hedge. It was lost in the plain of meads—the flowers alone saw its sparkle.

 

Hidden in those bushes and tall grasses, high in the trees and low on the ground, there were the nests of happy birds. In the hawthorns blackbirds and thrushes built, often overhanging the stream, and the fledglings fluttered out into the flowery grass. Down among the stalks of the umbelliferous plants, where the grasses were knotted together, the nettle-creeper concealed her treasure, having selected a hollow by the bank so that the scythe should pass over. Up in the pollard ashes and willows here and there wood-pigeons built. Doves cooed in the little wooded enclosures where the brook curved almost round upon itself. If there was a hollow in the oak a pair of starlings chose it, for there was no advantageous nook that was not seized on. Low beside the willow stoles the sedge-reedlings built; on the ledges of the ditches, full of flags, moor-hens made their nests. After the swallows had coursed long miles over the meads to and fro, they rested on the tops of the ashes and twittered sweetly. Like the flowers and grass, the birds were drawn towards the brook. They built by it, they came to it to drink; in the evening a grasshopper-lark trilled in a hawthorn bush. By night crossing the footbridge a star sometimes shone in the water underfoot. At morn and even the peasant girls came down to dip; their path was worn through the mowing-grass, and there was a flat stone let into the bank as a step to stand on. Though they were poorly habited, without one line of form or tint of colour that could please the eye, there is something in dipping water that is Greek—Homeric—something that carries the mind home to primitive times. Always the little children came with them; they too loved the brook like the grass and birds. They wanted to see the fishes dart away and hide in the green flags: they flung daisies and buttercups into the stream to float and catch awhile at the flags, and float again and pass away, like the friends of our boyhood, out of sight. Where there was pasture roan cattle came to drink, and horses, restless horses, stood for hours by the edge under the shade of ash trees. With what joy the spaniel plunged in, straight from the bank out among the flags—you could mark his course by seeing their tips bend as he brushed them swimming. All life loved the brook.

 

Far down away from roads and hamlets there was a small orchard on the very bank of the stream, and just before the grass grew too high to walk through I looked in the enclosure to speak to its owner. He was busy with his spade at a strip of garden, and grumbled that the hares would not let it alone, with all that stretch of grass to feed on. Nor would the rooks; and the moor-hens ran over it, and the water-rats burrowed; the wood-pigeons would have the peas, and there was no rest from them all. While he talked and talked, far from the object in hand, as aged people will, I thought how the apple tree in blossom before us cared little enough who saw its glory. The branches were in bloom everywhere, at the top as well as at the side; at the top where no one could see them but the swallows. They did not grow for human admiration: that was not their purpose; that is our affair only—we bring the thought to the tree. On a short branch low down the trunk there hung the weather-beaten and broken handle of an earthenware vessel; the old man said it was a jug, one of the old folks’ jugs—he often dug them up. Some were cracked, some nearly perfect; lots of them had been thrown out to mend the lane. There were some chips among the heap of weeds yonder. These fragments were the remains of Anglo-Roman pottery. Coins had been found—half a gallon of them—the children had had most. He took one from his pocket, dug up that morning; they were of no value, they would not ring. The labourers tried to get some ale for them, but could not; no one would take the little brass things. That was all he knew of the Caesars: the apples were in fine bloom now, weren’t they?

 

Fifteen centuries before there had been a Roman station at the spot where the lane crossed the brook. There the centurions rested their troops after their weary march across the downs, for the lane, now bramble-grown and full of ruts, was then a Roman road. There were villas, and baths, and fortifications; these things you may read about in books. They are lost now in the hedges, under the flowering grass, in the ash copses, all forgotten in the lane, and along the footpath where the June roses will bloom after the apple blossom has dropped. But just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.

 

The old man, seeing my interest in the fragments of pottery, wished to show me something of a different kind lately discovered. He led me to a spot where the brook was deep, and had somewhat undermined the edge. A horse trying to drink there had pushed a quantity of earth into the stream, and exposed a human skeleton lying within a few inches of the water. Then I looked up the stream and remembered the buttercups and tall grasses, the flowers that crowded down to the edge; I remembered the nests, and the dove cooing; the girls that came down to dip, the children that cast their flowers to float away. The wind blew the loose apple bloom and it fell in showers of painted snow. Sweetly the greenfinches were calling in the trees: afar the voice of the cuckoo came over the oaks. By the side of the living water, the water that all things rejoiced in, near to its gentle sound, and the sparkle of sunshine on it, had lain this sorrowful thing.”