Ice in December

Rebecca Welshman

It is one o’clock on a mid-December afternoon. The sun has barely risen above the band of spruce on the nearby hill. Rays of light tentatively brush the edges of frozen puddles. Here, just out of reach of the warmth of the midday sun, the ice will remain for days. The temperature creeps just above freezing for a few hours each day, softening the ice just a little before it freezes solid once again at night fall.

Despite the fragility of its semi-thawed state, the ice retains a solid structure, bridging one side of the pothole to the other. An insect lands on a thin shard. From the insect’s perspective the giant ice sculpture upon which it finds itself must resemble a superstructure; an incredible feat of engineering. On colder days, when the ice holds everything in its iron grip, even the earth and grass are solid. A favourite phrase of nineteenth-century writers to describe this phenomenon was ‘iron-bound’.

A few years ago while searching the newspapers for articles by Richard Jefferies I discovered a previously unknown essay that he contributed to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1879 titled ‘Iron-Bound December’. At the time Jefferies was living in Surbiton, having moved there from Wiltshire, to make his way in the field of literature. It was not unusual then for most parts of the British Isles to receive significant snowfall in December or to be frozen in for days at a time. Here Jefferies describes a walk along the river Thames at night, and the eerie creaking sounds of the ice at work in the darkness:

“At night by the silent Thames (far “above bridge”) the footpath was clearly defined by the crystals of snow which thinly covered it, ceasing in a sharp line where the wall fell to the river. On the opposite side the bank again was visible because of the snow and ice accumulated upon it. Presently, while walking by the shore you heard a low grinding, splintering sound, like breaking glass gently, were such a thing possible. Then a broad white spot appeared floating on the black surface. It was an ice-floe, formed in some back-water or shallow behind an osier-grown eyot; and it had not yet been over a weir. After it came another and another; and, with irregular intervals between, these floes followed each other in slow procession through the silence and the darkness. Calm, still, black, and repellent, the river flowed on: coming out of night and going into night, and only made visible by the snow-lined shore and its chilly burden. By the day the banks in places seemed inaccessible, from piles of ice lying high above the water and presenting their jagged edges outwards in layers. Farther down in the tidal way the floes, having been carried over the weir, were broken up and roughly rounded. The pieces varied from one to three feet in diameter, and seemed mostly sexagonal or octagonal in shape. Sometimes a dozen such pieces had become frozen together – a mosaic of ice.”
For me the most memorable part of the article is a scene where Jefferies finds a mole out upon the surface of the earth, unable to scrabble back down into the soil due to the frozen conditions:

“The sun was now shining brilliantly, though without the least apparent effect upon the hoar frost. A rustling sound in the sward by the roadside made me go nearer, when I found a mole working through the grass and dead leaves all white and frozen together. He heaved them up and pushed through them, hidden and yet above the surface of the ground, which was frozen too hard for him to enter. His course zigzagged from side to side, and tracing it backwards I saw an old mole-hill by the side of a ditch; the sign of a subterranean passage there made when the earth was softer. From that passage he had gone forth on an exploring expedition, vainly endeavouring to find some earth into which he could dig in search of food. I placed my foot between him and the molehill. He instantly turned to rush back, but finding the obstacle tried his very hardest to burrow. He scratched, he tore at the earth; but it was like iron, and he could do nothing but cling tightly to the fibres of grass. When picked up and placed in the road he wagged his short tail and made off at a considerable speed – much faster than such an animal would seem capable of going, but to all appearance without any sense of direction. If touched he turned on his back, squeaked like a tiny pig, and fought with all four feet vigorously. I now put him in a ditch where I saw the earth was softer. He buried himself out of sight in a couple of minutes, and I left him in snugness and safety.”

A close-up study of ice itself will yield surprising results. Within a single frame lies a collage of phantasmagorical shapes that depend upon the light for their distinction. Embedded stones suggest mottled reptilian outlines. As my five year old son pointed out, a prehistoric crocodile here, a dinosaur head there. Having denied all appeals to wear a coat he runs ahead in just a t-shirt, oblivious to the cold. He stamps on puddles enjoying the splintering crack and the shards that explode from beneath his boots. When he reaches a larger puddle he picks up a sheet of ice, holding it gingerly between forefinger and thumb, a little out to one side, like a giant shield. His little sister has been gazing into one of the frozen puddles, inspecting the patterns. When he comes along and jumps on it she bursts into tears. I feel her anguish as she rushes over, her sense that the work of art has been lost. When he realises he quickly collects together various fragments and returns them to the puddle. She joins in, and between them they ‘mend the ice.’




Simon Coleman


‘As the wind, wandering over the sea, takes from each wave an invisible portion, and brings to those on shore the ethereal essence of ocean, so the air lingering among the woods and hedges—green waves and billows—became full of fine atoms of summer. Swept from notched hawthorn leaves, broad-topped oak-leaves, narrow ash sprays and oval willows; from vast elm cliffs and sharp-taloned brambles under; brushed from the waving grasses and stiffening corn, the dust of the sunshine was borne along and breathed. Steeped in flower and pollen to the music of bees and birds, the stream of the atmosphere became a living thing. It was life to breathe it, for the air itself was life. The strength of the earth went up through the leaves into the wind. Fed thus on the food of the Immortals, the heart opened to the width and depth of the summer—to the broad horizon afar, down to the minutest creature in the grass, up to the highest swallow. Winter shows us Matter in its dead form, like the Primary rocks, like granite and basalt—clear but cold and frozen crystal. Summer shows us Matter changing into life, sap rising from the earth through a million tubes, the alchemic power of light entering the solid oak; and see! it bursts forth in countless leaves. Living things leap in the grass, living things drift upon the air, living things are coming forth to breathe in every hawthorn bush. No longer does the immense weight of Matter—the dead, the crystallised—press ponderously on the thinking mind. The whole office of Matter is to feed life—to feed the green rushes, and the roses that are about to be; to feed the swallows above, and us that wander beneath them. So much greater is this green and common rush than all the Alps.’


So wrote Richard Jefferies near the beginning of his great essay, ‘The Pageant of Summer’.  He is displaying, celebrating and expressing the unity and wonder of life.  Behind this pageantry of life there appears to be some eternal principle bringing it all into being – a unity in which, and to which, all life belongs.  Wordsworth wrote:


‘I saw one life, and felt that it was joy.’


The seers, mystics and poets of all ages have known and understood this joy.  The ancient spiritual texts of India stress that joy and spontaneous creation go together.  The Changogya Upanishad says:


‘Where there is joy there is creation…Where there is the infinite there is joy.  There is no joy in the finite.’


And this coming into being, this creation, mysterious though its nature may be, must be grasped in its essence – as a principle and a unity.  Rabindranath Tagore has this to say:


‘For the world is not atoms or molecules or radioactivity or other forces, the diamond is not carbon and light, is not vibrations of ether. You can never come to the reality of creation by contemplating it from the point of view of destruction.’


New forms are ever emerging from this infinite creativity which materialistic sciences and philosophies have failed to recognise.  Our role as humans has to be one of participation and co-creation in the universal principle of life.  So many writers and thinkers have understood this down the ages.  The Catalan poet, Joan Maragall, wrote: ‘All seemed a world in flower, and I was the soul of this world.’


Returning to Wordsworth, from ‘The Prelude’:


‘Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.’


In a very different verse form, Walt Whitman, with a calm certainty, expresses the universal nature and continuity of creation.  All things that come into being travel down the road towards the ultimate ripening into their pure, essential natures.  The word ‘all’ appears four times in the first three lines.



‘All, all for immortality,

Love like the light silently wrapping all,

Nature’s amelioration blessing all,

The blossoms, fruits of ages, orchards divine and certain,

Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual images ripening.’  (‘Song of the Universal’)


Indian spiritual texts so often expressed reality with great simplicity.  The poet, Kabir, wrote: ‘The truth of love is the Truth of the universe.’


To finish, let’s return to Richard Jefferies who always found a profound and simple joy in the return of life to the land.  The feeling never changed, even as time moved on.  Everything arrived at its rightful place and time.  Return was certain; with it came love.


‘The sweet violets bloom afresh every spring on the mounds, the cowslips come, and the happy note of the cuckoo, the wild rose of midsummer, and the golden wheat of August. It is the same beautiful old country always new. Neither the iron engine nor the wooden plough alter it one iota, and the love of it rises as constantly in our hearts as the coming of the leaves.’  (‘Walks in the Wheatfields’)

A vibrant living world: writing that never grows old

Rebecca Welshman

glyder fach landscape

In a recent Guardian piece about the Berwyn Mountains my friend Jim Perrin drew attention to the name of Y Berwyn’s high point having been misplaced. For decades Moel Sych or Cadair Berwyn were the accepted high points, but the actual summit lies between them. At 830m it is called Moel yr Ewig (Hill of the Roe Hind), known as such for its characteristic shape. The last paragraph captures the quiet, graceful presence of the hill, set deep amongst the vibrant activities of its wildlife:

“Last time I descended from here, I stopped to talk to a fisherman casting his diawl bach (“little devil” fly) for the small brown trout that teem in Llyn Lluncaws. “D’you know the name for the top?” he asked. I gave him Moel yr Ewig. “Good man!” he responded, and with a gesture of his hand described the ridge rising to it. “See the grace of her neck, the ears above? Beautiful …” He shook my hand, and I jogged off down the green way, ring ouzels darting among the waterfalls to my right, a pair of hobbies shrieking from the rocks of Cerrig Poethion, and the hill’s deer-like presence behind me.”

This paragraph in particular recalled to me a passage from Richard Jefferies’ essay ‘Summer in Somerset’, written in 1883, in which he catches a glimpse of the outline of Dunkery Hill, the highest summit of Exmoor:

“From the Devon border I drifted like a leaf detached from a tree, across to a deep coombe in the Quantock Hills. … Ridges each side rise high and heroically steep–it would be proper to set out and climb them, but not today, not now: some time presently. To the left massive Will’s Neck stands out in black shadow defined and distinct, like a fragment of night in the bright light of the day. The wild red deer lie there, but the mountain is afar; a sigh is all I can give to it, for the Somerset sun is warm and the lotus sweet. Yonder, if the misty heat moves on, the dim line of Dunkery winds along the sky, not unlike the curved back of a crouching hare.”

Hills as hares, deer, or other creatures, are timeless reminders of the landscapes of our more remote past; powerful shapes that were known to our ancestors. In his essay ‘Haunt of the EveJar’, published in 1922, Henry Williamson observes the return of birds along an “air line” on the Devon coast:

“When the first white flake falls from the hawthorn the immigrant birds of passage all have come to the countryside. Almost the last to arrive this year on the south-western coast of England were the mysterious nightjars, birds ever surrounded by romance on account of their weird song and phantom habits…It was night, and on the broad smooth sands, whence the tide has ebbed, shone a curved moon…Somewhere in front of me a curlew, disturbed at his nocturnal feeding, whistled plaintively. A mile away lay Baggy, like a badger asleep.”

The promontory Williamson refers to as “a badger asleep” is Baggy Point, at the southern edge of Woolacombe Bay – a “place of enthralling wonder”. The next evening, Williamson sees Baggy Point backlit by the “crimson glow” of an unsettled sky: “More sinister grew the outline of the headland, a beast replete and resting its shaggy head on sunken paws”. In these observations the latent presence and energy perceived in the hills is embodied by the image of a resting animal. Jefferies perceives Dunkery as a “crouching hare”, and Williamson imagines a “resting” and sated creature. Jefferies and Williamson borrowed from the old tradition of knowing hills by their shapes; one that can be traced back to at least the Anglo-Saxon era.

In contrast, we only have to glance at some more recent nature writing to notice the tendency to draw similes from the manmade world. In Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a flock of long-tailed tits are “animated cotton-buds”. In The Wild Places Macfarlane sees a kestrel with tail feathers “spread out like a hand of cards”. John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland: the Life of an English Field describes a “picture-frame of hedgerows”, and meadow pipits “climbing invisible stairs”. Time after time the animate is compared to the inanimate. Language that is so obviously wedded to the manmade world threatens to estrange, rather than reconcile, minds already far distanced from nature, and reinforces the faulty assumption that the natural world somehow belongs to humans.

Contemporary writing needs to collectively produce more narratives where the activities of birds and animals are not simply blots of colour or background sound, but are very much alive. We see this achieved in Jim’s article where the birds exist vibrantly in the present: “ring ouzels darting among the waterfalls … a pair of hobbies shrieking”. Moreover, the character and shape of the Hill of the Roe Hind is shown to live vibrantly in the mind of the fisherman – the familiar, often contemplated form comes through in the simple “gesture” he makes with his hand. The features of our living landscapes need to continue to be celebrated for their innate and timeless qualities that never grow old.

The Nymph’s Crystal Stream

Simon Coleman

cupid and sea nymphs

‘Cupid and Sea Nymphs’ by Henry Scott Tuke, 1899

I’ve been re-reading a book titled ‘In the Wake of Odysseus’ by the Finnish-Swedish author and sailor, Göran Schildt (1917-2009).  Translated from Swedish, the book is a vibrant and deeply sensitive account of Schildt’s voyage to Greece and Crete, with his wife, Mona, in their yacht, ‘Daphne’, in the summer of 1950.  Starting from their base in northern Italy, they sailed down the west coast to the southern tip of Italy, before crossing to the islands of Cephalonia and Ithaca.  After passing through the Corinth Canal and reaching Athens, they continued into the Aegean to explore the Cyclades islands where they encountered the dangerous summer winds blowing down from the north, known as the ‘Meltemia’.


Schildt’s views on life and humanity emerge naturally from his own experiences, charged with the freedom and spirit of the born explorer.  He muses on a wide range of cultural, historical and philosophical themes and displays an authentically individual approach to some of the entrenched problems of humanity: war, disease and poverty.  There are some vivid character sketches of people befriended at the various harbour towns they visited.  The book is written in a spirit of friendship that extends not only to the people of these close-knit Greek communities, recovering from the deprivations of war, but also to the reader.  Whether on the sun-baked, rocky islands, or facing the Meltemia winds on the sea at sunrise, Schildt experiences the forces of nature as powers that shape human life.  As you would expect from the title, the timeless legend of Odysseus can often be perceived hovering behind the narrative.


Richard Jefferies was also inspired by the legend of Odysseus and he explored the theme of voyages in his books ‘After London’ and ‘Bevis’.  He also wrote some memorable descriptions of experiences beside clear streams in essays such as ‘Meadow Thoughts’ and ‘The Sun and the Brook’.  The passage quoted below from Schildt’s book describes their discovery of a stream near the archaeological site of Delphi which they had visited.  Jefferies would surely have empathized with Schildt’s evocation of the magic of natural water in both its physical and spiritual properties.


“…we followed a stony path and after walking for some time in the sweltering noonday heat we caught sight of a shady grove of trees.  There must be a stream there, we reasoned, and went nearer.  The sight that met us when we reached the steep rock above the grove, however, enchanted and amazed us.  A glittering, crystal-clear stream flowed along under the rock and ran down through a walled channel into a large, square basin, shaded by tall trees.  Round the basin peasant girls were kneeling washing clothes, but the materials spread out in the sun were not ordinary factory-made ones but thick woollen coverlets, homespun skirts, rugs and rags in the most harmonious colours.  Pack-donkeys were standing tethered under the trees and an old man was untying more gaily coloured bundles: all the winter woollens of a large farm were evidently being washed…


Cold, fresh, crystal-clear water: only those who have known drought and heat in a land where the sunshine feels like a physical weight, a rain of molten gold in which you walk hunched up, more eagerly on the lookout for shelter than in the heaviest downpour, only those who have known the southern summer can understand what water is.  For us, coming from a land where water is really only appreciated when it reflects the blue sky in a gleaming lake, a land where water is enemy rather than friend and even as a drink has to be disguised in various forms…for us our stay in Greece was a complete re-education, a gradual discovery that water is not only the best and most natural of drinks, but that its taste has greater variations than all the artificial soft drinks put together.  We learnt that people can walk for miles to some special spring for a pitcher of water to offer an honoured guest, and we watched this guest in astonishment as he sipped the water with the concentrated air of a connoisseur, raising his eyes the next moment with a far more blissful smile than that of any wine-taster: ‘This reminds me of a water I drank two years ago from a little spring near Sparta’; or, if you want to be really polite, ‘This must be water from Castalia itself’: the spring of Castalia at Delphi is just as famous in present-day Greece for its unsurpassed drinking water as it was in ancient times as the fount of poesy.  The glass of water served as part of every order in all cafés has such significance that certain café proprietors keep three or four different waters to suit customers’ tastes.  But the best water is always to be had at the actual source, for all transport changes the taste and temperature.  Water, springs, streams in the dry Greek summer: no wonder they were formerly personified as nymphs, and the purest and most luxuriant of them carried off as captives to the green gardens in the valleys, to the naked youths in the stadiums, and to the temple-like wells full of cool rippling and the girlish voices of the water carriers.


The bathe I had in the mill stream at Delphi was something more to me than a cooling dip.  Reborn, dripping with quickly drying beads of water, I rose out of the nymph’s cold embrace, bound to this soil with the devotion, the primitive roots, made possible only by physical union.”

“There is Another Way”: Eckhart Tolle and Richard Jefferies

Rebecca Welshman

may meadow


As lockdowns around the world continue, we are reminded every day that we have a personal responsibility to help slow the spread of the virus. The sacrifice of our personal liberties is small in light of the many thousands of people suffering with this illness, and the medical staff working in extreme conditions to help others. But the reality of lockdown is different for everyone. Many of us cannot get out into the countryside to visit our favourite places. In the UK food bank use has increased by 300% compared to this time last year, and more than a million people have lost all their income. We have been forced into a sudden change of circumstances, and might be struggling to come to terms with the impact of this change. I saw a post on Facebook just recently, from a mother with a young child, wondering what she can do now that the last green space within walking distance of their house has been closed to the public. “Is there anything I can do through mindfulness?” she asked. The answer is “Yes”.

I am going to begin with some words from Eckhart Tolle, whose teachings inspired this post. In a recent video titled ‘There is Another Way’ (to watch click here), Eckhart began with a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’. The ability of our mind to cast a situation in a good or bad light can have a considerable effect on how we perceive our situation. In the video, Eckhart suggests trying to discard the narrative created by the mind – what is essentially a set of judgments about our situation designed by the ego (good, bad, unfair, too difficult, etc) – in order to be fully present in the Now. In doing so, he says, we can access ‘another dimension of consciousness’ that is often easily overlooked: ‘awareness… that is consciousness without thought’, ‘a deeper identity’ the ‘unconditioned consciousness’.

Eckhart’s teaching, in addition to some passages of Jefferies’ words, might be able to help us through this period while we are unable to reach green spaces. Working together, the two teachers might be able to help us reconnect with a place in the natural world that is special to us, to create a calm and grounded inner space that we can return to whenever we need it.

In the 1880s Richard Jefferies made notes about his need for thinking places – he records spots in the landscape where he would go to be alone. When he was working as a reporter on the North Wiltshire Herald in Cirencester, he would, during his lunchtime, go to stand beside the River Churn, by the remains of the old Roman wall. Here he made some of the earliest notes for his spiritual autobiography. Some of his regular thinking places were beside trees. When he went to stay with his Aunt Ellen, in Sydenham, he would spend time beneath the Deodar, a great cedar tree in his Aunt’s garden. As a teenager, seeking a quiet place away from the eyes of the hamlet or the workers at Coate, he would stand beneath a row of elms that stood at the edge of the garden at Coate Farmhouse, from where he could look out to Liddington Hill. These places are recalled in The Story of My Heart, and in the draft version:

“I was not more than eighteen when an inner and esoteric meaning began to come to me from all the visible universe, and indefinable aspirations filled me. I found them in the grass fields, under the trees, on the hill-tops, at sunrise, and in the night. There was a deeper meaning everywhere. The sun burned with it, the broad front of morning beamed with it; a deep feeling entered me while gazing at the sky in the azure noon, and in the star-lit evening.” 

sunset from norncott

“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.”

Sunset april 9 2014_0494

“So long since that I have forgotten the date, I used every morning to visit a spot where I could get a clear view of the east. Immediately on rising I went out to some elms; thence I could see across the dewy fields to the distant hills over or near which the sun rose. These elms partially hid me, for at that time I had a dislike to being seen, feeling that I should be despised if I was noticed. This happened once or twice, and I knew I was watched contemptuously, though no one had the least idea of my object. But I went every morning, and was satisfied if I could get two or three minutes to think unchecked.” 

As he later explains in The Story of My Heart the feeling that grew from these moments was a sense of being immersed in the Now; of being ‘in eternity’. He records an awakening through the senses – to ‘esoteric meaning’ – a realm of consciousness without thought.

“It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity” 

Conversely, though, as Jefferies was a writer attempting to put these experiences into an entirely new form, he struggled to find the right words through which to convey them; this was to become a long process that required much thought and focus.

On developing awareness, Eckhart says that humans ‘need the challenge to be driven there’, which is why what we are going through now is potentially helpful. Jefferies experienced great difficulty throughout his life due to continued ill health, poverty, and a calling to express his spiritual ideas, which were considered radical and unpopular by the late nineteenth century society of the time. From his struggle was born some of the most beautiful and luminous writing in the English language. It is especially pertinent that some of his greatest works were written while he was trapped indoors, confined to bed, with only glimpses of the outdoor world visible from his window.

So, during this difficult global time how might we combine Eckhart’s words with Jefferies’ experiences? We can first try to connect with our own personal thinking places. Try to remember a favourite tree, hill, or spot – a place where you have felt at peace – and hold the image in mind for a time. Put aside the ‘narrative’ of whatever emotion or opinion that you might have about your current situation, and allow the original feelings of connection to come to the surface. Try to remember the weather, and the season, when you were last there. What can you see around you? What colours are the leaves, the grass? Try to recall the sensory reality of the experience – is the air warm or cold? What can you hear? Become aware of the ground beneath your feet, the sense of rootedness that grows the longer you stand there. Focus then on the centring pull in the core of your being that is slowed and lulled by the rhythm of the natural world around you.

Without the clutter – that might be your ‘narrative’ about yourself and your life, or distractions that the mind can easily be diverted by – focus on discovering the fullness and potential of each moment. Here Jefferies offers another example:

“Certain it is that it is extremely pleasant and grateful to breathe the sweet fragrance of the fir deep in the woods, listening to the soft caressing sound of the wind that passes high overhead. The willow-wren sings, but his voice and that of the wind seem to give emphasis to the holy and meditative silence. The mystery of nature and life hover about the columned temple of the forest. The secret is always behind a tree, as of old time it was always behind the pillar of the temple.” (Field and Hedgerow)

sky through firs

This passage, written about an experience in Ashdown Forest, suggests an inner space opening up – a space heightened in Jefferies’ consciousness by the sounds of the willow-wren and the wind – that is perhaps redolent of Eckhart’s ‘unconditioned consciousness’. Jefferies writes “The secret is always behind a tree, as of old time it was always behind the pillar of the temple.” What does he mean by this? There are some key spiritual principles inherent in this passage. Trust and acceptance accompany being present – trust that although you can only see what is around you (the tree) at the same time you can sense the presence of much more – a ‘fuller wider existence’ (the secret behind the tree). Jefferies seems to be on the cusp of deeper insight; he knows he cannot get there through using the vehicle of the intellect – he needs the ‘meditative silence’ of the deep woods, which evokes Eckhart’s ‘deeper identity’ and ‘unconditioned consciousness’. In this condition of awareness, Eckhart suggests that you can ‘face the situation with the power of your presence, which is true intelligence…instead of being reactive and complaining about what you are experiencing.’

Turning now to Jefferies’ essay ‘Hours of Spring’, written when he was confined to bed, it is evident that an important change is taking place. From being somebody who spent hours walking out of doors every day, Jefferies has grown used to an indoor life that has been imposed upon him:

To-day through the window-pane I see a lark high up against the grey cloud, and hear his song. I cannot walk about and arrange with the buds and gorse-bloom; how does he know it is the time for him to sing? Without my book and pencil and observing eye, how does he understand that the hour has come? To sing high in the air, to chase his mate over the low stone wall of the ploughed field, to battle with his high-crested rival, to balance himself on his trembling wings outspread a few yards above the earth, and utter that sweet little loving kiss, as it were, of song—oh, happy, happy days! So beautiful to watch as if he were my own, and I felt it all! It is years since I went out amongst them in the old fields, and saw them in the green corn; they must be dead, dear little things, by now. Without me to tell him, how does this lark to-day that I hear through the window know it is his hour?”

view over hedge

Jefferies is having to accept that he doesn’t need to be physically out of doors to know that spring is unfolding – he has to trust that it is there, and that he can still be part of it. In partial consolation for this loss, and to find peace in the present, he seeks to reconnect with a past experience, when the lark sung ‘high in the air’ and chased his partner over the low stone wall of the field. Later in the same essay Jefferies refers to ‘the old, old error: I love the earth, therefore the earth loves me—I am her child—I am Man, the favoured of all creatures. I am the centre, and all for me was made.’ This mental narrative, created by the ego, which places so much importance on the individual, has to be cleared in order for meaningful awareness to grow. But it comes with the melancholy realisation that Nature places no special value on human life: “Nature sets no value upon life, neither of mine nor of the larks that sang years ago. The earth is all in all to me, but I am nothing to the earth: it is bitter to know this before you are dead.” This was not the end for Jefferies – he went on to write the manuscript for a new spiritual book. In this manuscript the ‘I’ or ego is notably absent, and he no longer uses words such as ‘bitter’ or ‘difficult’. He has successfully discarded the mental narrative.

sky through cherry blossom

I hope these quotations might be helpful for the current time. I hope that we can find some reassurance through being present and trusting that the situation in which we find ourselves, however difficult, is somehow the right one; that we are here to learn. As Eckhart says, ‘the situation is as it is…life is not here to make you happy, the world isn’t here to make you happy, it is here to awaken you, to make you conscious’.


All photos by Rebecca.


Reposing in Eternity

Simon Coleman

Singing Nightingale At Fingringhoe, Essex, 2015, Acrylic On Canvas, Original Painting, Richard Hull

Singing Nightingale At Fingringhoe, Essex, 2015, Richard Hull

During this time of great uncertainty and anxiety in the world, I feel the value of beautiful and insightful writing even more than usual.  There is the palpable sense of crisis pressing in on our minds, with no obvious end in sight.  With every official announcement telling us to stay at home as much as possible comes the inevitable sense that the crisis is right outside on our doorsteps.  At such a time as this, I turn to some fine passages of writing on the outdoors which also look back into the miraculous entity that is the human mind.  In this mind, belonging to all of us, lies the faculty of deeper and wider perception, reached through proper attention to the senses.  Perhaps by activating this perception, we can, for a time, bypass the intrusive and toxic anxiety of the present time and remind ourselves of the type of thought that always belongs in human consciousness.

Here are two pieces of writing, different in style, but both demonstrating the perception that I want to illustrate.  The first is from Richard Jefferies’ essay, ‘Nature and Eternity’.  The second is from a book, ‘A Life of One’s Own’, by Marion Milner (also known as Joanna Field), published in 1934.  Milner was a psychologist who escaped from a restricted upbringing by exploring the reservoir of creative perception in her mind.  I don’t want to attempt any analysis of the two texts but will let them speak for themselves.


From ‘Nature and Eternity’ by Richard Jefferies


‘Throwing open the little wicket-gate, by a step the greensward of the meadow is reached. Though the grass has been mown and the ground is dry, it is better to carry a thick rug, and cast it down in the shadow under the tall horse-chestnut-tree. It is only while in a dreamy, slumbrous, half-mesmerized state that nature’s ancient papyrus roll can be read—only when the mind is at rest, separated from care and labour; when the body is at ease, luxuriating in warmth and delicious languor; when the soul is in accord and sympathy with the sunlight, with the leaf, with the slender blades of grass, and can feel with the tiniest insect which climbs up them as up a mighty tree. As the genius of the great musicians, without an articulated word or printed letter, can carry with it all the emotions, so now, lying prone upon the earth in the shadow, with quiescent will, listening, thoughts and feelings rise respondent to the sunbeams, to the leaf, the very blade of grass. Resting the head upon the hand, gazing down upon the ground, the strange and marvellous inner sight of the mind penetrates the solid earth, grasps in part the mystery of its vast extension upon either side, bearing its majestic mountains, its deep forests, its grand oceans, and almost feels the life which in ten thousand thousand forms revels upon its surface. Returning upon itself, the mind joys in the knowledge that it too is a part of this wonder—akin to the ten thousand thousand creatures, akin to the very earth itself. How grand and holy is this life! how sacred the temple which contains it!


Out from the hedge, not five yards distant, pours a rush of deep luscious notes, succeeded by the sweetest trills heard by man. It is the nightingale, which tradition assigns to the night only, but which in fact sings as loudly, and to my ear more joyously, in the full sunlight, especially in the morning, and always close to the nest. The sun has moved onward upon his journey, and this spot is no longer completely shaded, but the foliage of a great oak breaks the force of his rays, and the eye can even bear to gaze at his disc for a few moments. Living for this brief hour at least in unalloyed sympathy with nature, apart from all disturbing influences, the sight of that splendid disc carries the soul with it till it feels as eternal as the sun. Let the memory call up a picture of the desert sands of Egypt—upon the kings with the double crown, upon Rameses, upon Sesostris, upon Assurbanipal the burning beams of this very sun descended, filling their veins with tumultuous life, three thousand years ago. Lifted up in absorbing thought, the mind feels that these three thousand years are in truth no longer past than the last beat of the pulse. It throbbed—the throb is gone; their pulse throbbed, and it seems but a moment since, for to thought, as to the sun, there is no time. This little petty life of seventy years, with its little petty aims and hopes, its despicable fears and contemptible sorrows, is no more the life with which the mind is occupied. This golden disc has risen and set, as the graven marks of man alone record, full eight thousand years. The hieroglyphs of the rocks speak of a fiery sun shining inconceivable ages before that. Yet even this almost immortal sun had a beginning—perhaps emerging as a ball of incandescent gas from chaos: how long ago was that? And onwards, still onwards goes the disc, doubtless for ages and ages to come. It is time that our measures should be extended; these paltry divisions of hours and days and years—aye, of centuries—should be superseded by terms  conveying some faint idea at least of the vastness of space. For in truth, when thinking thus, there is no time at all. The mind loses the sense of time and reposes in eternity.’


From ‘A Life of One’s Own’ by Marion Milner (Joanna Field): describing an experience in the Black Forest, Germany


‘Those flickering leaf-shadows playing over the heap of cut grass. It is fresh scythed. The shadows are blue or green, I don’t know which, but I feel them in my bones. Down into the shadows of the gully, across it through glistening space, space that hangs suspended filling the gully, so that little sounds wander there, lose themselves and are drowned; beyond, there’s a splash of sunlight leaping out against the darkness of forest, the gold in it flows richly in my eyes, flows through my brain in still pools of light. That pine, my eye is led up and down the straightness of its trunk, my muscles feel its roots spreading wide to hold it so upright against the hill. The air is full of sounds, sighs which fade back into the overhanging silence. A bee passes, a golden ripple in the quiet air. A chicken at my feet fussily crunches a blade of grass . . .

I sat motionless, draining sensation to its depths, wave after wave of delight flowing through every cell in my body. My attention flickered from one delight to the next like a butterfly, effortless, following its pleasure; sometimes it rested on a thought, a verbal comment, but these no longer made a chattering barrier between me and what I saw, they were woven into the texture of my seeing. I no longer strove to be doing something, I was deeply content with what was. At other times my senses had often been in conflict, so that I could either look or listen but not both at once. Now hearing and sight and sense of space were all fused into one whole.’



The Hawk in the Wind Reimagining Richard Jefferies

A Guest Post by Clive Bennett

‘See—the hawk, after going nearly out of sight, has swept round, and passes again at no great distance; this is a common habit of his kind, to beat round in wide circles. As the breeze strikes him aslant his course he seems to fly for a short time partly on one side, like a skater sliding on the outer edge …

Richard Jefferies wrote passionately about nature and the countryside combining vivid description and imagery – painting in words – his palette the nature of his beloved hills and vales the downs and all the trees birds insects and animals that lived there …

He is my inspiration (in a sense my muse) for writing poetry, haiku, and prose; and in life. As a teenager before mindfulness became fashionable I found solace in his essays – especially his autobiography – ‘The Story of My Heart’ which held particular resonance – I was no longer alone as I lay on the short turf of the Wiltshire Downs and lost myself in the pure rich blue of the sky. Later I too learnt the transcendent power of a stray sunbeam in a dusty room and birch leaves trembling from outside an upstairs window of a city flat …

As an aspiring haiku poet, reading his essays – prose poems if you like – afresh, such is the richness of imagery and language they seem imbued with the spirit of haiku. Looking closely, within the larger body of his texts, there are words and lines that hint at an underlying, yet unexpressed, Zen like moment of awareness or suchness.

The Found Poem

Some 25 years or more ago, having previously published a book on Found Poems (‘Some Spirit Land’ – 1986) from the Nature Essays of Richard Jefferies, Colin Blundell presented his seminal work on Found Haiku (‘Something Beyond The Stars’ – 1993) to the Richard Jefferies Society; a unique and novel approach to the study of Richard Jefferies.

Colin – a respected haiku poet … and lifelong student of the prose poems of Richard Jefferies, among many other things – found words and phrases in his essays and notes that, expressed as haiku, sought to elucidate that moment of awareness, that Zen moment of suchness, he believed Jefferies experienced, but struggled to convey in mere words. Jefferies himself felt he would sometimes ‘lose the meaning in words’.

willow wren singing
in the dry furze of the coombe
violets in the furze

15th April 1883

Colin used the 5-7-5 discipline, in common English usage at the time, in writing his haiku. While the poems were quintessentially Jefferies, contemporary freeform haiku allows a more flexible approach in their construction.

sedge warbler
climbing among the flags
sings incessantly

The Hills and the Vale – 1909

Yet I am dissatisfied. While this is a perfectly good haiku – a ‘sketch from life’ (Shiki) – there is no moment of awareness or insight. It is ‘as is’. What is missing perhaps, is what the late Martin Lucas calls the Poetic Spell …

The Poetic Spell

‘To approach the poetic spell via imagery often appears to involve nothing more than mere description. The difference is that what is described is somehow so satisfying that we linger in the moment, and almost seek to dwell in it.

One criterion of the poetic spell would be original thought; original imagery; and, pleasingly musical language.  Importantly, it also resists definitive interpretation. It’s very much the reader’s poem.’

a light breeze
sweeping the hill
the kestrel’s cry

‘Poetic spells don’t tell us anything, they are something, they exist as objects of fascination in their own right. You can hold them in the light and turn them about and watch each of their facets gleam. They begin and end each reader’s unique reflection.’

Here is the extract from which this haiku was derived …

‘… Presently a small swift shadow passes across—it is that of a hawk flying low over the hill. He skirts it for some distance, and then shoots out into the air, comes back half-way, and hangs over the fallow below, where there is a small rick. His wings vibrate, striking the air downwards, and only slightly backwards, the tail depressed counteracting the inclination to glide forwards for awhile. In a few moments he slips, as it were, from his balance, but brings, himself up again in a few yards, turning a curve so as to still hover above the rick. …’

‘… See—the hawk, after going nearly out of sight, has swept round, and passes again at no great distance; this is a common habit of his kind, to beat round in wide circles. As the breeze strikes him aslant his course he seems to fly for a short time partly on one side, like a skater sliding on the outer edge. …’

An extract from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ – his essays of happier times in the hills and vales of the Wessex Downs.

Now read, preferably out loud, the haiku again – linger in the moment of each line …

a light breeze
sweeping the hill
the kestrel’s cry

Here, by using just a few words – hawk swept breeze – the haiku gently invokes your senses; leading you to the hill, and the hawk in the wind – the moment is yours.

For Richard Jefferies the freedom of a bird’s life was appealing to him, as was a bird’s ability to live in tune with its surroundings and to take delight in the natural rhythms and beauties of the seasons.

“… the colour and sound and light, the changing days, the birds of the wood and of the field; its woven embroidery so beautiful, because without design …”

The Dewy Morn’ (1884).

This then is the charm – the spell – of Richard Jefferies’ prose … the found poems in the brief seasonal foray, that follows, lead you back to the essays from which they are derived, with an enriched sense of beauty.


‘Passing further up the road, the rooks have discovered an arable field, where, just before the snow fell, manure had been carted out and left in small heaps for spreading. These are now covered with snow, but near the bottom are perhaps not quite frozen. An oak-tree, white to the smallest twig, stands solitary in the midst. A whole flock of rooks are perched on it; every two or three minutes some descend to the immediate neighbourhood of the manure heaps, and after a short interval rise with a feeble caw and rest upon a branch. There is a perpetual stream of rooks like this passing up and down. The very bough the rook roosts on at night is coated with frozen snow, though his weight as he alights shakes it off in some degree under his claws.’

rooks gather …
the bough breaks
under the snow

Under the Snow – via Rebecca Welshman


‘It is the February summer that comes, and lasts a week or so between the January frosts and the east winds that rush through the thorns. Some little green is even now visible along the mound where seed-leaves are springing up. The sun is warm, and the still air genial, the sky only dotted with a few white clouds. Wood-pigeons are busy in the elms, where the ivy is thick with ripe berries. There is a feeling of spring and of growth; in a day or two we shall find violets; and listen, how sweetly the larks are singing! Some chase each other, and then hover fluttering above the hedge.’

sunny days
tease the blackbird
into song

Life of the Fields 1899

‘… “There’s the cuckoo!” Everyone looked up and listened as the notes came indoors from the copse by the garden. He had returned to the same spot for the fourth time. The tallest birch-tree—it is as tall as an elm—stands close to the hedge, about three parts of the way up it, and it is just round there that the cuckoo generally sings. From the garden gate it is only a hundred yards to this tree, walking beside the hedge which extends all the way, so that the very first time the cuckoo calls upon his arrival he is certain to be heard. His voice travels that little distance with ease, and can be heard in every room.’

sunshine …
filling every room
the cuckoo’s call

The Hills and the Vale 1909


‘There seemed just now the tiniest twinkle of movement by the rushes, but it was lost among the hedge parsley. Among the grey leaves of the willow there is another flit of motion; and visible now against the sky there is a little brown bird, not to be distinguished at the moment from the many other little brown birds that are known to be about. He got up into the willow from the hedge parsley somehow, without being seen to climb or fly. Suddenly he crosses to the tops of the hawthorn and immediately flings himself up into the air a yard or two, his wings and ruffled crest making a ragged outline; jerk, jerk, jerk, as if it were with the utmost difficulty he could keep even at that height. He scolds, and twitters, and chirps, and all at once sinks like a stone into the hedge and out of sight as a stone into a pond. It is a whitethroat; his nest is deep in the parsley and nettles.’

the only sound …
bursting from the hedge
a whitethroat

“The Pageant of Summer,” which originally appeared in Longman’s Magazine, was reprinted in The Life of the Fields – 1887

‘The colour of the yellowhammer appears brighter in spring and early summer: the bird is aglow with a beautiful and brilliant, yet soft yellow, pleasantly shaded with brown. He perches on the upper boughs of the hawthorn or on a rail, coming up from the corn as if to look around him—for he feeds chiefly on the ground—and uttering two or three short notes. His plumage gives a life and tint to the hedge, contrasting so brightly with the vegetation and with other birds. His song is but a few bars repeated, yet it has a pleasing and soothing effect in the drowsy warmth of summer.’

in evening’s glow
yellowhammer sing
the warm air still

“Wild Life in a Southern County” 1879


black clouds
swirling twisting turning
drop into firs

‘In the thick foliage of this belt of firs the starlings love to roost. If you should be passing along any road—east, north, west, or south —a mile or two distant, as the sun is sinking and evening approaching, suddenly there will come a rushing sound in the air overhead: it is a flock of starlings flying in their determined manner straight for the distant copse. From every direction these flocks converge upon it: some large, some composed only of a dozen birds, but all with the same intent …’

‘… Viewed from a spot three or four fields away, the copse in the evening seems to be overhung by a long dark cloud like a bar of mist, while the sky is clear and no dew is yet risen. The resemblance to a cloud is so perfect that any one—not thinking of such things—may for the time be deceived, and wonder why a cloud should descend and rest over that particular spot. Suddenly, the two ends of the extended black bar contract, and the middle swoops down in the shape of an inverted cone, much resembling a waterspout, and in a few seconds the cloud pours itself into the trees. Another minute and a black streak shoots upwards, spreads like smoke, parts in two, and wheels round back into the firs again.

On approaching it this apparent cloud is found to consist of thousands of starlings, the noise of whose calling to each other is indescribable—the country folk call it a “charm,” meaning a noise made up of innumerable lesser sounds, each interfering with the other. The vastness of these flocks is hardly credible until seen; in winter the bare trees on which they alight become suddenly quite black.’

wave after wave
sound of pebbles
in the backwash

“Wild Life in a Southern County” 1879


Liddington Hill by Kate Allen Tryon

Artist Credit: Picture of Liddington Hill by Kate Allen Tryon (March 18, 1865 – 1952) – an American journalist, artist and lecturer.

Kate Tryon first visited Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1910, and she returned 5 other times: “The lark, the nightingale and Richard Jefferies – those are the three things that brought me to England”; the output of these visits is a vast array of paintings.

© the copyright holder. Photo credit: Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and reproduced here under the terms of their licence


Here’s one though not about birds … perhaps a fitting postscript that for me describes the ethos of his writing and of Jefferies himself …

shadows lengthen
a leaf falls

The Hills and the Vale 1909

Thanks to Rebecca Welshman for hosting this Guest Post and to Simon Coleman who unwittingly provided me with some of the quoted passages. Thanks also to Colin Blundell who ‘got there first’.

‘There is Something More’

Simon Coleman


quantock photo

Photo by Richard Wiltshire:

‘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.

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”.



Simon Coleman


The South Downs.


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…’