LAPWINGS IN SPRING

Simon Coleman

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The following passages are from ‘Haunts of the Lapwing’, Part 2, which is subtitled ‘Spring’.  See the earlier post for Part 1 of this essay: ‘Winter’. Once again, Jefferies displays a profound sympathy with his subject and an enduring fascination with the behaviour of a relatively common bird.  Other well-loved sights and sounds of spring – the stream, the flowers, a nightingale – enrich the scene and add depth to the principal subject matter.  When reading Jefferies’ natural history works, we can always be confident that he never simply tells us what we could expect to discover on a typical day at a certain time of the year: instead he relates what he actually did see, and how he came to make the observations.  In this manner, they never feel commonplace.

 

“A soft sound of water moving among thousands of grass-blades – to the hearing it is as the sweetness of spring air to the scent. It is so faint and so diffused that the exact spot whence it issues cannot be discerned, yet it is distinct, and my footsteps are slower as I listen. Yonder, in the corners of the mead, the atmosphere is full of some ethereal vapour. The sunshine stays in the air there, as if the green hedges held the wind from brushing it away. Low and plaintive come the notes of a lapwing; the same notes, but tender with love…

 

From the bushes by the stile on the left hand, which I have just passed, follows the long whistle of a nightingale. His nest is near; he sings night and day. Had I waited on the stile, in a few minutes, becoming used to my presence, he would have made the hawthorn vibrate, so powerful in his voice when heard close at hand. There is not another nightingale along this path for at least a mile, though it crosses meadows and runs by hedges to all appearance equally suitable; but nightingales will not pass their limits; they seem to have a marked-out range as strictly defined as the lines of a geological map. They will not go over to the next hedge – hardly into the field on one side of a favourite spot, nor a yard farther along the mound. Opposite the oak is a low fence of serrated green. Just projecting above the edge of a brook, fast-growing flags have thrust up their bayonet-tips. Beneath their stalks are so thick in the shallow places that a pike can scarcely push a way between them. Over the brook stand some high maple trees; to their thick foliage wood-pigeons come. The entrance to a coomb, the widening mouth of a valley, is beyond, with copses on the slopes.

 

Again the plover’s notes; this time in the field immediately behind; repeated, too, in the field on the right hand. One comes over, and as he flies he jerks a wing upwards and partly turns on his side in the air, rolling like a vessel in a swell. He seems to beat the air sideways, as if against a wall, not downwards. This habit makes his course appear so uncertain; he may go there, or yonder, or in a third direction, more undecided than a startled snipe. Is there a little vanity in that wanton flight? Is there a little consciousness of the spring-freshened colours of his plumage, and pride in the dainty touch of his wings on the sweet wind? His love is watching his wayward course. He prolongs it. He has but a few yards to fly to reach the well-known feeding-ground by the brook where the grass is short; perhaps it has been eaten off by sheep. It is a straight and easy line as a starling would fly. The plover thinks nothing of a straight line; he winds first with the course of the hedge, then rises aslant, uttering his cry, wheels, and returns; now this way, direct at me, as if his object was to display his snowy breast; suddenly rising aslant again, he wheels once more, and goes right away from his object over above the field whence he came. Another moment and he returns; and so to and fro, and round and round, till with a sidelong, unexpected sweep he alights by the brook. He stands a minute, then utters his cry, and runs a yard or so forward. In a little while a second plover arrives from the field behind. He too dances a maze in the air before he settles. Soon a third joins them. They are visible at that spot because the grass is short, elsewhere they would be hidden. If one of these rises and flies to and fro almost instantly another follows, and then it is, indeed, a dance before they alight. The wheeling, maze-tracing, devious windings continue till the eye wearies and rests with pleasure on a passing butterfly. These birds have nests in the meadows adjoining; they meet here as a common feeding-ground. Presently they will disperse, each returning to his mate at the nest. Half an hour afterwards they will meet once more, either here or on the wing.

 

In this manner they spend their time from dawn through the flower-growing day till dusk. When the sun arises over the hill into the sky already blue the plovers have been up a long while. All the busy morning they go to and fro – the busy morning, when the wood-pigeons cannot rest in the copses on the coomb-side, but continually fly in and out; when the blackbirds whistle in the oaks, when the bluebells gleam with purplish lustre. At noontide, in the dry heat, it is pleasant to listen to the sound of water moving among the thousand thousand grass-blades of the mead. The flower-growing day lengthens out beyond the sunset, and till the hedges are dim the lapwings do not cease.

 

Leaving now the shade of the oak, I follow the path into the meadow on the right, stepping by the way over a streamlet, which diffuses its rapid current broadcast over the sward till it collects again and pours into the brook. This next meadow is somewhat more raised, and not watered; the grass is high and full of buttercups. Before I have gone twenty yards a lapwing rises out in the field, rushes towards me through the air, and circles round my head, making as if to dash at me, and uttering shrill cries. Immediately another comes from the mead behind the oak; then a third from over the hedge, and all those that have been feeding by the brook, till I am encircled with them. They wheel round, dive, rise aslant, cry, and wheel again, always close over me, till I have walked some distance, when, one by one, they fall off, and, still uttering threats, retire. There is a nest in this meadow, and, although it is, no doubt, a long way from the path, my presence even in the field, large as it is, is resented. The couple who imagine their possessions threatened are quickly joined by their friends, and there is no rest till I have left their treasures far behind.”

 

 

Signs of Spring

Rebecca Welshman

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Jefferies’ field notebooks are full of references to the passing seasons. Each year he carefully noted the first signs of spring and summer and found happiness in the visible tokens of the seasons as they returned.  As he wrote in The Open Air “I knew the very dates of them all—the reddening elm, the arum, the hawthorn leaf, the celandine, the may; the yellow iris of the waters, the heath of the hillside. The time of the nightingale—the place to hear the first note.”

The first arum is often noted, and he looks for it on the banks of woodlands or along the edges of lanes. In ‘Nature Near London’ he notes the connection between the arrival of spring plants and the activities of the birds:

“The spotted leaves of the arum appeared in the ditches in this locality very nearly simultaneously with the first whistling of the blackbirds in February; last spring the chiffchaff sang soon after the flowering of the lesser celandine (not in this hedge, but near by), and the first swift was noticed within a day or two of the opening of the May bloom. Although not exactly, yet in a measure, the movements of plant and bird life correspond.”

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In ‘The Life of the Fields’ he describes a few warm days in early spring when it is possible to see and feel the growth of the season. An expanse of agricultural land, which in the winter months assumed a dreary and monotonous aspect, is lightened by the hazy sunshine. Larks are singing, and the bare banks that fringe the woods are slowly turning green:

“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. The stubble, whitened by exposure to the weather, looks lighter in the sunshine, and the distant view is softened by haze. A water-tank approaches, and the cart-horse steps in the pride of strength. The carter’s lad goes to look at the engine and to wonder at the uses of the gauge. All the brazen parts gleam in the bright sun, and the driver presses some waste against the piston now it works slowly, till it shines like polished silver. The red glow within, as the furnace-door is opened, lights up the lad’s studious face beneath like sunset. A few brown leaves yet cling to one bough of the oak, and the rooks come over cawing happily in the unwonted warmth. The low hum and the monotonous clanking, the rustling of the wire rope, give a sense of quiet. Let us wander along the hedge, and look for signs of spring. This is to-day. To-morrow, if we come, the engines are half hidden from afar by driving sleet and scattered snow-flakes fleeting aslant the field. Still sternly they labour in the cold and gloom. …

Among the meadows the buttercups in spring are as innumerable as ever and as pleasant to look upon. The petal of the buttercup has an enamel of gold; with the nail you may scrape it off, leaving still a yellow ground, but not reflecting the sunlight like the outer layer. From the centre the golden pollen covers the fingers with dust like that from the wing of a butterfly. In the bunches of grass and by the gateways the germander speedwell looks like tiny specks of blue stolen, like Prometheus’ fire, from the summer sky. When the mowing-grass is ripe the heads of sorrel are so thick and close that at a little distance the surface seems as if sunset were always shining red upon it. From the spotted orchis leaves in April to the honeysuckle-clover in June, and the rose and the honeysuckle itself, the meadow has changed in nothing that delights the eye. The draining, indeed, has made it more comfortable to walk about on, and some of the rougher grasses have gone from the furrows, diminishing at the same time the number of cardamine flowers; but of these there are hundreds by the side of every tiny rivulet of water, and the aquatic grasses flourish in every ditch. The meadow-farmers, dairymen, have not grubbed many hedges–only a few, to enlarge the fields, too small before, by throwing two into one. So that hawthorn and blackthorn, ash and willow, with their varied hues of green in spring, briar and bramble, with blackberries and hips later on, are still there as in the old, old time. Bluebells, violets, cowslips–the same old favourite flowers–may be found on the mounds or sheltered near by. The meadow-farmers have dealt mercifully with the hedges, because they know that for shade in heat and shelter in storm the cattle resort to them. The hedges–yes, the hedges, the very synonym of Merry England–are yet there, and long may they remain. Without hedges England would not be England. Hedges, thick and high, and full of flowers, birds, and living creatures, of shade and flecks of sunshine dancing up and down the bark of the trees–I love their very thorns. You do not know how much there is in the hedges.

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Image source: cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk

We have still the woods, with here and there a forest, the beauty of the hills, and the charm of winding brooks. I never see roads, or horses, men, or anything when I get beside a brook. There is the grass, and the wheat, the clouds, the delicious sky, and the wind, and the sunlight which falls on the heart like a song. It is the same, the very same, only I think it is brighter and more lovely now than it was twenty years ago.”

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Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stream_and_old_bridge_on_Exmoor,_Devon_(2545075797).jpg

FOOD FROM THE CLOUDS

SIMON COLEMAN

 

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Source: http://media.gettyimages.com/videos/aerial-over-fields-with-shadows-of-clouds-in-the-south-downs-west-video-id864-33?s=640×640

 

Anyone who spends a lot of time out in the English countryside cannot fail to notice the great variety of atmospheric effects that can appear, especially over hilly land.  Effects of light, cloud and shadow and subtle plays of colour continually offer surprises to our eyes all year round.  In his different styles, Richard Jefferies possessed the ability to capture the varied moods of the sky and atmosphere, hardly ever missing an opportunity to say something about the clouds he observed.  In this passage from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, he provides a stark description of a drought in the Wiltshire downs before gently shifting our gaze to the dreamy clouds which mesmerize with their motion and hues.

 

“Once now and then in the cycle of the years there comes a summer which to the hills is almost like a fever to the blood, wasting and drying up with its heat the green things upon which animal life depends, so that drought and famine go hand in hand.  The days go by and grow to weeks, the weeks lengthen to months, and still no rain.  The sun pours down his burning rays, which become hotter as the season advances; the sky is blue and beautiful over the hills–beautiful, but pitiless to the bleating flocks beneath.  The breeze comes up from the south, bringing with it white clouds sailing at an immense height, with openings between like azure lakes or aerial Mediterraneans landlocked by banks of vapour.

 

These, if you watch them from the rampart, slowly dissolve; fragments break away from the mass as the edges of the polar glaciers slip off the ice-cliff into the sea, only these are noiseless.  The fragment detached grows visibly thinner and more translucent, its margin stretching out in an uneven fringe: the process is almost exactly like the unravelling of a spotless garment, the threads wavering and twisting as they are carried along by the current, diminishing till they fade and are lost in the ocean of blue.  This breaking of the clouds is commonly seen in weather that promises to be fine.  From the brow here, you may note a solitary cloud just risen above the horizon; it floats slowly towards us; presently it divides into several parts; these, again, fall away in jagged, irregular pieces like flecks of foam.  By the time it has reached the zenith these flecks have lengthened out, and shortly afterwards the cloud has entirely melted and is gone.  The delicate hue, the contrast of the fleecy white with the deepest azure, the ever-changing form, the light shining through the gauzy texture, the gentle dreamy motion, lend these clouds an exquisite beauty.”

 

Later in the book, he describes a very different cloud scene.

 

“When the sky is overcast—large masses of cloud, with occasional breaks, passing slowly across it at a considerable elevation without rain – sometimes through these narrow slits long beams of light fall aslant upon the distant fields of the vale.  They resemble, only on a greatly lengthened scales the beams that may be seen in churches of a sunny afternoon, falling from the upper windows on the tiled floor of the chancel, and made visible by motes in the air.  So through such slits in the cloudy roof of the sky the rays of the sun shoot downwards, made visible on their passage by the moisture or the motes floating in the atmosphere.  They seem to linger in their place as the clouds drift with scarcely perceptible motion; and the labourers say that the sun is sucking up water there.”

 

Typically in Jefferies’ writing, underlying the careful objectivity of his descriptions, we detect the presence of some deeper level of experience.  Here, in his children’s novel, ‘Bevis’, the clouds seem to lead the reposing mind towards an idea of eternal time.

 

“Lying at full length inside the shadow of the oak, Bevis gazed up at the clouds, which were at an immense height, and drifted so slowly as to scarcely seem to move, only he saw that they did because he had a fixed point in the edge of the oak boughs.  So thin and delicate was the texture of the white sky-lace above him that the threads scarcely hid the blue which the eye knew was behind and above it.  It was warm without the pressure of heat, soft, luxurious; the summer like them reclined, resting in the fulness of the time.”

 

On another occasion, in the High Weald of Sussex, he can celebrate an unending variety of cloud formations passing over.

 

“Clouds drift over; it is a wonderful observatory for cloud studies; they seem so close, the light is so strong, and there is nothing to check the sight as far as its powers will reach. Clouds come up no wider than a pasture-field, but in length stretching out to the very horizon, dividing the blue sky into two halves; but then every day has its different clouds—the fleets of heaven that are always sailing on and know no haven.”  (‘Buckhurst Park’)

 

Jefferies was not afraid of introducing occasional romantic touches, such as this one from ‘Hours of Spring’:

 

“…the beautiful clouds that go over, with the sweet rush of rain and burst of sun glory among the leafy trees.”

 

In a very late and sad essay, ‘My Old Village’, composed when he was bed-ridden and aware  he was dying of tuberculosis, Jefferies plunges into an astonishingly poignant reminiscence of his youth in the north Wiltshire countryside.  He also reveals a new depth to his love of clouds.

 

“There used to be clouds over the fields, white clouds in blue summer skies. I have lived a good deal on clouds; they have been meat to me often; they bring something to the spirit which even the trees do not. I see clouds now sometimes when the iron grip of hell permits for a minute or two; they are very different clouds, and speak differently. I long for some of the old clouds that had no memories.”

 

The clouds of that youthful time possessed something magical that never left him.  Near the end of the essay he complains that, “No one seems to understand how I got food from the clouds.”

 

It is perhaps not surprising that a dreamer like Jefferies, who understood the value of beauty rather than material wealth, was not comprehensible to late-Victorian society.  However, as we look back on Jefferies through the lens of our present digital age, I think many of us do feel the need to re-connect with a reality much greater than our endless flow of electronic information and stimuli.  We only have to think of the real earth and the real sky, and all that they mean to the human heart, and we sense something of what Jefferies found in the clouds and changing light over the wide chalk uplands or the summer pastures.  With a small shift of our attention, we too can re-discover beautiful things that have never left us.  There is, I believe, a Richard Jefferies in all of us.

The Value of Nature: Little Things do Matter

Rebecca Welshman

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Photo: Rebecca Welshman

Findings from a research study suggest that those of us who value possessions, status and wealth are more anxious, depressed and unsociable than those who don’t. These claims were made by a group of researchers at the Northwestern University, who published their findings in Psychological Science, the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science in 2012.

 

But these debates are hardly new. Richard Jefferies, known for his writings on nature and society, questioned the value of materialism 150 years ago. He recognised that the pursuit of wealth promised nothing in itself, and through his writing tried to help people find happiness in nature. The Victorian era saw the birth of materialism as we know it today. London became the fastest growing metropolis in the world, and with the expansion of towns and railways, Britain underwent a radical rural to urban transition.

 

Known best for his writing on nature and rural life, Jefferies made his living as a journalist, writing for the Pall Mall Gazette, and other papers and magazines of the time. Last autumn marked 143 years since the publication of his letters to The Times about the working conditions and pay of Wiltshire agricultural labourers, which brought him national acclaim and helped earn him a special place in Victorian literature.

 

As a country lad who moved to the city – first Surbiton, then Brighton, Jefferies was well qualified to comment on the changes taking place around him. In his articles in the London Standard he conveyed the physical and psychological health benefits of spending time out of doors and encouraged people to take more notice of the nature around them. As he wrote in his novel Restless Human Hearts (1875), nature could be found even in the heart of London:

 

The dead brown leaves, driven by the wind, penetrate even into stony London, and rustle along the pavement and whirl round in eddies at the corners of the street. They are a voice from the woods, an echo from the forgotten land, messengers from Nature, abiding still in her solitudes, warning wilful and blinded men to return ere it be too late.

 

One of Jefferies’ London thinking places was a spot in front of the Royal Exchange, the hub of the Victorian commercial world, which remained the centre of commerce until 1939. Here he stood and watched the streams of traffic flow past – hundreds of men, women, horses and carriages, bustling and rushing to and fro. Amidst the hurrying footsteps, wheels, different coloured omnibuses, some carrying bales of straw, stirring up the dust in their efforts to reach their different destinations, Jefferies pondered where it was all going. Everyone seemed wrapped up in their own world, indifferent, it seemed to the character of the place itself:

 

all these men and women that pass through are driven on by the push of accumulated circumstances; they cannot stay, they must go …. Where will be these millions of to-day in a hundred years? But, further than that, let us ask, Where then will be the sum and outcome of their labour? … There will not be any sum or outcome or result of this ceaseless labour and movement; it vanishes in the moment that it is done, and in a hundred years nothing will be there, for nothing is there now.

 

Jefferies strove to answer these questions in his soul-searching autobiography, The Story of My Heart, a book that brought him posthumous fame as a nature mystic and social commentator. These questions remain as important today as they did then, not least because they remain unanswered. The research by Northwestern University has shown that materialism not only negatively affects people, but also the environment.  Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen claims that ‘irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in wellbeing, including negative affect and social disengagement.’ As many others have done since, Jefferies questioned what people were working for – beyond money, what real value did all this labour have? He hoped his writings would offer people ways to experience more joy in the simple things of life – ‘more sunshine and more flowers’ – feelings that couldn’t be generated by the pursuit of materialism.

 

Jefferies found beauty in the most ordinary things – a blade of grass, a flower, even a patch of ground. Man-made things paled into insignificance next to the design-less beauty of natural phenomena:

 

I had forgotten that the parlour, beside the chair and table, had a carpet. The carpet has a pattern: it is woven; the threads can be discerned, and a little investigation shows beyond doubt that it was designed and made by a man. It is certainly pretty and ingenious. But the grass of my golden meadow has no design, and no purpose: it is beautiful, and more; it is divine. (The Old House at Coate)

 

It is well-known that the beauty of nature promotes feelings of wholeness and well being. A 2011 survey of 3000 people on behalf of ‘Three Barrels Brandy’, about what boosts our happiness, ranked 3 of nature’s own remedies in the top 10, which suggests that we are already a nation that finds enjoyment in the simple things. ‘Swimming in the sea’, ‘waking up on a sunny day’, and ‘sitting in the sun’ outranked ‘booking a holiday’, ‘finding a bargain’, winning a £10 lottery prize’, and ‘getting a promotion’. ‘Finding a £10 note in an old pair of jeans’ and ‘going on holiday’ topped the poll, with spending time with friends and family, and quiet moments of reflection, including listening to old songs and looking at photos, largely constituted the top 30.

 

Yet there are perhaps things even closer to us (and less expensive) that can increase happiness. Jefferies’ love of nature was so strong that ‘the buzz of a bee at the window’ would cause him to feel connected to the abundance of treasures which lay just outside, at his fingertips. The sounds, textures, colours and forms of nature were powerfully alive to him, even during years’ of illness. Mysterious and ever-changing, with the weather and the seasons, nature held him under its spell.

 

London has some of the largest and well maintained parks in Europe, many of which don’t charge entry fees, with flowers, open spaces, and water fountains which capture the sunlight. These things are all around us, but how often do we really notice them? In 2010 a series of studies were conducted by the University of Rochester which found that nature increases energy levels, feelings of vitality, and general happiness. Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education, Richard Ryan, commented that ‘Nature is fuel for the soul,’ and that ‘often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.’ Ryan added that nature can help us to fight infection, fight exhaustion, and increase our general physical health.

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Like all good relationships, our connection with nature needs to be cultivated and maintained. We can all make a little difference to the happiness of the wildlife and flora around us, even just by considering and appreciating that we live in an ever-changing and vibrant living world. Nature is amazingly receptive to positive efforts to help and sustain it. Only the other day the Robin that I have been leaving food out for came to the stone wall outside my study and looked directly at me, and with a little bob of his tail, flew away. I knew that he was asking me for food. Each time now he comes to feed when I am sitting at my desk I see that he is aware of my presence and I try not to move suddenly or alarm him. My feeding the Robin is a small thing. Yet I like to think that he will live through the winter and go on to nurture broods of youngsters of his own next spring. Every little thing we do, however small, has an effect and leaves a legacy for the future.

Nature and Media: Narratives of Choice

Rebecca Welshman

 

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Jefferies’ observations of birds vary in their scope and detail. 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. In the poem ‘My Chaffinch’ Jefferies draws a parallel between the sight of a chaffinch and a sunbeam:

 

“His hours he spends upon a fragrant fir;

His merry ‘chink,’ his happy ‘Kiss me, dear,’

Each moment sounded, keeps the copse astir.

Loudly he challenges his rivals near,

Anon aslant down to the ground he springs,

Like to a sunbeam made of coloured wings.

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The firm and solid azure of the ceil

That struck by hand would give a hollow sound,

A dome turned perfect by the sun’s great wheel,

Whose edges rest upon the hills around,

Rings many a mile with blue enamelled wall;

His fir-tree is the centre of it all.”

 

The chaffinch does not simply inhabit its environment according to the rules of nature but is an active and vibrant part of the living landscape. The bird lives and acts upon its own senses – it calls ‘each moment’ and keeps the copse alive with sound. Jefferies perceives the firmament as a ‘blue enamelled wall’ – a perfectly turned dome that has been turned by the wheel of the sun. The trunk of the Chaffinch’s fir tree is pictured as a great pillar that supports the ‘centre’ of this gigantic revolving sphere. The life of the bird is here, in the midst of it all, alive to each sight and sound, and itself giving sight and sound to the world.

 

It is this condition of being present and reciprocal, where each one of us is perfectly balanced at the centre of the world that we know and understand, that Jefferies sought to explore and express in his writing. Natural rhythms are easily intuited and embraced by birds and animals, and for humans too this used to be the way of existence. Jefferies perceived that we have become out of tune with these rhythms and intuitions, and that modern society with its distractions and artificiality has muffled our abilities to live in and fully embrace the present. The worlds of commerce and media deaden the senses and reduce the capacity for enlightenment. Observing Nature’s own time, Jefferies remarked:

 

“To us each hour is of consequence, especially in this modern day, which has invented the detestable creed that time is money. But time is not money to Nature. She never hastens.” (Landscape and Labour)

 

In The Life of the Fields (1883) Jefferies uses the example of a storm to comment on the pointlessness of the majority of human anxieties. He juxtaposes the condition of human fear with the serenity of a patient turtle-dove that sits and waits for the storm to pass:

 

“Blackbirds often make a good deal of noise; but the soft turtle-doves coo gently, let the lightning be as savage as it will. Nothing has the least fear. Man alone, more senseless than a pigeon, put a god in vapour; and to this day, though the printing press has set a foot on every threshold, numbers bow the knee when they hear the roar the timid dove does not heed … Under their tuition let us rid ourselves of mental terrors, and face death itself as calmly as they do the livid lightning; so trustful and so content with their fate, resting in themselves and unappalled.”

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Jefferies comments that one of mankind’s most artificial constructions was investing natural phenomena with supernatural associations, which in turn bred fear. The ‘god in vapour’ can be read as a thinly veiled allusion to the idea of a divine being – the cornerstone belief upon which so many religious orders are founded. Jefferies saw the idea of divine supremacy as an artificial construction and termed it ‘superstition’. As he writes in The Story of My Heart it is the fearful tendency to cling onto these old beliefs rather than let them fall away that prevents the development of a new belief. Whether it be a religious teaching or a misquoted news story, if something is repeated enough it can become a form of truth. Jefferies managed to see beyond the propagation of false belief – to something that comes from within the individual rather than from outside.

 

In the above quotation the printing press is mentioned in the same sentence as the dove. Jefferies notes that the printing press has reached every doorstep – there was no part of the country that remained disconnected from the world of the media. This analogy of encroachment by the media – that “has set a foot on every threshold” without invitation – is even more relevant in today’s world where media stories can be instantly shared and purveyed on a global scale through digital technologies. More than just appearing on our doorsteps in the form of a newspaper or magazine, media stories invade our homes through our devices, televisions, radios, and computers. Such analogies suggest that Jefferies was already aware of the dangers of mass media – including the potential for hype to create false emotion and hysteria (what he terms “mental terrors”).

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The majority of our contemporary media for mass audiences is standardised to elicit particular emotions. The content and style depend upon the perpetuation of conflict and are designed to instil fear and uncertainty regarding the future (for example, the disproportionate attention given to sad or frightening news stories). Before we even get to read a news item the media has already contrived an emotion for us to feel through its choice of subject matter, the wording of its narrative and its tone of voice. Many of the daily papers rely upon exerting influence over their readership through exaggeration and distorted focus on the potential for the worst possible outcomes. Articles on subjects which foster racial tensions and economic inequalities are designed to provoke negative emotions. The media offers various narratives of the world in which we live but we can choose what we subscribe to, and what we believe in.

 

Jefferies was a journalist. It was the mainstay of his career and provided him with regular income until his later years when he became too ill and frail to write regularly. He sought to promote a new form of journalism that relied upon direct observation of life itself and the thoughts and reflections of everyday experience. Our own powers of observation have the potential to lead to greater understanding of the world in which we live and the range of our responses to it. We only have to look to the natural world to see an example of how to live without conflict or deception. Recalling the image of the calm turtle dove, sitting on her nest in the violet twilight, Jefferies wrote:

 

“To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of Nature.”

 

Contrary to the invasive media that relies on emotional insecurity to survive, the turtle dove sits alone, waiting patiently, trusting that it has already found its rightful place in the world.

 

As animal behaviourists have ascertained, birds live in complex societies and have the ability to form long-term relationships. Jefferies would fondly note the colonies of rooks that returned to the same avenues of elms each year to nest. He also noted shared concern or sadness amongst older birds for young rooks being shot from the trees. Jefferies felt deeply into the lives of birds and sensed that they were often filled with love, joy, the appreciation of beauty, and the determination to overcome hardship. As he wrote of larks in winter:

“The larks sang at last high up against the grey cloud over the frost-bound earth. They could not wait longer; love was strong in their little hearts – stronger than the winter.”

Imagine a human society that willingly prioritised these qualities – a society that sought to nurture the human heart to be stronger than winter, as joyful as spring, as immersed in beauty as summer, and as brimful of acceptance as autumn. Birds express many different qualities, and our observations of them afford us glimpses of other narratives, founded in a simpler, more beautiful existence than our own.

 

 

 

 

 

IN PRAISE OF LIFE

Simon Coleman

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Photo by Simon Coleman

 

Throughout his life, Richard Jefferies found a simple, natural sense of joy from seeing the re-birth of the flowers in spring and the drift of the constellations along their familiar paths.  From the touch of sunbeams and inhaling the fresh breezes of the downs, he was uplifted in spirit and inspired to think and imagine.  From listening to birdsong in the long, light evenings he realised, as much earlier peoples did, that all life was charged with magical and sacred powers.  Whatever he found beautiful in nature or the landscape became a source of joy and something to be regarded as sacred.  The true poets have always understood that what is sacred should be praised and Jefferies, though a prose writer, belongs in this tradition.

‘There was a secluded spring to which I sometimes went to drink the pure water, lifting it in the hollow of my hand. Drinking the lucid water, clear as light itself in solution, I absorbed the beauty and purity of it. I drank the thought of the element; I desired soul-nature pure and limpid. When I saw the sparkling dew on the grass—a rainbow broken into drops—it called up the same thought-prayer. The stormy wind whose sudden twists laid the trees on the ground woke the same feeling; my heart shouted with it. The soft summer air which entered when I opened my window in the morning breathed the same sweet desire. At night, before sleeping, I always looked out at the shadowy trees, the hills looming indistinctly in the dark, a star seen between the drifting clouds; prayer of soul-life always. I chose the highest room, bare and gaunt, because as I sat at work I could look out and see more of the wide earth, more of the dome of the sky, and could think my desire through these. When the crescent of the new moon shone, all the old thoughts were renewed.’  (‘The Story of My Heart’)

‘..there was magic in everything’, he wrote in his children’s novel, ‘Bevis’.  In the natural world, at every time of the year, there were wonderful things to find and praise.  Continuing from the above passage,

‘All the succeeding incidents of the year repeated my prayer as I noted them. The first green leaf on the hawthorn, the first spike of meadow grass, the first song of the nightingale, the green ear of wheat. I spoke it with the ear of wheat as the sun tinted it golden; with the whitening barley; again with the red gold spots of autumn on the beech, the buff oak leaves, and the gossamer dew-weighted. All the larks over the green corn sang it for me, all the dear swallows; the green leaves rustled it; the green brook flags waved it; the swallows took it with them to repeat it for me in distant lands. By the running brook I meditated it; a flash of sunlight here in the curve, a flicker yonder on the ripples, the birds bathing in the sandy shallow, the rush of falling water. As the brook ran winding through the meadow, so one thought ran winding through my days.’

 

The ‘prayer’ that Jefferies mentions is really his desire to live the life that these beautiful ‘incidents of the year’ suggest in his imagination.  He is not praying to anything; rather he seems to be assimilating the powers of nature to help him realise his own life power.

In one of his great essays, ‘The Pageant of Summer’, this prose-poetry achieved a new emotional depth, beautifully sustained as he moves among the splendours of the summer fields and hills.

‘To the dreamy summer haze love gave a deep enchantment, the colours were fairer, the blue more lovely in the lucid sky. Each leaf finer, and the gross earth enamelled beneath the feet. A sweet breath on the air, a soft warm hand in the touch of the sunshine, a glance in the gleam of the rippled waters, a whisper in the dance of the shadows. The ethereal haze lifted the heavy oaks and they were buoyant on the mead, the rugged bark was chastened and no longer rough, each slender flower beneath them again refined. There was a presence everywhere though unseen, on the open hills, and not shut out under the dark pines. Dear were the June roses then because for another gathered. Yet even dearer now with so many years as it were upon the petals; all the days that have been before, all the heart-throbs, all our hopes lie in this opened bud… Never could I have enough; never stay long enough – whether here or whether lying on the shorter sward under the sweeping and graceful birches, or on the thyme-scented hills. Hour after hour, and still not enough. Or walking the footpath was never long enough, or my strength sufficient to endure till the mind was weary. The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal. The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.’

In our time, words such as ‘joy’ and ‘beauty’ seem to have become devalued as a result of the severing of the human senses and heart from the eternal cycles of nature.  The experiences that Jefferies had are obviously more difficult to replicate in our restless, digital age where ‘screen time’ has pushed any sense of the eternal to the very margins of human life.  We may not be able to lie in the ‘thyme-scented hills’ with the rest and quiet that Jefferies found, but his words still communicate a profound love of life that inspires us to praise even the most common blade of grass.

Chronicles of the Hedges: the Billhook

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Image source: http://www.rackcdn.com

Rebecca Welshman

 

Jefferies writes of the “bill” or “bill-hook” that it was “the national weapon of the English labourer”. In the collection ‘Chronicles of the Hedges’ he describes different instances of its use in rural communities and the encounters with nature that it could afford:

 

“At the farmstead of a wintry morning, the hedger, perhaps, is told off to sit on a stool and chop up the faggots he made last year, about the same time, for convenience of burning. He cuts the withy-bond with which the faggot is held together, then, taking a stick at a time, shortens them to handy lengths with the bill upon a log. A monotonous task, yet comfortable, sitting in the wood-house, well protected from the wind and snow-flakes—chip, chop, whistle; now a robin peeping in, as robins have done since England first had a king, for a crumb of luncheon; now the serving-maid to gossip, or perhaps carry a pint of beer in a mug for him. As he comes home from the field, the hedger, having no frog in which to hang his bill like a cutlass or a tomahawk, waits till he reaches the gate to light his pipe, and sticks it into the gate-post of the stile.

 

Towards April, when the stone-pickers have done, and made a row of cairns in the meadows of the flints and pottery to be removed from the mower’s way or the brittle knives of the mowing machine, when the herd is marched out from the cowyard to the young grass, the labourer is sent with his bill to mend the rents in the hedges, where folk bent on a short cut have gone through, or sheep who love to force their way up on a mound have opened a gap. Selecting bushes where the hedge is thicker than necessary, he cuts them and fastens them into these holes to keep cattle from the rising mowing grass. Or new bushes have to be fixed in the bush-harrow—bushes that must be well chosen and skilfully arranged, so that when drawn over the grass they may stir and yet smooth it, and not tear up the turf, or drag the fibres out, but like a larger fuller’s teazle lay the nap of this green cloth. If there is a copse on the farm the gate has to be defended by thorns cut with the billhook, and worked in between the spars to exclude trespassers. Almost every day of the year the billhook is in request, here or yonder, in the field or the rickyard: the broad back of the blade drives in not a few nails at times.

 

Rusty and clumsy, awkward to the amateur to handle, in its iron hardness it is a symbol of that ceaseless struggle which, even in our highly cultivated country, must be carried on against thorn and bramble. The labourer and the farmer stand face to face with nature in a way that it is difficult for the folk of cities to understand. Rain and sunshine, snow and frost, and wind, have a significance to those who dwell on the land far beyond the petty inconvenience they may cause to the town. The clouds which the hurrying passengers in the street scarcely notice are to the labourer an irresistible enemy or a gracious friend, according to the season. They may mean partial famine—for although wheat comes now so plentifully that bread is always cheap, yet if he has not got the money to pay for it, it may be dear indeed. Wet summers take away the chance of earning higher wages in the harvest wherewith to meet the winter’s rigour with food and clothing. Snow or heavy storms and floods in winter, again, cause the billhook to be idle. It is always a hard fight for these our billmen of the peaceful field, a fight, not only of labour, but of grim endurance. They had need be as hard as the iron of the hook.

 

The father, as he rests at his luncheon, sitting on a faggot on the side of the hedge, mayhap spells slowly over the scrap of newspaper in which his cheese was wrapped, leaving its inky letters on the slice; his boy yonder playing with the billhook, chopping off the ends of branches, trying his strength and skill, can read the newspaper with ease. He reads the news of the earth aloud in the thatched cottage. Thus the germs are sown, knowledge is scattered broadcast as the sower throws the seed; the hum of learning resounds in the village street, echoing from the hollow ceiling of the school; and the coming billmen of the new generation will make their voices heard. When the day’s work is over, if any hour of daylight yet remains, the hedger trims his own hedge. With his bill he slashes up the thorn and elder about his garden; it is astonishing, when a man has a garden of his own, what an amount of labour he can find to do in it! There is a dead branch to be cut off the apple-tree here, a gap to be stopped there, the gate wants a new spar, the drain to be cleared; besides the digging, the weeding, and the planting. Always something to be done, and with it peace for the mind, which would otherwise rust as a billhook left out in the dew, with the edge off it in the morning.

 

But now the soft rain, with bursts of sunshine, the happy calls of the passing larks whose flocks have broken up and who go to play in couples over the clods of the ploughed field, the sense of something moving, an invisible force about to exert itself in the bushes—all these warn the woodman that he must hasten. As he clears away the brambles with his billhook he comes on a rabbit hole and observes it has been recently used. The rabbits, then, have returned after the ferreting, and the mound will be populous again in the summer, this will be a little news for his employer, who likes a few rabbits about for sport and eating. Or he may suddenly discover in the long white grass, dead and whitened by , winter’s rain and snow, which still stands on the mound, a hollow, clearly made by something which pressed against it softly. It is a hare’s form: he is loth to destroy the cover of the bushes round it; he leaves them a little while, but reflects that the hare has probably forsaken it several days, hearing his chip-chop, and the cracking of branches so near by.”