‘Meadow Thoughts’ (The Life of the Fields, 1884) is one of Jefferies’ finest philosophical-mystical essays. This great work, which has something of a symphonic quality, effortlessly combines many of his most familiar themes: the richness of summer life, the ‘teaching’ of nature, reminiscence of home, the human mind and heart, and powerful personal illumination. Jefferies begins by locating Coate Farm, secluded in deep countryside, 79 miles from London, the great centre of the world. The realisation of this distance, he says, “deepened the solitude to me. It made the silence more still; the shadows of the oaks yet slower in their movement; everything more earnest.” As he gradually brings the bird and insect life before our eyes, it almost feels that Nature herself is guiding his senses and mind. Nature is everywhere, and so too is his perception. The drifting white clouds are as important as the butterflies fluttering round the lime trees. Some labourers are seen for a moment as they pass a gateway. Everything has its place in the scene; his mind is attuned to the smallest sound or movement.
The scenes bring a sense of timelessness, a calm repose in the midst of the intense summer life proceeding in the garden and the nearby fields. Something magical is at work. “If a breeze rustled the boughs, if a greenfinch called, if the cart-mare in the meadow shook herself, making the earth and air tremble by her with the convulsion of her mighty muscles, these were not sounds, they were the silence itself. So sensitive to it as I was, in its turn it held me firmly, like the fabled spells of old time. The mere touch of a leaf was a talisman to bring me under the enchantment, so that I seemed to feel and know all that was proceeding among the grass-blades and in the bushes.” Jefferies’ prose is as compact and direct as Nature; there is no striving for effect. In its breaking up of ordinary time and its brilliant linking of Nature’s beauty and magic with real human possibilities, I suggest that the essay contains genuine potential for healing. Minds afflicted with our modern illnesses of depression, anxiety and nihilism could benefit from the soft, continuous ripples of pure beauty and light that Jefferies sends out. As he tells us, these scenes are much more than mere reminiscence: they are still living within his mind as he writes them. A strand of optimism runs all the way through ‘Meadow Thoughts’. Nature gives us an extravagant profusion of seeds and fruits; surely something of this natural principle of generosity can find its way into human society.
The magnificent concluding part of the essay serves to deepen its message still further, while taking us on a journey across the nearby valley. Somewhere on a hillside in a wilder and more remote piece of countryside, a path leads down to a hollow. There a crystal clear spring issues from a rock. While this is an outer place in relation to Coate farm, it is also, for Jefferies, an ‘inner’, secluded place. This is where he now finds perfect clarity and beauty of thought – a timeless truth. “Alone in the green-roofed cave, alone with the sunlight and the pure water, there was a sense of something more than these. The water was more to me than water, and the sun than sun. The gleaming rays on the water in my palm held me for a moment, the touch of the water gave me something from itself. A moment, and the gleam was gone, the water flowing away, but I had had them. Beside the physical water and physical light I had received from them their beauty; they had communicated to me this silent mystery. The pure and beautiful water, the pure, clear, and beautiful light, each had given me something of their truth.”
A moment of profound silence in the concentrated heart of Nature, he gives it to us freely to take away. Perhaps we can use it to unlock a place within ourselves that holds nothing but beauty.