Sun-Spots under the Apple Tree at Coate

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The works of Richard Jefferies offer some of the best and most consistent examples of connection with nature and place. In 1870, in the garden of the Wiltshire farmhouse where he was born, Jefferies observed some spots on the sun. Writing retrospectively, later in life, Jefferies recalls the experience:

“There was a great sun-spot at that time and every afternoon as the sun sank I used to sit facing the west under the russet apple tree waiting till the thin vapour on the horizon absorbed the glow of light so that I could see it. The great black speck with a smaller one near it became distinct upon the broad red disk, and I watched it till the sun went down …To me it was a wonderful and never-wearying spectacle, evening after evening as I watched it under the low boughs of the russet apple, the great fiery disk slowly dropping beyond the brook and the meadow, beyond the elms on the rise, beyond the distant hills. The green leaves over and the grass under the quiet rush of the brook, the evening song of the birds, the hushing hum of the bees at the hives set just there, I forgot all but these and the sun – by the spot I could touch out almost to it.
For centuries backwards perhaps no one with the naked eye had seen a sun-spot; for centuries to come no one might see them again; so that the moment of my existence in it seemed a link between the illimitable past and future; this moment made more vital, more fierce in its existence by the consciousness the sunspot gave of the long bygone and the endless to be.

Yet then I thought little of it, I did not value it, it was only one of the things I should see – hundreds more wonderful as life went on. It has not been so. I have never seen anything more wonderful than the things I saw then; never felt or thought like I used to in those youthful times. Nothing then was of any value; now if I could only get back those moments they would be to me more precious than gold.”

At the time, the sun spots sparked a series of commentaries in newspapers and magazines concerning their origin. Some believed the theory put forward by Maupertuis that the phenomena were caused by waste floating across the face of the sun. Others supported Lalande’s idea that the formations stood out from the surface but had come from within, and another theory explained them as meteoric stones, which eventually got absorbed by the sun. In his account Jefferies is not concerned with what the spots are, or how they were formed, but rather with the sort of luminous self-awareness that arises through their contemplation. The spot itself is a point of connection between the lone thinker and the magnitude of the wider universe; a mirror to the temporary condition of his life on earth. ‘The moment of [his] existence’ is realised through the enduring presence of the familiar natural surroundings in and beyond his own lifetime – the brook, the orchard, and the generations of wildlife. Jefferies uses language to locate himself – not simply in the environment of the garden, but – within the grander timescale of times past and future. The leaves ‘over’ the water and the grass ‘under’ suggest a microcosmic shape or form of containment, as does his own position ‘under’ the apple tree, near the hives which are ‘set just there’. The intimate experience of place conveys to the reader a deep and timeless sense of belonging, and implicitly suggests the worth of preserving natural beauty for future generations to enjoy.

The garden, with its apple trees and distant hills, still remains as part of the author’s birthplace at Coate on the outskirts of Swindon. It is run by a Trust and is open to the public: http://www.richardjefferies.org/

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