By Simon Coleman
In one of his early ‘country books’, Wild Life in a Southern County, Jefferies demonstrates his fascination with all types of bird and animal life. The rich bird life of his Wiltshire homeland always claimed a fair share of his attention. A common bird, the yellowhammer, is here given an attractive, though largely factual, description.
“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. Yellowhammers haunt the cornfields principally, though they are not absent from the meadows.”
In his later essay, “The Pageant of Summer”, the yellowhammer contributes to the day-long chorus of birdsong in the fields. He describes the bird as “the most persistent individually” but considers the blackbirds to be “the masters of the fields.”
“Without the violet all the bluebells and cowslips could not make a spring, and without the blackbird even the nightingale would be but half welcome. It is not yet noon, these songs have been ceaseless since dawn; this evening, after the yellowhammer has sung the sun down, when the moon rises and the faint stars appear, still the cuckoo will call, and the grasshopper lark, the landrail’s “crake, crake” will echo from the mound, a warbler or a blackcap will utter his notes, and even at the darkest of the summer night the swallows will hardly sleep in their nests.”
From the above two quotes you would not think that the yellowhammer made a special impression on Jefferies, with so many delicious sounds to listen to the whole length of the spring and summer. However, in a still later essay, “Wildflowers”, the yellowhammer suddenly becomes prominent in some deep and moving reminiscences of his youth.
“The greenfinches came to the fallen swathe so near to us they seemed to have no fear; but I remember the yellowhammers most, whose colour, like that of the wild flowers and the sky, has never faded from my memory. The greenfinches sank into the fallen swathe, the loose grass gave under their weight and let them bathe in flowers.
One yellowhammer sat on a branch of ash the livelong morning, still singing in the sun; his bright head, his clean bright yellow, gaudy as Spain, was drawn like a brush charged heavily with colour across the retina, painting it deeply, for there on the eye’s memory it endures, though that was boyhood and this is manhood, still unchanged…. This one yellowhammer still sits on the ash branch in Stewart’s Mash over the sward, singing in the sun, his feathers freshly wet with colour, the same sun-song, and will sing to me so long as the heart shall beat.”
So, after all, the yellowhammer has an important place in the vast tapestry of his childhood memory. This piece of reminiscence can perhaps be likened to how Jefferies recalled seeing sunspots, again after the lapse of a long period of time: “if I could only get back those moments they would be to me more precious than gold.” (See Rebecca’s earlier blog post on Sun Spots).