by Simon Coleman
The ripening of the wheat was, for Jefferies, a central element in the story of the spring and summer. In the predominantly agricultural community of his youth, corn was merely a commodity, though a very valuable one. Jefferies, however, could see it with the eye of a poet. With his exceptional sensitivity to colour out of doors, he found joy in observing all the stages of the corn’s development. In Wildlife in a Southern County, he notes how quickly its subtle changes of colour appear and vanish. Each stage has its place in the process; each is recognised as a necessary part in an unfolding whole. And when the wind moves the stalks, a delicate play of hues is introduced.
In the following passages Jefferies moves the familiar process of the ripening wheat outside the usual context of agriculture and gently allows his imagination to enter into it. To him, this transformation has the character of art, and we sense that it is connected to greater, more universal, themes. He readily admits that he can’t find the words to capture the hue of the fully ripened wheat, so elusive is nature’s artistic genius.
“First green and succulent; then, presently, see a modest ear comes forth with promise of the future. By-and-by, when every stalk is tipped like a sceptre, the lower stalk leaves are still green, but the stems have a faint bluish tinge, and the ears are paling into yellow. Next the white pollen—the bloom—shows under the warm sunshine, and then the birds begin to grow busy among it. They perch on the stalk itself—it is at that time strong and stiff enough to uphold their weight, one on a stem—but not now for mischief. You may see the sparrow carry away with him caterpillars for his young upon the housetop hard by; later on, it is true, he will revel on the ripe grains.
Yesterday you came to the wheat and found it pale like this (it seems but twenty-four hours ago—it is really only a little longer); to-day, when you look again, lo! there is a fleeting yellow already on the ears. They have so quickly caught the hue of the bright sunshine pouring on them. Yet another day or two, and the faint fleeting yellow has become fixed and certain, as the colours are deepened by the great artist. Only when the wind blows and the ears bend in those places where the breeze takes most, it looks paler because the under part of the ear is shown and part of the stalk. Finally comes that rich hue for which no exact similitude exists. In it there is somewhat of the red of the orange, somewhat of the tint of bronze, and somewhat of the hue of maize; but these are poor words wherewith to render fixed a colour that plays over the surface of this yellow sea, for if you take one, two, or a dozen ears you shall not find it, but must look abroad, and let your gaze travel to and fro. Nor is every field alike; here are acres and acres more yellow, yonder a space whiter, beyond that a slope richly ruddy, according to the kind of seed that was sown.”
In a later essay titled ‘Wheatfields’ (Nature Near London), Jefferies brings the corn into the heart of summer’s story.
“The coming of the ears of wheat forms an era and a date, a fixed point in the story of the summer. It is then that, soon after dawn, the clear sky assumes the delicate and yet luscious purple which seems to shine through the usual atmosphere, as if its former blue became translucent and an inner and ethereal light of colour was shown. As the sun rises higher the brilliance of his rays overpowers it, and even at midsummer it is but rarely seen.
The morning sky is often, too, charged with saffron, or the blue is clear, but pale, and the sunrise might be watched for many mornings without the appearance of this exquisite hue. Once seen, it will ever be remembered. Upon the Downs in early autumn, as the vapours clear away, the same colour occasionally gleams from the narrow openings of blue sky. But at midsummer, above the opening wheatears, the heaven from the east to the zenith is flushed with it.”
At the end of the essay he also reminds us of the wheat’s individual story within the drama of the summer. And it’s one that ends happily.
“Hares raced about it in the spring, and even in the May sunshine might be seen rambling over the slopes. As it grew higher it hid the leverets and the partridge chicks. Toll has been taken by rook, and sparrow, and pigeon. Enemies, too, have assailed it; the daring couch invaded it, the bindweed climbed up the stalk, the storm rushed along and beat it down. Yet it triumphed, and to-day the full sheaves lean against each other.”