by Rebecca Welshman
With the cold spell of weather there have been some remarkably good night skies of late. When staying in rural Devon the other week I saw the constellation Orion, and was reminded of how significant the stars were to Jefferies.
In Bevis: the Story of a Boy, the main character – who is a sketch of Jefferies himself – lies down on the garden path of the farmhouse at Coate, to watch the movements of the heavens. From this quiet little spot, beside the strawberry patch, he allows his mind to wander the depths of the night sky:
“He could not, as he reclined on the garden path by the strawberries, physically reach to and feel the oak; but he could feel the oak in his mind, and so from the oak, stepping beyond it, he felt the stars.”
The night sky was a vast space across which his imagination could roam; a route to somewhere beyond the boundaries of everyday life and thought. In The Amateur Poacher – a book that is primarily about the art of poaching, and engagement with the countryside – Jefferies hints at the subtle, more cosmic relationship he experienced with the natural world. This short sentence conjures the potential of outer space to absorb ordinary, everyday cares, and to nurture new, more experiential forms of thought:
“By night the stars shine, and there is no fathoming the dark spaces between those brilliant points, nor the thoughts that come as it were between the fixed stars and landmarks of the mind.”
In a short essay, written in the late 1870s, which Edward Thomas entitled ‘The Dawn’, Jefferies explores how the ‘pale visitor’ of dawn beckons forth the mind to somewhere beyond the ordinary world:
“The pale visitor hints that the stars are not the outside and rim of the universe, any more than the edge of horizon is the circumference of our globe. Beyond the star-stratum, what? Mere boundless space. Mind says certainly not. What then?”
These unresolved questions spurred Jefferies to imagine and record a new system of thought and feeling, which could encourage a more cosmic awareness of our condition on earth – a system that would awaken and sharpen our minds, and engage us spiritually too. In The Old House at Coate – written about the farmhouse where he was born – the house and garden become a solar observatory. Again, he records seeing the stars from the path by the strawberries, but this time he becomes more deeply aware of his position within the cosmos:
“Here was the centre of the world, the sun swung round us; we rode at night straight away into the space of the stars. On a dry summer night, when there was no dew, I used to lie down on my back at full length (looking to the east), on the grass footpath by the orchard, and gaze up into the sky. This is the only way to get at it and feel the stars: while you stand upright, the eye, and through the eye, the mind, is biased by the usual aspect of things: the house there, the trees yonder; it is difficult to forget the mere appearance of rising and setting. Looking straight up like this, from the path to the stars, it was clear and evident that I was really riding among them; they were not above, nor all round, but I was in the midst of them. There was no underneath, no above: everything was on a level with me; the sense of measurement and distance disappeared.
As one walks in a wood, with trees all about, so then by day (when the light only hid them) I walked amongst the stars. I had not got then to leave this world to enter space: I was already there. The vision is indeed contracted, nor can we lift our feet further than the earth; yet we are really among these things to-day.” (The Old House at Coate)
There is a sense of movement – a centralising experience in which there is a perfect balance between the physically earth-bound human being and the boundless potential of the wandering, intelligent mind. Space is not somewhere outside or beyond the human condition, but something that we are ‘in the midst’ of, and actively participating in, all the time. To see the stars, as guiding lights in the darkness, gives Jefferies a broader and deeper sense of home and belonging – not just within the environment of the farmhouse, but in the wider Universe too.
Orion had special meaning for Jefferies. In his essay ‘The Mammoth Hunter’, Jefferies declares Orion to be the ‘greatest and grandest of all the constellations…the mighty hunter, the giant who slew the wild beasts by strength.’ He writes that ‘there is no assemblage of stars so brilliant as those which compose the outline of Orion; the Hunter takes the first place in the heavens.’ In Bevis, just to see Orion fills Jefferies with a sudden sense of strength, and renews his purpose of existence:
“Between these two groups of tall trees—so tall and thick that they were generally visible even on dark nights—the streamers of the Aurora Borealis shot up in winter, and between them in summer the faint reflection of the midnight sun, like the lunar dawn which precedes the rising of the moon always appeared. The real day-dawn—the white foot of Aurora—came through the sky-curtain a little to the right of the second group, and about over a young oak in the hedge across the road, opposite the garden wall.
When the few leaves left on this young oak were brown, and rustled in the frosty night, the massy shoulder of Orion came heaving up through it—first one bright star, then another; then the gleaming girdle, and the less definite scabbard; then the great constellation stretched across the east. At the first sight of Orion’s shoulder Bevis always felt suddenly stronger, as if a breath of the mighty hunter’s had come down and entered into him.
He stood upright; his frame enlarged; his instep lifted him as he walked, as if he too could swing the vast club and chase the lion from his lair. The sparkle of Orion’s stars brought to him a remnant of the immense vigour of the young world, the frosty air braced his sinews, and power came into his arms.”
In the darkness of these January nights maybe we too can be energised and restored by the sparkle of Orion, and carry this feeling with us into the spring. If the power and guiding light of the stars can be embraced and brought into our lives we might discover new strength and resilience within ourselves.