by Simon Coleman
The wonder of the flowers of the fields, hedges and hills was never absent from Jefferies’ world of thought and feeling. He writes in ‘Locality and Nature’: “To anyone who takes a delight in wild flowers some spot or other of the earth is always becoming consecrated.” As a boy he would gather flowers from the meadows when the grass was being cut.
“I used to stand by the mower and follow the scythe sweeping down thousands of the broad-flowered daisies, the knotted knapweeds, the blue scabious, the yellow rattles, sweeping so close and true that nothing escaped; and, yet although I had seen so many hundreds of each, although I had lifted armfuls day after day, still they were fresh. They never lost their newness, and even now each time I gather a wild flower it feels a new thing.”
On the chalk hills of Wiltshire and Sussex, Jefferies found an abundance of thyme, the purplish-pink flower, loved by the bees, to which he refers so often. On Wolstanbury Hill in Sussex,
“…you may lie on the grassy rampart, high up in the most delicate air – Grecian air, pellucid – alone, among the butterflies and humming bees at the thyme…”
He would often rest at places where the thyme grew thickly, inhaling its ‘delicious odour’. On Beachy Head he found “turf thus washed by wind and rain, sun-dried and dew-scented, is a couch prepared with thyme to rest on.” This connection between thyme and repose is a recurring theme in his writing. In his rural novel, Green Fern Farm, for example, Geoffrey’s “weary head drooped on the pillow of thyme; with a deep-drawn sigh he slept.”
The hills themselves he could describe as ‘thyme-scented’. They were a wilder, more open and less populated district than the farmlands around Coate where he grew up. Breezes were forever washing over them, as pure as the scent of the thyme. The hills were in some sense an ‘other’, more primitive world, bare of trees, littered with prehistoric entrenchments and barrows which awoke the imagination to the passage of great cycles of time. They were ever fresh and charged with life-giving powers. The colours of flowers and grasses stood out with superb clarity on the chalky slopes. Jefferies found another type of beauty on the hills, and the thyme was interwoven into his feelings and experiences there. It might even have expressed for him something of the ‘unseen presence’ that dwelt among these gently curving uplands.
His unquenchable desire for such beauty could take the form of a silent ‘prayer’. We are not talking about a god here: he denied the existence of deity, believing it to be a tiny idea. This prayer was his life-desire, his passion for the fullest existence, here on earth. He describes it in The Story of My Heart, in impassioned prose-poetry:
“…I prayed by the sweet thyme, whose little flowers I touched with my hand; by the slender grass; by the crumble of dry chalky earth I took up and let fall through my fingers. Touching the crumble of earth, the blade of grass, the thyme flower, breathing the earth-encircling air, thinking of the sea and the sky, holding out my hand for the sunbeams to touch it, prone on the sward in token of deep reverence, thus I prayed that I might touch to the unutterable existence infinitely higher than deity.”
The focus of this experience was Liddington Hill at the northern edge of the Wiltshire downs. He refers to his ‘hill-prayer’ in his notebooks and it is clear that the chalk downs, the land of the wild thyme, was where this rapture came upon him with the greatest intensity. In Jefferies’ children’s novel, Wood Magic, “Bevis gathered the harebell, and ran with the flower in his hand down the hill, and as he ran the wild thyme kissed his feet and said: ‘Come again, Bevis, come again’ “. The thyme, while remaining a simple flower, became a symbol which helped him to shape his desire, his hill-prayer, into something almost tangible. Only through touch could he gather its deepest beauty and significance.
Some years after his wanderings on the downs around Liddington, Jefferies, now living in suburban Surrey, visited the famous botanical gardens at Kew. At length he came upon some thyme:
“This bunch of wild thyme once again calls up a vision of the Downs; it is not so thick and strong, and it lacks that cushion of herbage which so often marks the site of its growth on the noble slopes of the hills, and along the sward-grown fosse of ancient earthworks, but it is wild thyme, and that is enough.”