Among the Shadows of Summer

woods

Rebecca Welshman

In Jefferies’ writings a shadow, as an indicator of light, is something ordinary, yet it contains the extraordinary. Jefferies would often notice and record the position and length of shadows cast by trees. In The Old House at Coate the shadows of the elm trees and the old oak in the field boundary reflect the position of the summer sun:

“In the morning, the shadows of the elms by the rick-yard on the east side of the roadway extended almost across the meadow: at noon, in summer, even the wide- spreading oak in the first hedgerow to the south scarcely darkened the grass”

In Bevis the shifting seasons are echoed by the changing length of the oak’s shadow:

“At noon he was twice as high as the southern oak, and every day at noontide the shadows gradually shortened. The nightingale sang in the musical April night, the cowslips opened, and the bees hummed over the meadows.”

A shadow is not simply caused by an obstruction to the light, it is a phenomenon in itself – it tells us things about the world in which we live. Shadow is an essential condition of contrast to the light, which can illuminate other states or aspects of ourselves. In The Dewy Morn, after a period of separation and misunderstanding, Felise and Martial finally come to understand and accept one another. The two are reconciled in a peaceful green spot, overlooking undulating cornfields and meadows, beneath the shade of a beech tree. Jefferies writes that they sit on a green bank, near a sundial, where patches of sunlight dapple the grass. The scene suggests the importance of being able to give oneself up fully to the moment, even with the knowledge that one day all the beauty will fade into the past:

“So great was her joy in her love, it seemed the width of the dome of the sky was not wide enough to express it. Upon the green and tarnished face of the ancient sundial there was written in worn letters, Nihil nisi mnbra — Nothing without shadow; no, not even love. The fervour of passion must needs cast the deepest shadow beside it. Let us welcome the shadow if only we can have the sunlight of love. …. Till he came the fields, the woods, the hills, the broad sea were incomplete; to all he gave a meaning. She endowed him with all that she perceived in the glory and mystery around her by day and by night. Of old time the shadow of the gnomon glided over marble; sometimes they built great structures to show the passage of the shadow more distinctly — observatories of shadow. Not only on this round horizontal disk of greenish metal, not only on those ancient marble slabs, but over the whole earth the shadow advances, for the earth is the gnomon of night. The sunlight and the night, year by year, century by century, cycle by cycle; how long is it? Can anyone say? So long has love, too, endured, passing on and handed down from heart to heart.

The long Roll of Love reaching back into the profoundest abyss of Time, upon it fresh names are written day by day.

Felise’s love was pure indeed; yet what is there that the purest love is not capable of for the one to whom the soul is devoted?

Self-immolation, self-sacrifice, death — is there anything love refuses?

Still the shadow slips on the green rust of the dial. Let even life pass from us if only we can have love.

Felise saw the beauty of the earth, and with that beauty she loved; the cool green flags in the meadow-brook; the reeds which moved forward and advanced as if about to step forth from the water as they swayed; the deep blue of the sky; the ruddy gold of the wheat under the pale yellow haze.

The rolling boom of the thunder came through the fields of light, the earth glowed warmer.

That the wonderful mechanism of the mind, the heart, of life, should be capable of emotion so divine, and yet should so soon perish — is it not unutterably cruel?

So many, and so many, who have loved in the long passage of time, but are gone as the shadow goes from the dial when the sun sinks. Are, then, our noblest feelings to fade and become void?

Upon the sundial there were curious graven circles and interwoven angles, remnants of the ancient lore which saw fate in the stars and read things above nature in nature. Symbols and signs are still needed, for the earth and life are still mysterious; they cannot be written, they require the inarticulate sign of the magician.

Let us not outlive love in our days, and come to look back with sorrow on those times.

You have seen the ships upon the sea; they sail hither and thither thousands of miles. Do they find aught equal to love? Can they bring back precious gems to rival it from the rich south?

The reapers have been in the corn these thousand years, the miners in the earth, the toilers in the city; in all the labour and long-suffering is there anything like unto love? Any reward or profit in the ships, the mines, the warehouses?

What are the institutions of man, the tawdry state, the false law, the subsidized superstition, and poor morality, that pale shadow of truth — what are these by love?

Could but love stay, could but love have its will, and no more would be needed for eternity.”

Through the image of a shadow continually advancing over the earth Jefferies imagines a vast dial to be an ever present reminder of our earthly condition. The sundial motto – ‘nothing without shadow; no, not even love’ – suggests that even love needs a shadow by which to be seen and appreciated. Until this point in the novel, Felise and Martial have been out of harmony with one another and unable to trust one another’s motives or feelings. It has taken a journey through the darkness of misunderstanding, loneliness and despair in order to reach the other side and emerge into the light and air of romance. The sundial, with its indicator of shade – the gnomon – is thus imbued with significance for understanding the passing of life and the meaning of love.

In other works shadows hold something mysterious – they beckon and entice the thought outwards to somewhere beyond the self. Reading and writing outside under an apple tree, among the shadows of summer, tells Jefferies something about the principles and limitations of human existence.

“I can never read in summer out of doors. Though in shadow the bright light fills it, summer shadows are broadest daylight. The page is so white and hard, the letters so very black, the meaning and drift not quite intelligible, because neither eye nor mind will dwell upon it. Human thoughts and imaginings written down are pale and feeble in bright summer light. The eye wanders away, and rests more lovingly on greensward and green lime leaves.”

The heat of a summer’s day is bearable in the shade and affords the perfect balance in temperature. However, ‘the very shade of the pen on the paper’ expresses to him the difficulty of writing down the ‘delicacy and beauty of thought or feeling’. The printed words of the book are dark on the bright page:

‘there is the shade and the brilliant gleaming whiteness; now tell me in plain written words the simple contrast of the two. Not in twenty pages, for the bright light shows the paper in its common fibre-ground, coarse aspect, in its reality, not as a mind-tablet.’

In the contrast between light and shade the vitality of the living world suddenly becomes visible and luminous. The flowering veronica and its neighbouring grass blade ‘throw light and beauty on each other’ – they demonstrate their mirror existence, as a sundial and its gnomon are mutually dependent. Light and beauty are thus two parts of the same whole.

In The Story of My Heart beauty is a principle expressed through harmony between light and shade:

“The grass stood high above me, and the shadows of the tree-branches danced on my face. I looked up at the sky, with half-closed eyes to bear the dazzling light. Bees buzzed over me, sometimes a butterfly passed, there was a hum in the air”

A shadow is a mark upon the earth that leaves no imprint or trace. Yet without shadow we would not know the light. The very nature of this contrast suggests to Jefferies a condition in which our hearts and minds are open to the harmonic energies around us, which can contribute to well-being, health, and wholeness of spirit. Jefferies considers whether it might be possible to somehow keep this ideal condition active within the human heart.

nature sparrow wildflowers birds 1920x1200 wallpaper_www.animalhi.com_4Source: http://www.animalhi.com/thumbnails/detail/20121102/nature%20sparrow%20wildflowers%20birds%201920×1200%20wallpaper_www.animalhi.com_4.jpg

In his essay ‘Wildflowers’ Jefferies associates the birds’ innate desire to sing with their recognition of the light:

“I do not want change: I want the same old and loved things, the same wild-flowers, the same trees and soft ash-green; the turtle-doves, the blackbirds, the coloured yellowhammer sing, sing, singing so long as there is light to cast a shadow on the dial, for such is the measure of his song, and I want them in the same place.”

The yellowhammer is content to sing for as long the sun casts its light upon the earth. ‘Such is the measure of his song’ – measure meaning not only of time, but the meaning and reality of the song itself: what the bird imparts through its instinctive connection with the elements and condition of existence. Such, we might say, is the measure of life. The message being that we need to embrace the brief window of light in which we dwell, before the sun sets and we can no longer sing.

THE FREEDOM OF THE HILLS

freedom of hills

Source: http://l.rgbimg.com/cache1nDItq/users/m/mz/mzacha/600/mhiBkbc.jpg

Simon Coleman

The following quotation comes from Jefferies’ essay, ‘Clematis Lane’. The scenes described are from the Sussex downs.

“Here it was pleasant to look back upon the beech woods at the foot of the great Downs, and far over the endless fields of the Weald or plain. Thirty fields could be counted in succession, one after the other, like irregular chess-squares, some corn, some grass, and these only extended to the first undulation, where the woods hid the fields behind them. But beyond these, in reality, succeeded another series of fields to the second undulation, and still a third series to the farthest undulation visible. Yet farther there was a faint line of hills, a dark cloud-like bank in the extreme distance. To the right and to the left were similar views. Reapers were at work in the wheat below, but already much of the corn had been carried, and the hum of a threshing engine came up from the ricks. A woodpecker called loudly in the beech wood; a “wish-wish” in the air overhead was caused by the swift motion of a wood-pigeon passing from “holt” to “hurst,” from copse to copse. On the dry short turf of the hill-top even the shadow of a swallow was visible as he flew but a few yards high.

In a little hollow where the rougher grasses grew longer a blue butterfly fluttered and could not get out. He was entangled with his own wings, he could not guide himself between the grass tops; his wings fluttered and carried him back again. The grass was like a net to him, and there he fluttered till the wind lifted him out, and gave him the freedom of the hills. One small green orchis stood in the grass, alone; the harebells were many. It is curious that, if gathered, in a few hours (if pressed between paper) they become a deeper blue than when growing. Another butterfly went over, large and velvety, flying head to the wind, but unable to make way against it, and so carried sidelong across the current. From the summit of the hill he drifted out into the air five hundred feet above the flowers of the plain. Perhaps it was a peacock; for there was a peacock-butterfly in Clematis Lane. The harebells swung, and the dry tips of the grass bent to the wind which came over the hills from the sea, but from which the sun had dried the sea-moisture, leaving it twice refined—once by the passage above a hundred miles of wave and foam and again by the grasses and the hills, which forced the current to a higher level, where the sunbeams dried it. Twice refined, the air was strong and pure, sweet like the scent of a flower. If the air at the sea-beach is good, that of the hills above the sea is at least twice as good, and twice as strengthening. It possesses all the virtue of the sea air without the moisture which ultimately loosens the joints, and seems to penetrate to the very nerves. Those who desire air and quick recovery should go to the hills, where the wind has a scent of the sunbeams.”

THE RED DEER OF EXMOOR

Simon Coleman

Red_Deer_Stag

Source: http://www.everythingexmoor.org.uk/uploads/image_store/images2/Red_Deer_Stag.jpg

(This post is adapted from a page on a website I created. The site was closed but parts of it were transferred to the Richard Jefferies Society web pages. The text below was included and can still be found on the Society website.)

In June 1882 Jefferies visited Exmoor, a vast expanse of high moorland intersected by deep wooded coombes covering part of West Somerset and North Devon. The resulting book, Red Deer, was a natural history of the moorland red deer and a detailed account of the methods of hunting them. The book concentrates on the Somerset sector of Exmoor which includes the heartland of deer hunting – the dramatic landscape around Dunkery Beacon and Horner which falls away to the Bristol Channel at Porlock. It is not difficult for Jefferies to celebrate the magnificent red deer stag, the ‘monarch’ of the dense forests and wild moorland.

From Chapter 3:

“In June the deer spend the whole of the day in the covers out of the heat. At this time they are more shy than at any other, both stags and hinds retiring out of sight. The stags’ antlers are as yet only partially grown, and while these weapons are soft and tender they conceal themselves. The hinds have their calves only recently dropped, or are about to calve, and consequently keep in the thickest woods.

One might walk across the entire width of the North Forest, and not see a single deer, and yet be in the midst of them; and so it is common for fishermen to whip for trout day after day for weeks together along streams which wind through favourite covers without obtaining a glimpse of deer. Wild and shy, they are lost in the foliage of their woods, and are only to be found with much labour and in certain particular places…

There are none visible to-day on this side of the Ball, so I walk round the mount, passing a very large mountain-ash in flower; a branch has been broken from it, but it is still a fine tree.* The mountain-ash grows freely on the hillsides wherever a tree can take root. A sound which I thought I heard just now rises and becomes distinctly audible; it is the rush of swift water, and comes up through the oaks from the hollow of the giant fosse. The name of the stream is Horner Water, flowing by Horner wood along the bottom of the deep trench. A wind draws across the summit of the Ball, bending the brake stems and stirring the mountain-ash. It is pleasant in the shade to feel the cool air and listen to the water far below…

Suddenly, as I looked once more, I caught sight of a red mark in the midst of an acre of brake surrounded by oak. I was sure it was a stag instantly by the bright colour, by the position, and yet if questioned I could not have positively asserted that I had any reason for my opinion at all. Certainty does not always depend upon proofs that can be explained. A secret judgement exists in the mind and acts on perceptions too delicate to be registered. I was certain it was a stag, and the glass at once confirmed my eyes.

He was standing in the fern beside a bush, with his head down as if feeding. The great oak woods were about him, above and below, and the sunlight fell on the golden red of his coat. A whistle – the sound was a moment or two reaching him – made him lift his head, and the upright carriage of the neck proved again that it was a stag and not a hind. His antlers had not yet risen as high as his ears…

He moved easily along the steep slope where even hounds sometimes find a difficulty in following.”

*Cloutsham Ball is a hill below Dunkery Beacon.

From Chapter 4:

“There is no more beautiful creature than a stag in his pride of antler, his coat of ruddy gold, his grace of form and motion. He seems the natural owner of the ferny coombes, the oak woods, the broad slopes of heather. They belong to him, and he steps upon the sward in lordly mastership. The land is his, and the hills, the sweet streams and rocky glens. He is infinitely more natural than the cattle and sheep that have strayed into his domains. For some inexplicable reason, although they too are in reality natural, when he is present they look as if they had been put there and were kept there by artificial means. They do not, as painters say, shade in with the colours and shape of the landscape. He is as natural as an oak, or a fern, or a rock itself. He is earth-born – autochthon – and holds possession by descent. Utterly scorning control, the walls and hedges are nothing to him – he roams where he chooses, as fancy leads, and gathers the food that pleases him.

Pillaging the crops and claiming his dues from the orchards and gardens, he exercises his ancient feudal rights, indifferent to the laws of house-people. Disturb him in his wild stronghold of oak wood or heather, and, as he yields to force, still he stops and looks back proudly. He is slain, but never conquered. He will not cross with the tame park deer; proud as a Spanish noble, he disdains the fallow deer, and breeds only with his own race. But it is chiefly because of his singular adaptation and fitness to the places where he is found that he obtains our sympathy.

The branching antlers accord so well with the deep shadowy boughs and the broad fronds of the brake; the golden red of his coat fits to the foxglove, the purple heather, and later on to the orange and red of the beech; his easy bounding motion springs from the elastic sward; his limbs climb the steep hill as if it were level; his speed covers the distances, and he goes from place to place as the wind. He not only lives in the wild, wild woods and moors – he grows out of them, as the oak grows from the ground. The noble stag in his pride of antler is lord and monarch of all the creatures left to us in English forests and on English hills.”

THE GARDEN OF IDEN

Simon Coleman

garden summerhouse

Source: http://housetohome.media.ipcdigital.co.uk/96/0000119e1/c800_orh550w550/6-Summerhouse–garden–country–Country-Homes–Interiors.jpg

Richard Jefferies published his last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair, in 1887, a few months before his death. Set in a rural farmhouse, Coombe Oaks, it is closely based on Jefferies’ own childhood environment of Coate. Though it lacks a compelling plot and seems to drift through a succession of largely static scenes, it is a remarkable book for a number of reasons. The two central characters, sixteen-year-old Amaryllis Iden and her father (known only as ‘Iden’), are outstandingly drawn. Amaryllis, a lover of wild flowers and a budding artist, is trying to make sense of the intrusion of aggressive creditors into the household, at the same time being discouraged in her creative endeavours by her parents. Iden has been a failure as a farmer and his debts weigh heavily on his family’s life. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of nature, can quote Shakespeare with ease; yet, to Amaryllis’ frustration, he seems content to stand and gossip with the ignorant hamlet-folk.

The great strengths of the novel are its truthful representations of rural life and its ability to examine, with penetrating insight, some of the universal problems of human life. Jefferies loves his characters and remains close to them throughout. The closing chapters see a change in mood with the unexpected arrival of two relatives: Alere Flamma, a London artist and engraver, and a sickly youth, Amadis, from somewhere over the hills. As the spring unfolds around the summer-house, Iden, the two visitors and Amaryllis (who mostly listens) talk ceaselessly, about anything, and everything, content just to be there. Simple human companionship in a beautiful garden, with nature living and growing all around them, is raised to the status of an ideal of life. And it’s all possible because Iden had long ago created the garden. His genius and philosophy now come to the fore. He knows how to work with nature to create not only a beautiful garden, but one to live and dream in, a place with potential for healing, and for love (between Amaryllis and Amadis). Even the orchard gate was the work of great care and expense. A practical man he was not: he built for ‘all time’ rather than for the requirements of the moment. For what the book lacks in narrative it more than compensates by its authenticity in portraying human life and its bond with nature. Its pictures are living ones and the strength of its humanity surely makes it one of the most spiritual books ever written.

The following quotations are from chapters 26 and 34.

“The round summer-house was their Parliament House whenever the east winds sank and the flowers shone forth like sunshine; as the sun shines when the clouds withdraw, so when the harsh east winds cease the May flowers immediately bloom and glow.

It was a large round house, properly builded of brick, as a summer-house should be—put not thy faith in lath work—and therefore dry and warm; to sit in it was like sitting in a shell, warm and comfortable, with a sea of meadow-grass, smooth and coloured, stretching in front, islanded about with oak, and elm, and ash.

The finches came to the boughs that hung over the ivy-grown thatch, and sang in the sycamore opposite the door, and in the apple-trees, whose bloom hung down almost to the ground.

These apple-trees, which Iden had planted, flung sackfuls of bloom at his feet. They poured themselves out in abandoned, open-armed, spendthrift, wasteful—perfectly prodigal—quantities of rose-tinted petal; prodigal as a river which flows full to the brim, never questioning but what there will be plenty of water to follow.

Flowers, and trees, and grass, seemed to spring up wherever Iden set down his foot: fruit and flowers fell from the air down upon him. It was his genius to make things grow—like sunshine and shower; a sort of Pan, a half-god of leaves and boughs, and reeds and streams, a sort of Nature in human shape, moving about and sowing Plenty and Beauty.

One side of the summer-house was a thick holly-bush, Iden had set it there; he builded the summer-house and set the ivy; and the pippin at the back, whose bloom was white; the copper-birch near by; the great sycamore alone had been there before him, but he set a seat under it, and got woodbine to flower there; the drooping-ash he planted, and if Amaryllis stood under it when the tree was in full leaf you could not see her, it made so complete an arbour; the Spanish oak in the corner; the box hedge along the ha-ha parapet; the red currants against the red wall; the big peony yonder; the damsons and pear; the yellow honey-bush; all these, and this was but one square, one mosaic of the garden, half of it sward, too, and besides these there was the rhubarb-patch at one corner; fruit, flowers, plants, and herbs, lavender, parsley, which has a very pleasant green, growing in a thick bunch, roses, pale sage—read Boccaccio and the sad story of the leaf of sage—ask Nature if you wish to know how many things more there were.

A place to eat and drink, and think of nothing in, listening to the goldfinches, and watching them carry up the moss, and lichen, and slender fibres for their nest in the fork of the apple; listening to the swallows as they twittered past, or stayed on the sharp, high top of the pear tree; to the vehement starlings, whistling and screeching like Mrs. Iden herself, on the chimneys; chaffinches “chink, chink,” thrushes, distant blackbirds, who like oaks; “cuckoo, cuckoo,” “crake, crake,” buzzing and burring of bees, coo of turtle-doves, now and then a neigh, to remind you that there were horses, fulness and richness of musical sound; a world of grass and leaf, humming like a hive with voices.

When the east wind ceases, and the sun shines above, and the flowers beneath, “a summer’s day in lusty May,” then is the time an Interlude in Heaven.

And all this, summer-house and all, had dropped out of the pocket of Iden’s ragged old coat…

Amaryllis went outside the court, and waited; Amadis rose and followed her. “Come a little way into the Brook-Field,” she said.

They left the apple-bloom behind them, and going down the gravel-path passed the plum trees—the daffodils there were over now—by the strawberry patch which Iden had planted under the parlour window; by the great box-hedge where a thrush sat on her nest undisturbed, though Amaryllis’s dress brushed the branches; by the espalier apple, to the little orchard-gate.

The parlour-window—there are no parlours now, except in old country houses; there were parlours in the days of Queen Anne; in the modern villas they have drawing-rooms.

The parlour-window hung over with pear-tree branches, planted beneath with strawberry; white blossom above, white flower beneath; birds’ nests in the branches of the pear—that was Iden.

They opened the little orchard-gate which pushed heavily against the tall meadow-grass growing between the bars. The path was almost gone—grown out with grass, and as they moved they left a broad trail behind them…

Iden’s flag-basket of tools lay by the gate, it was a new gate, and he had been fitting it before he went in to lunch. His basket was of flag because the substance of the flag is soft, and the tools, chisels, and so on, laid pleasant in it; he must have everything right. The new gate was of solid oak, no “sappy” stuff, real heart of oak, well-seasoned, without a split, fine, close-grained timber, cut on the farm, and kept till it was thoroughly fit, genuine English oak. If you would only consider Iden’s gate you might see there the man.

This gateway was only between two meadows, and the ordinary farmer, when the old gate wore out, would have stopped it with a couple of rails, or a hurdle or two, something very, very cheap and rough; at most a gate knocked up by the village carpenter of ash and willow, at the lowest possible charge.

Iden could not find a carpenter good enough to make his gate in the hamlet; he sent for one ten miles, and paid him full carpenter’s wages. He was not satisfied then, he watched the man at his work to see that the least little detail was done correctly, till the fellow would have left the job, had he not been made pliable by the Goliath ale. So he just stretched the job out as long as he could, and talked and talked with Iden, and stroked him the right way, and drank the ale, and “played it upon me and on William, That day in a way I despise.” Till what with the planing, and shaving, and smoothing, and morticing, and ale, and time, it footed up a pretty bill, enough for three commonplace gates, not of the Iden style.

Why, Iden had put away those pieces of timber years before for this very purpose, and had watched the sawyers saw them out at the pit. They would have made good oak furniture. There was nothing special or particular about this gateway; he had done the same in turn for every gateway on the farm; it was the Iden way.

A splendid gate it was, when it was finished, fit for a nobleman’s Home Park. I doubt, if you would find such a gate, so well proportioned, and made of such material on any great estate in the kingdom. For not even dukes can get an Iden to look after their property. An Iden is not to be “picked up,” I can tell you….

The neighbourhood round about could never understand Iden, never could see why he had gone to such great trouble to render the homestead beautiful with trees, why he had re-planted the orchard with pleasant eating apples in the place of the old cider apples, hard and sour. “Why wouldn’t thaay a’ done for he as well as for we?”

All the acts of Iden seemed to the neighbourhood to be the acts of a “vool.”

When he cut a hedge, for instance, Iden used to have the great bushes that bore unusually fine May bloom saved from the billhook, that they might flower in the spring. So, too, with the crab-apples—for the sake of the white blossom; so, too, with the hazel—for the nuts…

In truth Iden built for all time, and not for the little circumstance of the hour. His gate was meant to last for years, rain and shine, to endure any amount of usage, to be a work of Art in itself…

If only he could have lived three hundred years the greater world would have begun to find out Iden and to idolize him, and make pilgrimages from over sea to Coombe Oaks, to hear him talk, for Iden could talk of the trees and grass, and all that the Earth bears, as if one had conversed face to face with the great god Pan himself.”

The Blackbird in Movement and Song

Rebecca Welshman

blackbird-in-tree1

In Jefferies’ writings the blackbird appears in different environments – often in the garden, but also in the hedges as he walks among the fields. In The Amateur Poacher, when he is out at night near water meadows, Jefferies spots a blackbird roosting:

“In the thick blackthorn bush a round dark ball indicates the blackbird, who has puffed out his feathers to shield him from the frost, and who will sit so close and quiet that you may see the moonlight glitter on his eye.”

This more unusual depiction of a blackbird – at rest, and ‘quiet’ – offers an insightful alternative to the movement and song usually associated with its daytime activity. The bird is so motionless that the moonlight glitters on the stillness of his eye. That he roosts alone and waits patiently for the cold night to pass suggests his stoicism and independence. There is resilience in the puffing out of his feathers which ‘shield him from the frost’.

To the human onlooker, birds’ daily activities can express certain qualities. In one of Jefferies’ early novels the garden birds contribute to the mood of the scene. Here, the blackbird displays qualities of defiance and fearlessness:

“The starlings marched to and fro upon the lawn; the blackbird washed himself in the fountain before the door, fearless, unhesitatingly.” (Restless Human Hearts)

And again, in the same novel, “a great blackbird with his ‘tawny bill’ splashed himself in a rill not three yards from their feet, and then sat on a bough, and plumed his feathers, and uttered his loud and defiant cry.”

Elsewhere the Blackbird is a symbol of the latent potential of the present moment and the determination needed to move forward and embrace the future. In Field and Hedgerow the movement of the blackbird among the apple blossom reminds Jefferies that spring is changing into summer:

“Blackbird and thrush commence to sing as the heavy heat decreases; the bloom on the apple trees is loose now, and the blackbird as he springs from the bough shakes down flakes of blossom.”

The suddenness and purity of the blackbird’s melody never fails to incite wonder. As a performer the blackbird is “fully conscious” and confident of his individuality:

“Like a great human artist, the blackbird makes no effort, being fully conscious that his liquid tone cannot be matched. He utters a few delicious notes, and carelessly quits the green stage of the oak till it pleases him to sing again.” (‘The Pageant of Summer’)

The “green stage of the oak” may symbolise the larger stage of life upon which we all briefly appear. Contrary to human displays of fear or nervousness, the Blackbird exhibits qualities of strength, stoicism, and independence, and as seen in the earlier examples, is not afraid to defend himself when necessary. The Blackbird lives life in the present and responds to all that it holds.

In a leafy hollow at Long Ditton, Surrey, Jefferies is conscious of the unfolding summer. In this “valley…of music” every oak tree has a blackbird. Perched in the uppermost branches, concealed by foliage, each bird voices its own exquisite song. In the blackbird’s melody Jefferies perceives something human – the bird expresses the beauty of the moment, and encourages a similar form of recognition in Jefferies:

“The blackbird’s whistle is very human, like a human being playing the flute; an uncertain player, now drawing forth a bar of a beautiful melody and then losing it again. He does not know what quiver or what turn his note will take before it ends; the note leads him and completes itself. It is a song which strives to express the singer’s keen delight, the singer’s exquisite appreciation of the loveliness of the days; the golden glory of the meadow, the light, the luxurious shadows, the indolent clouds reclining on their azure couch. Such thoughts can only be expressed in fragments, like a sculptor’s chips thrown off as the inspiration seizes him, not mechanically sawn to a set line. Now and again the blackbird feels the beauty of the time, the large white daisy stars, the grass with yellow-dusted tips, the air which comes so softly unperceived by any precedent rustle of the hedge, the water which runs slower, held awhile by rootlet, flag, and forget-me-not. He feels the beauty of the time and he must say it. His notes come like wild flowers, not sown in order. The sunshine opens and shuts the stops of his instrument.” (‘The Coming of Summer’)

As a person can feel and express emotion through playing an instrument, the Blackbird is able to feel and express beauty through song. The Blackbird, however, is closer to the life of the sun – so close that he responds instinctively to the appearance and disappearance of the sun from behind cloud. He does not plan his notes but surrenders entirely to the spontaneity of the moment.

The flute’s association with the ancient Greek Goddess Athena, who invented the first bridle, first chariot, and built the first ship, connects the Blackbird with the human ability to harness energy and embrace the present. In Jefferies’ natural scene, the harmonious surroundings work subtly together to create a symphony of beauty, with each part bearing its own intrinsic and equal value. Jefferies’ observations of the Blackbird implicitly encourage us to embrace the present more fully through expanding our awareness and mindfulness. How often do we take time to remember that the present knows nothing of the moments which have preceded it, or of the moments yet to come? Like the Blackbird’s song, ‘the beauty of the time’, and all that it holds for us, is complete in itself.