THE SKYLARK

Simon Coleman

rspb skylarkSource: http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/skylark_tcm9-157792.jpg?width=768&crop=%2819,75,724,472%29

One of Jefferies’ favourite birds, the skylark, was for him associated not only with summer days, but with the promise of summer that is felt towards the end of winter. This small bird of the light and endless blue sky, that seemed to bring a message of hope, of love even, was one he could never tire of seeing and hearing. He would have concurred with W.H. Hudson who wrote that the lark’s song is “sunshine translated into sound”.

“The notes fall from the air over the dark wet earth, over the dank grass, and broken withered fern of the hedge, and listening to them it seems for a moment spring. There is sunshine in the song; the lark and the light are one. He gives us a few minutes of summer in February days. In May he rises before as yet the dawn is come, and the sunrise flows down to us under through his notes. On his breast, high above the earth, the first rays fall as the rim of the sun edges up at the eastward hill. The lark and the light are as one, and wherever he glides over the wet furrows the glint of the sun goes with him. Anon alighting he runs between the lines of the green corn. In hot summer, when the open hillside is burned with bright light, the larks are then singing and soaring. Stepping up the hill laboriously, suddenly a lark starts into the light and pours forth a rain of unwearied notes overhead. With bright light, and sunshine, and sunrise, and blue skies the bird is so associated in the mind, that even to see him in the frosty days of winter, at least assures us that summer will certainly return.

Ought not winter, in allegorical designs, the rather to be represented with such things that might suggest hope than such as convey a cold and grim despair? The withered leaf, the snowflake, the hedging bill that cuts and destroys, why these? Why not rather the dear larks for one? They fly in flocks, and amid the white expanse of snow (in the south) their pleasant twitter or call is heard as they sweep along seeking some grassy spot cleared by the wind. The lark, the bird of the light, is there in the bitter short days. Put the lark then for winter, a sign of hope, a certainty of summer.” (‘Out of Doors in February’)

“In the early spring, when love-making is in full progress, the cornfields where the young green blades are just showing, become the scene of the most amusing rivalry. Far as the eye can see across the ground it seems alive with larks—chasing each other to and fro, round and round, with excited calls, flying close to the surface, continually alighting, and springing up again. A gleam of sunshine and a warm south wind brings forth these merry antics. So like in general hue is the lark to the lumps of brown earth that even at a few paces it is difficult to distinguish her. Some seem always to remain in the meadows; but the majority frequent the arable land, and especially the cornfields on the slopes of the downs, where they may be found in such numbers as rival or perhaps exceed those of any other bird.” (Wild Life in a Southern County)

“How swiftly the much-desired summer comes upon us! Even with the reapers at work before one it is difficult to realise that it has not only come, but will soon be passing away. Sweet summer is but just long enough for the happy loves of the larks. It seems but yesterday, it is really more than five months since, that, leaning against the gate there, I watched a lark and his affianced on the ground among the grey stubble of last year still standing.

His crest was high and his form upright, he ran a little way and then sang, went on again and sang again to his love, moving parallel with him. Then passing from the old dead stubble to fresh-turned furrows, still they went side by side, now down in the valley between the clods, now mounting the ridges, but always together, always with song and joy, till I lost them across the brown earth. But even then from time to time came the sweet voice, full of hope in coming summer.

The day declined, and from the clear, cold sky of March the moon looked down, gleaming on the smooth planed furrow which the plough had passed. Scarce had she faded in the dawn ere the lark sang again, high in the morning sky. The evenings became dark; still he rose above the shadows and the dusky earth, and his song fell from the bosom of the night. With full untiring choir the joyous host heralded the birth of the corn; the slender forceless seed-leaves which came gently up till they had risen above the proud crests of the lovers.” (‘Wheatfields’)

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By a Brook in Spring

blue-kingfisher-bird-hunting-phiphat-suwanmon3

Photo by Phipat Suwanmon (http://iliketowastemytime.com/2013/04/15/closer-look-blue-kingfisher-hunting-12-pics)

In this short quotation from Round About a Great Estate, Jefferies provides us with a simple but engaging description of a spring scene – alive, as usual, with colour, movement and sound.  The place was real, being close to his childhood home in north Wiltshire, and the bridge is still there today.  The farmer’s daughter, Cicely, is fictional. — Simon Coleman

 

“Two meadows distant from the lower woods of the Chace there is what seems from afar a remarkably wide hedge irregularly bordered with furze. But on entering a gateway in it you find a bridge over a brook, which for some distance flows with a hedge on either side. The low parapet of the bridge affords a seat—one of Cicely’s favourite haunts—whence in spring it is pleasant to look up the brook; for the banks sloping down from the bushes to the water are yellow with primroses, and hung over with willow boughs. As the brook is straight, the eye can see under these a long way up; and presently a kingfisher, bright with azure and ruddy hues, comes down the brook, flying but just above the surface on which his reflection travels too. He perches for a moment on a branch close to the bridge, but the next sees that he is not alone, and instantly retreats with a shrill cry.

A moorhen ventures forth from under the arches, her favourite hiding-place, and feeds among the weeds by the shore, but at the least movement rushes back to shelter. A wood-pigeon comes over, flying slowly; he was going to alight on the ash tree yonder, but suddenly espying some one under the cover of the boughs increases his pace and rises higher. Two bright bold bullfinches pass; they have a nest somewhere in the thick hawthorn. A jay, crossing from the fir plantations, stays awhile in the hedge, and utters his loud harsh scream like the tearing of linen. For a few hours the winds are still and the sunshine broods warm over the mead. It is a delicious snatch of spring.”

 

THE LAST SPRING

Simon Coleman

blackbird feeding chicks

Source: http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/65886000/jpg/_65886820_maleblackbirdfeedingchickskevinlangham.jpg

In his fine essay, ‘Hours of Spring’, written late in his life, Jefferies once again combines his senses and mind to filter the sounds, colours and odours of early spring into a river of deep feeling.  In the first quotation below, the opening paragraph of the essay, nature seems to possess the power of communication, ‘speaking’ to him of some hidden meaning that is present everywhere.

The tragedy behind ‘Hours of Spring’ is that Jefferies was dying of tuberculosis at the time of writing.  While he could hear some birdsong, he was unable to get out of doors to welcome in the new season and the re-birth of life.  But still he knew everything that was happening in the garden and the fields – his heart’s memory truthfully re-created it.  Perhaps there is a wonderful poignancy in his description of the wind.  While he can’t go out to touch the things that bring joy, he thinks of the wind which touches everything and ‘crumbles the earth in its fingers’.

“It is sweet on awaking in the early morn to listen to the small bird singing on the tree. No sound of voice or flute is like to the bird’s song; there is something in it distinct and separate from all other notes. The throat of woman gives forth a more perfect music, and the organ is the glory of man’s soul. The bird upon the tree utters the meaning of the wind—a voice of the grass and wild flower, words of the green leaf; they speak through that slender tone. Sweetness of dew and rifts of sunshine, the dark hawthorn touched with breadths of open bud, the odour of the air, the colour of the daffodil—all that is delicious and beloved of spring-time are expressed in his song. Genius is nature, and his lay, like the sap in the bough from which he sings, rises without thought. Nor is it necessary that it should be a song; a few short notes in the sharp spring morning are sufficient to stir the heart. But yesterday the least of them all came to a bough by my window, and in his call I heard the sweet-briar wind rushing over the young grass. Refulgent fall the golden rays of the sun; a minute only, the clouds cover him and the hedge is dark. The bloom of the gorse is shut like a book; but it is there—a few hours of warmth and the covers will fall open. The meadow is bare, but in a little while the heart-shaped celandine leaves will come in their accustomed place. On the pollard willows the long wands are yellow-ruddy in the passing gleam of sunshine, the first colour of spring appears in their bark. The delicious wind rushes among them and they bow and rise; it touches the top of the dark pine that looks in the sun the same now as in summer; it lifts and swings the arching trail of bramble; it dries and crumbles the earth in its fingers; the hedge-sparrow’s feathers are fluttered as he sings on the bush.”

The obvious intimacy between his senses and his mind is what seems to give his writing its ‘living’ quality.  His scenes are much more than descriptions.  His mind reads from the book of nature, where every event unfolds in its own time.  Behind his words we sense the presence of his heart, trying always to reach what is beautiful.  It finds something of itself in every fresh sight and sound and, being a whole entity, it perceives nature also as a whole.

Unlike ‘The Pageant of Summer’ and ‘Meadow Thoughts’, ‘Hours of Spring’ has a pronounced, and understandable, strain of melancholy.  The spring will come and go without him, but his work has bequeathed to us something of the magic of all English springs.  The season was always new to Jefferies and the earth ever-young, because his heart was ever-young.

“The green hawthorn buds prophesy on the hedge; the reed pushes up in the moist earth like a spear thrust through a shield; the eggs of the starling are laid in the knot-hole of the pollard elm—common eggs, but within each a speck that is not to be found in the cut diamond of two hundred carats—the dot of protoplasm, the atom of life. There was one row of pollards where they always began laying first. With a big stick in his beak the rook is blown aside like a loose feather in the wind; he knows his building-time from the fathers of his house—hereditary knowledge handed down in settled course: but the stray things of the hedge, how do they know? The great blackbird has planted his nest by the ash-stole, open to every one’s view, without a bough to conceal it and not a leaf on the ash—nothing but the moss on the lower end of the branches. He does not seek cunningly for concealment. I think of the drift of time, and I see the apple bloom coming and the blue veronica in the grass. A thousand thousand buds and leaves and flowers and blades of grass, things to note day by day, increasing so rapidly that no pencil can put them down and no book hold them, not even to number them—and how to write the thoughts they give? All these without me—how can they manage without me?”

 

The despair contained in the last sentence above is gradually absorbed as the essay moves forward.  Jefferies reaches out beyond personal unhappiness to bring the human condition into sharp focus.  Nature can be loved for her beauty but we humans have no special place in the scheme of life.  We have to help ourselves as a species, and for this we need some sense of an ideal.  Realising that his time was running out, Jefferies felt out into the future, hopeful that those to follow him would in time enjoy a more beautiful and fulfilled life.  He reminds us that this is the only reason to have a future – to imagine it as better than the present – and that we should do something now, while we can, to realise its potential.  The emergence of every spring from winter and the continual re-birth of life is the clearest illustration of this universal principle.

“The bitter truth that human life is no more to the universe than that of the unnoticed hill-snail in the grass should make us think more and more highly of ourselves as human—as men—living things that think. We must look to ourselves to help ourselves. We must think ourselves into an earthly immortality. By day and by night, by years and by centuries, still striving, studying, searching to find that which shall enable us to live a fuller life upon the earth—to have a wider grasp upon its violets and loveliness, a deeper draught of the sweet-briar wind. Because my heart beats feebly to-day, my trickling pulse scarcely notating the passing of the time, so much the more do I hope that those to come in future years may see wider and enjoy fuller than I have done; and so much the more gladly would I do all that I could to enlarge the life that shall be then. There is no hope on the old lines—they are dead, like the empty shells; from the sweet delicious violets think out fresh petals of thought and colours, as it were, of soul.”

Early in March

early_spring_at_shere

Painting by the Surrey artist Mick LeRoy ‘Early Spring at Shere’: http://www.sheredelight.com/early_spring_at_shere.jpg

Rebecca Welshman

Early March is a beautiful time of year. It is heartening to wander the sunken paths here among the Brendon Hills, where I live, and to see the emerging signs of spring. The banks are already dotted with early primroses, daises, and the occasional buttercup. Daffodils, snowdrops and crocuses are out in full bloom. The days of late have been dry and bright, and have left the lanes pale and dried by the wind. There is a feeling of spaciousness as one becomes aware of the gaps between the leafless trees, the wide blue skies over the lanes visible through the branches, and in the fields the trampled bare earth ready to be cushioned by the growth of spring. The woods and hedges seem to be filling with the joyous sounds of bird life as Robins, Wrens, Thrushes, Blackbirds and others welcome the warmer weather and begin to prepare for the nesting season.

I have selected this extract from Jefferies’ Hodge and His Masters, a book about farming, the habits of workers and wild life, and a series of other nature observations, which Jefferies wrote in the late 1870s. This extract formed part of a serialised piece in the London Standard.

“The labourer working all the year round in the open air cannot but note to some degree those changes in tree and plant which coincide with the variations of his daily employment. Early in March, as he walks along the southern side of the hedge, where the dead oak leaves still cumber the trailing ivy, he can scarcely avoid seeing that pointed tongues of green are pushing up. Some have widened into black-spotted leaves; some are notched like the many-barbed bone harpoons of savage races. The hardy docks are showing, and the young nettles have risen up. Slowly the dark and grey hues of winter are yielding to the lively tints of spring. The blackthorn has white buds on its lesser branches, and the warm rays of the sun have drawn forth the buds on one favoured hawthorn in a sheltered nook, so that the green of the coming leaf is visible. Bramble bushes still retain their forlorn, shrivelled foliage; the hardy all but evergreen leaves can stand cold, but when biting winds from the north and east blow for weeks together even these curl at the edge and die.

The remarkable power of wind upon leaves is sometimes seen in May, when a strong gale, even from the west, will so beat and batter the tender horse-chestnut sprays that they bruise and blacken. The slow plough traverses the earth, and the white dust rises from the road and drifts into the field. In winter the distant copse seemed black; now it appears of a dull reddish brown from the innumerable catkins and buds. The delicate sprays of the birch are fringed with them, the aspen has a load of brown, there are green catkins on the bare hazel boughs, and the willows have white ‘pussy-cats.’ The horse-chestnut buds—the hue of dark varnish—have enlarged, and stick to the finger if touched; some are so swollen as to nearly burst and let the green appear. Already it is becoming more difficult to look right through the copse. In winter the light could be seen on the other side; now catkin, bud, and opening leaf have thickened and check the view. The same effect was produced not long since by the rime on the branches in the frosty mornings; while each smallest twig was thus lined with crystal it was not possible to see through. Tangled weeds float down the brook, catching against projecting branches that dip into the stream, or slowly rotating and carried apparently up the current by the eddy and back-water behind the bridge. In the pond the frogs have congregated in great numbers; their constant ‘croo-croo’ is audible at some distance.

The meadows, so long bound by frost and covered with snow, are slowly losing their wan aspect, and assuming a warmer green as the young blades of grass come upwards. Where the plough or harrow has passed over the clods they quickly change from the rich brown of fresh-turned soil to a whiter colour, the dryness of the atmosphere immediately dissipating the moisture in the earth. So, examine what you will, from the clod to the tiniest branch, the hedge, the mound, the water—everywhere a step forward has been taken. The difference in a particular case may be minute; but it is there, and together these faint indications show how closely spring is approaching.

As the sun rises the chaffinch utters his bold challenge on the tree; the notes are so rapid that they seem to come all at once. Welcome, indeed, is the song of the first finch. Sparrows are busy in the garden—the hens are by far the most numerous now, half a dozen together perch on the bushes. One suddenly darts forth and seizes a black insect as it flies in the sunshine. The bee, too, is abroad, and once now and then a yellow butterfly. From the copse on the warmer days comes occasionally the deep hollow bass of the wood pigeon. On the very topmost branch of an elm a magpie has perched; now he looks this way, and then turns that, bowing in the oddest manner, and jerking his long tail up and down. Then two of them flutter across the field—feebly, as if they had barely strength to reach the trees in the opposite hedge. Extending their wings they float slowly, and every now and then the body undulates along its entire length. Rooks are building—they fly and feed now in pairs; the rookery is alive with them. To the steeple the jackdaws have returned and fly round and round; now one holds his wings rigid and slides down at an angle of sixty degrees at a breakneck pace, as if about to dash himself in fragments on the garden beneath.

Sometimes there come a few days which are like summer. There is an almost cloudless sky, a gentle warm breeze, and a bright sun filling the fields with a glow of light. The air, though soft and genial, is dry, and perhaps it is this quality which gives so peculiar a definition to hedge, tree, and hill. A firm, almost hard, outline brings copse and wood into clear relief; the distance across the broadest fields appears sensibly diminished. Such freedom from moisture has a deliciously exhilarating effect on those who breathe so pure an atmosphere. The winds of March differ, indeed, in a remarkable manner from, the gales of the early year, which, even when they blow from a mild quarter, compel one to keep in constant movement because of the aqueous vapour they carry. But the true March wind, though too boisterous to be exactly genial, causes a joyous sense of freshness, as if the very blood in the veins were refined and quickened upon inhaling it. There is a difference in its roar—the note is distinct from the harsh sound of the chilly winter blast. On the lonely highway at night, when other noises are silent, the March breeze rushes through the tall elms in a wild cadence. The white clouds hasten over, illuminated from behind by a moon approaching the full; every now and then a break shows a clear blue sky and a star shining. Now a loud roar resounds along the hedgerow like the deafening boom of the surge; it moderates, dies away, then an elm close by bends and sounds as the blast comes again. In another moment the note is caught up and repeated by a distant tree, and so one after another joins the song till the chorus reaches its highest pitch. Then it sinks again, and so continues with pauses and deep inspirations, for March is like a strong man drawing his breath full and long as he starts to run a race.”

NATURE AND THE HUMAN HEART

Simon Coleman

sunlight on water

Source: http://ak.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/5957222/preview/stock-footage-sunlight-reflection-in-river-star-reflections-on-stream-running-water-sunset.jpg

In his autobiography, The Story of My Heart, Richard Jefferies relates some of his moving and profound experiences in the natural world. Of one such experience he writes:

“The rich blue of the unattainable flower of the sky drew my soul towards it, and there it rested, for pure colour is rest of heart.”

Interestingly, a similar idea occurred to the great 17th century Japanese haiku master, Matsuo Basho:

“A flower unknown
To bird and butterfly –
The sky of autumn.”

So often in his writing Jefferies celebrates colour in nature, whether it’s the cowslips and violets of the field or the fresh green of the beeches. It was his heart that received their pure and delicate hues and which “opened wide as the broad, broad earth.” “Rest of heart” was a state which allowed him to experience a wider and deeper sense of being. The condition of gratitude for merely being alive on this earth also pervades his writing. This calmness of heart could perhaps open up possibilities for creating more ‘natural’ patterns of thought and feeling in the world, as opposed to the ‘goal-directed’ patterns that are so dominant at present.

We in the West tend to equate the heart with the seat of the emotions only and separate it from the ‘rational’ mind. In eastern traditions, however, the heart is more than this: it is a whole reality which, in its true state, contains the mind. It is critical in bringing balance and structure to life. Attempting to realise the nature of the heart would be a genuine spiritual journey. In today’s increasingly excitable and sensation-driven society, it is not easy to bring a sense of depth and balance to life. To achieve this, the presence of the heart is necessary.

Richard Jefferies’ heart led him to the fields and woods, to the banks of clear streams where the sunlight sparkled and the breeze rustled the leaves above. He didn’t go to lengths to plan out his days – he simply responded to a natural instinct to seek beauty in the open air,

“…to drink deeply once more at the fresh fountains of life. An inspiration—a long deep breath of the pure air of thought—could alone give health to the heart.”

The above quote is from the first paragraph of The Story of My Heart. He immediately links thought to the heart. Natural thought is what he seeks: thought which arises from sensitive contact with nature, not the type that is concerned with information, conventional learning, projects, concepts and all the minutiae of daily life. In the essay ‘On the Downs’, he writes:

“Three-fourths of the mind still sleeps. That little atom of it needed to conduct the daily routine of the world is, indeed, often strained to the utmost. That small part of it, again, occasionally exercised in re-learning ancient thoughts, is scarcely half employed—small as it is. There is so much more capacity in the inner mind—a capacity of which but few even dream. Until favourable times and chances bring fresh materials for it, it is not conscious of itself. Light and freedom, colour, and delicious air—sunshine, blue hill lines, and flowers—give the heart to feel that there is so much more to be enjoyed of which we walk in ignorance.”

The heart is the key to unlocking this almost limitless potential of the ‘inner mind’, but it has to awaken to it.

“By looking at this blue hill line this dormant power within the mind becomes partly visible; the heart wakes up to it.”

Returning to the autobiography, we can also find examples of Jefferies seeking this natural, ‘pure’ thought from the elements of nature, or any particular one of them:

“There was a secluded spring to which I sometimes went to drink the pure water, lifting it in the hollow of my hand. Drinking the lucid water, clear as light itself in solution, I absorbed the beauty and purity of it. I drank the thought of the element…”

The heart is where this desire comes from: more precisely, perhaps, it is itself the desire. But all this feeling for nature and its beauty would, of course, be futile if the heart were not also capable of pure love and sympathy for other human beings. Jefferies is as interested in the happiness of the human race and the realisation of love as anyone who has ever put pen to paper.

“I hope succeeding generations will be able to be ideal. I hope that nine-tenths of their time will be leisure time; that they may enjoy their days, and the earth, and the beauty of this beautiful world; that they may rest by the sea and dream; that they may dance and sing, and eat and drink. I will work towards that end with all my heart.”

Most of the second half of the book is devoted to hopes for a more fulfilled human life: i.e., the development of a stronger, healthier body and the expansion of the mind to its full potential. This would be a natural consequence of an awakened heart, conscious of the ideal life which he terms ‘soul-life’. He saw his writing as work towards that more beautiful existence: it was a labour not merely of love, but of heart. In his essay, ‘The Pageant of Summer’, Jefferies’ philosophy of the beautiful life attains possibly its most complete expression.

“Steeped in flower and pollen to the music of bees and birds, the stream of the atmosphere became a living thing. It was life to breathe it, for the air itself was life. The strength of the earth went up through the leaves into the wind. Fed thus on the food of the Immortals, the heart opened to the width and depth of the summer—to the broad horizon afar, down to the minutest creature in the grass, up to the highest swallow.”

This opening of the heart to bring about a broader feeling for all living things has echoes of Buddhism. Further on in the essay comes an experience of greater depth. The imaginative power of the heart suddenly bursts into the open when he sees a June rose – the first of the summer, a little earlier than expected:

“Straight go the white petals to the heart; straight the mind’s glance goes back to how many other pageants of summer in old times when perchance the sunny days were even more sunny; when the stilly oaks were full of mystery, lurking like the Druid’s mistletoe in the midst of their mighty branches. A glamour in the heart came back to it again from every flower; as the sunshine was reflected from them so the feeling in the heart returned tenfold. To the dreamy summer haze love gave a deep enchantment, the colours were fairer, the blue more lovely in the lucid sky. Each leaf finer, and the gross earth enamelled beneath the feet. A sweet breath on the air, a soft warm hand in the touch of the sunshine, a glance in the gleam of the rippled waters, a whisper in the dance of the shadows.”

Imagining the beauty of past summers, with the sense of their merging into the present, can open up new pathways for feeling. And Jefferies wants this expanded feeling, this knowledge of beauty, to enter all human lives, and to flow on unchecked into the future. Love begins with beauty and the natural awakening of the imagination. Heart awareness is all that is required for this shift in consciousness. Much of the nature of the heart appears to have been forgotten in our world, and the various belief systems and spiritual programmes that have gripped mankind down to this day have not helped us to remember.

In his novel The Dewy Morn (see earlier post ‘Among the Shadows of Summer’), the heroine Felise is unable to feel anything other than love while in the midst of nature. This love is due to “the wonderful mechanism of the mind, the heart, of life”. It arises in her long before she meets a man to love. The heart (and the mind) is a primary reality, like the sun, the air and the grass. Felise’s love grows out of the earth itself, and in its own time it fills her mind with thoughts of love for a man.

For Jefferies, the Greek ideal of perfection of both mind and body was a continual inspiration, permeating his autobiography, novels and many essays. When reading his expression of the ideal life, an understandable reaction is to question the achievability of such a condition. We might easily ask: the world’s never going to be perfect, and nor will we, so shouldn’t we just make the best of things and not fill our minds with empty hopes? Jefferies himself asked that question, but his own heart would never let him abandon those higher hopes. The idea expressed by the Greek statue became a reality somewhere in his imagination and it sought communication and connection with the wider world. The Story of My Heart, a book meditated on for seventeen years and finally written with great urgency following illness, is the record of the presence of that heart-ideal in his life. Did it all come to an end with Jefferies, or might it still have relevance, and resonance, in the world of today?

“How willingly I would strew the paths of all with flowers; how beautiful a delight to make the world joyous! The song should never be silent, the dance never still, the laugh should sound like water which runs for ever.” The Story of My Heart