AUTUMN NATURE NOTES

Simon Coleman

woodland-and-mist-vw

Source: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/things-to-do/woodland-in-autumn/

Quotations here from two essays by Jefferies. Autumn always brought him immense pleasure: the season of production and decay, of exploding colours and soft, enveloping sunbeams. He dwells on the size and profusion of berries and nuts, but also finds mystery waiting in the dimly-lit forest glades.

From ‘Nutty Autumn’:

“Haws are very plentiful this year (1881), and exceptionally large, many fully double the size commonly seen. So heavily are the branches laden with bunches of the red fruit that they droop as apple trees do with a more edible burden. Though so big, and to all appearance tempting to birds, none have yet been eaten; and, indeed, haws seem to be resorted to only as a change unless severe weather compels.

Just as we vary our diet, so birds eat haws, and not many of them till driven by frost and snow. If any stay on till the early months of next year, wood-pigeons and missel-thrushes will then eat them; but at this season they are untouched. Blackbirds will peck open the hips directly the frost comes; the hips go long before the haws. There was a large crop of mountain-ash berries, every one of which has been taken by blackbirds and thrushes, which are almost as fond of them as of garden fruit.

Blackberries are thick, too—it is a berry year—and up in the horse-chestnut the prickly-coated nuts hang up in bunches, as many as eight in a stalk. Acorns are large, but not so singularly numerous as the berries, nor are hazel-nuts. This provision of hedge fruit no more indicates a severe winter than a damaged wheat harvest indicates a mild one…

The atmosphere holds the beams, and abstracts from them their white brilliance. They come slower with a drowsy light, which casts a less defined shadow of the still oaks. The yellow and brown leaves in the oaks, in the elms, and the beeches, in their turn affect the rays, and retouch them with their own hue. An immaterial mist across the fields looks like a cloud of light hovering on the stubble: the light itself made visible.”

From ‘Forest’:

“The soft autumn sunshine, shorn of summer glare, lights up with colour the fern, the fronds of which are yellow and brown, the leaves, the grey grass, and hawthorn sprays already turned. It seems as if the early morning’s mists have the power of tinting leaf and fern, for so soon as they commence the green hues begin to disappear. There are swathes of fern yonder, cut down like grass or corn, the harvest of the forest. It will be used for litter and for thatching sheds. The yellow stalks—the stubble—will turn brown and wither through the winter, till the strong spring shoot comes up and the anemones flower. Though the sunbeams reach the ground here, half the green glade is in shadow, and for one step that you walk in sunlight ten are in shade. Thus, partly concealed in full day, the forest always contains a mystery. The idea that there may be something in the dim arches held up by the round columns of the beeches lures the footsteps onwards. Something must have been lately in the circle under the oak where the fern and bushes remain at a distance and wall in a lawn of green. There is nothing on the grass but the upheld leaves that have dropped, no mark of any creature, but this is not decisive; if there are no physical signs, there is a feeling that the shadow is not vacant. In the thickets, perhaps—the shadowy thickets with front of thorn—it has taken refuge and eluded us. Still onward the shadows lead us in vain but pleasant chase.”

SPIRITS OF PLACE

Simon Coleman

Coate and May 050Richard Jefferies’ Home in Coate, Wiltshire, by Rebecca Welshman

A sense of place is becoming increasingly important in today’s fast moving and disjointed society. To feel that we belong in a certain locality, where we have memories – perhaps some early ones – gives us that vital feeling of ‘rooted-ness’, of being part of something that has long preceded us and will endure long after us. Many great writers have evoked a spirit of place in their works. The American poet, Walt Whitman, often introduced city scenes, particularly of New York, into his free verse poetry.

“Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.” (‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’)

Whitman dissolves boundaries between present and future, to the point where he reaches out to the people who will follow him, as if to join his experience to theirs. His powerful and direct engagement with place is somehow removed from ordinary time: he almost invites the future in to share the scene with him. A very commonplace, everyday scene now appears to be connected to some larger human purpose.

In a very different piece of writing, Richard Jefferies describes the kitchen of an ancient farmhouse (one very familiar to him that he has populated with fictional characters) with a strong emphasis on continuity from the past. The kitchen has been part of the life there for hundreds of years, but everything old in it still has a use in the present.

“In the kitchen at Lucketts’ Place there was a stool made by sawing off about six inches of the butt of a small ash tree. The bark remained on, and it was not smoothed or trimmed in any way. This mere log was Cicely Luckett’s favourite seat as a girl; she was Hilary’s only daughter. The kitchen had perhaps originally been the house, the rest having been added to it in the course of years as the mode of life changed and increasing civilisation demanded more convenience and comfort. The walls were quite four feet thick, and the one small lattice-window in its deep recess scarcely let in sufficient light, even on a summer’s day, to dispel the gloom, except at one particular time.

The little panes, yellow and green, were but just above the ground, looking out upon the road into the rickyard, so that the birds which came searching along among the grasses and pieces of wood thrown carelessly aside against the wall could see into the room. Robins, of course, came every morning, perching on the sill and peering in with the head held on one side. Blackbird and thrush came, but always passed the window itself quickly, though they stayed without fear within a few inches of it on either hand.

There was an old oak table in the centre of the room—a table so solid that young Aaron, the strong labourer, could only move it with difficulty. There was no ceiling properly speaking, the boards of the floor above and a thick beam which upheld it being only whitewashed; and much of that had scaled off. An oaken door led down a few steps into the cellar, and over both cellar and kitchen there sloped a long roof, thatched, whose eaves were but just above the ground.

Now, when there was no one in the kitchen, as in the afternoon, when even the indoor servants had gone out to help in the hayfield, little Cicely used to come in here and sit dreaming on the ash log by the hearth. The rude stool was always placed inside the fireplace, which was very broad for burning wood, faggots and split pieces of timber. Bending over the grey ashes, she could see right up the great broad tunnel of the chimney to the blue sky above, which seemed the more deeply azure, as it does from the bottom of a well. In the evenings when she looked up she sometimes saw a star shining above. In the early mornings of the spring, as she came rushing down to breakfast, the tiny yellow panes of the window which faced the east were all lit up and rosy with the rays of the rising sun.

The beautiful light came through the elms of the rickyard, away from the ridge of the distant Down, and then for the first hour of the day the room was aglow. For quite two hundred years every visible sunrise had shone in at that window more or less, as the season changed and the sun rose to the north of east. Perhaps it was that sense of ancient homeliness that caused Cicely, without knowing why, to steal in there alone to dream, for nowhere else indoors could she have been so far away from the world of to-day.” (‘Round About a Great Estate’)

Past and present are beautifully interwoven and there is also intimacy between the human world and nature. The sun and the stars feel like regular guests that appear through the small apertures of window pane and chimney. The light doesn’t simply emerge from millions of miles of vacant space: it comes ‘through the elms of the rickyard, away from the ridge of the distant Down’. Everything is joined. Sun and stars are part of the place as well, and the farmhouse is thus part of the universe. While Whitman is exuberant, propelling his love of the river and the teeming crowds far into the future, Jefferies, in quieter, more introspective language, guides the reader into the larger and deeper reality to which the rustic old kitchen belongs. What connects these two pieces of writing, I think, is their ability to show the scenes described as repeating patterns, not as one-off snapshots of random groups of people and objects. Whitman repeats words (‘others’ and ‘just as’) at the start of lines and Jefferies reminds us of the 200 years of sunrises. Everything in the scene is meant to be there, and needs to be there.

Places develop a dynamic reality when we encounter in them more than a simple reflection of our own times. Real literature of place conveys a continuity, a timelessness, a pattern, a sense of meaningful repetition. Great writers can bring these subtle possibilities to life because they perceive place as a whole. Jefferies and Whitman made their scenes part of the fabric of their lives. They were themselves spirits of place.

The Four Miracles

THE FOUR MIRACLES

Simon Coleman

Sunshine

Source: pimlico-flats.co.uk

Looking at human society today, it is incredible how complex our systems of communication, commerce and government have become. Whatever has been gained in terms of convenience and time-saving, we cannot escape the fact that the primary reality of nature and the whole living cosmos has been pushed to the margins of life. Deadening routines and rampant materialism have taken over much of everyday thought, while most of our entertainment industry is driven by an obsession with instant sensation and images designed to shock our overworked and weakened psyches. In a subtle but very real sense, we are all under attack from mass society.

Back in late Victorian England Richard Jefferies gazed with amazement at the frenetic motions of the London crowds, then, as now, driven on by a powerful complex of impulses, interests and fears that few had the time or the insight to examine or question. Standing by the Royal Exchange in the City of London, Jefferies tried to make some sense of the grim reality before him.

There is an indistinguishable noise—it is not clatter, hum, or roar, it is not resolvable; made up of a thousand thousand footsteps, from a thousand hoofs, a thousand wheels—of haste, and shuffle, and quick movements, and ponderous loads; no attention can resolve it into a fixed sound.

Blue carts and yellow omnibuses, varnished carriages and brown vans, green omnibuses and red cabs, pale loads of yellow straw, rusty-red iron clanking on paintless carts, high white wool-packs, grey horses, bay horses, black teams; sunlight sparkling on brass harness, gleaming from carriage panels; jingle, jingle, jingle! An intermixed and intertangled, ceaselessly changing jingle, too, of colour; flecks of colour champed, as it were, like bits in the horses’ teeth, frothed and strewn about, and a surface always of dark-dressed people winding like the curves on fast-flowing water. This is the vortex and whirlpool, the centre of human life today on the earth. Now the tide rises and now it sinks, but the flow of these rivers always continues. Here it seethes and whirls, not for an hour only, but for all present time, hour by hour, day by day, year by year.

Here it rushes and pushes, the atoms triturate and grind, and, eagerly thrusting by, pursue their separate ends. Here it appears in its unconcealed personality, indifferent to all else but itself, absorbed and rapt in eager self, devoid and stripped of conventional gloss and politeness, yielding only to get its own way; driving, pushing, carried on in a stress of feverish force like a bullet, dynamic force apart from reason or will, like the force that lifts the tides and sends the clouds onwards. The friction of a thousand interests evolves a condition of electricity in which men are moved to and fro without considering their steps. Yet the agitated pool of life is stonily indifferent, the thought is absent or preoccupied, for it is evident that the mass are unconscious of the scene in which they act.

But it is more sternly real than the very stones, for all these men and women that pass through are driven on by the push of accumulated circumstances; they cannot stay, they must go, their necks are in the slave’s ring, they are beaten like seaweed against the solid walls of fact. In ancient times, Xerxes, the king of kings, looking down upon his myriads, wept to think that in a hundred years not one of them would be left. Where will be these millions of to-day in a hundred years? But, further than that, let us ask, Where then will be the sum and outcome of their labour? If they wither away like summer grass, will not at least a result be left which those of a hundred years hence may be the better for? No, not one jot! There will not be any sum or outcome or result of this ceaseless labour and movement; it vanishes in the moment that it is done, and in a hundred years nothing will be there, for nothing is there now. There will be no more sum or result than accumulates from the motion of a revolving cowl on a housetop. Nor do they receive any more sunshine during their lives, for they are unconscious of the sun.” (‘The Story of My Heart’).

With his own heart he tries to look into the hearts of those caught up in the maelstrom of work, money and the unstable energies produced by mass society.

Is there any theory, philosophy, or creed, is there any system or culture, any formulated method able to meet and satisfy each separate item of this agitated pool of human life? By which they may be guided, by which hope, by which look forward? Not a mere illusion of the craven heart—something real, as real as the solid walls of fact against which, like drifted sea-weed, they are dashed; something to give each separate personality sunshine and a flower in its own existence now; something to shape this million-handed labour to an end and outcome that will leave more sunshine and more flowers to those who must succeed? Something real now, and not in the spirit-land; in this hour now, as I stand and the sun burns. Can any creed, philosophy, system, or culture endure the test and remain unmolten in this fierce focus of human life?”

Jefferies, of course, is conscious all the time of the sun and the workings of the cosmos all around – not as physical facts only but as primary realities which are part of our true existence. Our minds, our hearts, have the deepest affinity with the elements of nature and the mysteries of existence. These things are in us; we know them instinctively. The materialistic fantasies of natural selection and Big Bang have nothing to say to our true natures, being divorced from the realm of the heart. They are intellect-produced, as devoid of creative insight as the governments and financial centres that underpin the rigid materialism of our age.

Let’s remind ourselves of the wonders of the elements of nature…or rather, let Jefferies remind us.

The water that runs there in the brook; the earth which I place my foot on; the air I breathe; the sunlight coming so softly through the apple bloom: these are the four miracles. They are astounding miracles: they are marvellous beyond expression.” (‘The Old House at Coate’)