Whenever a nature-related story comes up on the TV news, invariably it’s brought to us by their ‘science correspondent’. This is, of course, the perspective on nature that is so dominant throughout our society. Nature is relegated to a specific area of the academic spectrum. It is fenced off from society, viewed and explored through the clumsy frames of rationalism and evolutionary science. It is no longer recognised as an infinitely creative power, possessing a web of mystery and beauty that enriches the human heart. This astonishing attitude to nature was observed over 130 years ago by Richard Jefferies, who included his analysis of the human crisis in his mystical-confessional autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883).
Jefferies sought to express the depth of his emotional and intuitive interaction with nature. In an early novel, Restless Human Hearts, the boundary between his character’s personal self and the natural world dissolves.
“He reposed upon the grass under the shadow of a tree, til the warmth of the sun filled his veins with a drowsy, slumberous yet intense vitality, while the leaves danced in slow and intricate measure between him and the sky…He lost all sense of his own separate existence; his soul became merged in the life of the tree, of the grass, of the thousands of insects, finally in the life of the broad earth underneath, till he felt himself as it were a leaf upon the great cedar of existence …Time, thought, feeling, sense, were gone, all lost; nothing remained but the mere grand fact, the exquisite delight, the infinite joy of existence only”.
This ‘merging’ is consistent with an ‘animist’ approach to nature. The ‘broad earth’ itself is a living thing to Jefferies – an idea that has thankfully taken root again in human consciousness. Jefferies’ experience is usually classed as ‘mysticism’ or ‘nature mysticism’. I have begun to think of it as the expression of an enlarged heart-consciousness. The heart was regarded in some religions as the seat of intuitive knowledge and thought, as well as the link between the ‘physical’ and the ‘spiritual’. But these concepts don’t really matter if we can empathize with the feeling. Here is a passage from his sun-drenched essay, ‘Nature and Eternity’.
“It is only while in a dreamy, slumbrous, half-mesmerized state that nature’s ancient papyrus roll can be read – only when the mind is at rest, separated from care and labour; when the body is at ease, luxuriating in warmth and delicious languor; when the soul is in accord and sympathy with the sunlight, with the leaf, with the slender blades of grass, and can feel with the tiniest insect which climbs up them as up a mighty tree. As the genius of the great musicians, without an articulated word or printed letter, can carry with it all the emotions, so now, lying prone upon the earth in the shadow, with quiescent will, listening, thoughts and feelings rise respondent to the sunbeams, to the leaf, the very blade of grass. Resting the head upon the hand, gazing down upon the ground, the strange and marvellous inner sight of the mind penetrates the solid earth, grasps in part the mystery of its vast extension upon either side, bearing its majestic mountains, its deep forests, its grand oceans, and almost feels the life which in ten thousand thousand forms revels upon its surface. Returning upon itself, the mind joys in the knowledge that it too is a part of this wonder–akin to the ten thousand thousand creatures, akin to the very earth itself. How grand and holy is this life! how sacred the temple which contains it!”
The life principle expressed everywhere casts a kind of spell over the reposing mind. Nature seems to possess a mysterious language, and Jefferies’ inner mind (or ‘soul’ or ‘heart’) responds to it, entering into the life of the whole cosmos. Because of this merging with, and participation in, the web of life as a whole, everything living automatically becomes sacred. This is what the heart is searching for – and wants to know. His being, his self, in this state, is a complete expression of the cosmic life principle.
When he wrote The Story of My Heart, Jefferies strove for a sparser, more rhythmical form of prose to express the same feelings.
“Sometimes on lying down on the sward I first looked up at the sky, gazing for a long time till I could see deep into the azure and my eyes were full of the colour; then I turned my face to the grass and thyme, placing my hands at each side of my face so as to shut out everything and hide myself. Having drunk deeply of the heaven above and felt the most glorious beauty of the day, and remembering the old, old, sea, which (as it seemed to me) was but just yonder at the edge, I now became lost, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe. I felt down deep into the earth under, and high above into the sky, and farther still to the sun and stars. Still farther beyond the stars into the hollow of space, and losing thus my separateness of being came to seem like a part of the whole. Then I whispered to the earth beneath, through the grass and thyme, down into the depth of its ear, and again up to the starry space hid behind the blue of day. Travelling in an instant across the distant sea, I saw as if with actual vision the palms and cocoanut trees, the bamboos of India, and the cedars of the extreme south. Like a lake with islands the ocean lay before me, as clear and vivid as the plain beneath in the midst of the amphitheatre of hills.”
In his later years, Jefferies’ happiness was shattered by debilitating illnesses and poverty. Nevertheless, he continued to express his deepest emotions and his hope that mankind could carve out a more beautiful life in the future. He produced further great, evocative essays such as ‘The Pageant of Summer’, ‘Wildflowers’ and ‘Hours of Spring’, and attempted to sketch out an enlarged and improved sequel to The Story of My Heart. He also experimented with new forms of fiction but his death at the age of 38 cut short a career that had already journeyed far beyond conventional nature writing. He did, however, leave enough of his work for us to celebrate with him the enduring beauty and mystery of all life. Not only in adulthood, but also as a young boy, he discovered that
“…there was magic in everything, blades of grass and stars, the sun and the stones upon the ground.” (Bevis, 1882)