Nature and Media: Narratives of Choice

Rebecca Welshman

 

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Jefferies’ observations of birds vary in their scope and detail. The freedom of a bird’s life was appealing to him, as was a bird’s ability to live in tune with its surroundings and to take delight in the natural rhythms and beauties of the seasons. In the poem ‘My Chaffinch’ Jefferies draws a parallel between the sight of a chaffinch and a sunbeam:

 

“His hours he spends upon a fragrant fir;

His merry ‘chink,’ his happy ‘Kiss me, dear,’

Each moment sounded, keeps the copse astir.

Loudly he challenges his rivals near,

Anon aslant down to the ground he springs,

Like to a sunbeam made of coloured wings.

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The firm and solid azure of the ceil

That struck by hand would give a hollow sound,

A dome turned perfect by the sun’s great wheel,

Whose edges rest upon the hills around,

Rings many a mile with blue enamelled wall;

His fir-tree is the centre of it all.”

 

The chaffinch does not simply inhabit its environment according to the rules of nature but is an active and vibrant part of the living landscape. The bird lives and acts upon its own senses – it calls ‘each moment’ and keeps the copse alive with sound. Jefferies perceives the firmament as a ‘blue enamelled wall’ – a perfectly turned dome that has been turned by the wheel of the sun. The trunk of the Chaffinch’s fir tree is pictured as a great pillar that supports the ‘centre’ of this gigantic revolving sphere. The life of the bird is here, in the midst of it all, alive to each sight and sound, and itself giving sight and sound to the world.

 

It is this condition of being present and reciprocal, where each one of us is perfectly balanced at the centre of the world that we know and understand, that Jefferies sought to explore and express in his writing. Natural rhythms are easily intuited and embraced by birds and animals, and for humans too this used to be the way of existence. Jefferies perceived that we have become out of tune with these rhythms and intuitions, and that modern society with its distractions and artificiality has muffled our abilities to live in and fully embrace the present. The worlds of commerce and media deaden the senses and reduce the capacity for enlightenment. Observing Nature’s own time, Jefferies remarked:

 

“To us each hour is of consequence, especially in this modern day, which has invented the detestable creed that time is money. But time is not money to Nature. She never hastens.” (Landscape and Labour)

 

In The Life of the Fields (1883) Jefferies uses the example of a storm to comment on the pointlessness of the majority of human anxieties. He juxtaposes the condition of human fear with the serenity of a patient turtle-dove that sits and waits for the storm to pass:

 

“Blackbirds often make a good deal of noise; but the soft turtle-doves coo gently, let the lightning be as savage as it will. Nothing has the least fear. Man alone, more senseless than a pigeon, put a god in vapour; and to this day, though the printing press has set a foot on every threshold, numbers bow the knee when they hear the roar the timid dove does not heed … Under their tuition let us rid ourselves of mental terrors, and face death itself as calmly as they do the livid lightning; so trustful and so content with their fate, resting in themselves and unappalled.”

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Jefferies comments that one of mankind’s most artificial constructions was investing natural phenomena with supernatural associations, which in turn bred fear. The ‘god in vapour’ can be read as a thinly veiled allusion to the idea of a divine being – the cornerstone belief upon which so many religious orders are founded. Jefferies saw the idea of divine supremacy as an artificial construction and termed it ‘superstition’. As he writes in The Story of My Heart it is the fearful tendency to cling onto these old beliefs rather than let them fall away that prevents the development of a new belief. Whether it be a religious teaching or a misquoted news story, if something is repeated enough it can become a form of truth. Jefferies managed to see beyond the propagation of false belief – to something that comes from within the individual rather than from outside.

 

In the above quotation the printing press is mentioned in the same sentence as the dove. Jefferies notes that the printing press has reached every doorstep – there was no part of the country that remained disconnected from the world of the media. This analogy of encroachment by the media – that “has set a foot on every threshold” without invitation – is even more relevant in today’s world where media stories can be instantly shared and purveyed on a global scale through digital technologies. More than just appearing on our doorsteps in the form of a newspaper or magazine, media stories invade our homes through our devices, televisions, radios, and computers. Such analogies suggest that Jefferies was already aware of the dangers of mass media – including the potential for hype to create false emotion and hysteria (what he terms “mental terrors”).

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The majority of our contemporary media for mass audiences is standardised to elicit particular emotions. The content and style depend upon the perpetuation of conflict and are designed to instil fear and uncertainty regarding the future (for example, the disproportionate attention given to sad or frightening news stories). Before we even get to read a news item the media has already contrived an emotion for us to feel through its choice of subject matter, the wording of its narrative and its tone of voice. Many of the daily papers rely upon exerting influence over their readership through exaggeration and distorted focus on the potential for the worst possible outcomes. Articles on subjects which foster racial tensions and economic inequalities are designed to provoke negative emotions. The media offers various narratives of the world in which we live but we can choose what we subscribe to, and what we believe in.

 

Jefferies was a journalist. It was the mainstay of his career and provided him with regular income until his later years when he became too ill and frail to write regularly. He sought to promote a new form of journalism that relied upon direct observation of life itself and the thoughts and reflections of everyday experience. Our own powers of observation have the potential to lead to greater understanding of the world in which we live and the range of our responses to it. We only have to look to the natural world to see an example of how to live without conflict or deception. Recalling the image of the calm turtle dove, sitting on her nest in the violet twilight, Jefferies wrote:

 

“To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of Nature.”

 

Contrary to the invasive media that relies on emotional insecurity to survive, the turtle dove sits alone, waiting patiently, trusting that it has already found its rightful place in the world.

 

As animal behaviourists have ascertained, birds live in complex societies and have the ability to form long-term relationships. Jefferies would fondly note the colonies of rooks that returned to the same avenues of elms each year to nest. He also noted shared concern or sadness amongst older birds for young rooks being shot from the trees. Jefferies felt deeply into the lives of birds and sensed that they were often filled with love, joy, the appreciation of beauty, and the determination to overcome hardship. As he wrote of larks in winter:

“The larks sang at last high up against the grey cloud over the frost-bound earth. They could not wait longer; love was strong in their little hearts – stronger than the winter.”

Imagine a human society that willingly prioritised these qualities – a society that sought to nurture the human heart to be stronger than winter, as joyful as spring, as immersed in beauty as summer, and as brimful of acceptance as autumn. Birds express many different qualities, and our observations of them afford us glimpses of other narratives, founded in a simpler, more beautiful existence than our own.

 

 

 

 

 

IN PRAISE OF LIFE

Simon Coleman

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Photo by Simon Coleman

 

Throughout his life, Richard Jefferies found a simple, natural sense of joy from seeing the re-birth of the flowers in spring and the drift of the constellations along their familiar paths.  From the touch of sunbeams and inhaling the fresh breezes of the downs, he was uplifted in spirit and inspired to think and imagine.  From listening to birdsong in the long, light evenings he realised, as much earlier peoples did, that all life was charged with magical and sacred powers.  Whatever he found beautiful in nature or the landscape became a source of joy and something to be regarded as sacred.  The true poets have always understood that what is sacred should be praised and Jefferies, though a prose writer, belongs in this tradition.

‘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; I desired soul-nature pure and limpid. When I saw the sparkling dew on the grass—a rainbow broken into drops—it called up the same thought-prayer. The stormy wind whose sudden twists laid the trees on the ground woke the same feeling; my heart shouted with it. The soft summer air which entered when I opened my window in the morning breathed the same sweet desire. At night, before sleeping, I always looked out at the shadowy trees, the hills looming indistinctly in the dark, a star seen between the drifting clouds; prayer of soul-life always. I chose the highest room, bare and gaunt, because as I sat at work I could look out and see more of the wide earth, more of the dome of the sky, and could think my desire through these. When the crescent of the new moon shone, all the old thoughts were renewed.’  (‘The Story of My Heart’)

‘..there was magic in everything’, he wrote in his children’s novel, ‘Bevis’.  In the natural world, at every time of the year, there were wonderful things to find and praise.  Continuing from the above passage,

‘All the succeeding incidents of the year repeated my prayer as I noted them. The first green leaf on the hawthorn, the first spike of meadow grass, the first song of the nightingale, the green ear of wheat. I spoke it with the ear of wheat as the sun tinted it golden; with the whitening barley; again with the red gold spots of autumn on the beech, the buff oak leaves, and the gossamer dew-weighted. All the larks over the green corn sang it for me, all the dear swallows; the green leaves rustled it; the green brook flags waved it; the swallows took it with them to repeat it for me in distant lands. By the running brook I meditated it; a flash of sunlight here in the curve, a flicker yonder on the ripples, the birds bathing in the sandy shallow, the rush of falling water. As the brook ran winding through the meadow, so one thought ran winding through my days.’

 

The ‘prayer’ that Jefferies mentions is really his desire to live the life that these beautiful ‘incidents of the year’ suggest in his imagination.  He is not praying to anything; rather he seems to be assimilating the powers of nature to help him realise his own life power.

In one of his great essays, ‘The Pageant of Summer’, this prose-poetry achieved a new emotional depth, beautifully sustained as he moves among the splendours of the summer fields and hills.

‘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. The ethereal haze lifted the heavy oaks and they were buoyant on the mead, the rugged bark was chastened and no longer rough, each slender flower beneath them again refined. There was a presence everywhere though unseen, on the open hills, and not shut out under the dark pines. Dear were the June roses then because for another gathered. Yet even dearer now with so many years as it were upon the petals; all the days that have been before, all the heart-throbs, all our hopes lie in this opened bud… Never could I have enough; never stay long enough – whether here or whether lying on the shorter sward under the sweeping and graceful birches, or on the thyme-scented hills. Hour after hour, and still not enough. Or walking the footpath was never long enough, or my strength sufficient to endure till the mind was weary. The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal. The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.’

In our time, words such as ‘joy’ and ‘beauty’ seem to have become devalued as a result of the severing of the human senses and heart from the eternal cycles of nature.  The experiences that Jefferies had are obviously more difficult to replicate in our restless, digital age where ‘screen time’ has pushed any sense of the eternal to the very margins of human life.  We may not be able to lie in the ‘thyme-scented hills’ with the rest and quiet that Jefferies found, but his words still communicate a profound love of life that inspires us to praise even the most common blade of grass.

Chronicles of the Hedges: the Billhook

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Image source: http://www.rackcdn.com

Rebecca Welshman

 

Jefferies writes of the “bill” or “bill-hook” that it was “the national weapon of the English labourer”. In the collection ‘Chronicles of the Hedges’ he describes different instances of its use in rural communities and the encounters with nature that it could afford:

 

“At the farmstead of a wintry morning, the hedger, perhaps, is told off to sit on a stool and chop up the faggots he made last year, about the same time, for convenience of burning. He cuts the withy-bond with which the faggot is held together, then, taking a stick at a time, shortens them to handy lengths with the bill upon a log. A monotonous task, yet comfortable, sitting in the wood-house, well protected from the wind and snow-flakes—chip, chop, whistle; now a robin peeping in, as robins have done since England first had a king, for a crumb of luncheon; now the serving-maid to gossip, or perhaps carry a pint of beer in a mug for him. As he comes home from the field, the hedger, having no frog in which to hang his bill like a cutlass or a tomahawk, waits till he reaches the gate to light his pipe, and sticks it into the gate-post of the stile.

 

Towards April, when the stone-pickers have done, and made a row of cairns in the meadows of the flints and pottery to be removed from the mower’s way or the brittle knives of the mowing machine, when the herd is marched out from the cowyard to the young grass, the labourer is sent with his bill to mend the rents in the hedges, where folk bent on a short cut have gone through, or sheep who love to force their way up on a mound have opened a gap. Selecting bushes where the hedge is thicker than necessary, he cuts them and fastens them into these holes to keep cattle from the rising mowing grass. Or new bushes have to be fixed in the bush-harrow—bushes that must be well chosen and skilfully arranged, so that when drawn over the grass they may stir and yet smooth it, and not tear up the turf, or drag the fibres out, but like a larger fuller’s teazle lay the nap of this green cloth. If there is a copse on the farm the gate has to be defended by thorns cut with the billhook, and worked in between the spars to exclude trespassers. Almost every day of the year the billhook is in request, here or yonder, in the field or the rickyard: the broad back of the blade drives in not a few nails at times.

 

Rusty and clumsy, awkward to the amateur to handle, in its iron hardness it is a symbol of that ceaseless struggle which, even in our highly cultivated country, must be carried on against thorn and bramble. The labourer and the farmer stand face to face with nature in a way that it is difficult for the folk of cities to understand. Rain and sunshine, snow and frost, and wind, have a significance to those who dwell on the land far beyond the petty inconvenience they may cause to the town. The clouds which the hurrying passengers in the street scarcely notice are to the labourer an irresistible enemy or a gracious friend, according to the season. They may mean partial famine—for although wheat comes now so plentifully that bread is always cheap, yet if he has not got the money to pay for it, it may be dear indeed. Wet summers take away the chance of earning higher wages in the harvest wherewith to meet the winter’s rigour with food and clothing. Snow or heavy storms and floods in winter, again, cause the billhook to be idle. It is always a hard fight for these our billmen of the peaceful field, a fight, not only of labour, but of grim endurance. They had need be as hard as the iron of the hook.

 

The father, as he rests at his luncheon, sitting on a faggot on the side of the hedge, mayhap spells slowly over the scrap of newspaper in which his cheese was wrapped, leaving its inky letters on the slice; his boy yonder playing with the billhook, chopping off the ends of branches, trying his strength and skill, can read the newspaper with ease. He reads the news of the earth aloud in the thatched cottage. Thus the germs are sown, knowledge is scattered broadcast as the sower throws the seed; the hum of learning resounds in the village street, echoing from the hollow ceiling of the school; and the coming billmen of the new generation will make their voices heard. When the day’s work is over, if any hour of daylight yet remains, the hedger trims his own hedge. With his bill he slashes up the thorn and elder about his garden; it is astonishing, when a man has a garden of his own, what an amount of labour he can find to do in it! There is a dead branch to be cut off the apple-tree here, a gap to be stopped there, the gate wants a new spar, the drain to be cleared; besides the digging, the weeding, and the planting. Always something to be done, and with it peace for the mind, which would otherwise rust as a billhook left out in the dew, with the edge off it in the morning.

 

But now the soft rain, with bursts of sunshine, the happy calls of the passing larks whose flocks have broken up and who go to play in couples over the clods of the ploughed field, the sense of something moving, an invisible force about to exert itself in the bushes—all these warn the woodman that he must hasten. As he clears away the brambles with his billhook he comes on a rabbit hole and observes it has been recently used. The rabbits, then, have returned after the ferreting, and the mound will be populous again in the summer, this will be a little news for his employer, who likes a few rabbits about for sport and eating. Or he may suddenly discover in the long white grass, dead and whitened by , winter’s rain and snow, which still stands on the mound, a hollow, clearly made by something which pressed against it softly. It is a hare’s form: he is loth to destroy the cover of the bushes round it; he leaves them a little while, but reflects that the hare has probably forsaken it several days, hearing his chip-chop, and the cracking of branches so near by.”