FOOD FROM THE CLOUDS

SIMON COLEMAN

 

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Source: http://media.gettyimages.com/videos/aerial-over-fields-with-shadows-of-clouds-in-the-south-downs-west-video-id864-33?s=640×640

 

Anyone who spends a lot of time out in the English countryside cannot fail to notice the great variety of atmospheric effects that can appear, especially over hilly land.  Effects of light, cloud and shadow and subtle plays of colour continually offer surprises to our eyes all year round.  In his different styles, Richard Jefferies possessed the ability to capture the varied moods of the sky and atmosphere, hardly ever missing an opportunity to say something about the clouds he observed.  In this passage from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, he provides a stark description of a drought in the Wiltshire downs before gently shifting our gaze to the dreamy clouds which mesmerize with their motion and hues.

 

“Once now and then in the cycle of the years there comes a summer which to the hills is almost like a fever to the blood, wasting and drying up with its heat the green things upon which animal life depends, so that drought and famine go hand in hand.  The days go by and grow to weeks, the weeks lengthen to months, and still no rain.  The sun pours down his burning rays, which become hotter as the season advances; the sky is blue and beautiful over the hills–beautiful, but pitiless to the bleating flocks beneath.  The breeze comes up from the south, bringing with it white clouds sailing at an immense height, with openings between like azure lakes or aerial Mediterraneans landlocked by banks of vapour.

 

These, if you watch them from the rampart, slowly dissolve; fragments break away from the mass as the edges of the polar glaciers slip off the ice-cliff into the sea, only these are noiseless.  The fragment detached grows visibly thinner and more translucent, its margin stretching out in an uneven fringe: the process is almost exactly like the unravelling of a spotless garment, the threads wavering and twisting as they are carried along by the current, diminishing till they fade and are lost in the ocean of blue.  This breaking of the clouds is commonly seen in weather that promises to be fine.  From the brow here, you may note a solitary cloud just risen above the horizon; it floats slowly towards us; presently it divides into several parts; these, again, fall away in jagged, irregular pieces like flecks of foam.  By the time it has reached the zenith these flecks have lengthened out, and shortly afterwards the cloud has entirely melted and is gone.  The delicate hue, the contrast of the fleecy white with the deepest azure, the ever-changing form, the light shining through the gauzy texture, the gentle dreamy motion, lend these clouds an exquisite beauty.”

 

Later in the book, he describes a very different cloud scene.

 

“When the sky is overcast—large masses of cloud, with occasional breaks, passing slowly across it at a considerable elevation without rain – sometimes through these narrow slits long beams of light fall aslant upon the distant fields of the vale.  They resemble, only on a greatly lengthened scales the beams that may be seen in churches of a sunny afternoon, falling from the upper windows on the tiled floor of the chancel, and made visible by motes in the air.  So through such slits in the cloudy roof of the sky the rays of the sun shoot downwards, made visible on their passage by the moisture or the motes floating in the atmosphere.  They seem to linger in their place as the clouds drift with scarcely perceptible motion; and the labourers say that the sun is sucking up water there.”

 

Typically in Jefferies’ writing, underlying the careful objectivity of his descriptions, we detect the presence of some deeper level of experience.  Here, in his children’s novel, ‘Bevis’, the clouds seem to lead the reposing mind towards an idea of eternal time.

 

“Lying at full length inside the shadow of the oak, Bevis gazed up at the clouds, which were at an immense height, and drifted so slowly as to scarcely seem to move, only he saw that they did because he had a fixed point in the edge of the oak boughs.  So thin and delicate was the texture of the white sky-lace above him that the threads scarcely hid the blue which the eye knew was behind and above it.  It was warm without the pressure of heat, soft, luxurious; the summer like them reclined, resting in the fulness of the time.”

 

On another occasion, in the High Weald of Sussex, he can celebrate an unending variety of cloud formations passing over.

 

“Clouds drift over; it is a wonderful observatory for cloud studies; they seem so close, the light is so strong, and there is nothing to check the sight as far as its powers will reach. Clouds come up no wider than a pasture-field, but in length stretching out to the very horizon, dividing the blue sky into two halves; but then every day has its different clouds—the fleets of heaven that are always sailing on and know no haven.”  (‘Buckhurst Park’)

 

Jefferies was not afraid of introducing occasional romantic touches, such as this one from ‘Hours of Spring’:

 

“…the beautiful clouds that go over, with the sweet rush of rain and burst of sun glory among the leafy trees.”

 

In a very late and sad essay, ‘My Old Village’, composed when he was bed-ridden and aware  he was dying of tuberculosis, Jefferies plunges into an astonishingly poignant reminiscence of his youth in the north Wiltshire countryside.  He also reveals a new depth to his love of clouds.

 

“There used to be clouds over the fields, white clouds in blue summer skies. I have lived a good deal on clouds; they have been meat to me often; they bring something to the spirit which even the trees do not. I see clouds now sometimes when the iron grip of hell permits for a minute or two; they are very different clouds, and speak differently. I long for some of the old clouds that had no memories.”

 

The clouds of that youthful time possessed something magical that never left him.  Near the end of the essay he complains that, “No one seems to understand how I got food from the clouds.”

 

It is perhaps not surprising that a dreamer like Jefferies, who understood the value of beauty rather than material wealth, was not comprehensible to late-Victorian society.  However, as we look back on Jefferies through the lens of our present digital age, I think many of us do feel the need to re-connect with a reality much greater than our endless flow of electronic information and stimuli.  We only have to think of the real earth and the real sky, and all that they mean to the human heart, and we sense something of what Jefferies found in the clouds and changing light over the wide chalk uplands or the summer pastures.  With a small shift of our attention, we too can re-discover beautiful things that have never left us.  There is, I believe, a Richard Jefferies in all of us.

The Value of Nature: Little Things do Matter

Rebecca Welshman

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Photo: Rebecca Welshman

Findings from a research study suggest that those of us who value possessions, status and wealth are more anxious, depressed and unsociable than those who don’t. These claims were made by a group of researchers at the Northwestern University, who published their findings in Psychological Science, the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science in 2012.

 

But these debates are hardly new. Richard Jefferies, known for his writings on nature and society, questioned the value of materialism 150 years ago. He recognised that the pursuit of wealth promised nothing in itself, and through his writing tried to help people find happiness in nature. The Victorian era saw the birth of materialism as we know it today. London became the fastest growing metropolis in the world, and with the expansion of towns and railways, Britain underwent a radical rural to urban transition.

 

Known best for his writing on nature and rural life, Jefferies made his living as a journalist, writing for the Pall Mall Gazette, and other papers and magazines of the time. Last autumn marked 143 years since the publication of his letters to The Times about the working conditions and pay of Wiltshire agricultural labourers, which brought him national acclaim and helped earn him a special place in Victorian literature.

 

As a country lad who moved to the city – first Surbiton, then Brighton, Jefferies was well qualified to comment on the changes taking place around him. In his articles in the London Standard he conveyed the physical and psychological health benefits of spending time out of doors and encouraged people to take more notice of the nature around them. As he wrote in his novel Restless Human Hearts (1875), nature could be found even in the heart of London:

 

The dead brown leaves, driven by the wind, penetrate even into stony London, and rustle along the pavement and whirl round in eddies at the corners of the street. They are a voice from the woods, an echo from the forgotten land, messengers from Nature, abiding still in her solitudes, warning wilful and blinded men to return ere it be too late.

 

One of Jefferies’ London thinking places was a spot in front of the Royal Exchange, the hub of the Victorian commercial world, which remained the centre of commerce until 1939. Here he stood and watched the streams of traffic flow past – hundreds of men, women, horses and carriages, bustling and rushing to and fro. Amidst the hurrying footsteps, wheels, different coloured omnibuses, some carrying bales of straw, stirring up the dust in their efforts to reach their different destinations, Jefferies pondered where it was all going. Everyone seemed wrapped up in their own world, indifferent, it seemed to the character of the place itself:

 

all these men and women that pass through are driven on by the push of accumulated circumstances; they cannot stay, they must go …. 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? … 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.

 

Jefferies strove to answer these questions in his soul-searching autobiography, The Story of My Heart, a book that brought him posthumous fame as a nature mystic and social commentator. These questions remain as important today as they did then, not least because they remain unanswered. The research by Northwestern University has shown that materialism not only negatively affects people, but also the environment.  Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen claims that ‘irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in wellbeing, including negative affect and social disengagement.’ As many others have done since, Jefferies questioned what people were working for – beyond money, what real value did all this labour have? He hoped his writings would offer people ways to experience more joy in the simple things of life – ‘more sunshine and more flowers’ – feelings that couldn’t be generated by the pursuit of materialism.

 

Jefferies found beauty in the most ordinary things – a blade of grass, a flower, even a patch of ground. Man-made things paled into insignificance next to the design-less beauty of natural phenomena:

 

I had forgotten that the parlour, beside the chair and table, had a carpet. The carpet has a pattern: it is woven; the threads can be discerned, and a little investigation shows beyond doubt that it was designed and made by a man. It is certainly pretty and ingenious. But the grass of my golden meadow has no design, and no purpose: it is beautiful, and more; it is divine. (The Old House at Coate)

 

It is well-known that the beauty of nature promotes feelings of wholeness and well being. A 2011 survey of 3000 people on behalf of ‘Three Barrels Brandy’, about what boosts our happiness, ranked 3 of nature’s own remedies in the top 10, which suggests that we are already a nation that finds enjoyment in the simple things. ‘Swimming in the sea’, ‘waking up on a sunny day’, and ‘sitting in the sun’ outranked ‘booking a holiday’, ‘finding a bargain’, winning a £10 lottery prize’, and ‘getting a promotion’. ‘Finding a £10 note in an old pair of jeans’ and ‘going on holiday’ topped the poll, with spending time with friends and family, and quiet moments of reflection, including listening to old songs and looking at photos, largely constituted the top 30.

 

Yet there are perhaps things even closer to us (and less expensive) that can increase happiness. Jefferies’ love of nature was so strong that ‘the buzz of a bee at the window’ would cause him to feel connected to the abundance of treasures which lay just outside, at his fingertips. The sounds, textures, colours and forms of nature were powerfully alive to him, even during years’ of illness. Mysterious and ever-changing, with the weather and the seasons, nature held him under its spell.

 

London has some of the largest and well maintained parks in Europe, many of which don’t charge entry fees, with flowers, open spaces, and water fountains which capture the sunlight. These things are all around us, but how often do we really notice them? In 2010 a series of studies were conducted by the University of Rochester which found that nature increases energy levels, feelings of vitality, and general happiness. Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education, Richard Ryan, commented that ‘Nature is fuel for the soul,’ and that ‘often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.’ Ryan added that nature can help us to fight infection, fight exhaustion, and increase our general physical health.

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Like all good relationships, our connection with nature needs to be cultivated and maintained. We can all make a little difference to the happiness of the wildlife and flora around us, even just by considering and appreciating that we live in an ever-changing and vibrant living world. Nature is amazingly receptive to positive efforts to help and sustain it. Only the other day the Robin that I have been leaving food out for came to the stone wall outside my study and looked directly at me, and with a little bob of his tail, flew away. I knew that he was asking me for food. Each time now he comes to feed when I am sitting at my desk I see that he is aware of my presence and I try not to move suddenly or alarm him. My feeding the Robin is a small thing. Yet I like to think that he will live through the winter and go on to nurture broods of youngsters of his own next spring. Every little thing we do, however small, has an effect and leaves a legacy for the future.