THE GARDEN OF IDEN

Simon Coleman

garden summerhouse

Source: http://housetohome.media.ipcdigital.co.uk/96/0000119e1/c800_orh550w550/6-Summerhouse–garden–country–Country-Homes–Interiors.jpg

Richard Jefferies published his last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair, in 1887, a few months before his death. Set in a rural farmhouse, Coombe Oaks, it is closely based on Jefferies’ own childhood environment of Coate. Though it lacks a compelling plot and seems to drift through a succession of largely static scenes, it is a remarkable book for a number of reasons. The two central characters, sixteen-year-old Amaryllis Iden and her father (known only as ‘Iden’), are outstandingly drawn. Amaryllis, a lover of wild flowers and a budding artist, is trying to make sense of the intrusion of aggressive creditors into the household, at the same time being discouraged in her creative endeavours by her parents. Iden has been a failure as a farmer and his debts weigh heavily on his family’s life. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of nature, can quote Shakespeare with ease; yet, to Amaryllis’ frustration, he seems content to stand and gossip with the ignorant hamlet-folk.

The great strengths of the novel are its truthful representations of rural life and its ability to examine, with penetrating insight, some of the universal problems of human life. Jefferies loves his characters and remains close to them throughout. The closing chapters see a change in mood with the unexpected arrival of two relatives: Alere Flamma, a London artist and engraver, and a sickly youth, Amadis, from somewhere over the hills. As the spring unfolds around the summer-house, Iden, the two visitors and Amaryllis (who mostly listens) talk ceaselessly, about anything, and everything, content just to be there. Simple human companionship in a beautiful garden, with nature living and growing all around them, is raised to the status of an ideal of life. And it’s all possible because Iden had long ago created the garden. His genius and philosophy now come to the fore. He knows how to work with nature to create not only a beautiful garden, but one to live and dream in, a place with potential for healing, and for love (between Amaryllis and Amadis). Even the orchard gate was the work of great care and expense. A practical man he was not: he built for ‘all time’ rather than for the requirements of the moment. For what the book lacks in narrative it more than compensates by its authenticity in portraying human life and its bond with nature. Its pictures are living ones and the strength of its humanity surely makes it one of the most spiritual books ever written.

The following quotations are from chapters 26 and 34.

“The round summer-house was their Parliament House whenever the east winds sank and the flowers shone forth like sunshine; as the sun shines when the clouds withdraw, so when the harsh east winds cease the May flowers immediately bloom and glow.

It was a large round house, properly builded of brick, as a summer-house should be—put not thy faith in lath work—and therefore dry and warm; to sit in it was like sitting in a shell, warm and comfortable, with a sea of meadow-grass, smooth and coloured, stretching in front, islanded about with oak, and elm, and ash.

The finches came to the boughs that hung over the ivy-grown thatch, and sang in the sycamore opposite the door, and in the apple-trees, whose bloom hung down almost to the ground.

These apple-trees, which Iden had planted, flung sackfuls of bloom at his feet. They poured themselves out in abandoned, open-armed, spendthrift, wasteful—perfectly prodigal—quantities of rose-tinted petal; prodigal as a river which flows full to the brim, never questioning but what there will be plenty of water to follow.

Flowers, and trees, and grass, seemed to spring up wherever Iden set down his foot: fruit and flowers fell from the air down upon him. It was his genius to make things grow—like sunshine and shower; a sort of Pan, a half-god of leaves and boughs, and reeds and streams, a sort of Nature in human shape, moving about and sowing Plenty and Beauty.

One side of the summer-house was a thick holly-bush, Iden had set it there; he builded the summer-house and set the ivy; and the pippin at the back, whose bloom was white; the copper-birch near by; the great sycamore alone had been there before him, but he set a seat under it, and got woodbine to flower there; the drooping-ash he planted, and if Amaryllis stood under it when the tree was in full leaf you could not see her, it made so complete an arbour; the Spanish oak in the corner; the box hedge along the ha-ha parapet; the red currants against the red wall; the big peony yonder; the damsons and pear; the yellow honey-bush; all these, and this was but one square, one mosaic of the garden, half of it sward, too, and besides these there was the rhubarb-patch at one corner; fruit, flowers, plants, and herbs, lavender, parsley, which has a very pleasant green, growing in a thick bunch, roses, pale sage—read Boccaccio and the sad story of the leaf of sage—ask Nature if you wish to know how many things more there were.

A place to eat and drink, and think of nothing in, listening to the goldfinches, and watching them carry up the moss, and lichen, and slender fibres for their nest in the fork of the apple; listening to the swallows as they twittered past, or stayed on the sharp, high top of the pear tree; to the vehement starlings, whistling and screeching like Mrs. Iden herself, on the chimneys; chaffinches “chink, chink,” thrushes, distant blackbirds, who like oaks; “cuckoo, cuckoo,” “crake, crake,” buzzing and burring of bees, coo of turtle-doves, now and then a neigh, to remind you that there were horses, fulness and richness of musical sound; a world of grass and leaf, humming like a hive with voices.

When the east wind ceases, and the sun shines above, and the flowers beneath, “a summer’s day in lusty May,” then is the time an Interlude in Heaven.

And all this, summer-house and all, had dropped out of the pocket of Iden’s ragged old coat…

Amaryllis went outside the court, and waited; Amadis rose and followed her. “Come a little way into the Brook-Field,” she said.

They left the apple-bloom behind them, and going down the gravel-path passed the plum trees—the daffodils there were over now—by the strawberry patch which Iden had planted under the parlour window; by the great box-hedge where a thrush sat on her nest undisturbed, though Amaryllis’s dress brushed the branches; by the espalier apple, to the little orchard-gate.

The parlour-window—there are no parlours now, except in old country houses; there were parlours in the days of Queen Anne; in the modern villas they have drawing-rooms.

The parlour-window hung over with pear-tree branches, planted beneath with strawberry; white blossom above, white flower beneath; birds’ nests in the branches of the pear—that was Iden.

They opened the little orchard-gate which pushed heavily against the tall meadow-grass growing between the bars. The path was almost gone—grown out with grass, and as they moved they left a broad trail behind them…

Iden’s flag-basket of tools lay by the gate, it was a new gate, and he had been fitting it before he went in to lunch. His basket was of flag because the substance of the flag is soft, and the tools, chisels, and so on, laid pleasant in it; he must have everything right. The new gate was of solid oak, no “sappy” stuff, real heart of oak, well-seasoned, without a split, fine, close-grained timber, cut on the farm, and kept till it was thoroughly fit, genuine English oak. If you would only consider Iden’s gate you might see there the man.

This gateway was only between two meadows, and the ordinary farmer, when the old gate wore out, would have stopped it with a couple of rails, or a hurdle or two, something very, very cheap and rough; at most a gate knocked up by the village carpenter of ash and willow, at the lowest possible charge.

Iden could not find a carpenter good enough to make his gate in the hamlet; he sent for one ten miles, and paid him full carpenter’s wages. He was not satisfied then, he watched the man at his work to see that the least little detail was done correctly, till the fellow would have left the job, had he not been made pliable by the Goliath ale. So he just stretched the job out as long as he could, and talked and talked with Iden, and stroked him the right way, and drank the ale, and “played it upon me and on William, That day in a way I despise.” Till what with the planing, and shaving, and smoothing, and morticing, and ale, and time, it footed up a pretty bill, enough for three commonplace gates, not of the Iden style.

Why, Iden had put away those pieces of timber years before for this very purpose, and had watched the sawyers saw them out at the pit. They would have made good oak furniture. There was nothing special or particular about this gateway; he had done the same in turn for every gateway on the farm; it was the Iden way.

A splendid gate it was, when it was finished, fit for a nobleman’s Home Park. I doubt, if you would find such a gate, so well proportioned, and made of such material on any great estate in the kingdom. For not even dukes can get an Iden to look after their property. An Iden is not to be “picked up,” I can tell you….

The neighbourhood round about could never understand Iden, never could see why he had gone to such great trouble to render the homestead beautiful with trees, why he had re-planted the orchard with pleasant eating apples in the place of the old cider apples, hard and sour. “Why wouldn’t thaay a’ done for he as well as for we?”

All the acts of Iden seemed to the neighbourhood to be the acts of a “vool.”

When he cut a hedge, for instance, Iden used to have the great bushes that bore unusually fine May bloom saved from the billhook, that they might flower in the spring. So, too, with the crab-apples—for the sake of the white blossom; so, too, with the hazel—for the nuts…

In truth Iden built for all time, and not for the little circumstance of the hour. His gate was meant to last for years, rain and shine, to endure any amount of usage, to be a work of Art in itself…

If only he could have lived three hundred years the greater world would have begun to find out Iden and to idolize him, and make pilgrimages from over sea to Coombe Oaks, to hear him talk, for Iden could talk of the trees and grass, and all that the Earth bears, as if one had conversed face to face with the great god Pan himself.”

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The Meaning of the Stars

by Rebecca Welshman

starry skySource: http://www.fondosdepantalla.biz/images/wallpapers/cielo-estrellado-wallpaper-703669.jpeg

With the cold spell of weather there have been some remarkably good night skies of late. When staying in rural Devon the other week I saw the constellation Orion, and was reminded of how significant the stars were to Jefferies.

In Bevis: the Story of a Boy, the main character – who is a sketch of Jefferies himself – lies down on the garden path of the farmhouse at Coate, to watch the movements of the heavens. From this quiet little spot, beside the strawberry patch, he allows his mind to wander the depths of the night sky:

“He could not, as he reclined on the garden path by the strawberries, physically reach to and feel the oak; but he could feel the oak in his mind, and so from the oak, stepping beyond it, he felt the stars.”

The night sky was a vast space across which his imagination could roam; a route to somewhere beyond the boundaries of everyday life and thought. In The Amateur Poacher – a book that is primarily about the art of poaching, and engagement with the countryside – Jefferies hints at the subtle, more cosmic relationship he experienced with the natural world. This short sentence conjures the potential of outer space to absorb ordinary, everyday cares, and to nurture new, more experiential forms of thought:

“By night the stars shine, and there is no fathoming the dark spaces between those brilliant points, nor the thoughts that come as it were between the fixed stars and landmarks of the mind.”

In a short essay, written in the late 1870s, which Edward Thomas entitled ‘The Dawn’, Jefferies explores how the ‘pale visitor’ of dawn beckons forth the mind to somewhere beyond the ordinary world:

“The pale visitor hints that the stars are not the outside and rim of the universe, any more than the edge of horizon is the circumference of our globe. Beyond the star-stratum, what? Mere boundless space. Mind says certainly not. What then?”

These unresolved questions spurred Jefferies to imagine and record a new system of thought and feeling, which could encourage a more cosmic awareness of our condition on earth – a system that would awaken and sharpen our minds, and engage us spiritually too. In The Old House at Coate – written about the farmhouse where he was born – the house and garden become a solar observatory. Again, he records seeing the stars from the path by the strawberries, but this time he becomes more deeply aware of his position within the cosmos:

“Here was the centre of the world, the sun swung round us; we rode at night straight away into the space of the stars. On a dry summer night, when there was no dew, I used to lie down on my back at full length (looking to the east), on the grass footpath by the orchard, and gaze up into the sky. This is the only way to get at it and feel the stars: while you stand upright, the eye, and through the eye, the mind, is biased by the usual aspect of things: the house there, the trees yonder; it is difficult to forget the mere appearance of rising and setting. Looking straight up like this, from the path to the stars, it was clear and evident that I was really riding among them; they were not above, nor all round, but I was in the midst of them. There was no underneath, no above: everything was on a level with me; the sense of measurement and distance disappeared.

rj stars

As one walks in a wood, with trees all about, so then by day (when the light only hid them) I walked amongst the stars. I had not got then to leave this world to enter space: I was already there. The vision is indeed contracted, nor can we lift our feet further than the earth; yet we are really among these things to-day.” (The Old House at Coate)

There is a sense of movement – a centralising experience in which there is a perfect balance between the physically earth-bound human being and the boundless potential of the wandering, intelligent mind. Space is not somewhere outside or beyond the human condition, but something that we are ‘in the midst’ of, and actively participating in, all the time. To see the stars, as guiding lights in the darkness, gives Jefferies a broader and deeper sense of home and belonging – not just within the environment of the farmhouse, but in the wider Universe too.

Orion had special meaning for Jefferies. In his essay ‘The Mammoth Hunter’, Jefferies declares Orion to be the ‘greatest and grandest of all the constellations…the mighty hunter, the giant who slew the wild beasts by strength.’ He writes that ‘there is no assemblage of stars so brilliant as those which compose the outline of Orion; the Hunter takes the first place in the heavens.’ In Bevis, just to see Orion fills Jefferies with a sudden sense of strength, and renews his purpose of existence:

“Between these two groups of tall trees—so tall and thick that they were generally visible even on dark nights—the streamers of the Aurora Borealis shot up in winter, and between them in summer the faint reflection of the midnight sun, like the lunar dawn which precedes the rising of the moon always appeared. The real day-dawn—the white foot of Aurora—came through the sky-curtain a little to the right of the second group, and about over a young oak in the hedge across the road, opposite the garden wall.

When the few leaves left on this young oak were brown, and rustled in the frosty night, the massy shoulder of Orion came heaving up through it—first one bright star, then another; then the gleaming girdle, and the less definite scabbard; then the great constellation stretched across the east. At the first sight of Orion’s shoulder Bevis always felt suddenly stronger, as if a breath of the mighty hunter’s had come down and entered into him.

orionstarman

Source: http://www.crystalinks.com/orionstarman.jpg

He stood upright; his frame enlarged; his instep lifted him as he walked, as if he too could swing the vast club and chase the lion from his lair. The sparkle of Orion’s stars brought to him a remnant of the immense vigour of the young world, the frosty air braced his sinews, and power came into his arms.”

In the darkness of these January nights maybe we too can be energised and restored by the sparkle of Orion, and carry this feeling with us into the spring. If the power and guiding light of the stars can be embraced and brought into our lives we might discover new strength and resilience within ourselves.

The Blue Doors at the Old House

Rebecca Welshman

round about coate

In The Old House at Coate, a collection of essays published after his lifetime, Jefferies fondly describes the old Wiltshire farmhouse and gardens where he was born. Two large blue doors, set within the enclosing stone wall, formed the main entrance. Jefferies recalls listening to them swing open and shut ‘from dawn to midnight’ with the activity of the mowers, milkers, and village people visiting the farm pump for water. The doors, although a manmade creation crafted by artificial means, have a place in the natural environment. Swallows fly over and under them, and robins and wrens come to the decaying bars looking for insects:

“The tiny brown wrens appear to have their regular rounds, visiting the same spot day after day and always singing on the same perches. One used to sing on the top of these doors, and then passing on, first to the eaves of the cowshed, next to a heap of stones, where he slipped through the interstices, then to some logs piled against the wall, sang again when he reached the woodpile, perched on the topmost faggot.
The eave swallows dropping from their nests under the thatch and gaining impetus from the downward slide seemed as if they must strike the broad doors, but suddenly rising with sleight-of-wing passed over upwards into the buoyant air.”

Pied wagtails would visit the farm through the blue doors too – as Jefferies observes, ‘the whole circuit of the place was open to them, yet they generally entered here.’ Jefferies describes a little stretch of path, just in front of the doors, enclosed by the walls of the farmhouse and cattle sheds, which ‘made a pleasant ambulatory…a kind of hollow way’. In the chill winds of early spring he would walk up and down, feeling, thinking, and observing as the midday sun ‘filled the place with light and warmth’.

In winter, although the profusion of wildlife would be absent, there still remained activity to be observed. When I was in the garden of the farmhouse the other afternoon, standing just behind the flanking wall of the former cattle shed, this passage from The Old House at Coate came to mind:

“In December, walking to and fro the roadway, from the blue doors to the walnut tree at the entrance to the meadow, as the afternoon drew on to four o’clock the sparrows began to come to the thick ivy around the fir tree in the corner of the wall. They came, too, to the ivy about the gable of the low over the window … the mass of leaves sheltered them like a cloak. The wrens went to the hayricks under the eaves of the thatch, to the holes the sparrows had made in the eaves of the sheds. Sometimes, in hard frost, the blackbirds came there, too – they could not find warmth in the hedges – and the sky, as the dusk deepened, was left to the wild fowl.”

coate gardens in progress

Gardens in progress: the old rickyard (the place where hay was once stored) next to the farmhouse. Found hidden amongst a rambling patch of brambles, is what we believe to be one of the original smaller blue doors from the gardens.

Pictured below are some of the Museum Trustees in the area that in Jefferies’ time was the rickyard, and which is in the process of being restored. The layer of turf that once covered the area has been dug away to expose the cobbled floors, and a series of vegetable plots have been constructed.

coate trustees in december

Jefferies saw the Blue Doors as a threshold that contained the farm’s spirit of place, but which also promised to lead to the exciting, unknown world beyond. Today, although the blue doors no longer exist, and have been replaced by wooden gates, the entrance to the farm continues to hold meaning. Jefferies can be considered one of the founders of the modern nature connection movement – he wrote with his senses and mind wide open, with the aim of helping others to experience the treasures of the natural world. Part of our work in taking care of and rejuvenating his birthplace and museum is to preserve its spirit of place – to welcome visitors to partake and enjoy this timeless environment, and to take Jefferies’ message out into the wider world.

coate the hollow wayThe entrance to Coate Farm. Photo by Tony Shaw

http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/richard-jefferies-in-coate-swindon.html

The Sun and the Brook

An Invisible Touch

by Simon Coleman

bed of stream

Some of Jefferies’ most evocative and profound writing can be found in his essays – a format which suited his talent for combining vivid description with a powerful idealism. In the 1880s he developed a more poetic and fluid style, enabling him to create prose pieces that suggested, in a subtle way, a meeting of nature and the human mind. Two such essays, ‘Meadow Thoughts’ and ‘On the Downs’, have been featured in other posts. Another example is ‘The Sun and the Brook’ (The Hills and the Vale), a short essay in which sky and earth, nature and the human senses, the real and the ideal, seem to merge into each other. The brook is the one near his childhood home at Coate and is lovingly remembered, not only as a clear, beautiful stream, but one whose banks and surrounding fields the young Jefferies knew intimately.

“The sun first sees the brook in the meadow where some roach swim under a bulging root of ash. Leaning against the tree, and looking down into the water, there is a picture of the sky. Its brightness hides the sandy floor of the stream as a picture conceals the wall where it hangs, but, as if the water cooled the rays, the eye can bear to gaze on the image of the sun. Over its circle thin threads of summer cloud are drawn; it is only the reflection, yet the sun seems closer seen in the brook, more to do with us, like the grass, and the tree, and the flowing stream. In the sky it is so far, it cannot be approached, nor even gazed at, so that by the very virtue and power of its own brilliance it forces us to ignore, and almost forget it. The summer days go on, and no one notices the sun. The sweet water slipping past the green flags, with every now and then a rushing sound of eager haste, receives the sky, and it becomes a part of the earth and of life. No one can see his own face without a glass; no one can sit down and deliberately think of the soul till it appears a visible thing. It eludes—the mind cannot grasp it. But hold a flower in the hand—a rose, this later honeysuckle, or this the first harebell—and in its beauty you can recognize your own soul reflected as the sun in the brook. For the soul finds itself in beautiful things.”

The scene is in late summer, “the days of the convolvulus, of ripening berry, and dropping nut. In the gateways, ears of wheat hang from the hawthorn boughs, which seized them from the passing load. The broad aftermath is without flowers; the flowers are gone to the uplands and the untilled wastes.” He reminds us of the earlier part of the summer and its “long drama” that proceeded the day described. Restrained emotion has a powerful presence in this essay. Jefferies does not indulge in crude romantic sentiment and metaphor; instead, he maintains the tension between physical nature and the higher aspiration that it seems to symbolize.

“The long, loving touch of the sun has left some of its own mystic attraction in the brook. Resting here, and gazing down into it, thoughts and dreams come flowing as the water flows. Thoughts without words, mobile like the stream, nothing compact that can be grasped and stayed: dreams that slip silently as water slips through the fingers. The grass is not grass alone; the leaves of the ash above are not leaves only. From tree, and earth, and soft air moving, there comes an invisible touch which arranges the senses to its waves as the ripples of the lake set the sand in parallel lines. The grass sways and fans the reposing mind; the leaves sway and stroke it, till it can feel beyond itself and with them, using each grass blade, each leaf, to abstract life from earth and ether. These then become new organs, fresh nerves and veins running afar out into the field, along the winding brook, up through the leaves, bringing a larger existence. The arms of the mind open wide to the broad sky.
Some sense of the meaning of the grass, and leaves of the tree, and sweet waters hovers on the confines of thought, and seems ready to be resolved into definite form. There is a meaning in these things, a meaning in all that exists, and it comes near to declare itself. Not yet, not fully, nor in such shape that it may be formulated—if ever it will be—but sufficiently so to leave, as it were, an unwritten impression that will remain when the glamour is gone, and grass is but grass, and a tree a tree.”

His deep love of a place, of home, of a simple stream in a field, has led us into profound and beautiful possibilities for the imagination. The sun makes the day and Jefferies, as if taking on the role of the sun, has re-made it for us. Perhaps we could see this as a process of ‘imaginative realism’. Nature always appeared as intensely real to Jefferies, a fact that distinguishes him from eastern mysticism which tends to view the physical world as illusory. The complete immersion of Jefferies’ senses and mind in the scene has created a subtle union of man and nature. This was not really the product of one day only; he had wandered the bank of the brook day after day, summer after summer, until the water, leaves and grasses became part of his being. Jefferies was always able to think outside the span of his lifetime. We can be sure that he wanted more people in the future to share such an experience. He writes in ‘Hours of Spring’, near the end of his life, “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.”

Sun-Spots under the Apple Tree at Coate

coatefarm

The works of Richard Jefferies offer some of the best and most consistent examples of connection with nature and place. In 1870, in the garden of the Wiltshire farmhouse where he was born, Jefferies observed some spots on the sun. Writing retrospectively, later in life, Jefferies recalls the experience:

“There was a great sun-spot at that time and every afternoon as the sun sank I used to sit facing the west under the russet apple tree waiting till the thin vapour on the horizon absorbed the glow of light so that I could see it. The great black speck with a smaller one near it became distinct upon the broad red disk, and I watched it till the sun went down …To me it was a wonderful and never-wearying spectacle, evening after evening as I watched it under the low boughs of the russet apple, the great fiery disk slowly dropping beyond the brook and the meadow, beyond the elms on the rise, beyond the distant hills. The green leaves over and the grass under the quiet rush of the brook, the evening song of the birds, the hushing hum of the bees at the hives set just there, I forgot all but these and the sun – by the spot I could touch out almost to it.
For centuries backwards perhaps no one with the naked eye had seen a sun-spot; for centuries to come no one might see them again; so that the moment of my existence in it seemed a link between the illimitable past and future; this moment made more vital, more fierce in its existence by the consciousness the sunspot gave of the long bygone and the endless to be.

Yet then I thought little of it, I did not value it, it was only one of the things I should see – hundreds more wonderful as life went on. It has not been so. I have never seen anything more wonderful than the things I saw then; never felt or thought like I used to in those youthful times. Nothing then was of any value; now if I could only get back those moments they would be to me more precious than gold.”

At the time, the sun spots sparked a series of commentaries in newspapers and magazines concerning their origin. Some believed the theory put forward by Maupertuis that the phenomena were caused by waste floating across the face of the sun. Others supported Lalande’s idea that the formations stood out from the surface but had come from within, and another theory explained them as meteoric stones, which eventually got absorbed by the sun. In his account Jefferies is not concerned with what the spots are, or how they were formed, but rather with the sort of luminous self-awareness that arises through their contemplation. The spot itself is a point of connection between the lone thinker and the magnitude of the wider universe; a mirror to the temporary condition of his life on earth. ‘The moment of [his] existence’ is realised through the enduring presence of the familiar natural surroundings in and beyond his own lifetime – the brook, the orchard, and the generations of wildlife. Jefferies uses language to locate himself – not simply in the environment of the garden, but – within the grander timescale of times past and future. The leaves ‘over’ the water and the grass ‘under’ suggest a microcosmic shape or form of containment, as does his own position ‘under’ the apple tree, near the hives which are ‘set just there’. The intimate experience of place conveys to the reader a deep and timeless sense of belonging, and implicitly suggests the worth of preserving natural beauty for future generations to enjoy.

The garden, with its apple trees and distant hills, still remains as part of the author’s birthplace at Coate on the outskirts of Swindon. It is run by a Trust and is open to the public: http://www.richardjefferies.org/