PILGRIMAGE IN COUNTRY AND CITY

SIMON COLEMAN

 

Here is a fine passage from Richard Jefferies’ autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’. His economical prose takes us through a variety of scenes, the emotions clear but restrained. Places of pilgrimage in nature were essential to him – places where he could experience beauty and feel connected to the ‘immense forces’ that are the four elements. He alludes to unhappiness but his search for beauty is unceasing. In the heart of London he finds nature to be ‘deepened by the crowds and foot-worn stones’. I find something very inspiring about this perception, and the whole of the last paragraph. I hope others do as well.

 

“Afterwards, I walked almost daily more than two miles along the road to a spot where the hills began, where from the first rise the road could be seen winding southwards over the hills, open and uninclosed. I paused a minute or two by a clump of firs, in whose branches the wind always sighed—there is always a movement of the air on a hill. Southwards the sky was illumined by the sun, southwards the clouds moved across the opening or pass in the amphitheatre, and southwards, though far distant, was the sea. There I could think a moment. These pilgrimages gave me a few sacred minutes daily; the moment seemed holy when the thought or desire came in its full force.

 

A time came when, having to live in a town, these pilgrimages had to be suspended. The wearisome work on which I was engaged would not permit of them. But I used to look now and then, from a window, in the evening at a birch-tree at some distance; its graceful boughs drooped across the glow of the sunset. The thought was not suspended; it lived in me always. A bitterer time still came when it was necessary to be separated from those I loved. There is little indeed in the more immediate suburbs of London to gratify the sense of the beautiful. Yet there was a cedar by which I used to walk up and down, and think the same thoughts as under the great oak in the solitude of the sunlit meadows. In the course of slow time happier circumstances brought us together again, and, though near London, at a spot where there was easy access to meadows and woods. Hills that purify those who walk on them there were not. Still I thought my old thoughts.

 

I was much in London, and, engagements completed, I wandered about in the same way as in the woods of former days. From the stone bridges I looked down on the river; the gritty dust, the straws that lie on the bridges, flew up and whirled round with every gust from the flowing tide; gritty dust that settles in the nostrils and on the lips, the very residuum of all that is repulsive in the greatest city of the world. The noise of the traffic and the constant pressure from the crowds passing, their incessant and disjointed talk, could not distract me. One moment at least I had, a moment when I thought of the push of the great sea forcing the water to flow under the feet of these crowds, the distant sea strong and splendid; when I saw the sunlight gleam on the tidal wavelets; when I felt the wind, and was conscious of the earth, the sea, the sun, the air, the immense forces working on, while the city hummed by the river. Nature was deepened by the crowds and foot-worn stones. If the tide had ebbed, and the masts of the vessels were tilted as the hulls rested on the shelving mud, still even the blackened mud did not prevent me seeing the water as water flowing to the sea. The sea had drawn down, and the wavelets washing the strand here as they hastened were running the faster to it. Eastwards from London Bridge the river raced to the ocean.”

 

The Park in Early Summer

Rebecca Welshman

Tryon, Kate Allen, 1865-1952; Burderop Park, Wiltshire

Painting of Burderop Park by Kate Tryon

This extract is taken from Jefferies’ first book of critical acclaim The Gamekeeper at Home, first published in serial form in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1878. Jefferies befriended the gamekeeper Benny Haylock, of the Burderop Estate near Coate, Swindon, and accompanied him on his rounds. This extract connects with our previous post about the Roman Brook. The skeletons that come to light, and the idea that the tapestry of our environment is thickly interwoven with dead or past states, resonates even more as we step deeper into summer. The brightness of the hawthorn bloom, the lights of the horse chestnut candelabra and the flowering crab apple have emerged out of the season of loss and decay that preceded them. Human conflict has stained the ground, Jefferies says, yet the flowers still bloom.

“In summer from out the leafy chambers of the limes there falls the pleasant sound of bees innumerable, the voice of whose trembling wings lulls the listening ear as the drowsy sunshine weighs the eyelid till I walk the avenue in a dream. It leads out into the park—no formal gravel drive, simply a footpath on the sward between the flowering trees: a path that becomes less and less marked as I advance, and finally fades away, where the limes cease, in the broad level of the opening “greeny field.” These honey-bees seem to fly higher and to exhibit much more activity than the great humble-bee: here in the limes they must be thirty feet above the ground. Wasps also frequently wing their way at a considerable elevation, and thus it is that the hive-bee and the wasp so commonly enter the upper windows of houses. When its load of honey is completed, the bee, too, returns home in a nearly straight line, high enough in the air to pass over hedges and such obstacles without the labour of rising up and sinking again.

The heavy humble-bee is generally seen close to the earth, and often goes down into the depths of the dry ditches, and may there be heard buzzing slowly along under the arch of briar and bramble. He seems to lose his way now and then in the tangled undergrowth of the woods; and if a footstep disturbs and alarms him, it is amusing to see his desperate efforts to free himself hastily from the interlacing grass-blades and ferns.

When the sap is rising, the bark of the smaller shoots of the lime-tree “slips” easily—i.e. it can be peeled in hollow cylinders if judiciously tapped and loosened by gentle blows from the back of a knife. The ploughboys know this, and make whistles out of such branches, as they do also from the willow, and even the sycamore in the season when the sap comes up in its flood-tide.

It is difficult to decide at what time of the year the park is in its glory. The may-flower on the great hawthorn trees in spring may perhaps claim the pre-eminence, filling the soft breeze with exquisite odour. These here are trees, not bushes, standing separate, with thick gnarled stems so polished by the constant rubbing of cattle as almost to shine like varnish. The may-bloom, pure white in its full splendour, takes a dull reddish tinge as it fades, when a sudden shake will bring it down in showers. A flowering tree, I fancy, looks best when apart and not one of a row. In the latter case you can only see two sides and not all round it. Here tall horse-chestnut trees stand single—one great silvery candelabrum of blossom. Wood-pigeons appear to have a liking for this tree. Nor must the humble crab-tree be forgotten; a crab-tree in bloom is a lovely sight.

The idea of a park is associated with peace and pleasure, yet even here there is one spot where the passions of men have left their mark. As previously hinted, the gamekeeper, like most persons with little book-learning and who take their impressions from nature, is somewhat superstitious, and regards this place as “unkid”—i.e. weird, uncanny. One particular green “drive” into the wood opening on the park had always been believed to be a part of a military track used many ages ago, but long since ploughed up for the greater part of its length, and only preserved here by the accident of passing through a wood. At last some labourers grubbing trees near the mouth of the drive came upon a number of human skeletons, close beneath the surface, and in their confused arrangement presenting every sign of hasty interment, as if after battle. Since then the keeper avoids the spot; nor will he, hardy as he is, go near it at night; not even in the summer moonlight, when the night is merely a prolongation of the day.

There is nothing unusual in such a discovery: skeletons are found in all manner of places. I recollect seeing one dug out from the bank of a brook within two feet of the stream. The place was perhaps in the olden time covered with forest (traces of forest are to be found everywhere, as in the names of hamlets), and therefore more concealed than at present. Or, possibly, the stream, in the slow passage of centuries, may have worn its way far from its original bed.

It is strange to think of, yet it is true enough, that, beautiful as the country is, with its green meadows and graceful trees, its streams and forests and peaceful homesteads, it would be difficult to find an acre of ground that has not been stained with blood. A melancholy reflection this, that carries the mind backwards, while the thrush sings on the bough, through the nameless skirmishes of the Civil War, the cruel assassinations of the rival Roses, down to the axes of the Saxons and the ghastly wounds they made. Everywhere under the flowers are the dead.”

horse chestnut tree

hawthorn bloom

‘A ROMAN BROOK’

SIMON COLEMAN

paola dastra brook in the woods

Here is the full text of Jefferies’ subtle and poignant short essay, ‘A Roman Brook’.  This is a work that, for me, opens up creative pathways for thought – pathways into deep questions about life, death, love and time. The brook nourishes both the life of the fields and human life and it seems to wind through time as well as through the fields.  Jefferies explores the highly visual character of his memory which seems to acquire greater importance after he has reminded us that the brook possesses no memories of him.  Throughout there are references to hidden, forgotten or disappearing things.  He observes that nature’s beauty does not exist for human admiration, but for purposes beyond our ideas – a recurring theme in his late works.  The brook, having been associated with so much life, at the end reveals its melancholy secret.  Death, however long concealed, exists side by side with life.

 

The deceptively simple descriptions are coming directly from memory, shaped so as to present us with clear images – memory pictures.  His imagination adds some touches that point to a real depth of perception, such as  “…something that carries the mind home to primitive times”, and “… just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.”  And, typically, his beloved Homeric Greece is not left out.

 

‘A Roman Brook’

 

“The brook has forgotten me, but I have not forgotten the brook. Many faces have been mirrored since in the flowing water, many feet have waded in the sandy shallow. I wonder if any one else can see it in a picture before the eyes as I can, bright, and vivid as trees suddenly shown at night by a great flash of lightning. All the leaves and branches and the birds at roost are visible during the flash. It is barely a second; it seems much longer. Memory, like the lightning, reveals the pictures in the mind. Every curve, and shore, and shallow is as familiar now as when I followed the winding stream so often. When the mowing-grass was at its height, you could not walk far beside the bank; it grew so thick and strong and full of umbelliferous plants as to weary the knees. The life as it were of the meadows seemed to crowd down towards the brook in summer, to reach out and stretch towards the life-giving water. There the buttercups were taller and closer together, nails of gold driven so thickly that the true surface was not visible. Countless rootlets drew up the richness of the earth like miners in the darkness, throwing their petals of yellow ore broadcast above them. With their fulness of leaves the hawthorn bushes grow larger—the trees extend farther—and thus overhung with leaf and branch, and closely set about by grass and plant, the brook disappeared only a little way off, and could not have been known from a mound and hedge. It was lost in the plain of meads—the flowers alone saw its sparkle.

 

Hidden in those bushes and tall grasses, high in the trees and low on the ground, there were the nests of happy birds. In the hawthorns blackbirds and thrushes built, often overhanging the stream, and the fledglings fluttered out into the flowery grass. Down among the stalks of the umbelliferous plants, where the grasses were knotted together, the nettle-creeper concealed her treasure, having selected a hollow by the bank so that the scythe should pass over. Up in the pollard ashes and willows here and there wood-pigeons built. Doves cooed in the little wooded enclosures where the brook curved almost round upon itself. If there was a hollow in the oak a pair of starlings chose it, for there was no advantageous nook that was not seized on. Low beside the willow stoles the sedge-reedlings built; on the ledges of the ditches, full of flags, moor-hens made their nests. After the swallows had coursed long miles over the meads to and fro, they rested on the tops of the ashes and twittered sweetly. Like the flowers and grass, the birds were drawn towards the brook. They built by it, they came to it to drink; in the evening a grasshopper-lark trilled in a hawthorn bush. By night crossing the footbridge a star sometimes shone in the water underfoot. At morn and even the peasant girls came down to dip; their path was worn through the mowing-grass, and there was a flat stone let into the bank as a step to stand on. Though they were poorly habited, without one line of form or tint of colour that could please the eye, there is something in dipping water that is Greek—Homeric—something that carries the mind home to primitive times. Always the little children came with them; they too loved the brook like the grass and birds. They wanted to see the fishes dart away and hide in the green flags: they flung daisies and buttercups into the stream to float and catch awhile at the flags, and float again and pass away, like the friends of our boyhood, out of sight. Where there was pasture roan cattle came to drink, and horses, restless horses, stood for hours by the edge under the shade of ash trees. With what joy the spaniel plunged in, straight from the bank out among the flags—you could mark his course by seeing their tips bend as he brushed them swimming. All life loved the brook.

 

Far down away from roads and hamlets there was a small orchard on the very bank of the stream, and just before the grass grew too high to walk through I looked in the enclosure to speak to its owner. He was busy with his spade at a strip of garden, and grumbled that the hares would not let it alone, with all that stretch of grass to feed on. Nor would the rooks; and the moor-hens ran over it, and the water-rats burrowed; the wood-pigeons would have the peas, and there was no rest from them all. While he talked and talked, far from the object in hand, as aged people will, I thought how the apple tree in blossom before us cared little enough who saw its glory. The branches were in bloom everywhere, at the top as well as at the side; at the top where no one could see them but the swallows. They did not grow for human admiration: that was not their purpose; that is our affair only—we bring the thought to the tree. On a short branch low down the trunk there hung the weather-beaten and broken handle of an earthenware vessel; the old man said it was a jug, one of the old folks’ jugs—he often dug them up. Some were cracked, some nearly perfect; lots of them had been thrown out to mend the lane. There were some chips among the heap of weeds yonder. These fragments were the remains of Anglo-Roman pottery. Coins had been found—half a gallon of them—the children had had most. He took one from his pocket, dug up that morning; they were of no value, they would not ring. The labourers tried to get some ale for them, but could not; no one would take the little brass things. That was all he knew of the Caesars: the apples were in fine bloom now, weren’t they?

 

Fifteen centuries before there had been a Roman station at the spot where the lane crossed the brook. There the centurions rested their troops after their weary march across the downs, for the lane, now bramble-grown and full of ruts, was then a Roman road. There were villas, and baths, and fortifications; these things you may read about in books. They are lost now in the hedges, under the flowering grass, in the ash copses, all forgotten in the lane, and along the footpath where the June roses will bloom after the apple blossom has dropped. But just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.

 

The old man, seeing my interest in the fragments of pottery, wished to show me something of a different kind lately discovered. He led me to a spot where the brook was deep, and had somewhat undermined the edge. A horse trying to drink there had pushed a quantity of earth into the stream, and exposed a human skeleton lying within a few inches of the water. Then I looked up the stream and remembered the buttercups and tall grasses, the flowers that crowded down to the edge; I remembered the nests, and the dove cooing; the girls that came down to dip, the children that cast their flowers to float away. The wind blew the loose apple bloom and it fell in showers of painted snow. Sweetly the greenfinches were calling in the trees: afar the voice of the cuckoo came over the oaks. By the side of the living water, the water that all things rejoiced in, near to its gentle sound, and the sparkle of sunshine on it, had lain this sorrowful thing.”

 

A Leafy November, 1879

Rebecca Welshman

Jefferies wrote this article for the Pall Mall Gazette in November 1879. It is based on observations made in his outdoor diary while he was living at Surbiton. The Jefferies family was renting 2 Woodside Terrace, on Ewell Road, which was in Tolworth in the Parish of Long Ditton. The front of the house faced in the direction of Tolworth Common and Richmond Park, and the back looked out in the direction of Hook, Claygate and Chessington.

mg_1369

Image of Richmond Park posted by Nicola Albon (http://sliceoflondonlife.com/wildlife-deer-rut-richmond-park/)

“The poplars alone at the opening of the month were bare of leaves. These tall trees, lifting their slender tops so high above the rest, contrasted the more in their leafless state with the thick foliage of the wood beneath them. Rows of elms in the hedges were still green, and of those that did show a yellow tint many upon examination could be seen to be decaying in the trunk or branches. That part of an elm which is slowly dying usually turns yellow first. On some of the oaks the inner leaves were still greenish, while those on the outer boughs were brown, and the mingling of the two tints seen at a little distance under the sunshine produced a remarkable and pleasing colour. Other oak-trees had assumed so red a brown as to approach to copper colour. The ash standing in the same hedge was a tender green with the faintest undertone of yellow, and the lowly elder bushes were not less green than at midsummer. Between the dark Scotch firs the foliage of the beeches seemed a warm red. The branches of the larch had a fluffy appearance, caused by the yellow needles which had partly separated but had not yet fallen. Horse-chestnuts even yet retained some leaves; of those that had dropped a few were half yellow and half green, the hues divided by the midrib. Birches, too, except just at the corners of the copses or in isolated positions, were not yet bare.

 

Under the Spanish chestnuts heaps of leaves had collected, in walking through which the foot often exposed the dropped fruit hidden beneath them; but though so many had fallen the branches were not entirely denuded ; while whole hedgerows full of maple bushes glowed with orange. The sun shone brilliantly day after day, lighting up the varied hues of the trees and hedges and filling the wood­lands with beauty. In proportion to the length of the day there was probably more visible sunshine in the early part of November than in July. A dry atmosphere made the roads white, and the least puff of wind raised the dust as in March. In the evenings, immediately after the sun sank, the western sky often exhibited a delicate greenish tint, while the detached floating clouds were rosy: these colours, however, were very fleeting—they lasted but a few minutes.

 

The dry air could hardly be said to blow, but drifted, as it were, from the north-east—so slowly that unless you faced it the current was not noticed; and it scarcely caused a falling leaf to slant aside in its descent. But this northern current silenced the thrushes, despite the sunshine, and made the nights sometimes bitterly cold. Here in the south, the first fieldfares were noticed on the 24th of October, when a few passed over at some height: but during the first week or ten days of November scarcely a fieldfare or redwing appeared, and those seen were journeying on. The absence of these birds was very marked. On the afternoon of the 9th inst. the sweet notes of the thrush were heard again—a sure sign of changing weather. Next morning it was milder and cloudy, with slight rain, and the thrushes sang in every hedge. The leaves that had adhered so long, now, under the rise of temperature, fell fast and continuously, dropping quietly all day long, even when sheltered from wind. Soon, however, the breezes became colder; the song of the thrushes ceased and frost followed. A water-rat was seen on the 14th diving in the brook; he probably did not anticipate so sudden a winter. Next morning the ponds were all frozen fast with ice half-an-inch thick, in which myriads of leaves that had been floating were embedded. For fifty or sixty yards one great hedgerow resounded with the ceaseless chirping of innumer­able sparrows perched on every bough. Their feeding-grounds, the stubbles, were iron-bound, affording them no food. The peewits scarcely kept out of gunshot, so tamed or rendered desperate by the cold, and instead of feeding in a flock were scattered in twos and threes over twenty acres.

 

In the hedges the fieldfares and redwings were now plentiful: so short a time had brought them about. It is not often that birds are so quickly affected by frost as on this occasion— a single night seemed to have numbed them. The white rime remained fringing the green branches of the spruce firs all day; the fields too, were hoar; and it was perfectly still as usual in a great frost. Yet the sun shone, and where the pond had been broken for the horses to drink, splinters of ice standing on edge reflected the golden splendour. At night a yet sharper frost settled on the earth: but on the morning of the 16th though the grass was white, the thrushes sang in chorus, and immediately afterwards rain fell. The rime disappeared and the frost went as rapidly as it came. Its effects upon the foliage were then visible. Under the ashes the grass was concealed by the leaves shrivelled to a black brown, from which arose a slightly astringent odour. Where maple bushes projected over the bare earth of ploughed fields there was an orange semi-circle upon the clods caused by the tinted leaves that had dropped. Horse-chestnuts and birches were now quite bare: but not so the elms and oaks. The elms were yellow, but still thick with leaves; some of the oaks had even yet a tint of green. On the morning of the 20th it began to snow, and the rows of yellowish elms formed a strange background to the storm. The blast drove before it snow-flakes, brown leaves, and twirling ‘keys’ torn from the trees. With short intervals the snow continued all day, whitening the fields and that side of the trees towards the wind. The bramble-bushes, thick with green leaves, upheld masses of snow: so green and flourishing are the brambles that not a crimson leaf is yet to be found upon them. Snow fell again on the 21st and 22nd and the fields continued covered.

 

There was a severe frost on the morning of the 23rd. As the morning advanced the sun shone out in an almost cloudless sky, and the yellowish green elms and the brown oaks seemed brought into strong relief by the dazzling white of the fields. And over the broad white meadows the shadows of these trees were thrown sharp and clear—a lovely sight not often seen. Thus, with bright sunshine at one time and snow at another, with sharp frosts, leafy woods, and singing thrushes, November has presented the most marked contrasts.”

 

 

OUR ONLY EARTH: AN INDIAN PERSPECTIVE

Simon Coleman

1-bluemarble_west

Image source: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/1-bluemarble_west.jpg

 

I recently came by chance upon a booklet of lectures by Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India in the 1960s and 1970s (her career continued into the 1980s).  I was particularly struck by her embracing of the earth as one community, with an outlook on humanity that was not merely international, but was in some sense ‘universal’.  The excerpts below from a 1972 lecture contain a powerful ecological message but Gandhi still welcomes technological advance to improve living standards, especially in poorer nations.  She wants to see technology and protection of Nature progress together, but for this to happen a higher level of thinking is required.  She also touches on Indian spirituality, emphasizing the rationality within that tradition rather than its more mystical elements that have often attracted western spiritual seekers.

 

Of course, we have to remember that this was delivered in 1972 when many of these ideas were relatively new.  But imagine a western leader ever delivering a lecture like this!  I’m posting it because I feel that the values and hopes it expresses are close to those found in some of Richard Jefferies’ humanistic and ecologically aware writings.

 

“I have the good fortune of growing up with a sense of kinship with Nature in all its manifestations.  Birds, plants and stones were companions and, sleeping under the star-strewn sky, I became familiar with the names and movements of the constellations.  But my deep interest in this our only earth was not for itself but as a fit home for man.

 

One cannot be truly human and civilized unless one looks upon not only all fellow men but all creation with the eyes of a friend.  Throughout India, edicts carved on rocks and pillars are reminders that twenty-two centuries ago the Emperor Asoka defined a king’s duty as not merely to protect citizens and punish wrong-doers but also to preserve animal life and forest trees…

 

Along with the rest of mankind, we in India – in spite of Asoka – have been guilty of wanton disregard for the sources of our sustenance.  We share your concern at the rapid deterioration of flora and fauna.  Some of our own wild life has been wiped out.  Vast areas of forest with beautiful old trees, mute witnesses of history, have been destroyed…

 

It is sad that in country after country, progress should become synonymous with an assault on Nature.  We, who are a part of Nature, and dependent on her for every need, speak constantly about exploiting Nature.  When the highest mountain in the world was climbed in 1953, Jawarharlal Nehru objected to the phrase ‘conquest of Everest’ which he thought was arrogant.  Is it surprising that this lack of consideration and the constant need to prove one’s superiority should be projected onto our treatment of our fellow men?…

 

Must there be conflict between technology and a truly better world or between enlightenment of the spirit and a higher standard of living?  Foreigners sometimes ask what to us seems a very strange question, whether progress in India would not mean a diminishing of her spirituality or her values.  Is spiritual quality so superficial as to be dependent upon the lack of material comfort?  As a country we are no more or less spiritual than any other but traditionally our people have respected the spirit of detachment and renunciation.  Historically, our great spiritual discoveries were made during periods of comparative affluence.  The doctrines of detachment from possessions were developed not as rationalization of deprivation but to prevent comfort and ease from dulling the senses.  Spirituality means the enrichment of the spirit, the strengthening of one’s inner resources and the stretching of one’s range of experience.  It is the ability to be still in the midst of activity and vibrantly alive in moments of calm; to separate the essence from circumstances; to accept joy and sorrow with some equanimity.  Perception and compassion are the marks of true spirituality…

 

The feeling is growing that we should reorder our priorities and move away from the single-dimensional model which has viewed growth from certain limited angles, which seems to have given a higher place to things rather than persons and which has increased our wants rather than our enjoyment.  We should have a more comprehensive approach to life, centred on man not as a statistic but as an individual with many sides to his personality…

 

Thus the higher standard of living must be achieved without alienating people from their heritage and without despoiling Nature of its beauty, freshness and purity so essential to our lives…

 

We want new directions in the wiser use of the knowledge and tools with which science has equipped us.  And this cannot be just one upsurge but a continuous search into cause and effect, an unending effort to match technology with higher levels of thinking.  We must concern ourselves not only with the kind of world we want but also with what kind of man should inhabit it.  We want thinking people, capable of spontaneous, self-directed activity…who are imbued with compassion and concern for others…

 

It has been my experience that people who are at cross purposes with Nature are cynical about mankind and ill at ease with themselves.  Modern man must re-establish an unbroken link with Nature and with life.  He must again learn to invoke the energy of growing things and to recognise, as did the ancients in India centuries ago, that one can take from the earth and the atmosphere only so much as one puts back into them.  In their Hymn to Earth, the sages of the Atharva Veda chanted:

 

                “What of thee I dig out, let that quickly grow over,

            Let me not hit thy vitals, or the heart.”

 

So can man himself be vital and of good heart and conscious of his responsibility.”