‘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.”

 

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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.”