Walter Murray: An Unacknowledged English Nature Mystic

A guest post by Tom Wareham

Walter murray034

Walter Murray: Nature Writer

It would be difficult for anyone who loves the writing of Richard Jefferies to have missed the recent boom in Nature writing in the UK. Following the path of Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin, we have benefitted from the work of some brilliant and thought-provoking writers, like Robert Macfarlane, Rob Cowen and Michael McCarthy – to name just a few. All of these express a growing concern about both the threat to Nature and our relationship with it. Richard Jefferies, of course, ranks as one of the great pioneers in exploring this latter point, and his work continues to inspire new writers. But in the earlier 20th century there were others, often unacknowledged. One of these was Walter J C Murray. If you have come across Murray it is most likely to be because of his book Copsford, first published in 1948. It is his most memorable work and was republished several times, the last being in 1986, the year after his death. But it was not his only work, and a study of all his books reveals how much Murray was a Nature Mystic like Jefferies.

Walter Murray was born in Seaford in East Sussex in 1900. His father was a clergyman and school master: (typically we know nothing of his mother). Murray appears to have served in the merchant navy at the end of WW1, and then made his way to London to try and earn a living as a journalist. He found little enthusiasm for the sort of hack-work he was given, recalling : “…my heart was not in it. I was of the country. I could not dip my pen in the life-blood of the city streets. I needed the very song of the shadow-dappled brook to write, with the sound of wild wings in my ears and the scent of wild flowers in my nostrils.”

Part of the problem was that he also loathed the environment of the big city. In particular he hated his bed-sit in Pimlico, “that third-floor-back with its tiny gas fire, its naked electric light and its distressing view.” A few pages later he again remembered that “appalling view of roofs and chimneys and slum yards.” Desperate to escape, he fled from London and sought sanctuary in a derelict and isolated cottage in the Sussex countryside. His description of his first visit to his prospective new home, gives us a clear indication of his intentions: “There was rain in the wind now, and the sky was as grey and sad as ever, yet there was something magical in this lonely countryside with its rough pastures, its unkempt hedges, snowy with ragged blackthorn, its woodlands hazy green, its winding brooks…..As I looked at the view from the top of the hill I thought of summer days. Through the grey curtains of rain that were now drawing across the wooded landscape I saw in imagination, summer blue, when all the shimmering countryside would be at my very door…I saw the possibility of doing what it had often been my great desire to do, to live alone and at one with Nature.

For the following year Murray lived in relative seclusion and isolation, spending his time by writing and collecting herbs for dispatch to London. In some ways, he seems to have replicated the experience of Thoreau a century earlier, observing at one stage “…simplification is, I believe, what millions are a-seeking, particularly in the appreciation of life and beauty.” Certainly over the course of the year Murray drew closer and closer to Nature. This observation, for example, was inspired early on a June morning: “It sometimes happens, at rare moments in our lives, we are suddenly aware of an altogether new world, different completely from that in which we commonly live. We feel as though we stand at the threshold of an undiscovered kingdom; for brief moments we understand life interpreted, we perceive meaning instead of things. In those golden minutes I understood every word on a single page of the magic book of life inscribed in a language neither written nor spoken. There was sublime tranquillity in the level white mists of the valley, a symphony like the ascending melodies of Greig in the sun rays that climbed aslant the hill, a quiet strength in the stillness of the trees, a brotherhood of life in all living things. I was no longer a single life pushing a difficult way amidst material things, I was part of all creation…It was a baptism into a saner way of living and thinking. The soreness of the slave-collar was salved. It was an outward and visible sign of my inward awareness of at-one-ment.”

Readers of The Story of My Heart will recognise what Murray is referring to here. But Murray also records a change in his relationship with Nature during the course of the year. At one point he describes his search for the herb centaury: “The search for it… sent me far and wide through deep woods and forest rides, into flowery clearings and bracken-clothed commons. I was no longer a fellow of the open lanes and hedgerows, I became a denizen of the woods. I travelled by spinney and copse, through shaw and forgotten corduroy, at first because there I expected to find my herbs, but later because I became secretive and shy. Living so close to the wild, almost instinctively I copied creatures of the wild. I travelled swiftly, silently and unseen. I learned woodland behaviour, I heard woodland sounds.” And in a most telling comment he refers to himself as a ‘Green Man’, signifying consciously or unconsciously, a mystical connection with the mythical being of the medieval period.

He also describes the transformation or transcendence that overtook him. : “…at Copsford there were seasons when time almost stood still, and I too learnt to be still. At first I was restless, miserable, a gnawing discontent tried to eat my heart out, and if I had not been blessed with an inborn love of the countryside it would have succeeded. But I slowly learned to stand and stare. The leaven was working. I not only stood and not only stared, but I began to see. I saw lovely things and rare things…saw the play of light across meadow and wood, saw a shaft of sunlight fill a spring-green copse till it glowed as though the glory of the Light of the World dwelled within. I caught an occasional glimpse of the intricate and complex pattern of life, and once or twice, as fleeting as the rainbow-flash from a trembling dewdrop, I perceived that all these things were but the external signs of a kingdom such as I had never dreamed of; that these colours were as a drop-curtain which, while it might never rise to disclose the stage within, grew transparent before my wondering eyes.

Murray had been permitted entry to the kingdom of Nature. But after a year he was driven out of the cottage by persistent and torrential rain. He had overcome loneliness, depression and the deep snow of a freezing winter, but the derelict state of the cottage offered no protection from penetrating rain, and the year at Copsford came to a soggy end. Not that Murray was depressed about the outcome. On the contrary Murray, who kept extensive notes throughout the year, was noticeably up-beat about the whole experience, and later found that it had a major influence over the rest of his life. In one of his later books he noted of Copsford: ‘Far from forgetting that freedom of meadow and marsh which I had enjoyed I was frequently almost overpowered by a desire to return to it. I longed for the smell of crushed mint in my nostrils, for the hum of insects and the song of birds in my ears, for the close contact with nature that I had experienced. Instead I had to be content with the briefest visits to the woods and streams, with the shortest of holidays among the hills, and from this occasional communion to renew health and strength and try to satisfy my heart.’

Many readers of Copsford are themselves captivated and haunted by the book. It is not just that Murray recreates for us an experience of drawing close to Nature for which we yearn, it is also the fact that he does not have to go to a distant ‘wilderness’ to achieve it. One of the great charms of Copsford is that it presents the ability to find solitude, beauty and a deep communion with nature much nearer at hand, in the English countryside. It is a book with a small but devoted following.

If we were to have to rely solely on Copsford as evidence for Murray’s Nature Mysticism, we might be on weak ground. Fortunately, as I suggested earlier, although Murray was not a prolific writer, this was not his only published work, nor was it his first. By the late 1930s, Murray had already become established as a broadcaster on the BBC Home Service, giving a range of talks on the natural world. At some point he met and began working with L Hugh Newman, (a renowned lepidopterist) and also Peter Scott. In 1944, he submitted the manuscript of his first book to the publishers Allen and Unwin. The book was later titled Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom, and it consisted of thirteen essays about wildlife and habitat. Almost the first comment made by the reader appointed by Allen & Unwin to evaluate the manuscript, was that it reminded him of the work of Richard Jefferies. This is not surprising, for the work contains many observations about communion with Nature which would have been recognised by Jefferies. For example, this observation on seeing a mountain beck after heavy rain: On seeing a mountain beck after heavy rain: “It was a living thing. The sun shone, and the water leapt into the mountain air a-sparkle of foam and spray…I was translated. It was the river of life, water, the superlative allegory; in the cloud, the raindrop, in the beck, the lake, in the ocean, in a myriad forms yet all one. Life in the heather, in the fish, the bird, in the lamb, in man, in a myriad forms, yet all one, one and the same with the source of all life.
        But I knew more than that in that ecstatic hour. The water and the life are one. No thing, animate or inanimate, can exist outside the mind of the Creator. I could enter into the waterfall, even as the tumbling water swept through me, not in prosaic fact, but in spirit and in truth. The breast of the mountain quivers, the spray blows in my face, the foam washes my feet; I shout aloud for pure joy.

View from E towards Copsford Hill, cottage to left of trees in centre - Copy (2)

View towards Copsford Hill

But Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom was not just a book of nature observation, it was an appeal for reconnection with Nature itself. “All that I have written in this little book goes to show that every one of us, at almost any time, in almost any place can with a little trying, a little quiet contemplation, find kinship with all creation, maybe in the garden, or in the wood, on the moor, by the waterfall, among the mountains. But…most of us are blunted to that fuller understanding of nature; and perhaps only by such simple experience as that of watching birds from a hide, shall we discover a kingdom, and learn the first words of its language.

Furthermore, anticipating a very modern concern, Murray was also calling for a change of attitude. In the introduction to the book he stated clearly, “Man lives his own life, goes his own way, and sees well-nigh nothing of the teeming life around him, and, when he does, only in relation to himself. Man has striven against the life of the wild so long that he no longer understands its expression, like an old man who no longer understands the life of little children.
The world of wild life is like the world of music, full of haunting melodies and rich harmonies, charged with messages for the spirit; yet to a man, to whose ear music means nothing, a symphony is no more than a noise, meaningless and interfering. In like manner the world of wild life has become meaningless, without melody or harmony. Man has been so long wrestling with nature that he has quite forgotten that Life is common to all living things, and that he plays but his part in expressing it.
       Man is so concerned over his own affairs, that he can only see other expressions of life in the light of and in relation to, his own. He fails to see that all the other expressions of life around him have a way of life wholly different from his. Yet he puts his constructions, his ideals, his sentiments, his conjectures, his fancies, as interpretations of their behaviour. But he is so often mistaken that the inner understanding of wild life is hidden from him.

Two years after the publication of Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom, Allen & Unwin also published Copsford. The latter received mixed reviews but was snapped up by the Readers Union as its book choice for 1950, which considerably boosted its sales and readership. In 1953 Murray’s third book, A Sanctuary Planted, was published. The book recounts the creation of a wildlife sanctuary during the dark years of World War II. The sanctuary was intended to emphasise life and renewal at a time of so much death and destruction; but it was also an appeal. Anticipating a very current concern, Murray opined – ‘The countryside is continually being invaded by the town and the townsman. Thousands of acres a year are overlaid with city and town, suburb and prefab., roads and railways, bungalow and amusement park. Unique habitats are destroyed, common and forest razed to the ground, and the living space of wild things for ever compressed. We must reserve. We must secure sanctuaries, no matter how small. They will be oases in the desert, and to them living things will come for life’s sake.’ It could almost be the inspiration for the RSPB’s ‘Giving Nature a Home’ campaign.

A Sanctuary Planted is in many ways a less satisfactory book than the other two, but it is still valuable as a source for Murray’s philosophical ideas, which tend to be inserted into the narrative with the minimum of fuss. In fact, Murray was never strident about his thoughts, and the reader has to pick carefully through all of his works to tease this out.

In the early 1950s, Murray produced three more books, co-written with L Hugh Newman. Unfortunately, these are less valuable, as a source for Murray’s mysticism since it is almost impossible to identify his contributions. In a rather sad twist of fate, Allen & Unwin rejected all of Murray’s later works and only Romney Marsh – a whimsical guide cum travelogue – was published in 1953, by Hale.

The paucity of Murray’s work, however, should not detract from the fact that he was both an excellent and respected naturalist, and an important Nature Mystic who deserves to be better recognised.

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Tom Wareham is currently researching the life and work of Walter Murray and would be pleased to hear from anyone in that connection. He can be contacted through his website http://www.tomwareham.com

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THE RED DEER OF EXMOOR

Simon Coleman

Red_Deer_Stag

Source: http://www.everythingexmoor.org.uk/uploads/image_store/images2/Red_Deer_Stag.jpg

(This post is adapted from a page on a website I created. The site was closed but parts of it were transferred to the Richard Jefferies Society web pages. The text below was included and can still be found on the Society website.)

In June 1882 Jefferies visited Exmoor, a vast expanse of high moorland intersected by deep wooded coombes covering part of West Somerset and North Devon. The resulting book, Red Deer, was a natural history of the moorland red deer and a detailed account of the methods of hunting them. The book concentrates on the Somerset sector of Exmoor which includes the heartland of deer hunting – the dramatic landscape around Dunkery Beacon and Horner which falls away to the Bristol Channel at Porlock. It is not difficult for Jefferies to celebrate the magnificent red deer stag, the ‘monarch’ of the dense forests and wild moorland.

From Chapter 3:

“In June the deer spend the whole of the day in the covers out of the heat. At this time they are more shy than at any other, both stags and hinds retiring out of sight. The stags’ antlers are as yet only partially grown, and while these weapons are soft and tender they conceal themselves. The hinds have their calves only recently dropped, or are about to calve, and consequently keep in the thickest woods.

One might walk across the entire width of the North Forest, and not see a single deer, and yet be in the midst of them; and so it is common for fishermen to whip for trout day after day for weeks together along streams which wind through favourite covers without obtaining a glimpse of deer. Wild and shy, they are lost in the foliage of their woods, and are only to be found with much labour and in certain particular places…

There are none visible to-day on this side of the Ball, so I walk round the mount, passing a very large mountain-ash in flower; a branch has been broken from it, but it is still a fine tree.* The mountain-ash grows freely on the hillsides wherever a tree can take root. A sound which I thought I heard just now rises and becomes distinctly audible; it is the rush of swift water, and comes up through the oaks from the hollow of the giant fosse. The name of the stream is Horner Water, flowing by Horner wood along the bottom of the deep trench. A wind draws across the summit of the Ball, bending the brake stems and stirring the mountain-ash. It is pleasant in the shade to feel the cool air and listen to the water far below…

Suddenly, as I looked once more, I caught sight of a red mark in the midst of an acre of brake surrounded by oak. I was sure it was a stag instantly by the bright colour, by the position, and yet if questioned I could not have positively asserted that I had any reason for my opinion at all. Certainty does not always depend upon proofs that can be explained. A secret judgement exists in the mind and acts on perceptions too delicate to be registered. I was certain it was a stag, and the glass at once confirmed my eyes.

He was standing in the fern beside a bush, with his head down as if feeding. The great oak woods were about him, above and below, and the sunlight fell on the golden red of his coat. A whistle – the sound was a moment or two reaching him – made him lift his head, and the upright carriage of the neck proved again that it was a stag and not a hind. His antlers had not yet risen as high as his ears…

He moved easily along the steep slope where even hounds sometimes find a difficulty in following.”

*Cloutsham Ball is a hill below Dunkery Beacon.

From Chapter 4:

“There is no more beautiful creature than a stag in his pride of antler, his coat of ruddy gold, his grace of form and motion. He seems the natural owner of the ferny coombes, the oak woods, the broad slopes of heather. They belong to him, and he steps upon the sward in lordly mastership. The land is his, and the hills, the sweet streams and rocky glens. He is infinitely more natural than the cattle and sheep that have strayed into his domains. For some inexplicable reason, although they too are in reality natural, when he is present they look as if they had been put there and were kept there by artificial means. They do not, as painters say, shade in with the colours and shape of the landscape. He is as natural as an oak, or a fern, or a rock itself. He is earth-born – autochthon – and holds possession by descent. Utterly scorning control, the walls and hedges are nothing to him – he roams where he chooses, as fancy leads, and gathers the food that pleases him.

Pillaging the crops and claiming his dues from the orchards and gardens, he exercises his ancient feudal rights, indifferent to the laws of house-people. Disturb him in his wild stronghold of oak wood or heather, and, as he yields to force, still he stops and looks back proudly. He is slain, but never conquered. He will not cross with the tame park deer; proud as a Spanish noble, he disdains the fallow deer, and breeds only with his own race. But it is chiefly because of his singular adaptation and fitness to the places where he is found that he obtains our sympathy.

The branching antlers accord so well with the deep shadowy boughs and the broad fronds of the brake; the golden red of his coat fits to the foxglove, the purple heather, and later on to the orange and red of the beech; his easy bounding motion springs from the elastic sward; his limbs climb the steep hill as if it were level; his speed covers the distances, and he goes from place to place as the wind. He not only lives in the wild, wild woods and moors – he grows out of them, as the oak grows from the ground. The noble stag in his pride of antler is lord and monarch of all the creatures left to us in English forests and on English hills.”

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.”

WILD THYME OF THE HILLS

wildmountainthyme1

Source: http://www.sunlandherbs.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/wildmountainthyme1.jpg

by Simon Coleman

The wonder of the flowers of the fields, hedges and hills was never absent from Jefferies’ world of thought and feeling.  He writes in ‘Locality and Nature’: “To anyone who takes a delight in wild flowers some spot or other of the earth is always becoming consecrated.”  As a boy he would gather flowers from the meadows when the grass was being cut.

 

“I used to stand by the mower and follow the scythe sweeping down thousands of the broad-flowered daisies, the knotted knapweeds, the blue scabious, the yellow rattles, sweeping so close and true that nothing escaped; and, yet although I had seen so many hundreds of each, although I had lifted armfuls day after day, still they were fresh. They never lost their newness, and even now each time I gather a wild flower it feels a new thing.”

 

On the chalk hills of Wiltshire and Sussex, Jefferies found an abundance of thyme, the purplish-pink flower, loved by the bees, to which he refers so often.  On Wolstanbury Hill in Sussex,

“…you may lie on the grassy rampart, high up in the most delicate air – Grecian air, pellucid – alone, among the butterflies and humming bees at the thyme…”

 

He would often rest at places where the thyme grew thickly, inhaling its ‘delicious odour’.   On Beachy Head he found “turf thus washed by wind and rain, sun-dried and dew-scented, is a couch prepared with thyme to rest on.” This connection between thyme and repose is a recurring theme in his writing.  In his rural novel, Green Fern Farm, for example, Geoffrey’s “weary head drooped on the pillow of thyme; with a deep-drawn sigh he slept.”

The hills themselves he could describe as ‘thyme-scented’. They were a wilder, more open and less populated district than the farmlands around Coate where he grew up.  Breezes were forever washing over them, as pure as the scent of the thyme.  The hills were in some sense an ‘other’, more primitive world, bare of trees, littered with prehistoric entrenchments and barrows which awoke the imagination to the passage of great cycles of time.  They were ever fresh and charged with life-giving powers.  The colours of flowers and grasses stood out with superb clarity on the chalky slopes.  Jefferies found another type of beauty on the hills, and the thyme was interwoven into his feelings and experiences there.  It might even have expressed for him something of the ‘unseen presence’ that dwelt among these gently curving uplands.

His unquenchable desire for such beauty could take the form of a silent ‘prayer’.  We are not talking about a god here: he denied the existence of deity, believing it to be a tiny idea.  This prayer was his life-desire, his passion for the fullest existence, here on earth.  He describes it in The Story of My Heart, in impassioned prose-poetry:

“…I prayed by the sweet thyme, whose little flowers I touched with my hand; by the slender grass; by the crumble of dry chalky earth I took up and let fall through my fingers. Touching the crumble of earth, the blade of grass, the thyme flower, breathing the earth-encircling air, thinking of the sea and the sky, holding out my hand for the sunbeams to touch it, prone on the sward in token of deep reverence, thus I prayed that I might touch to the unutterable existence infinitely higher than deity.”

 

The focus of this experience was Liddington Hill at the northern edge of the Wiltshire downs.   He refers to his ‘hill-prayer’ in his notebooks and it is clear that the chalk downs, the land of the wild thyme, was where this rapture came upon him with the greatest intensity.  In Jefferies’ children’s novel, Wood Magic, “Bevis gathered the harebell, and ran with the flower in his hand down the hill, and as he ran the wild thyme kissed his feet and said: ‘Come again, Bevis, come again’ “. The thyme, while remaining a simple flower, became a symbol which helped him to shape his desire, his hill-prayer, into something almost tangible.  Only through touch could he gather its deepest beauty and significance.

Some years after his wanderings on the downs around Liddington, Jefferies, now living in suburban Surrey, visited the famous botanical gardens at Kew.  At length he came upon some thyme:

“This bunch of wild thyme once again calls up a vision of the Downs; it is not so thick and strong, and it lacks that cushion of herbage which so often marks the site of its growth on the noble slopes of the hills, and along the sward-grown fosse of ancient earthworks, but it is wild thyme, and that is enough.”

The Mowers at Harvest Time

Simon Coleman

mowers

When Richard Jefferies was writing in the 1870s and 1880s, British agriculture was experiencing immense upheaval and profound change.  The effects of the depression were far reaching, while increasing mechanisation and the rise of farm ‘businesses’ challenged the old-style practices.  But many traditional methods were still very much in evidence, such as grass-cutting by teams of mowers armed with scythes.  For the typical Wiltshire dairy farmer, the working practices of these teams could be a major headache during the haymaking time.  In this passage from The Toilers of the Field, we get a good insight into the mayhem that the mowers were capable of causing.

“The nuisance of mowers must be gone through to be appreciated. They come and work very well for the first week. They slash down acre after acre, and stick to it almost day and night. In consequence the farmer puts on every man who applies for work, everything goes on first-rate, and there is a prospect of getting the crop in speedily. At the end of the week the mowers draw their money, quite a lump for them, and away they go to the ale-house. Saturday night sees them as drunk as men can be. They lie about the fields under the hedges all day Sunday, drinking when the public-house is open. Monday morning they go on to work for half-an-hour, but the fever engendered by so much liquor, and the disordered state of the stomach, cause a burning thirst. They fling the scythes down, and go off to the barrel. During all this week perhaps between them they manage to cut half an acre. What is the result? The haymakers have made all the grass that was cut the first week into hay, and are standing about idle, unable to proceed, but still drawing their wages from the unfortunate agriculturist. The hot sun is burning on—better weather for haymaking could not be—but there is not a rood of grass cut for them to work on. After a while the mowers come back, thoroughly tired and exhausted with their debauch, and go on feebly to work. There is hope again. But our climate is notoriously changeable. A fortnight of warm, close heat is pretty sure to breed a thunderstorm. Accordingly, just as the scythes begin to lay the tall grass prostrate again, there is a growl in the sky, and down comes the rain. A thunderstorm unsettles the weather, and here is perhaps another week lost. The farmer dares not discharge his haymakers, because he does not know but that he may require them any day. They are put to turn dung-heaps, clean out the yards, pick up the weeds in the garden, and such like little jobs, over which they can dawdle as much as they like. All the while they are on full pay. Now, what manufacturer could endure such conduct as this? Is it not enough to drive a saint out of his patience? Of course the larger farmers who can afford it have the resource of the mowing-machine, but there are hundreds and thousands of farms upon which its sharp rattle has not yet been heard. There is still a great divergence of opinion as to its merits, many maintaining that it does not cut so close to the ground, and therefore wastes a large percentage of the crop, and others that the action of the scissor-like knives bruises the grass, and prevents it growing up into a good after-math. Therefore many farmers who could afford it will not admit the mowing-machine into their fields, and the mowers may still be seen at work over miles and miles of meadow, and are still the plague of the agriculturist. The arable farmer has just the same difficulty to keep his labourers at their work, and unless he is constantly on the watch valuable time is lost daily. In the harvest, however, he has an advantage. The corn is reaped by piece-work, and the labourers therefore strain every nerve to do as much as they can. But then he must be on the lookout to see that they do not “scamp” it.”

See also former posts ‘Women in the Fields’: http://wp.me/p5jhXU-1r

and ‘The Story of the Wheat’: http://wp.me/p5jhXU-1y

 

“In the Midst of the Stream of Light”: recognising the soul

‘The Life of the Soul’ selected & introduced by Simon Coleman

 rj image butterfly 001

In a short, untitled, autobiographical piece of writing, probably dating from the last five years of his life, Jefferies turns his mind inwards towards the inexpressible thought that had haunted his entire adult life.  He wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Heart: “as the brook ran winding through the meadow, so one thought ran winding through my days.”  The second part of this sentence is reproduced in the untitled piece which was eventually published in 1948, in S.J. Looker’s collection The Old House at Coate.  Looker gave the manuscript the title, “The Life of the Soul”, recognising it as a pure fragment chipped from the edifice of Jefferies’ thought and life-expression.

In his autobiography Jefferies sought to “free thought from every trammel”, believing in the infinite potential of the human mind.  His “one thought” was the hidden impulse driving his desire for the most complete freedom of mind, health of body, and power of soul that he could conceive.

In the following quotations from the “Life of the Soul” manuscript, we become aware of the deep currents of his inner life.  Jefferies uses the things of outer nature as symbols as he strives to communicate his Thought, aware that words are painfully inadequate for this purpose.  The Thought is present wherever there is light and earth, but he knows that it really moves within: it is his life.

The manuscript might have been connected to the composition process for The Story of My Heart, or it might have been written later.  The language shows some differences to that in the autobiography.  It is calmer, less concerned with an active search for something, and more internally focused.  It is certainly less polished and in places resembles a collection of notes brought together.  But it has a force that comes from true engagement with natural beauty, and from a life whose physical, emotional and imaginative aspects were finely interwoven.  It does have some poetic touches, such as, “feeling the existence of the soul – in the midst of the stream of light – in the way of the rush of the wind.”

Jefferies is forever on the side of life, seeking an enlarged consciousness of its beauty.  This is ultimately gained through the ‘higher’ faculties: the mind (in its infinite aspect), the heart and the soul.  He doesn’t always differentiate between them: ‘heart’, after all, was in the title of the autobiography.  Nor does he ever forget the wonder of the body and its senses.  He reminds us in “The Life of the Soul” that the physical or material is the opening to other, ‘immaterial’ levels of existence.

Jefferies had complete conviction that we possess the power to make real inner discoveries for ourselves, regardless of the dispiriting routines of life.  These possibilities are near, but sometimes seem distant or lost to our daily lives.  He looked forward to a time when the ‘language’ of the soul could be ‘translated’ and fully understood.  To bring this ideal a few steps nearer was, I believe, the true mission of his life.

woods

“THE LIFE OF THE SOUL”

 

“The dawn to me is when I open my eyes, and my first thought is of my prayer, repeated by that thought, the same prayed on the hills and everywhere else so long.

 

The light is the first thing I see, and by the light I say: Give me the reality of the feeling, which comes into existence with life.  I am awakened and I live, give me that fullness of existence which I have so long desired and the idea of which is given by the light and by every loveliness of the earth.

 

But the sun has been up for many hours, and the summer day is already far advanced. I feel that I have lost these hours, this light and beauty which has been pouring over the wheat and the meadows, over the woods and sea, all this time….Must I always feel that it has been going by me like a stream?

 

The wheat-ear as it turns yellow has taken the sunlight and the beauty into itself.  So I would take the beauty into myself.

 

But I have the same desire when there is nothing about me – nothing but walls – when I cannot see the outside earth or the sunlight – the same desire in my mind; it is like a thirst of the mind, like a drawing-in the breath for this beauty in itself.  It does not exist as a separate thing, I know, but I desire that which answers to it – which I read from it – in my mind.  The letters or the words of a book are nothing – but the thought they give is real.  The sunlight and the wheat-ear are the letters and the word: the thought that comes is real; and I feel it when they are not visible.

 

…The pressure of every day, of doing things, puts it aside, but if I stay still as it were for a moment and think of myself, the same wish returns unending, though the surroundings of the moment be commonplace and dusty enough. The thought runs winding through my days.

 

It is in me and within the sunbeam, or the wheat-ear, or the grass.  In the secret, separate entity of the soul, wishing, impelled to it, it almost represents or is my soul…

 

Why have I not gone forth for this soul life, searching for it more by the forest and by the sea?

 

That I may see through the sunlight and the earth, the enclosure with which the mind is surrounded, the wall, into the depth of the soul behind…let me see beyond, deeper through.  It is not the air that blows over the dry, rustling barley; not the warm sunshine; not the earth with the flowers; not the water, nor the light; it is the thing beyond, which I would see and feel…

 

There is not one of us but has a mind-power of which he hardly dreams.  Touching a flower, we seem as if we were absorbing something of this dormant mind-power.  It flows from the flower, like its odour.  The perfume of the flower cannot be written.  The violet cannot be expressed in words, though it is material.  There is no language, yet, to express the feeling which flows from the flower.  From the touch of the green sward a feeling flows as if the great earth sent a mystic perfume – an immaterial influence – through the frame.  More of this influence: more and more; it cannot be translated, yet, but it can be felt.  Some day it will be translated; it is like hovering on the verge of a great truth.

 

We can only get at the immaterial through the material.  How many books must be written to explain it; and even then, would it be explained?

 

So that the thought that there is more yet for the mind can be put in a sentence, but requires pages to explain.  It is not that the mind is limited and cannot understand: it is that the facts have not yet been put before it.  Like a lens, the mind can only examine that which is passed before it.  Those things which are dimly shadowed forth by the flower, the leaf, the very touch of earth – which are felt, rather than perceived – have not yet been put before it…

 

Many of us have partially recognised the existence of a current of unconscious thought, which gradually works its way and decides our course, even against our own waking decisions.  We get a glimpse of such a current now and then, and lose sight of it again…

 

The feeling caused by the view of flower and distant hill-line – the very touch of the green sward – is it not a recognition of our own life? It is seeing – feeling the existence of the soul – in the midst of the stream of light – in the way of the rush of the wind.

 

In daily routine and work we really forget ourselves.  Here the light and air recalls us.  Give us more of our inner selves: not the course, rude, outer covering, and its wishes, but of the inner secret existence.  That inner secret existence desires nothing but beauty.  But the word ‘beauty’ is weak to carry the feeling meant.

 

Those who have ever experienced the depth of this feeling must perforce pray with every glimpse of sunlight and of the unknown beyond.

CLOSE TO LONDON

by Simon Coleman

 Hogsmill Surrey

The Hogsmill River, Surrey

In 1877 Jefferies moved to Surbiton, Surrey, to be closer to the journal editors for whom he was writing.  The outcome of his explorations in Surrey was a book, Nature Near London, published in 1883, which was a collection of articles that he had written for “The Standard”.  This book, in a number of ways, was a departure from his earlier country books such as Wild Life in a Southern County and Round About a Great Estate.  It represents a shift in his perception, as he now examines the relationship between city and country in a way that had not been possible in his native Wiltshire.  And, furthermore, he was exploring the effect of the new landscape and the altered rhythm of life on himself.

In these articles he provides some fine sketches of typical scenes in Surrey which, in those days, was considerably more rural than it is today.  He finds as much in the way of animals, birds and plants to write about as in his earlier books.  As he explains in his preface to Nature Near London, his expectations regarding the quantity of wildlife to be found near London turned out to be completely at odds with actual experience.

“It is usually supposed to be necessary to go far into the country to find wild birds and animals in sufficient numbers to be pleasantly studied. Such was certainly my own impression till circumstances led me, for the convenience of access to London, to reside for awhile about twelve miles from town. There my preconceived views on the subject were quite overthrown by the presence of as much bird-life as I had been accustomed to in distant fields and woods…

“Along the roads and lanes the quantity and variety of life in the hedges was really astonishing. Magpies, jays, woodpeckers—both green and pied—kestrels hovering overhead, sparrow-hawks darting over gateways, hares by the clover, weasels on the mounds, stoats at the edge of the corn. I missed but two birds, the corncrake and the grasshopper lark, and found these another season. Two squirrels one day ran along the palings and up into a guelder-rose tree in the garden. As for the finches and sparrows their number was past calculation.”

During his excursions into his new environment, however, Jefferies began to become conscious of “a dim sense of something wanting”.  In the country lanes and woods “there arose a restlessness, a feeling that it was essential to be moving. In no grassy mead was there a nook where I could stretch myself in slumberous ease and watch the swallows ever wheeling, wheeling in the sky. This was the unseen influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetised me, and I felt it under the calm oaks. The something wanting in the fields was the absolute quiet, peace, and rest which dwells in the meadows and under the trees and on the hilltops in the country. Under its power the mind gradually yields itself to the green earth, the wind among the trees, the song of birds, and comes to have an understanding with them all. For this it is still necessary to seek the far-away glades and hollow coombes, or to sit alone beside the sea.”

So, while the complete sense of tranquillity found in the deep countryside was absent, he felt, nevertheless, some indefinable attraction to the great city’s power.  He had come into its orbit and the effect could not be ignored.  One of his biographers, W.J. Keith, notes that Jefferies, alone among English nature writers, possessed a strong sensitivity to London and a fascination with its dense human life.  Jefferies’ impressions of the life and atmosphere of London contribute much to his later writing, resonating strongly in The Story of My Heart and in his last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair.

In Nature Near London, a wide-ranging and contemplative essay, “Wheatfields”, explores the meeting place of city and country.  Jefferies describes a vivid scene in a cornfield close to London, before shifting his attention to the complex life of the city.  A short distance away a train passes over an iron bridge, but the reapers at work in the field are too busy to notice the sound.  He then imagines a commuting businessman on the train who is himself completely wrapped up in his own world of city institutions.

“And if the merchant spares an abstracted glance from the morning or evening newspaper out upon the fields from the carriage window, the furrows of the field can have but little meaning. Each looks to him exactly alike. To the farmers and the labourer such and such a furrow marks an acre and has its bearing, but to the passing glance it is not so. The work in the field is so slow; the passenger by rail sees, as it seems to him, nothing going on; the corn may sow itself almost for all that is noteworthy in apparent labour.”

The highly contrasted worlds of country and city come into brief contact but they remain separated, apparently incomprehensible to each other.  This in-between land, where the fields approach the edge of the city, allows Jefferies’ imagination to wander between the two environments.  He finds that repetitive patterns of labour are largely to blame for this puzzling division in the human mind.  While the merchant’s mind is “rapt and absorbed in discount and dollars, in bills and merchandise”, he cannot see that his dependence on the wheat produced by agriculture has in no way diminished.  And those at work in the fields, whose lives are “hard toil and hard fare”, haven’t even the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful colours and sounds all around them.

Faced with this dispiriting state of human civilisation, Jefferies, instinctively, looks for some simple, visible connection between city and country: something to provide a sense of beauty and hope.

“It is easy in London to forget that it is midsummer, till, going some day into Covent Garden Market, you see baskets of the cornflower, or blue-bottle as it is called in the country, ticketed ‘Corinne’, and offered for sale. The lovely azure of the flower recalls the scene where it was first gathered long since at the edge of the wheat.”