The following passage from Richard Jefferies’ autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’, provides a perfect example of how a particular landscape can induce a calm and creative state of mind. The landscape in this case is chalk downland, where sharp valleys can suddenly cut into wide stretches of smooth, rolling surfaces. I feel that the sides of the narrow valley help to ‘shut out’ the everyday concerns of his life, the memories and personal perspectives, allowing a concentration of mind on the blue sky, the earth, time and the power of the sun. His life is no longer personal – he is part of all that there is, and belongs to all that there is.
‘Sometimes I went to a deep, narrow valley in the hills, silent and solitary. The sky crossed from side to side, like a roof supported on two walls of green. Sparrows chirped in the wheat at the verge above, their calls falling like the twittering of swallows from the air. There was no other sound. The short grass was dried grey as it grew by the heat; the sun hung over the narrow vale as if it had been put there by hand. Burning, burning, the sun glowed on the sward at the foot of the slope where these thoughts burned into me. How many, many years, how many cycles of years, how many bundles of cycles of years, had the sun glowed down thus on that hollow? Since it was formed how long? Since it was worn and shaped, groove-like, in the flanks of the hills by mighty forces which had ebbed. Alone with the sun which glowed on the work when it was done, I saw back through space to the old time of tree-ferns, of the lizard flying through the air, the lizard-dragon wallowing in sea foam, the mountainous creatures, twice-elephantine, feeding on land; all the crooked sequence of life. The dragon-fly which passed me traced a continuous descent from the fly marked on stone in those days. The immense time lifted me like a wave rolling under a boat; my mind seemed to raise itself as the swell of the cycles came; it felt strong with the power of the ages. With all that time and power I prayed: that I might have in my soul the intellectual part of it; the idea, the thought. Like a shuttle the mind shot to and fro the past and the present, in an instant.’
This narrow, ‘grooved’ valley experience was clearly of major significance in Jefferies’ early life. The autobiography returns to it more than once. It can be seen as a symbol or motif for his desire to become absorbed in a greater, limitless, non-personal reality. Later he is in London:
‘Burning on, the great sun stood in the sky, heating the parapet [of London Bridge] , glowing steadfastly upon me as when I rested in the narrow valley grooved out in prehistoric times. Burning on steadfast, and ever present as my thought. Lighting the broad river, the broad walls; lighting the least speck of dust; lighting the great heaven; gleaming on my finger-nail. The fixed point of day—the sun. I was intensely conscious of it; I felt it; I felt the presence of the immense powers of the universe…’
In the final paragraph of the book, the valley motif appears once more, perhaps with an even sharper clarity of meaning. He has found a new grooved valley, this time in the Sussex South Downs, near the sea, and its discovery seems to add a deeper level of perception to the whole book. In the intervening years between these two valley experiences, his desire for natural beauty and immersion in a greater reality has never diminished. The language in this last paragraph now seems calmer and more certain. This desire is of the soul and it knows no limit.
‘…the sweet short rain comes mingled with sunbeams and flower-scented air. The finches sing among the fresh green leaves of the beeches. Beautiful it is, in summer days, to see the wheat wave, and the long grass foam—flecked of flower yield and return to the wind. My soul of itself always desires; these are to it as fresh food. I have found in the hills another valley grooved in prehistoric times, where, climbing to the top of the hollow, I can see the sea. Down in the hollow I look up; the sky stretches over, the sun burns as it seems but just above the hill, and the wind sweeps onward. As the sky extends beyond the valley, so I know that there are ideas beyond the valley of my thought…’