Nature and Media: Narratives of Choice

Rebecca Welshman

 

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Jefferies’ observations of birds vary in their scope and detail. The freedom of a bird’s life was appealing to him, as was a bird’s ability to live in tune with its surroundings and to take delight in the natural rhythms and beauties of the seasons. In the poem ‘My Chaffinch’ Jefferies draws a parallel between the sight of a chaffinch and a sunbeam:

 

“His hours he spends upon a fragrant fir;

His merry ‘chink,’ his happy ‘Kiss me, dear,’

Each moment sounded, keeps the copse astir.

Loudly he challenges his rivals near,

Anon aslant down to the ground he springs,

Like to a sunbeam made of coloured wings.

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The firm and solid azure of the ceil

That struck by hand would give a hollow sound,

A dome turned perfect by the sun’s great wheel,

Whose edges rest upon the hills around,

Rings many a mile with blue enamelled wall;

His fir-tree is the centre of it all.”

 

The chaffinch does not simply inhabit its environment according to the rules of nature but is an active and vibrant part of the living landscape. The bird lives and acts upon its own senses – it calls ‘each moment’ and keeps the copse alive with sound. Jefferies perceives the firmament as a ‘blue enamelled wall’ – a perfectly turned dome that has been turned by the wheel of the sun. The trunk of the Chaffinch’s fir tree is pictured as a great pillar that supports the ‘centre’ of this gigantic revolving sphere. The life of the bird is here, in the midst of it all, alive to each sight and sound, and itself giving sight and sound to the world.

 

It is this condition of being present and reciprocal, where each one of us is perfectly balanced at the centre of the world that we know and understand, that Jefferies sought to explore and express in his writing. Natural rhythms are easily intuited and embraced by birds and animals, and for humans too this used to be the way of existence. Jefferies perceived that we have become out of tune with these rhythms and intuitions, and that modern society with its distractions and artificiality has muffled our abilities to live in and fully embrace the present. The worlds of commerce and media deaden the senses and reduce the capacity for enlightenment. Observing Nature’s own time, Jefferies remarked:

 

“To us each hour is of consequence, especially in this modern day, which has invented the detestable creed that time is money. But time is not money to Nature. She never hastens.” (Landscape and Labour)

 

In The Life of the Fields (1883) Jefferies uses the example of a storm to comment on the pointlessness of the majority of human anxieties. He juxtaposes the condition of human fear with the serenity of a patient turtle-dove that sits and waits for the storm to pass:

 

“Blackbirds often make a good deal of noise; but the soft turtle-doves coo gently, let the lightning be as savage as it will. Nothing has the least fear. Man alone, more senseless than a pigeon, put a god in vapour; and to this day, though the printing press has set a foot on every threshold, numbers bow the knee when they hear the roar the timid dove does not heed … Under their tuition let us rid ourselves of mental terrors, and face death itself as calmly as they do the livid lightning; so trustful and so content with their fate, resting in themselves and unappalled.”

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Jefferies comments that one of mankind’s most artificial constructions was investing natural phenomena with supernatural associations, which in turn bred fear. The ‘god in vapour’ can be read as a thinly veiled allusion to the idea of a divine being – the cornerstone belief upon which so many religious orders are founded. Jefferies saw the idea of divine supremacy as an artificial construction and termed it ‘superstition’. As he writes in The Story of My Heart it is the fearful tendency to cling onto these old beliefs rather than let them fall away that prevents the development of a new belief. Whether it be a religious teaching or a misquoted news story, if something is repeated enough it can become a form of truth. Jefferies managed to see beyond the propagation of false belief – to something that comes from within the individual rather than from outside.

 

In the above quotation the printing press is mentioned in the same sentence as the dove. Jefferies notes that the printing press has reached every doorstep – there was no part of the country that remained disconnected from the world of the media. This analogy of encroachment by the media – that “has set a foot on every threshold” without invitation – is even more relevant in today’s world where media stories can be instantly shared and purveyed on a global scale through digital technologies. More than just appearing on our doorsteps in the form of a newspaper or magazine, media stories invade our homes through our devices, televisions, radios, and computers. Such analogies suggest that Jefferies was already aware of the dangers of mass media – including the potential for hype to create false emotion and hysteria (what he terms “mental terrors”).

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The majority of our contemporary media for mass audiences is standardised to elicit particular emotions. The content and style depend upon the perpetuation of conflict and are designed to instil fear and uncertainty regarding the future (for example, the disproportionate attention given to sad or frightening news stories). Before we even get to read a news item the media has already contrived an emotion for us to feel through its choice of subject matter, the wording of its narrative and its tone of voice. Many of the daily papers rely upon exerting influence over their readership through exaggeration and distorted focus on the potential for the worst possible outcomes. Articles on subjects which foster racial tensions and economic inequalities are designed to provoke negative emotions. The media offers various narratives of the world in which we live but we can choose what we subscribe to, and what we believe in.

 

Jefferies was a journalist. It was the mainstay of his career and provided him with regular income until his later years when he became too ill and frail to write regularly. He sought to promote a new form of journalism that relied upon direct observation of life itself and the thoughts and reflections of everyday experience. Our own powers of observation have the potential to lead to greater understanding of the world in which we live and the range of our responses to it. We only have to look to the natural world to see an example of how to live without conflict or deception. Recalling the image of the calm turtle dove, sitting on her nest in the violet twilight, Jefferies wrote:

 

“To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of Nature.”

 

Contrary to the invasive media that relies on emotional insecurity to survive, the turtle dove sits alone, waiting patiently, trusting that it has already found its rightful place in the world.

 

As animal behaviourists have ascertained, birds live in complex societies and have the ability to form long-term relationships. Jefferies would fondly note the colonies of rooks that returned to the same avenues of elms each year to nest. He also noted shared concern or sadness amongst older birds for young rooks being shot from the trees. Jefferies felt deeply into the lives of birds and sensed that they were often filled with love, joy, the appreciation of beauty, and the determination to overcome hardship. As he wrote of larks in winter:

“The larks sang at last high up against the grey cloud over the frost-bound earth. They could not wait longer; love was strong in their little hearts – stronger than the winter.”

Imagine a human society that willingly prioritised these qualities – a society that sought to nurture the human heart to be stronger than winter, as joyful as spring, as immersed in beauty as summer, and as brimful of acceptance as autumn. Birds express many different qualities, and our observations of them afford us glimpses of other narratives, founded in a simpler, more beautiful existence than our own.

 

 

 

 

 

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