The Dawn

Introduced by Simon Coleman

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Photo source: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-2718089-stock-footage-grass-sunset.html

‘THE DAWN’ by Richard Jefferies (full text)
Jefferies’ late essay, ‘The Dawn’, was unpublished in his lifetime but appeared in Edward Thomas’ 1909 anthology titled ‘The Hills and the Vale’.  In ‘The Dawn’, the faint light of daybreak awakens Jefferies’ imagination which then wanders freely through space and time.  He muses on the mysteries and possibilities present in light and widens his thought to take in other properties of nature such as magnetism and electricity.  He even considers how we might communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  While the prose is unpolished and betrays his struggle to find suitable language to express his ideas, his thirst for knowledge and truth is inspiring.  And this is not a quest for dry scientific or academic knowledge: Jefferies wants answers that might one day be translated into real benefits for mankind.  This is the main theme of the second part of his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’: how to improve the physical and spiritual life of man.  ‘The Dawn’ is the type of work that allows an insight into the raw material of an author’s imagination.  It shows Jefferies, once again, as a free thinker, always looking for another circle of ideas beyond those already known, always ahead of his time.

 

“There came to my bedside this morning a visitant that has been present at the bedside of everyone who has lived for ten thousand years. In the darkness I was conscious of a faint light not visible if I looked deliberately to find it, but seen sideways, and where I was not gazing. It slipped from direct glance as a shadow may slip from a hand-grasp, but it was there floating in the atmosphere of the room. I could not say that it shone on the wall or lit the distant corner. Light is seen by reflection, but this light was visible of itself like a living thing, a visitant from the unknown. The dawn was in the chamber, and by degrees this intangible and slender existence would enlarge and deepen into day. Ever since I used to rise early to bathe, or shoot, or see the sunrise, the habit has remained of waking at the same hour, so that I see the dawn morning after morning, though I may sleep again immediately. Sometimes the change of the seasons makes it broad sunlight,
sometimes it is still dark; then again the faint grey light is there, and I know that the distant hills are becoming defined along the sky. But though so familiar, that spectral light in the silence has never lost its meaning, the violets are sweet year by year though never so many summers pass away; indeed, its meaning grows wider and more difficult as the time goes on. For think, this spectre of the light – light’s double-ganger – has stood by the couch of every human being for thousands and thousands of years. Sleeping or waking, happily dreaming, or wrenched with pain, whether they have noticed it or not, the finger of this light has pointed towards them. When they were building the pyramids, five thousand years ago, straight the arrow of light shot from the sun, lit their dusky forms, and glowed on the endless sand. Endless as that desert sand may be, innumerable in multitude its grains, there was and is a ray of light for each. A ray for every invisible atom that dances in the air – for the million million changing facets of the million ocean waves. Immense as these numbers may be, they are not incomprehensible. The priestess at Delphi in her moment of inspiration declared that she knew the number of the sands. Such number falls into insignificance before the mere thought of light, its speed, its quantity, its existence over space, and yet the idea of light is easy to the mind. The mind is the priestess of the Delphic temple of our bodies, and sees and understands things for which language is imperfect, and notation deficient. There is a secret alphabet in it to every letter of which we unconsciously assign a value, just as the mathematician may represent a thousand by the letter A. In my own mind the idea of light is associated with the colour yellow, not the yellow of the painters, or of flowers, but a quick flash. This quick bright flash of palest yellow in the thousandth of an instant reminds me, or rather conveys in itself, the whole idea of light–the accumulated idea of study and thought. I suppose it to be a memory of looking at the sun–a quick glance at the sun leaves something such an impression on the retina. With that physical impression all the calculations that I have read, and all the ideas that have occurred to me, are bound up. It is the sign – the letter – the expression of light. To the builders of the pyramids came the arrow from the sun, tinting their dusky forms, and glowing in the sand. To me it comes white and spectral in the silence, a finger pointed, a voice saying, ‘Even now you know nothing.’ Five thousand years since they were fully persuaded that they understood the universe, the course of the stars, and the secrets of life and death. What did they know of the beam of light that shone on the sonorous lap of their statue Memnon? The telescope, the microscope, and the prism have parted light and divided it, till it seems as if further discovery were impossible. This beam of light brings an account of the sun, clear as if written in actual letters, for example stating that certain minerals are as certainly there as they are here. But when in the silence I see the pale visitant at my bedside, and the mind rushes in one spring back to the builders of the pyramids who were equally sure with us, the thought will come to me that even now there may be messages in that beam undeciphered. With a turn of the heliograph, a mere turn of the wrist, a message is easily flashed twenty miles to the observer. You cannot tell what knowledge may not be pouring down in every ray; messages that are constant and perpetual, the same from age to age. These are physical messages. There is beyond this just a possibility that beings in distant earths possessed of greater knowledge than ourselves may be able to transmit their thoughts along, or by the ray, as we do along wires. In the days to come, when a deeper insight shall have been gained into the motions and properties of those unseen agents we call forces, such as magnetism, electricity, gravitation, perhaps a method will be devised to use them for communication. If so, communication with distant earths is quite within reasonable hypothesis. At this hour it is not more impossible than the transmission of a message to the antipodes in a few minutes would have been to those who lived a century since. The inhabitants of distant earths may have endeavoured to communicate with us in this way for ought we know time after time. Such a message is possibly contained sometimes in the pale beam which comes to my bedside. That beam always impresses me with a profound, an intense and distressful sense of ignorance, of being outside the intelligence of the universe, as if there were a vast civilization in view and yet not entered. Mere villagers and rustics creeping about a sullen earth, we know nothing of the grandeur and intellectual brilliance of that civilization. This beam fills me with unutterable dissatisfaction. Discontent, restless longing, anger at the denseness of the perception, the stupidity with which we go round and round in the old groove till accident shows us a fresh field. Consider, all that has been wrested from light has been gained by mere bits of glass. Mere bits of glass in curious shapes–poor feeble glass, quickly broken, made of flint, of the flint that mends the road. To this almost our highest conceptions are due. Could we employ the ocean as a lens we might tear truth from the sky. Could the greater intelligences that dwell on the planets and stars communicate with us, they might enable us to conquer the disease and misery which bear down the masses of the world. Perhaps they do not die. The pale visitor hints that the stars are not the outside and rim of the universe, any more than the edge of horizon is the circumference of our globe. Beyond the star-stratum, what? Mere boundless space. Mind says certainly not. What then? At present we cannot conceive a universe without a central solar orb for it to gather about and swing around. But that is only because hitherto our positive, physical knowledge has gone no farther. It can as yet only travel as far as this, as analogous beams of light. Light comes from the uttermost bounds of our star system – to that rim we can extend a positive thought. Beyond, and around it, whether it is solid, or fluid, or ether, or whether, as is most probable, there exist things absolutely different to any that have come under eyesight yet is not known. May there not be light we cannot see? Gravitation is an unseen light; so too magnetism; electricity or its effect is sometimes visible, sometimes not. Besides these there may be more delicate forces not instrumentally demonstrable. A force, or a wave, or a motion – an unseen light – may at this moment be flowing in upon us from that unknown space without and beyond the stellar system. It may contain messages from thence as this pale visitant does from the sun. It may outstrip light in speed as light outstrips an arrow. The more delicate, the more ethereal, then the fuller and more varied the knowledge it holds. There may be other things beside matter and motion, or force. All natural things known to us as yet may be referred to those two conditions: One, Force; Two, Matter. A third, a fourth, a fifth – no one can say how many conditions – may exist in the ultra-stellar space, beyond the most distant stars. Such a condition may even be about us now unsuspected. Something which is neither force nor matter is difficult to conceive; the mind cannot give it tangible shape even as a thought. Yet I think it more than doubtful if the entire universe, visible and invisible, is composed of these two. To me it seems almost demonstrable by rational induction that the entire universe must consist of more than two conditions. The grey dawn every morning warns me not to be certain that all is known. Analysis by the prism alone has quite doubled the knowledge that was previously available. In the light itself there may still exist as much more to be learnt, and then there may be other forces and other conditions to be first found out and next to tell their story. As at present known the whole system is so easy and simple, one body revolving round another, and so on; it is as easy to understand as the motion of a stone that has been thrown. This simplicity makes me misdoubt. Is it all? Space – immeasurable space – offers such possibilities that the mind is forced to the conclusion that it is not, that there must be more. I cannot thinkthat the universe can be so very very easy as this.”

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A New Dawn of Consciousness – Thoughts of the Future

Rebecca Welshman

 

Two books that have made a lasting impression on me are James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, and Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart. I read Redfield in 1995 and didn’t discover Jefferies until 2003.

When it was published in 1993, The Celestine Prophecy quickly established a following and was known to change the lives of its readers. When I read it, aged fifteen, it made sense to me – particularly the idea that we lived in a material world made of energies that was closely aligned with a spiritual dimension also made of energies. A poignant section of the book is summarised here:

“The book suggests that the world is undergoing an enormous shift in consciousness, elaborating on how things had been generally understood until now: 1) at first people believed the world to be governed by the forces of divinity; everything could be explained as an act of a god or gods, 2) with increased knowledge of their world brought about through scientific inquiry, people turned to the men and women of science for an explanation of life and their world, and 3) without a satisfactory answer from science, people instead had them focus on efforts to improve their lives materially and subdue the earth, illustrated by a hyper-focus on economic conditions and fluctuations. What was now occurring was that the baseness of current conditions was revealing itself in our souls. We had become restless and were now ready for another fundamental shift in thinking that would eventually bring about a better world.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Celestine_Prophecy)

This situation of spiritual crisis is not radically different to what Jefferies proposed in The Story of My Heart. Realising that the soul could not breathe through the crust of civilisation in which it was set, he sought to break through and seek out a new circle of ideas outside of divinity, science, and material reality. Writing about his book, Jefferies explains:

“He claims to have erased from his mind the traditions and learning of the past ages, and to stand face to face with nature and with the unknown. The general aim of the work is to free thought from every trammel, with the view of its entering upon another and larger series of ideas than those which have occupied the brain of man so many centuries. He believes that there is a whole world of ideas outside and beyond those which now exercise us.”

Redfield’s book, written in the form of a story, explores how to recognise and engage with the spiritual dimensions of our ordinary lives. Our thoughts and actions are motivated and directed by our engagement with energy – we need to learn how to ‘see’ this process and develop our conscious awareness. We can do this through focusing on the beauty and energy of natural things which raises our own positive energies. Many spiritual traditions recognise that the soul or spirit of a person does not need the body to exist. The Celestine Prophecy explores how it is possible for the spirit to consciously travel outside of the body –  a version of what is known as astral travel.

Many of us may be familiar with the passages in Jefferies’ works which describe him lying down on the ground and looking up at the stars. These occur in Bevis, The Old House at Coate, and are alluded to in The Story of My Heart. When he writes that he feels ‘among’ the stars, he seems to be close to a state of astral travel – almost willing his spirit to leave his body and travel freely:

“Seeing the sun thus day by day traverse the sky about the house, passing the fixed points corresponding to the compass, and changing her position with the seasons – so that the house, the garden, and the trees about it made one large sidereal dial – made the solar apparent motion and the phenomena of the heavens very real and almost tangible. …
Here was the centre of the world, the sun swung round us; we rode at night straight away into the space of the stars. On a dry summer night, when there was no dew, I used to lie down on my back at full length (looking to the east), on the grass footpath by the orchard, and gaze up into the sky. This is the only way to get at it and feel the stars: while you stand upright, the eye, and through the eye, the mind, is biased by the usual aspect of things: the house there, the trees yonder; it is difficult to forget the mere appearance of rising and setting. Looking straight up like this, from the path to the stars, it was clear and evident that I was really riding among them; they were not above, nor all round, but I was in the midst of them. There was no underneath, no above: everything was on a level with me; the sense of measurement and distance disappeared. As one walks in a wood, with trees all about, so then by day (when the light only hid them) I walked amongst the stars. I had not got then to leave this world to enter space: I was already there. The vision is indeed contracted, nor can we lift our feet further than the earth; yet we are really among these things to-day.” ‘The Seasons and the Stars’, in ‘The Old House at Coate’

 

seasons and the stars

The life of the soul follows no well-trodden paths, adheres to no fixed points of a compass, and carves its own unique journey. Jefferies grew to realise this, and part of this realisation involved changing his value system. By the time he wrote The Story of My Heart he had already let go of the trappings of society and considered the life of the soul the only future worth working for:

“Let the floor of the room be bare, let the furniture be a plank table, the bed a mere pallet. Let the house be plain and simple, but in the midst of air and light. These are enough a cave would be enough; in a warmer climate the open air would suffice. Let me be furnished in myself with health, safety, strength, the perfection of physical existence; let my mind be furnished with highest thoughts of soul-life. Let me be in myself myself fully. The pageantry of power, the still more foolish pageantry of wealth, the senseless precedence of place; I fail words to express my utter contempt for such pleasure or such ambitions.”

In his own words he describes the ambitions of the book:

“From all nature from the universe he desires to take its energy, grandeur, and beauty. He looks forward to the possibility of ideal man, and adduces reasons for the possibility of such ideal man living in enjoyment of his faculties for a great length of time. He is anxious that the culture of the soul should be earnestly carried out, as earnestly as the culture of the body was in ancient Greece, as that of the mind is at the present day. So highly does he place the soul, that if it can but retain its consciousness and attain its desires he thinks it matters not if the entire material world disappears. Yet the work teems with admiration of material beauty.”

Here Jefferies seems to be preparing us for a future without the material world. The idea of the material world not being necessary for the soul to exist is something that Redfield addresses in the volume that came after The Celestine Prophecy titled ‘The Tenth Insight’. In this book he writes about the higher perspective of the Afterlife, which can be reached by progressively working on our positive vibrations. What struck me about Redfield’s book was its dedication to advancing the life of the soul – something that Jefferies earnestly wished for, and refers to above as the ‘culture of the soul’.

It doesn’t really matter what critics have said about Redfield’s book because it is a work of light. The darkness of our own fears, doubts, and unresolved emotions holds us back, but these are realities which we ourselves are responsible for enforcing – no one else. Redfield and Jeferries both highlight the value of natural beauty as an energy source that can replenish us. Both recognise the concept of an Eternal Now with its potential to help us see beyond the limits of our historical and cultural circumstances, and even beyond the limits of consciousness itself. Like Redfield, Jefferies was a light-worker, and he believed that if the work of the soul could be developed, then it would be enough to lift us from the veils and webs that seemed determined to restrain us. Jefferies may only have got so far with his work, and he had much more to give, but such work can and should continue for the sake of our spiritual future.

NATURE, TIME AND HEART

Simon Coleman

 August September 2013 Pembrokeshire holiday 107.JPG

“Swallows building under the eaves—swallows building in the chimneys; thrushes in the hawthorn- bushes; great missel-thrushes in the apple-trees of the orchard; the blue sparrow’s egg in the hedge; the chaffinch’s moss and lichen nest against the elm; the dove’s nest up in the copse, fearlessly building because no rude hand disturbed them; the pheasant’s eggs carelessly left on the ground by the bramble- bush, the corncrake’s found by the mower; the moorhen’s nest by the trout-pool. She knew and loved them all—the colour and sound and light, the changing days, the creatures of the wood and of the field. With these she lived, and they became familiar to her, as the threads of the pattern are known to those who sit the livelong day embroidering—the woven embroidery of the earth; so beautiful, because without design.”

 

This passage comes from Richard Jefferies’ pastoral novel, ‘The Dewy Morn’ (1884).  The book has a fairly straightforward romantic plot but is notable for its outstandingly vivid nature descriptions.  The sense of immersion in the infinite life and beauty of nature, which powered his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’, returns in ‘The Dewy Morn’ in the central character, Felise.  She is a young woman who loves and affirms life without the usual complexities and cares of human existence.  As she walks among nature, Felise seems to become almost a human embodiment of the forms, colours and songs of the fields and lanes.  The metaphor of nature as a woven pattern appears elsewhere in his writing.  In the essay, ‘The Pageant of Summer’,

 

“Earth holds secrets enough to give them the life of the fabled Immortals. My heart is fixed firm and stable in the belief that ultimately the sunshine and the summer, the flowers and the azure sky, shall become, as it were, interwoven into man’s existence.”

 

 

Nature is full of mesmerizing patterns which confound our everyday thinking minds, but the heart – the real mind – knows them and can work with them.  Discovering these currents of ‘true thought’ (as Jefferies described it) is becoming increasingly difficult in a society which seems to view everything through a linear time framework.  The language of linear time is predominant in the media, in politics and academia.  With rapid communications technology has come a fragmentation of even this ordinary time sequence, as a persistent hail of emails, texts and messages inhibits the continuity of attention that the human imagination needs.  And our evolutionary biologists, who dominate thinking on the human relationship with Nature, frame all their elaborate theories within a linear time context.  Nature as spontaneously creative, in an eternal dance of life, willing news forms, sounds and movement into existence – that’s not a vision they want to consider, let alone embrace.

 

Being receptive to Nature’s designless patterns and cycles requires a belief in the heart, but not the usual idea of heart as a chamber of emotion that has to be controlled by the mind.  Eastern thought understood the primacy of the heart and places what we call the mind (usually equated with the brain) within the heart.  The heart is what really thinks, and it knows much.  In his late essay, ‘Nature in the Louvre’, Jefferies, after gazing long at a beautiful classical statue, wrote:

 

“Old days which I had spent wandering among deep meadows and by green woods came back to me. In such days the fancy had often occurred to me that, besides the loveliness of leaves and flowers, there must be some secret influence drawing me on as a hand might beckon. The light and colour suspended in the summer atmosphere, as colour is in stained but translucent glass, were to me always on the point of becoming tangible in some beautiful form. The hovering lines and shape never became sufficiently defined for me to know what form it could be, yet the colours and the light meant something which I was not able to fix. I was now sitting in a gallery of stone, with cold marbles, cold floors, cold light from the windows. Without there were only houses, the city of Paris—a city above all other cities farthest from woods and meads. Here, nevertheless, there came back to me this old thought born in the midst of flowers and wind-rustled leaves, and I saw that with it the statue before me was in concord. The living original of this work was the human impersonation of the secret influence which had beckoned me on in the forest and by running streams. She expressed in loveliness of form the colour and light of sunny days…”

Perception of a beautiful, natural, almost tangible idea is woven into all of Jefferies’ more spiritually-themed writing.  A spirituality of the heart can never perceive human life as being outside Nature, though Jefferies often stresses the need for human self-reliance.  The heart is awakened and led by beauty.  It forever affirms life, creativity and hope, and makes time for itself.

The Value of Nature: Little Things do Matter

Rebecca Welshman

leaf-shadow

Photo: Rebecca Welshman

Findings from a research study suggest that those of us who value possessions, status and wealth are more anxious, depressed and unsociable than those who don’t. These claims were made by a group of researchers at the Northwestern University, who published their findings in Psychological Science, the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science in 2012.

 

But these debates are hardly new. Richard Jefferies, known for his writings on nature and society, questioned the value of materialism 150 years ago. He recognised that the pursuit of wealth promised nothing in itself, and through his writing tried to help people find happiness in nature. The Victorian era saw the birth of materialism as we know it today. London became the fastest growing metropolis in the world, and with the expansion of towns and railways, Britain underwent a radical rural to urban transition.

 

Known best for his writing on nature and rural life, Jefferies made his living as a journalist, writing for the Pall Mall Gazette, and other papers and magazines of the time. Last autumn marked 143 years since the publication of his letters to The Times about the working conditions and pay of Wiltshire agricultural labourers, which brought him national acclaim and helped earn him a special place in Victorian literature.

 

As a country lad who moved to the city – first Surbiton, then Brighton, Jefferies was well qualified to comment on the changes taking place around him. In his articles in the London Standard he conveyed the physical and psychological health benefits of spending time out of doors and encouraged people to take more notice of the nature around them. As he wrote in his novel Restless Human Hearts (1875), nature could be found even in the heart of London:

 

The dead brown leaves, driven by the wind, penetrate even into stony London, and rustle along the pavement and whirl round in eddies at the corners of the street. They are a voice from the woods, an echo from the forgotten land, messengers from Nature, abiding still in her solitudes, warning wilful and blinded men to return ere it be too late.

 

One of Jefferies’ London thinking places was a spot in front of the Royal Exchange, the hub of the Victorian commercial world, which remained the centre of commerce until 1939. Here he stood and watched the streams of traffic flow past – hundreds of men, women, horses and carriages, bustling and rushing to and fro. Amidst the hurrying footsteps, wheels, different coloured omnibuses, some carrying bales of straw, stirring up the dust in their efforts to reach their different destinations, Jefferies pondered where it was all going. Everyone seemed wrapped up in their own world, indifferent, it seemed to the character of the place itself:

 

all these men and women that pass through are driven on by the push of accumulated circumstances; they cannot stay, they must go …. Where will be these millions of to-day in a hundred years? But, further than that, let us ask, Where then will be the sum and outcome of their labour? … There will not be any sum or outcome or result of this ceaseless labour and movement; it vanishes in the moment that it is done, and in a hundred years nothing will be there, for nothing is there now.

 

Jefferies strove to answer these questions in his soul-searching autobiography, The Story of My Heart, a book that brought him posthumous fame as a nature mystic and social commentator. These questions remain as important today as they did then, not least because they remain unanswered. The research by Northwestern University has shown that materialism not only negatively affects people, but also the environment.  Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen claims that ‘irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in wellbeing, including negative affect and social disengagement.’ As many others have done since, Jefferies questioned what people were working for – beyond money, what real value did all this labour have? He hoped his writings would offer people ways to experience more joy in the simple things of life – ‘more sunshine and more flowers’ – feelings that couldn’t be generated by the pursuit of materialism.

 

Jefferies found beauty in the most ordinary things – a blade of grass, a flower, even a patch of ground. Man-made things paled into insignificance next to the design-less beauty of natural phenomena:

 

I had forgotten that the parlour, beside the chair and table, had a carpet. The carpet has a pattern: it is woven; the threads can be discerned, and a little investigation shows beyond doubt that it was designed and made by a man. It is certainly pretty and ingenious. But the grass of my golden meadow has no design, and no purpose: it is beautiful, and more; it is divine. (The Old House at Coate)

 

It is well-known that the beauty of nature promotes feelings of wholeness and well being. A 2011 survey of 3000 people on behalf of ‘Three Barrels Brandy’, about what boosts our happiness, ranked 3 of nature’s own remedies in the top 10, which suggests that we are already a nation that finds enjoyment in the simple things. ‘Swimming in the sea’, ‘waking up on a sunny day’, and ‘sitting in the sun’ outranked ‘booking a holiday’, ‘finding a bargain’, winning a £10 lottery prize’, and ‘getting a promotion’. ‘Finding a £10 note in an old pair of jeans’ and ‘going on holiday’ topped the poll, with spending time with friends and family, and quiet moments of reflection, including listening to old songs and looking at photos, largely constituted the top 30.

 

Yet there are perhaps things even closer to us (and less expensive) that can increase happiness. Jefferies’ love of nature was so strong that ‘the buzz of a bee at the window’ would cause him to feel connected to the abundance of treasures which lay just outside, at his fingertips. The sounds, textures, colours and forms of nature were powerfully alive to him, even during years’ of illness. Mysterious and ever-changing, with the weather and the seasons, nature held him under its spell.

 

London has some of the largest and well maintained parks in Europe, many of which don’t charge entry fees, with flowers, open spaces, and water fountains which capture the sunlight. These things are all around us, but how often do we really notice them? In 2010 a series of studies were conducted by the University of Rochester which found that nature increases energy levels, feelings of vitality, and general happiness. Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education, Richard Ryan, commented that ‘Nature is fuel for the soul,’ and that ‘often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.’ Ryan added that nature can help us to fight infection, fight exhaustion, and increase our general physical health.

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Like all good relationships, our connection with nature needs to be cultivated and maintained. We can all make a little difference to the happiness of the wildlife and flora around us, even just by considering and appreciating that we live in an ever-changing and vibrant living world. Nature is amazingly receptive to positive efforts to help and sustain it. Only the other day the Robin that I have been leaving food out for came to the stone wall outside my study and looked directly at me, and with a little bob of his tail, flew away. I knew that he was asking me for food. Each time now he comes to feed when I am sitting at my desk I see that he is aware of my presence and I try not to move suddenly or alarm him. My feeding the Robin is a small thing. Yet I like to think that he will live through the winter and go on to nurture broods of youngsters of his own next spring. Every little thing we do, however small, has an effect and leaves a legacy for the future.

IN PRAISE OF LIFE

Simon Coleman

Downsgrass.jpg

Photo by Simon Coleman

 

Throughout his life, Richard Jefferies found a simple, natural sense of joy from seeing the re-birth of the flowers in spring and the drift of the constellations along their familiar paths.  From the touch of sunbeams and inhaling the fresh breezes of the downs, he was uplifted in spirit and inspired to think and imagine.  From listening to birdsong in the long, light evenings he realised, as much earlier peoples did, that all life was charged with magical and sacred powers.  Whatever he found beautiful in nature or the landscape became a source of joy and something to be regarded as sacred.  The true poets have always understood that what is sacred should be praised and Jefferies, though a prose writer, belongs in this tradition.

‘There was a secluded spring to which I sometimes went to drink the pure water, lifting it in the hollow of my hand. Drinking the lucid water, clear as light itself in solution, I absorbed the beauty and purity of it. I drank the thought of the element; I desired soul-nature pure and limpid. When I saw the sparkling dew on the grass—a rainbow broken into drops—it called up the same thought-prayer. The stormy wind whose sudden twists laid the trees on the ground woke the same feeling; my heart shouted with it. The soft summer air which entered when I opened my window in the morning breathed the same sweet desire. At night, before sleeping, I always looked out at the shadowy trees, the hills looming indistinctly in the dark, a star seen between the drifting clouds; prayer of soul-life always. I chose the highest room, bare and gaunt, because as I sat at work I could look out and see more of the wide earth, more of the dome of the sky, and could think my desire through these. When the crescent of the new moon shone, all the old thoughts were renewed.’  (‘The Story of My Heart’)

‘..there was magic in everything’, he wrote in his children’s novel, ‘Bevis’.  In the natural world, at every time of the year, there were wonderful things to find and praise.  Continuing from the above passage,

‘All the succeeding incidents of the year repeated my prayer as I noted them. The first green leaf on the hawthorn, the first spike of meadow grass, the first song of the nightingale, the green ear of wheat. I spoke it with the ear of wheat as the sun tinted it golden; with the whitening barley; again with the red gold spots of autumn on the beech, the buff oak leaves, and the gossamer dew-weighted. All the larks over the green corn sang it for me, all the dear swallows; the green leaves rustled it; the green brook flags waved it; the swallows took it with them to repeat it for me in distant lands. By the running brook I meditated it; a flash of sunlight here in the curve, a flicker yonder on the ripples, the birds bathing in the sandy shallow, the rush of falling water. As the brook ran winding through the meadow, so one thought ran winding through my days.’

 

The ‘prayer’ that Jefferies mentions is really his desire to live the life that these beautiful ‘incidents of the year’ suggest in his imagination.  He is not praying to anything; rather he seems to be assimilating the powers of nature to help him realise his own life power.

In one of his great essays, ‘The Pageant of Summer’, this prose-poetry achieved a new emotional depth, beautifully sustained as he moves among the splendours of the summer fields and hills.

‘To the dreamy summer haze love gave a deep enchantment, the colours were fairer, the blue more lovely in the lucid sky. Each leaf finer, and the gross earth enamelled beneath the feet. A sweet breath on the air, a soft warm hand in the touch of the sunshine, a glance in the gleam of the rippled waters, a whisper in the dance of the shadows. The ethereal haze lifted the heavy oaks and they were buoyant on the mead, the rugged bark was chastened and no longer rough, each slender flower beneath them again refined. There was a presence everywhere though unseen, on the open hills, and not shut out under the dark pines. Dear were the June roses then because for another gathered. Yet even dearer now with so many years as it were upon the petals; all the days that have been before, all the heart-throbs, all our hopes lie in this opened bud… Never could I have enough; never stay long enough – whether here or whether lying on the shorter sward under the sweeping and graceful birches, or on the thyme-scented hills. Hour after hour, and still not enough. Or walking the footpath was never long enough, or my strength sufficient to endure till the mind was weary. The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal. The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.’

In our time, words such as ‘joy’ and ‘beauty’ seem to have become devalued as a result of the severing of the human senses and heart from the eternal cycles of nature.  The experiences that Jefferies had are obviously more difficult to replicate in our restless, digital age where ‘screen time’ has pushed any sense of the eternal to the very margins of human life.  We may not be able to lie in the ‘thyme-scented hills’ with the rest and quiet that Jefferies found, but his words still communicate a profound love of life that inspires us to praise even the most common blade of grass.

Walter Murray: An Unacknowledged English Nature Mystic

A guest post by Tom Wareham

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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

The Hard Craft of Writing

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Pevensey Castle, on a visit in November 2011

Rebecca Welshman

I am currently redrafting my first novel and it is a lengthy arduous process. When you are told that the first draft is not right and you have to return to it and come up with something new, and repeat this process, it takes its toll. I was warned that it would be difficult, but you don’t appreciate how difficult until you are in the midst of it.

 

Richard Jefferies understood how difficult it was to perfect your craft as a writer. He spend years drafting and redrafting his novels. His essays did not seem to cause him so much trouble as he was able to edit The Gamekeeper and Home, Wild Life in a Southern County, and The Amateur Poacher from their serialised versions into book form quite rapidly. Fiction writing did not come so easily to Jefferies, and he experimented with attempts in sensation fiction in the early 1870s before finding a reliable fiction voice.

 

But it wasn’t just his fiction writing that troubled Jefferies. He refers to The Story of My Heart as being the record of seventeen years’ thought and feeling. In his notes, and in the text itself, he alludes to trying to compose the book earlier in life, at a spot by the River Churn in Cirencester, and later at Pevensey Castle in Sussex, in 1880:

 

“It happened just afterwards that I went to Pevensey, and immediately the ancient wall swept my mind back seventeen hundred years to the eagle, the pilum, and the short sword. The grey stones, the thin red bricks laid by those whose eyes had seen Caesar’s Rome, lifted me out of the grasp of houselife, of modern civilization, of those minutiae which occupy the moment. The grey stone made me feel as if I had existed from then till now, so strongly did I enter into and see my own life as if reflected. My own existence was focussed back on me; I saw its joy, its unhappiness, its birth, its death, its possibilities among the infinite, above all its yearning Question. Why? Seeing it thus clearly, and lifted out of the moment by the force of seventeen centuries, I recognised the full mystery and the depth of things in the roots of the dry grass on the wall, in the green sea flowing near. Is there anything I can do?”

 

In his notes for The Story of My Heart Jefferies writes that he had burned all previous attempts ‘in anger or despair’, but in 1880, after visiting Pevensey Castle, he made notes which he kept and from which developed the finished manuscript. In the book he describes his thoughts and feelings on entering the site and being surrounded by the Roman wall:

 

“The mystery and the possibilities are not in the roots of the grass, nor is the depth of things in the sea; they are in my existence, in my soul. The marvel of existence, almost the terror of it, was flung on me with crushing force by the sea, the sun shining, the distant hills. With all their ponderous weight they made me feel myself: all the time, all the centuries made me feel myself this moment a hundred-fold. I determined that I would endeavour to write what I had so long thought of, and the same evening put down one sentence. There the sentence remained two years. I tried to carry it on; I hesitated because I could not express it: nor can I now, though in desperation I am throwing these rude stones of thought together, rude as those of the ancient wall.”

 

Throughout history, Pevensey was the site of struggle and capture. Knowledge of its long sieges, starving inhabitants for weeks at a time, caught the imagination of poets and authors. For Jefferies, who borrowed from the Romantic tradition of celebrating heroes and their conquering prowess, the historical fight for freedom translated into a fight for liberty in expression; a personal fight to free the mind from the oppression of engrained social, political and spiritual structures and discover new territory. (from my thesis: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10871/10921/WelshmanR.pdf?sequence=2)

 

Just how hard the struggle got we will never know. But something of Jefferies’ anguish can be discerned from the record he leaves us in The Story of my Heart of the difficulty of self-expression in a world that seems indifferent to your efforts. In the late 1870s, on a walk to Beachy Head, he pondered what he describes as ‘the bitter question’:

 

“Time went on; good fortune and success never for an instant deceived me that they were in themselves to be sought; only my soul-thought was worthy. Further years bringing much suffering, grinding the very life out; new troubles, renewed insults, loss of what hard labour had earned, the bitter question: Is it not better to leap into the sea?”

 

What was the reward of struggling and striving to produce things that people seemed to have no interest in reading? Jefferies could hardly have been consoled by the poor sales figures of The Story of My Heart when it was published in 1883, and the scathing reviews in the press. Yet, this did not deter him, as he resolved to rework the book and produce something larger and more comprehensive. He says that he ‘regrets’ not having written about his difficulties – ‘to give expression to this passion’ – and that The Story of My Heart, so many years later, is ‘in part’ this expression. Although the book was a failure on publication it went on to become the most successful of any of his books, being reprinted sixteen times between 1891 and 1922. Jefferies could not have anticipated the reception of his ideas, and he died in 1887 without knowing that his efforts had not been in vain.

 

Writing requires belief in the value of the idea and belief in your own ability as a writer to carry it through. Jefferies may have been ahead of his time but he never gave up the fight for creative expression.