JUNE DAYS

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SIMON COLEMAN

 

Two excerpts here from Jefferies’ 1880 book, ‘Round About a Great Estate’.  The fourth and last of the four ‘country books’ that launched his career, it is an attractive miscellany of rural life, country lore and natural history.  John Fowles wrote that the book ‘comes from the heart of his special landscape, in every sense: personally, historically, spiritually, aesthetically.’

 

“It happened one Sunday morning in June that a swarm of bees issued from a hive in a cottage garden near Okebourne church. The queen at first took up her position in an elm tree just outside the churchyard, where a large cluster of bees quickly depended from a bough. Being at a great height the cottager could not take them, and, anxious not to lose the swarm, he resorted to the ancient expedient of rattling fire-tongs and shovel together in order to attract them by the clatter. The discordant banging of the fire-irons resounded in the church, the doors being open to admit the summer air; and the noise became so uproarious that the clerk presently, at a sign from the rector, went out to stop it, for the congregation were in a grin. He did stop it, the cottager desisting with much reluctance; but, as if to revenge the bee-master’s wrongs, in the course of the day the swarm, quitting the elm, entered the church and occupied a post in the roof.

 

After a while it was found that the swarm had finally settled there, and were proceeding to build combs and lay in a store of honey. The bees, indeed, became such a terror to nervous people, buzzing without ceremony over their heads as they stood up to sing, and caused such a commotion and buffeting with Prayer-books and fans and handkerchiefs, that ultimately the congregation were compelled to abandon their pews. All efforts to dislodge the bees proving for the time ineffectual, the rector had a temporary reading-desk erected in the porch, and there held the service, the congregation sitting on chairs and forms in the yard, and some on the stone tombs, and even on the sward under the shade of the yew tree.

 

In the warm dry hay-making weather this open-air worship was very pleasant, the flowers in the grass and the roses in the little plots about the tombs giving colour and sweet odours, while the swallows glided gracefully overhead and sometimes a blackbird whistled. The bees, moreover, interfered with the baptisms, and even caused several marriages to be postponed. Inside the porch was a recess where the women left their pattens in winter, instead of clattering iron-shod down the aisle.”

 

“The heat of a warm June day seemed still more powerful in this hollow. The sedges, into which two or three moorhens had retired at my approach, were still, and the leaves on the boughs overhanging the water were motionless. Where there was a space free from weeds—a deeper hole near the bank—a jack basked at the surface in the sunshine. High above on the hill stood a tall dead fir, from whose trunk the bark was falling; it had but one branch, which stood out bare and stark across the sky. There came a sound like distant thunder, but there were no clouds overhead, and it was not possible to see far round. Pushing gently through the hawthorn bushes and ash-stoles at the farther end of the pond, I found a pleasant little stream rushing swiftly over a clear chalky bottom, hastening away down to the larger brook.

 

Beyond it rose a mound and hedgerow, up to which came the meadows, where, from the noise, the cattle seemed racing to and fro, teased by insects. Tiny black flies alighting on my hands and face, irritated the skin; the haymakers call them ‘thunder-flies;’ but the murmur of the running water was so delicious that I sat down on a bulging tree-root, almost over the stream, and listened to the thrushes singing. Had it been merely warm they would have been silent. They do not sing in dry sunshine, but they knew what was coming; so that there is no note so hated by the haymaker as that of the thrush. The birds were not in the firs, but in the ash-trees along the course of the rill.

 

The voice of the thrush is the most ‘cultivated,’ so to speak, of all our birds: the trills, the runs, the variations, are so numerous and contrasted. Not even the nightingale can equal it: the nightingale has not nearly such command: the thrush seems to know no limit. I own I love the blackbird best, but in excellence of varied music the thrush surpasses all. Few birds, except those that are formed for swimming, come to a still pond. They like a clear running stream; they visit the sweet running water for drinking and bathing. Dreaming away the time, listening to the rush of the water bubbling about the stones, I did not notice that the sky had become overcast, till suddenly a clap of thunder near at hand awakened me. Some heavy drops of rain fell; I looked up and saw the dead branch of the fir on the hill stretched out like a withered arm across a black cloud.”

 

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LAPWINGS IN SPRING

Simon Coleman

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The following passages are from ‘Haunts of the Lapwing’, Part 2, which is subtitled ‘Spring’.  See the earlier post for Part 1 of this essay: ‘Winter’. Once again, Jefferies displays a profound sympathy with his subject and an enduring fascination with the behaviour of a relatively common bird.  Other well-loved sights and sounds of spring – the stream, the flowers, a nightingale – enrich the scene and add depth to the principal subject matter.  When reading Jefferies’ natural history works, we can always be confident that he never simply tells us what we could expect to discover on a typical day at a certain time of the year: instead he relates what he actually did see, and how he came to make the observations.  In this manner, they never feel commonplace.

 

“A soft sound of water moving among thousands of grass-blades – to the hearing it is as the sweetness of spring air to the scent. It is so faint and so diffused that the exact spot whence it issues cannot be discerned, yet it is distinct, and my footsteps are slower as I listen. Yonder, in the corners of the mead, the atmosphere is full of some ethereal vapour. The sunshine stays in the air there, as if the green hedges held the wind from brushing it away. Low and plaintive come the notes of a lapwing; the same notes, but tender with love…

 

From the bushes by the stile on the left hand, which I have just passed, follows the long whistle of a nightingale. His nest is near; he sings night and day. Had I waited on the stile, in a few minutes, becoming used to my presence, he would have made the hawthorn vibrate, so powerful in his voice when heard close at hand. There is not another nightingale along this path for at least a mile, though it crosses meadows and runs by hedges to all appearance equally suitable; but nightingales will not pass their limits; they seem to have a marked-out range as strictly defined as the lines of a geological map. They will not go over to the next hedge – hardly into the field on one side of a favourite spot, nor a yard farther along the mound. Opposite the oak is a low fence of serrated green. Just projecting above the edge of a brook, fast-growing flags have thrust up their bayonet-tips. Beneath their stalks are so thick in the shallow places that a pike can scarcely push a way between them. Over the brook stand some high maple trees; to their thick foliage wood-pigeons come. The entrance to a coomb, the widening mouth of a valley, is beyond, with copses on the slopes.

 

Again the plover’s notes; this time in the field immediately behind; repeated, too, in the field on the right hand. One comes over, and as he flies he jerks a wing upwards and partly turns on his side in the air, rolling like a vessel in a swell. He seems to beat the air sideways, as if against a wall, not downwards. This habit makes his course appear so uncertain; he may go there, or yonder, or in a third direction, more undecided than a startled snipe. Is there a little vanity in that wanton flight? Is there a little consciousness of the spring-freshened colours of his plumage, and pride in the dainty touch of his wings on the sweet wind? His love is watching his wayward course. He prolongs it. He has but a few yards to fly to reach the well-known feeding-ground by the brook where the grass is short; perhaps it has been eaten off by sheep. It is a straight and easy line as a starling would fly. The plover thinks nothing of a straight line; he winds first with the course of the hedge, then rises aslant, uttering his cry, wheels, and returns; now this way, direct at me, as if his object was to display his snowy breast; suddenly rising aslant again, he wheels once more, and goes right away from his object over above the field whence he came. Another moment and he returns; and so to and fro, and round and round, till with a sidelong, unexpected sweep he alights by the brook. He stands a minute, then utters his cry, and runs a yard or so forward. In a little while a second plover arrives from the field behind. He too dances a maze in the air before he settles. Soon a third joins them. They are visible at that spot because the grass is short, elsewhere they would be hidden. If one of these rises and flies to and fro almost instantly another follows, and then it is, indeed, a dance before they alight. The wheeling, maze-tracing, devious windings continue till the eye wearies and rests with pleasure on a passing butterfly. These birds have nests in the meadows adjoining; they meet here as a common feeding-ground. Presently they will disperse, each returning to his mate at the nest. Half an hour afterwards they will meet once more, either here or on the wing.

 

In this manner they spend their time from dawn through the flower-growing day till dusk. When the sun arises over the hill into the sky already blue the plovers have been up a long while. All the busy morning they go to and fro – the busy morning, when the wood-pigeons cannot rest in the copses on the coomb-side, but continually fly in and out; when the blackbirds whistle in the oaks, when the bluebells gleam with purplish lustre. At noontide, in the dry heat, it is pleasant to listen to the sound of water moving among the thousand thousand grass-blades of the mead. The flower-growing day lengthens out beyond the sunset, and till the hedges are dim the lapwings do not cease.

 

Leaving now the shade of the oak, I follow the path into the meadow on the right, stepping by the way over a streamlet, which diffuses its rapid current broadcast over the sward till it collects again and pours into the brook. This next meadow is somewhat more raised, and not watered; the grass is high and full of buttercups. Before I have gone twenty yards a lapwing rises out in the field, rushes towards me through the air, and circles round my head, making as if to dash at me, and uttering shrill cries. Immediately another comes from the mead behind the oak; then a third from over the hedge, and all those that have been feeding by the brook, till I am encircled with them. They wheel round, dive, rise aslant, cry, and wheel again, always close over me, till I have walked some distance, when, one by one, they fall off, and, still uttering threats, retire. There is a nest in this meadow, and, although it is, no doubt, a long way from the path, my presence even in the field, large as it is, is resented. The couple who imagine their possessions threatened are quickly joined by their friends, and there is no rest till I have left their treasures far behind.”

 

 

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.