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.

47047579-robin-on-the-garden-wall

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.

The Hard Craft of Writing

peven 2

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.

Thoughts at Dawn

Simon Coleman

dawn light

There are many references to the magic of the dawn in Jefferies’ writings. In the following passage, from an untitled manuscript unpublished during his lifetime*, his desire for a life filled with beauty and expanded knowledge returns with every dawn. The ‘upheld finger of light’ brings with it a clear and direct message: existence contains infinite possibilities. The dawn rays emerge from the unknown depths of space, never ceasing to bring daylight to the earth. Light has no limit. It comes as a guide to Jefferies, pointing a way through the darkness of human ignorance and the miasma of petty circumstances. Characteristically, he wonders about the possibilities beyond light: the things that might be hidden from scientific inquiry.

The goddess of dawn features regularly in Jefferies’ favourite book, Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. When he came to write an Odyssey of his own, the strange futuristic novel ‘After London’, he named his heroine ‘Aurora’, the Roman name for dawn.
(* The work shows similarities to a passage in ‘The Story of My Heart’ and to an essay titled ‘The Dawn’.)

“Dawn causes a desire for larger thought. The recognition of the light at the moment of awaking kindles afresh the wish for a broad day of the mind. The certainty that there are yet ideas further and more great, that there are things yet more beautiful, that there is still the limitless something beyond urges a stronger search. This dim white light tells of so much that must sometime be. So many many songs in the wood that the birds will presently sing; so many flowers that will open! Music for the mind yet unheard, and loveliness undreamed of! Up to this hour a mere nothing has been known, a mere nothing enjoyed. But the dawn speaks of an expanse from which endless songs and flowers may still be drawn. This dim white light is like a crevice which admits a beam into a cave and leads the wanderer from the dark catacomb to the open air and heavens. As infinite as that sky are the possibilities of the morning.

A river runs itself clear during the night, and in sleep the thought becomes pellucid. All the hurrying to and fro, the unrest and stress, the agitation and confusion subside. Like a sweet spring thought pours forth to meet the light and is illumined to its utmost depth. I know that there is no limit to the things that may be yet in material and tangible shape besides those immaterial imaginings and perceptions which are the very dew of the soul. I know it: I am certain and assured: the dim white light speaks it. This prophet which has come with its miracle every morn so many thousands of years faces me once again with the upheld finger of light. Where is the limit to that sign? From the hills it has come to my room: from the far sea it has come to the hills: from the azure sky to the sea: from the illimitable space to the sky. How much farther backwards shall be traced it? This is only to me. To every blade of grass, to every leaf, to the tiniest insect, to the million waves of ocean, to all earth, it comes. But this still is all only an atom in the majesty of the profound: our vast earth a mote in that sunbeam by which we are conscious of one narrow streak in the abyss. A beam crosses a silent chamber from the window, or aslant between the fixtures, and in it a thousand particles are visible, while the air each side is blank. Through the heavens a beam falls and we are aware of the star-stratum in which our earth moves. But what may be without that star-stratum? To the strongest instrument it is a blank: but be certain it is not a void. This light tells us much, but I think in the course of time still more delicate and subtle mediums will be found to exist, and through these we shall see into the shadows of the sky.”

The Four Miracles

THE FOUR MIRACLES

Simon Coleman

Sunshine

Source: pimlico-flats.co.uk

Looking at human society today, it is incredible how complex our systems of communication, commerce and government have become. Whatever has been gained in terms of convenience and time-saving, we cannot escape the fact that the primary reality of nature and the whole living cosmos has been pushed to the margins of life. Deadening routines and rampant materialism have taken over much of everyday thought, while most of our entertainment industry is driven by an obsession with instant sensation and images designed to shock our overworked and weakened psyches. In a subtle but very real sense, we are all under attack from mass society.

Back in late Victorian England Richard Jefferies gazed with amazement at the frenetic motions of the London crowds, then, as now, driven on by a powerful complex of impulses, interests and fears that few had the time or the insight to examine or question. Standing by the Royal Exchange in the City of London, Jefferies tried to make some sense of the grim reality before him.

There is an indistinguishable noise—it is not clatter, hum, or roar, it is not resolvable; made up of a thousand thousand footsteps, from a thousand hoofs, a thousand wheels—of haste, and shuffle, and quick movements, and ponderous loads; no attention can resolve it into a fixed sound.

Blue carts and yellow omnibuses, varnished carriages and brown vans, green omnibuses and red cabs, pale loads of yellow straw, rusty-red iron clanking on paintless carts, high white wool-packs, grey horses, bay horses, black teams; sunlight sparkling on brass harness, gleaming from carriage panels; jingle, jingle, jingle! An intermixed and intertangled, ceaselessly changing jingle, too, of colour; flecks of colour champed, as it were, like bits in the horses’ teeth, frothed and strewn about, and a surface always of dark-dressed people winding like the curves on fast-flowing water. This is the vortex and whirlpool, the centre of human life today on the earth. Now the tide rises and now it sinks, but the flow of these rivers always continues. Here it seethes and whirls, not for an hour only, but for all present time, hour by hour, day by day, year by year.

Here it rushes and pushes, the atoms triturate and grind, and, eagerly thrusting by, pursue their separate ends. Here it appears in its unconcealed personality, indifferent to all else but itself, absorbed and rapt in eager self, devoid and stripped of conventional gloss and politeness, yielding only to get its own way; driving, pushing, carried on in a stress of feverish force like a bullet, dynamic force apart from reason or will, like the force that lifts the tides and sends the clouds onwards. The friction of a thousand interests evolves a condition of electricity in which men are moved to and fro without considering their steps. Yet the agitated pool of life is stonily indifferent, the thought is absent or preoccupied, for it is evident that the mass are unconscious of the scene in which they act.

But it is more sternly real than the very stones, for all these men and women that pass through are driven on by the push of accumulated circumstances; they cannot stay, they must go, their necks are in the slave’s ring, they are beaten like seaweed against the solid walls of fact. In ancient times, Xerxes, the king of kings, looking down upon his myriads, wept to think that in a hundred years not one of them would be left. 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? If they wither away like summer grass, will not at least a result be left which those of a hundred years hence may be the better for? No, not one jot! 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. There will be no more sum or result than accumulates from the motion of a revolving cowl on a housetop. Nor do they receive any more sunshine during their lives, for they are unconscious of the sun.” (‘The Story of My Heart’).

With his own heart he tries to look into the hearts of those caught up in the maelstrom of work, money and the unstable energies produced by mass society.

Is there any theory, philosophy, or creed, is there any system or culture, any formulated method able to meet and satisfy each separate item of this agitated pool of human life? By which they may be guided, by which hope, by which look forward? Not a mere illusion of the craven heart—something real, as real as the solid walls of fact against which, like drifted sea-weed, they are dashed; something to give each separate personality sunshine and a flower in its own existence now; something to shape this million-handed labour to an end and outcome that will leave more sunshine and more flowers to those who must succeed? Something real now, and not in the spirit-land; in this hour now, as I stand and the sun burns. Can any creed, philosophy, system, or culture endure the test and remain unmolten in this fierce focus of human life?”

Jefferies, of course, is conscious all the time of the sun and the workings of the cosmos all around – not as physical facts only but as primary realities which are part of our true existence. Our minds, our hearts, have the deepest affinity with the elements of nature and the mysteries of existence. These things are in us; we know them instinctively. The materialistic fantasies of natural selection and Big Bang have nothing to say to our true natures, being divorced from the realm of the heart. They are intellect-produced, as devoid of creative insight as the governments and financial centres that underpin the rigid materialism of our age.

Let’s remind ourselves of the wonders of the elements of nature…or rather, let Jefferies remind us.

The water that runs there in the brook; the earth which I place my foot on; the air I breathe; the sunlight coming so softly through the apple bloom: these are the four miracles. They are astounding miracles: they are marvellous beyond expression.” (‘The Old House at Coate’)