In the Early Autumn

Rebecca Welshman

autumnparkland

Source: http://foam.merseyforest.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/image1.jpeg

Jefferies wrote this article for the Pall Mall Gazette in 1879, which formed part of a seasonal series. The entire article can be found in the collection ‘Chronicles of the Hedges’. Here Jefferies captures the changeability of autumn, that raw, almost hushed excitement that you can feel upon walking through an autumnal landscape. The colours of the season are a celebration in themselves – as if the foliage of the land is making its final stand against the onset of winter with vibrancy and stoicism. In autumn the leaves of spring finally find their ultimate forms before they drop from their boughs altogether. Crisp, curled, stained in brown and russet, they form a collage that so many of us look forward to seeing and experiencing. The winds of change are abroad…so let us step into October…

“Hardy October has an especial charm to those who love the open air. The winds rush forward with a bluff freedom, and welcome you to the fields with hearty rudeness. Something seems to prepare the frame to stand the coming winter. The footsteps would fain wander farther and farther through the woodland, where the sward is hidden under fallen leaves. The scene changes with the hour of the day. Come to the hedgerow here, beside the stubble, early in the morning, and the mist conceals the other side of the field; the great hawthorn bushes loom out from it, and the grass by the ditch is white with heavy dew. By-and-by the mist clears, and the sky gives its own grey tint to all things. All sounds are hushed, and all colours subdued. Yet later on the breeze rises, and as it sweeps past throws a golden largesse of leaves on either hand. The monotonous grey sky resolves itself into separate clouds, which hasten overhead, with gaps where the sun seems nearly to shine through. These places are brightly illuminated from above, and yet the beams do not penetrate. After a while there comes a gleam of sunshine, and the eyes that have been bent on earth instinctively look up- The hedge is still so green with leaves that the wind is warded off and the sunshine is pleasantly warm. The rays have immediately found out and lit up every spot of colour. In the hawthorn the dull red haws, very large this year; on the briar the scarlet hips; a few flowers still lingering on the gambles; a pale herb of betony under the bushes, a late knapweed, a few thistles yet blooming—these catch the glance along the hedge. The short stubble is almost concealed by a rank growth of weeds, above which rise the fading  yellow heads of the camomile, heads from which the white petals have drooped and fallen. The boughs of yonder horse-chestnuts have been thinned of foliage by the wind; but every leaf that remains is bright with tints of yellow. One tree especially stands out above the hedge; the leaves are almost crimson, so deeply has the frost touched them. It is not often that the foliage of the horse-chestnut takes so rich a dye as may be seen this autumn. The leaves commonly fall before their first pale yellow has reddened. The elms and oaks are still green, and show but little apparent change, though in truth much of their foliage has dropped. A brown oak leaf lies on the sward; it glistens with dew as if the colour laid on it was still wet. Along the shore of the pond a broad fringe of fallen leaves—from the elm that overshadows it— undulates on the wavelets that roll into the rushes and are lost. Up the slender rushes a tint of yellow is rising; the pointed flags that lift their green swords so proudly have bent, and their tips rest in the water. In the corner by the copse the thick growth of fern has become brown, and the tuffets of grass are streaked with grey. Overhead, the sky is now a beautiful blue; and if you look into the shadows of the trees—as in the copse where there is an open space—you will note that they are very soft and delicate. There are no sharply defined dark edges—the shadow between the tree-trunks appears like an indistinct mist. The eye as it gazes becomes conscious of undertones of colour for which there is no name. A cloud passes over the sun, and instantly they are blotted out. The beams fall again upon the wood, and the glow as immediately returns.

The acorns are full on the oak boughs, but they are still quite green, and none have dropped. Glad in the sunshine, the greenfinches troop along the hedge calling to each other sweetly. Larks rise and hover just above the trees, wheeling round, and returning to the earth. Now and then one soars and sings. On the top of the hawthorn bushes in the hedge the hedge-sparrows utter a single note from time to time-Not now, but early in the morning, the song of the robin comes through the mist, and the lively ‘fink’ of the chaffinch sounds in the tree. Thrushes sometimes sing in October; but hitherto the sharp frosts at the dawn have silenced them. Two or three swallows still float to-day in the blue sky above the wood. How slowly the plough goes through the stubble; the horses scarcely seem to move! Yet by degrees the space between the furrows becomes less, till nothing but a narrow path remains; and that is finally upturned by the share. They who live by the earth must be patient, and content to move slow like the seasons. Passing the gateway the shelter of the hedge is for the moment lost, and the northern blast rushes with all its force full in the face. This is the pleasure of October—the deep blue sky, the glowing colour of the leaves, the bright sun that lights up even the grey lichen on the oak bark, and with it the keen invigorating breeze that strengthens every limb. Travellers tell us of the wonderful colours of tropical forests; but then the moist sweltering heat renders the explorer incapable of enjoying them. But in English woodlands autumn colour is accompanied by a subtle change in the atmosphere which braces the wanderer.”

The Return of the Swallows

Rebecca Welshman

 barn-swallow

Source: awwproject.org

I was standing on the pavement of a quiet Sussex village and had just stepped outside to catch the last few rays of the evening sun. It had been a busy day, and my head was reeling with all the things I’d had to do. So caught up in the fast pace of life had I been of late, that I had not given a thought to when I might see my first Swallow of the year. It was therefore a wonderful surprise, looking up into the blue sky over the village houses, when the dark, sleek form of a Swallow suddenly swept into view over a chimney top in jubilant and darting flight. The moment of his appearance was very briefly preceded by the familiar happy chattering that I had not heard since last September. Soon there was another, and every moment that I watched the pair skimming the rooftops I felt closer to the idea of summer. Jefferies recalls the arrival of swallows in Sussex, in 1887:

“The eave-swallows have come at last with the midsummer-time, and the hay and white clover and warm winds that breathe hotly, like one that has been running uphill. With the paler hawkweeds, whose edges are so delicately trimmed and cut and balanced, almost as if made by cleft human fingers to human design, whose globes of down are like geometrical circles built up of facets, instead of by one revolution of the compasses. With foxglove, and dragon-fly, and yellowing wheat; with green cones of fir, and boom of distant thunder, and all things that say, ‘It is summer.’ Not many of them even now, sometimes only two in the air together, sometimes three or four, and one day eight, the very greatest number—a mere handful, for these eave-swallows at such times should crowd the sky. The white bars across their backs should be seen gliding beside the dark fir copse a quarter of a mile away. They should be seen everywhere, over the house, and to and fro the eaves, where half last year’s nest remains; over the meadows and high up in the blue ether. White breasts should gleam in the azure height, appearing and disappearing as they climb or sink, and wheel and slide through those long boomerang-like flights that suddenly take them a hundred yards aside. They should crowd the sky together with the ruddy-throated chimney-swallows, and the great swifts; but though it is hay-time and the apples are set, yet eight eave-swallows is the largest number I have counted in one afternoon. They did not come at all in the spring. After the heavy winter cleared away, the delicate willow-wrens soon sang in the tops of the beautiful green larches, the nightingale came, and the cuckoo, the chimney-swallow, the doves softly cooing as the oaks came into leaf, and the black swifts. Up to May 26 there were no eave-swallows at the Sussex hill-side where these notes were taken; that is more than a month later than the date of their usual arrival, which would be about the middle of April. After this they gradually came back. The chimney-swallows were not so late, but even they are not so numerous as usual. The swifts seem to have come more in their accustomed numbers. Now, the swallows are, of all others, the summer birds. As well suppose the trees without leaves as the summer air without swallows. Ever since of old time the Greeks went round from house to house in spring singing the swallow song, these birds have been looked upon as the friends of man, and almost as the very givers of the sunshine.”

I cannot accurately describe how I felt when seeing the Swallows the other day. If it were physically possible for the heart to rise within the chest, lifting the spirit with it, then this would be akin to the feeling. On seeing the bird, I had a sudden sense of its joy, following it as it rose and dipped. I was reminded of its long journey, its endurance, its faithfulness and unswerving dedication to return to the same place each year. Something in the bird’s unfettered freedom awakened a dormant strain of thought of my own that I had been neglecting to nurture. The Swallow, reminding me of all these things, was a messenger of hope. As Jefferies wrote:

“The beautiful swallows, be tender to them, for they symbol all that is best in nature and all that is best in our hearts.”

 

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.

Among the Shadows of Summer

woods

Rebecca Welshman

In Jefferies’ writings a shadow, as an indicator of light, is something ordinary, yet it contains the extraordinary. Jefferies would often notice and record the position and length of shadows cast by trees. In The Old House at Coate the shadows of the elm trees and the old oak in the field boundary reflect the position of the summer sun:

“In the morning, the shadows of the elms by the rick-yard on the east side of the roadway extended almost across the meadow: at noon, in summer, even the wide- spreading oak in the first hedgerow to the south scarcely darkened the grass”

In Bevis the shifting seasons are echoed by the changing length of the oak’s shadow:

“At noon he was twice as high as the southern oak, and every day at noontide the shadows gradually shortened. The nightingale sang in the musical April night, the cowslips opened, and the bees hummed over the meadows.”

A shadow is not simply caused by an obstruction to the light, it is a phenomenon in itself – it tells us things about the world in which we live. Shadow is an essential condition of contrast to the light, which can illuminate other states or aspects of ourselves. In The Dewy Morn, after a period of separation and misunderstanding, Felise and Martial finally come to understand and accept one another. The two are reconciled in a peaceful green spot, overlooking undulating cornfields and meadows, beneath the shade of a beech tree. Jefferies writes that they sit on a green bank, near a sundial, where patches of sunlight dapple the grass. The scene suggests the importance of being able to give oneself up fully to the moment, even with the knowledge that one day all the beauty will fade into the past:

“So great was her joy in her love, it seemed the width of the dome of the sky was not wide enough to express it. Upon the green and tarnished face of the ancient sundial there was written in worn letters, Nihil nisi mnbra — Nothing without shadow; no, not even love. The fervour of passion must needs cast the deepest shadow beside it. Let us welcome the shadow if only we can have the sunlight of love. …. Till he came the fields, the woods, the hills, the broad sea were incomplete; to all he gave a meaning. She endowed him with all that she perceived in the glory and mystery around her by day and by night. Of old time the shadow of the gnomon glided over marble; sometimes they built great structures to show the passage of the shadow more distinctly — observatories of shadow. Not only on this round horizontal disk of greenish metal, not only on those ancient marble slabs, but over the whole earth the shadow advances, for the earth is the gnomon of night. The sunlight and the night, year by year, century by century, cycle by cycle; how long is it? Can anyone say? So long has love, too, endured, passing on and handed down from heart to heart.

The long Roll of Love reaching back into the profoundest abyss of Time, upon it fresh names are written day by day.

Felise’s love was pure indeed; yet what is there that the purest love is not capable of for the one to whom the soul is devoted?

Self-immolation, self-sacrifice, death — is there anything love refuses?

Still the shadow slips on the green rust of the dial. Let even life pass from us if only we can have love.

Felise saw the beauty of the earth, and with that beauty she loved; the cool green flags in the meadow-brook; the reeds which moved forward and advanced as if about to step forth from the water as they swayed; the deep blue of the sky; the ruddy gold of the wheat under the pale yellow haze.

The rolling boom of the thunder came through the fields of light, the earth glowed warmer.

That the wonderful mechanism of the mind, the heart, of life, should be capable of emotion so divine, and yet should so soon perish — is it not unutterably cruel?

So many, and so many, who have loved in the long passage of time, but are gone as the shadow goes from the dial when the sun sinks. Are, then, our noblest feelings to fade and become void?

Upon the sundial there were curious graven circles and interwoven angles, remnants of the ancient lore which saw fate in the stars and read things above nature in nature. Symbols and signs are still needed, for the earth and life are still mysterious; they cannot be written, they require the inarticulate sign of the magician.

Let us not outlive love in our days, and come to look back with sorrow on those times.

You have seen the ships upon the sea; they sail hither and thither thousands of miles. Do they find aught equal to love? Can they bring back precious gems to rival it from the rich south?

The reapers have been in the corn these thousand years, the miners in the earth, the toilers in the city; in all the labour and long-suffering is there anything like unto love? Any reward or profit in the ships, the mines, the warehouses?

What are the institutions of man, the tawdry state, the false law, the subsidized superstition, and poor morality, that pale shadow of truth — what are these by love?

Could but love stay, could but love have its will, and no more would be needed for eternity.”

Through the image of a shadow continually advancing over the earth Jefferies imagines a vast dial to be an ever present reminder of our earthly condition. The sundial motto – ‘nothing without shadow; no, not even love’ – suggests that even love needs a shadow by which to be seen and appreciated. Until this point in the novel, Felise and Martial have been out of harmony with one another and unable to trust one another’s motives or feelings. It has taken a journey through the darkness of misunderstanding, loneliness and despair in order to reach the other side and emerge into the light and air of romance. The sundial, with its indicator of shade – the gnomon – is thus imbued with significance for understanding the passing of life and the meaning of love.

In other works shadows hold something mysterious – they beckon and entice the thought outwards to somewhere beyond the self. Reading and writing outside under an apple tree, among the shadows of summer, tells Jefferies something about the principles and limitations of human existence.

“I can never read in summer out of doors. Though in shadow the bright light fills it, summer shadows are broadest daylight. The page is so white and hard, the letters so very black, the meaning and drift not quite intelligible, because neither eye nor mind will dwell upon it. Human thoughts and imaginings written down are pale and feeble in bright summer light. The eye wanders away, and rests more lovingly on greensward and green lime leaves.”

The heat of a summer’s day is bearable in the shade and affords the perfect balance in temperature. However, ‘the very shade of the pen on the paper’ expresses to him the difficulty of writing down the ‘delicacy and beauty of thought or feeling’. The printed words of the book are dark on the bright page:

‘there is the shade and the brilliant gleaming whiteness; now tell me in plain written words the simple contrast of the two. Not in twenty pages, for the bright light shows the paper in its common fibre-ground, coarse aspect, in its reality, not as a mind-tablet.’

In the contrast between light and shade the vitality of the living world suddenly becomes visible and luminous. The flowering veronica and its neighbouring grass blade ‘throw light and beauty on each other’ – they demonstrate their mirror existence, as a sundial and its gnomon are mutually dependent. Light and beauty are thus two parts of the same whole.

In The Story of My Heart beauty is a principle expressed through harmony between light and shade:

“The grass stood high above me, and the shadows of the tree-branches danced on my face. I looked up at the sky, with half-closed eyes to bear the dazzling light. Bees buzzed over me, sometimes a butterfly passed, there was a hum in the air”

A shadow is a mark upon the earth that leaves no imprint or trace. Yet without shadow we would not know the light. The very nature of this contrast suggests to Jefferies a condition in which our hearts and minds are open to the harmonic energies around us, which can contribute to well-being, health, and wholeness of spirit. Jefferies considers whether it might be possible to somehow keep this ideal condition active within the human heart.

nature sparrow wildflowers birds 1920x1200 wallpaper_www.animalhi.com_4Source: http://www.animalhi.com/thumbnails/detail/20121102/nature%20sparrow%20wildflowers%20birds%201920×1200%20wallpaper_www.animalhi.com_4.jpg

In his essay ‘Wildflowers’ Jefferies associates the birds’ innate desire to sing with their recognition of the light:

“I do not want change: I want the same old and loved things, the same wild-flowers, the same trees and soft ash-green; the turtle-doves, the blackbirds, the coloured yellowhammer sing, sing, singing so long as there is light to cast a shadow on the dial, for such is the measure of his song, and I want them in the same place.”

The yellowhammer is content to sing for as long the sun casts its light upon the earth. ‘Such is the measure of his song’ – measure meaning not only of time, but the meaning and reality of the song itself: what the bird imparts through its instinctive connection with the elements and condition of existence. Such, we might say, is the measure of life. The message being that we need to embrace the brief window of light in which we dwell, before the sun sets and we can no longer sing.

The Blackbird in Movement and Song

Rebecca Welshman

blackbird-in-tree1

In Jefferies’ writings the blackbird appears in different environments – often in the garden, but also in the hedges as he walks among the fields. In The Amateur Poacher, when he is out at night near water meadows, Jefferies spots a blackbird roosting:

“In the thick blackthorn bush a round dark ball indicates the blackbird, who has puffed out his feathers to shield him from the frost, and who will sit so close and quiet that you may see the moonlight glitter on his eye.”

This more unusual depiction of a blackbird – at rest, and ‘quiet’ – offers an insightful alternative to the movement and song usually associated with its daytime activity. The bird is so motionless that the moonlight glitters on the stillness of his eye. That he roosts alone and waits patiently for the cold night to pass suggests his stoicism and independence. There is resilience in the puffing out of his feathers which ‘shield him from the frost’.

To the human onlooker, birds’ daily activities can express certain qualities. In one of Jefferies’ early novels the garden birds contribute to the mood of the scene. Here, the blackbird displays qualities of defiance and fearlessness:

“The starlings marched to and fro upon the lawn; the blackbird washed himself in the fountain before the door, fearless, unhesitatingly.” (Restless Human Hearts)

And again, in the same novel, “a great blackbird with his ‘tawny bill’ splashed himself in a rill not three yards from their feet, and then sat on a bough, and plumed his feathers, and uttered his loud and defiant cry.”

Elsewhere the Blackbird is a symbol of the latent potential of the present moment and the determination needed to move forward and embrace the future. In Field and Hedgerow the movement of the blackbird among the apple blossom reminds Jefferies that spring is changing into summer:

“Blackbird and thrush commence to sing as the heavy heat decreases; the bloom on the apple trees is loose now, and the blackbird as he springs from the bough shakes down flakes of blossom.”

The suddenness and purity of the blackbird’s melody never fails to incite wonder. As a performer the blackbird is “fully conscious” and confident of his individuality:

“Like a great human artist, the blackbird makes no effort, being fully conscious that his liquid tone cannot be matched. He utters a few delicious notes, and carelessly quits the green stage of the oak till it pleases him to sing again.” (‘The Pageant of Summer’)

The “green stage of the oak” may symbolise the larger stage of life upon which we all briefly appear. Contrary to human displays of fear or nervousness, the Blackbird exhibits qualities of strength, stoicism, and independence, and as seen in the earlier examples, is not afraid to defend himself when necessary. The Blackbird lives life in the present and responds to all that it holds.

In a leafy hollow at Long Ditton, Surrey, Jefferies is conscious of the unfolding summer. In this “valley…of music” every oak tree has a blackbird. Perched in the uppermost branches, concealed by foliage, each bird voices its own exquisite song. In the blackbird’s melody Jefferies perceives something human – the bird expresses the beauty of the moment, and encourages a similar form of recognition in Jefferies:

“The blackbird’s whistle is very human, like a human being playing the flute; an uncertain player, now drawing forth a bar of a beautiful melody and then losing it again. He does not know what quiver or what turn his note will take before it ends; the note leads him and completes itself. It is a song which strives to express the singer’s keen delight, the singer’s exquisite appreciation of the loveliness of the days; the golden glory of the meadow, the light, the luxurious shadows, the indolent clouds reclining on their azure couch. Such thoughts can only be expressed in fragments, like a sculptor’s chips thrown off as the inspiration seizes him, not mechanically sawn to a set line. Now and again the blackbird feels the beauty of the time, the large white daisy stars, the grass with yellow-dusted tips, the air which comes so softly unperceived by any precedent rustle of the hedge, the water which runs slower, held awhile by rootlet, flag, and forget-me-not. He feels the beauty of the time and he must say it. His notes come like wild flowers, not sown in order. The sunshine opens and shuts the stops of his instrument.” (‘The Coming of Summer’)

As a person can feel and express emotion through playing an instrument, the Blackbird is able to feel and express beauty through song. The Blackbird, however, is closer to the life of the sun – so close that he responds instinctively to the appearance and disappearance of the sun from behind cloud. He does not plan his notes but surrenders entirely to the spontaneity of the moment.

The flute’s association with the ancient Greek Goddess Athena, who invented the first bridle, first chariot, and built the first ship, connects the Blackbird with the human ability to harness energy and embrace the present. In Jefferies’ natural scene, the harmonious surroundings work subtly together to create a symphony of beauty, with each part bearing its own intrinsic and equal value. Jefferies’ observations of the Blackbird implicitly encourage us to embrace the present more fully through expanding our awareness and mindfulness. How often do we take time to remember that the present knows nothing of the moments which have preceded it, or of the moments yet to come? Like the Blackbird’s song, ‘the beauty of the time’, and all that it holds for us, is complete in itself.

Summer in Somerset

Reflections from Jefferies about time spent on Exmoor and the Quantock Hills in the early 1880s, which were published as ‘Summer in Somerset’

new forest dawn

“The brown Barle River running over red rocks aslant its course is pushed aside, and races round curving slopes. The first shoot of the rapid is smooth and polished like a gem by the lapidary’s art, rounded and smooth as a fragment of torso, and this convex undulation maintains a solid outline. Then the following scoop under is furrowed as if ploughed across, and the ridge of each furrow, where the particles move a little less swiftly than in the hollow of the groove, falls backwards as foam blown from a wave. At the foot of the furrowed decline the current rises over a rock in a broad white sheet–white because as it is dashed to pieces the air mingles with it. After this furious haste the stream does but just overtake those bubbles which have been carried along on another division of the water flowing steadily but straight. Sometimes there are two streams like this between the same banks, sometimes three or even more, each running at a different rate, and each gliding above a floor differently inclined. The surface of each of these streams slopes in a separate direction, and though under the same light they reflect it at varying angles. The river is animated and alive, rushing here, gliding there, foaming yonder; its separate and yet component parallels striving together, and talking loudly in incomplete sentences. Those rivers that move through midland meads present a broad, calm surface, at the same level from side to side; they flow without sound, and if you stood behind a thick hedge you would not know that a river was near. They dream along the meads, toying with their forget-me-nots, too idle even to make love to their flowers vigorously. The brown Barle enjoys his life, and splashes in the sunshine like boys bathing–like them he is sunburnt and brown. He throws the wanton spray over the ferns that bow and bend as the cool breeze his current brings sways them in the shade. He laughs and talks, and sings louder than the wind in his woods.

Here is a pool by the bank under an ash–a deep green pool inclosed by massive rocks, which the stream has to brim over. The water is green–or is it the ferns, and the moss, and the oaks, and the pale ash reflected? This rock has a purple tint, dotted with moss spots almost black; the green water laps at the purple stone, and there is one place where a thin line of scarlet is visible, though I do not know what causes it. Another stone the spray does not touch has been dried to a bright white by the sun. Inclosed, the green water slowly swirls round till it finds crevices, and slips through. A few paces farther up there is a red rapid–reddened stones, and reddened growths beneath the water, a light that lets the red hues overcome the others–a wild rush of crowded waters rotating as they go, shrill voices calling. This next bend upwards dazzles the eyes, for every inclined surface and striving parallel, every swirl, and bubble, and eddy, and rush around a rock chances to reflect the sunlight. Not one long pathway of quiet sheen, such as stretches across a rippled lake, each wavelet throwing back its ray in just proportion, but a hundred separate mirrors vibrating, each inclined at a different angle, each casting a tremulous flash into the face. The eyelids involuntarily droop to shield the gaze from a hundred arrows; they are too strong–nothing can be distinguished but a woven surface of brilliance, a mesh of light, under which the water runs, itself invisible. I will go back to the deep green pool, and walking now with the sun behind, how the river has changed!

Soft, cool shadows reach over it, which I did not see before; green surfaces are calm under trees; the rocks are less hard; the stream runs more gently, and the oaks come down nearer; the delicious sound of the rushing water almost quenches my thirst. My eyes have less work to do to meet the changing features of the current which now seems smooth as my glance accompanies its movement. The sky, which was not noticed before, now appears reaching in rich azure across the deep hollow, from the oaks on one side to the oaks on the other. These woods, which cover the steep and rocky walls of the gorge from river to summit, are filled with the June colour of oak. It is not green, nor russet, nor yellow; I think it may be called a glow of yellow under green. It is warmer than green; the glow is not on the outer leaves, but comes up beneath from the depth of the branches. The rush of the river soothes the mind, the broad descending surfaces of yellow-green oak carry the glance downwards from the blue over to the stream in the hollow. Rush! rush!–it is the river, like a mighty wind in the wood. A pheasant crows, and once and again falls the tap, tap of woodmen’s axes–scarce heard, for they are high above. They strip the young oaks of their bark as far as they can while the saplings stand, then fell them, and as they all lie downhill there are parallel streaks of buff (where the sap has dried) drawn between the yellow-green masses of living leaf. The pathway winds in among the trees at the base of the rocky hill; light green whortleberries fill every interstice, bearing tiny red globes of flower–flower-lamps–open at the top. Wood-sorrel lifts its delicate veined petals; the leaf is rounded like the shadow of a bubble on a stone under clear water. I like to stay by the wood-sorrel a little while–it is so chastely beautiful; like the purest verse, it speaks to the inmost heart. Staying, I hear unconsciously–listen! Rush! rush! like a mighty wind in the wood.

It draws me on to the deep green pool inclosed about by rocks–a pool to stand near and think into. The purple rock, dotted with black moss; the white rock; the thin scarlet line; the green water; the overhanging tree; the verdant moss upon the bank; the lady fern–are there still. But I see also now a little pink somewhere in the water, much brown too, and shades I know no name for. The water is not green, but holds in solution three separate sets of colours. The confervae on the stones, the growths beneath at the bottom waving a little as the water swirls like minute seaweeds–these are brown and green and somewhat reddish too. Under water the red rock is toned and paler, but has deep black cavities. Next, the surface, continually changing as it rotates, throws back a different light, and thirdly, the oaks’ yellow-green high up, the pale ash, the tender ferns drooping over low down confer their tints on the stream. So from the floor of the pool, from the surface, and from the adjacent bank, three sets of colours mingle. Washed together by the slow swirl, they produce a shade–the brown of the Barle–lost in darkness where the bank overhangs.

Following the current downwards at last the river for awhile flows in quietness, broad and smooth. A trout leaps for a fly with his tail curved in the air, full a foot out of water. Trout watch behind sunken stones, and shoot to and fro as insects droop in their flight and appear about to fall. So clear is the water and so brightly illuminated that the fish are not easily seen–for vision depends on contrast–but in a minute I find a way to discover them by their shadows. The black shadow of a trout is distinct upon the bottom of the river, and guides the eye to the spot; then looking higher in the transparent water there is the fish. It was curious to see these black shadows darting to and fro as if themselves animated and without bodies, for if the trout darted before being observed the light concealed him in motion. Some of the trout came up from under Torre-steps, a singular structure which here connects the shores of the stream. Every one has seen a row of stepping-stones across a shallow brook; now pile other stones on each of these, forming buttresses, and lay flat stones like unhewn planks from buttress to buttress, and you have the plan of this primitive bridge. It has a megalithic appearance, as if associated with the age of rude stone monuments. They say its origin is doubtful; there can be no doubt of the loveliness of the spot. The Barle comes with his natural rush and fierceness under the unhewn stone planking, then deepens, and there overhanging a black pool–for the shadow was so deep as to be black–grew a large bunch of marsh-marigolds in fullest flower, the broad golden cups almost resting on the black water. The bridge is not intended for wheels, and though it is as firm as the rock, foot passengers have to look at their steps, as the great planks, flecked with lichen at the edges, are not all level. The horned sheep and lambs go over it–where do they not go? Like goats they wander everywhere.

In a cottage some way up the hill we ate clotted cream and whortleberry jam. Through the open door came the ceaseless rush! rush! like a wind in the wood. The floor was of concrete, lime and sand; on the open hearth–pronounced ‘airth’–sods of turf cut from the moor and oak branches were smouldering under the chimney crook. Turf smoke from the piled-up fires of winter had darkened the beams of the ceiling, but from that rude room there was a view of the river, and the hill, and the oaks in full June colour, which the rich would envy. Sometimes in early morning the wild red deer are seen feeding on the slope opposite. As we drove away in reckless Somerset style, along precipices above the river, with nothing but a fringe of fern for parapet, the oak woods on the hills under us were shading down into evening coolness of tint, the yellow less warm, the green more to the surface. Upon the branches of the trees moss grows, forming a level green top to the round bough like a narrow cushion along it, with frayed edges drooping over each side. Though moss is common on branches, it does not often make a raised cushion, thick, as if green velvet pile were laid for the birds to run on. There were rooks’ nests in some tall ash trees; the scanty foliage left the nests exposed, they were still occupied by late broods. Rooks’ nests are not often seen in ashes as in elms.

By a mossy bank a little girl–a miniature Audrey–stout, rosy, and ragged, stood with a yellow straw hat aslant on her yellow hair, eating the leaves from a spray of beech in her hand. Audrey looked at us, eating the beech leaves steadily, but would not answer, not even ‘Where’s your father to?’ For in Somerset the ‘to’ is put last, and must never be omitted; thus, instead of saying ‘I bought this at Taunton,’ it is correct to say ‘I bought this to Taunton.’ There are models under glass cases in places of entertainment with a notice to say that if a penny be inserted the machine will go. Audrey the Little would not speak, but when a penny was put in her hand she began to move, and made off for home with the treasure. The road turned and turned, but whichever way the Barle was always under us, and the red rock rose high at the side. This rock fractures aslant if worked, vast flakes come out, and the cleavage is so natural that until closely approached a quarry appears a cliff. Stone got out in squares, or cut down straight, leaves an artificial wall; these rocks cannot be made to look artificial, and if painted a quarry would be certainly quite indistinguishable from a natural precipice. Entering a little town (Dulverton) the road is jammed tight between cottages: so narrow is the lane that foot passengers huddle up in doorways to avoid the touch of the wheels, and the windows of the houses are protected by iron bars like cages lest the splash-boards should crack the glass. Nowhere in closest-built London is there such a lane–one would imagine land to be dear indeed. The farm labourers, filing homewards after their day’s work, each carry poles of oak or fagots on their shoulders for their hearths, generally oak branches; it is their perquisite. The oak somehow takes root among the interstices of the stones of this rocky land. Past the houses the rush! rush! of the brown Barle rises again in the still evening air.

From the Devon border I drifted like a leaf detached from a tree, across to a deep coombe in the Quantock Hills. The vast hollow is made for repose and lotus-eating; its very shape, like a hammock, indicates idleness. There the days go over noiselessly and without effort, like white summer clouds. Ridges each side rise high and heroically steep–it would be proper to set out and climb them, but not to-day, not now: some time presently. To the left massive Will’s Neck stands out in black shadow defined and distinct, like a fragment of night in the bright light of the day. The wild red deer lie there, but the mountain is afar; a sigh is all I can give to it, for the Somerset sun is warm and the lotus sweet Yonder, if the misty heat moves on, the dim line of Dunkery winds along the sky, not unlike the curved back of a crouching hare. The weight of the mountains is too great–what is the use of attempting to move? It is enough to look at them. The day goes over like a white cloud; as the sun declines it is pleasant to go into the orchard–the vineyard of Somerset, and then perhaps westward may be seen a light in the sky by the horizon as if thrown up from an immense mirror under. The mirror is the Severn sea, itself invisible at this depth, but casting a white glow up against the vapour in the air. By it you may recognise the nearness of the sea. The thumb-nail ridges of the Quantocks begin to grow harder, they carry the eye along on soft curves like those of the South Downs in Sussex, but suddenly end in a flourish and point as if cut out with the thumb-nail. Draw your thumb-nail firmly along soft wood, and it will, by its natural slip, form such a curve. Blackbird and thrush commence to sing as the heavy heat decreases; the bloom on the apple trees is loose now, and the blackbird as he springs from the bough shakes down flakes of blossom.

Towards even a wind moves among the lengthening shadows, and my footsteps involuntarily seek the glen, where a streamlet trickles down over red flat stones which resound musically as the water strikes them. Ferns are growing so thickly in the hedge that soon it will seem composed of their fronds; the first June rose hangs above their green tips. A water-ousel with white breast rises and flies on; again disturbed, he makes a circle, and returns to the stream behind. On the moist earth there is the print of a hare’s pad; here is a foxglove out in flower; and now as the incline rises heather thickens on the slope. Sometimes we wander beside the streamlet which goes a mile into the coombe–the shadow is deep and cool in the vast groove of the hill, the shadow accumulates there, and is pressed by its own weight–up slowly as far as the ‘sog,’ or peaty place where the spring rises, and where the sundew grows. Sometimes climbing steep and rocky walls–scarce sprinkled with grass–we pause every other minute to look down on the great valley which reaches across to Dunkery. The horned sheep, which are practically wild, like wild creatures, have worn out holes for themselves to lie in beside the hill. If resolution is strong, we move through the dark heather (soon to be purple), startling the heath-poults, or black game, till at last the Channel opens, and the far-distant Flat and Steep Holms lie, as it looks, afloat on the dim sea. This is labour enough; stern indeed must be the mind that could work at summer’s noon in Somerset, when the apple vineyards slumber; when the tall foxgloves stand in the heavy heat and the soft air warms the deepest day-shadow so that nothing is cool to the touch but the ferns. Is there anything so good as to do nothing? …

Everywhere wild strawberries were flowering on the banks–wild strawberries have been found ripe in January here; everywhere ferns were thickening and extending, foxgloves opening their bells. Another deep coombe led me into the mountainous Quantocks, far below the heather, deep beside another trickling stream. In this land the sound of running water is perpetual, the red flat stones are resonant, and the speed of the stream draws forth music like quick fingers on the keys; the sound of running water and the pleading voice of the willow-wren are always heard in summer. Among the oaks growing on the steep hill-side the willow-wrens repeated their sweet prayer; the water as it ran now rose and now fell; there was a louder note as a little stone was carried over a fall. The shadow came slowly out from the oak-grown side of the coombe, it reached to the margin of the brook. Under the oaks there appears nothing but red stones, as if the trees were rooted in them; under the boughs probably the grass does not cover the rock as it does on the opposite side. There mountain-ashes flowered in loose order on the green slope. Redstarts perched on them, darting out to seize passing insects. Still deeper in the coombe the oaks stood on either side of the stream; it was the beginning of woods which reach for miles, in which occasionally the wild red deer wander, and drink at the clear waters. By now the shadow of the western hill-top had crossed the brooklet, and the still coombe became yet more silent. There was an alder, ivy-grown, beside the stream–a tree with those lines which take an artist’s fancy. Under the roots of alders the water-ousel often creeps by day, and the tall heron stalks past at night. Receding up the eastern slope of the coombe the sunlight left the dark alder’s foliage in the deep shadow of the hollow. I went up the slope till I could see the sun, and waited; in a few minutes the shadow reached me, and it was sunset; I went still higher, and presently the sun set again. A cool wind was drawing up the coombe, it was dusky in the recesses of the oaks, and the water of the stream had become dark when we emerged from the great hollow, and yet without the summer’s evening had but just commenced, and the banks were still heated by the sun.”

‘Under the Snow’ by Richard Jefferies

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Photo by Rebecca Welshman 

“The smallest boughs and the tiniest twigs are coated on the upper part with a white rib of snow; for the flakes, scarcely slanting in their fall before the light air, rest on the first thing they touch; so that even the laurel leaves, which droop with the frost, are covered, and the crinkled holly-leaves hold the snow as if their spines grasped it like a claw. In the hedge the very peggles on the hawthorn bush are tipped—red fruit beneath, white snow above—and appear enlarged to twice their real size. The fields are levelled—the furrows filled and the clods hidden: a smooth white surface everywhere. Over the broad brook the branches of the trees hang low, heavily weighted, and dip their slender points in the water, black by contrast. Dark and silent, the stream flows without a ripple or a murmur against its frozen shores. But in the afternoon, when the sun shines in a cloudless sky, there floats above the current a golden vapour lit up by the rays. The sun sinks lower, and the disc becomes ruddy as it enters the mist above the horizon. Night falls, and the frost sharpens and the snow hardens on the boughs. Then in the morning as the sun rises the eastern side of the wood becomes glorified exceedingly. Each slender snow-laden branch—all the interlaced pattern of the trees—glows with an exquisite rosy light. Another day, a third, and still the beautiful snow lies everywhere. It shrinks a little, because now the tops of the larger clods in the ploughed fields are visible. There is a group of such dark clods in one place—eight or nine close together. Suddenly one moves: then another detaches itself and creeps a yard away: it is, in fact, a covey of partridges crouching hopelessly on the snow. These birds, like others that obtain their food on the ground, endure great privation when it is not only covered with snow but frozen hard beneath. It is indeed difficult to understand how they find sufficient to support life. They enter rickyards where the snow is partially cleared by the men; they venture, too, into gardens that are not immediately under the windows of a house. Their roosting-place—on the ground—is easily dis­covered during the snow, because it is partly scratched away and melted there and appears a darker patch in the white field. At other times the covey separates, and the various members spread abroad to feed, calling each other, and rejoining at dusk; but in bitter weather they remain together. To the hawthorn bush by the roadside, where the peggles are tipped with snow, a fieldfare comes as we go by, shaking down a shower of snow as he alights, but just beyond reach of the walking-stick. Though we pause and watch his motions he does not fly, but scrambles farther into the bush, bringing down fresh showers; so tame, or rather so bold, has hunger made him. The fieldfare is usually so wild that it is not possible to approach within gunshot, unless by a stratagem. Upon the lower branches of an elm—those that project from the trunk like brushwood—sits a redwing, his feathers puffed out, and betraying no trace of alarm. Though they come from the north, redwings seem among the first to suffer; a few days’ snow like this quite debilitates them, and they have not even the energy to escape. A stone, a stick, anything will bring them down; and they are killed in numbers by cats when they venture into gardens, as they constantly do. Another sits on the bank, partly hidden by the ground-ivy that there clothes a slight projection which, like a roof, has kept the snow from a tiny terrace. In the ditch, which is deep, the water is frozen, but the sides are a little moist near the bottom still, and to these places come the garden thrushes and blackbirds. At the gateway there is a short arched culvert for the water to pass through; it is dry now, and these birds enter the mouth, rinding that in this cellar-like spot the frost is not so hard.

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Photo by Rebecca Welshman

There is a place in the copse where, under the shelter of the trees and behind a thicket of briar and thorn, scarcely any snow has penetrated. It is overgrown with low brambles, and is several inches thick with dead leaves. These keep the frost away from the earth in the same manner as a mat, and here eight or ten blackbirds and thrushes are busily at work pulling up the leaves and searching beneath them. They quarrel constantly about the best localities, and drive each other away, fighting for existence. It is often remarked that the thrush dies quicker than any other bird in severe weather; and a comparison has been made between it and the tiny golden-crested wren, which scarcely heeds the frost or snow, as if the former was a delicate bird. The contrast is not just. The reason why the thrush dies so soon is because he is starved. Those who have watched the thrush, at ordinary times must have observed the really immense quantities of worms, snails, and similar food he consumes. The moment the ground is frozen all this is shut off from him, and he languishes. If frost be accompanied by continued snow he perishes. But the elegant golden-crested wren is not starved: his food of insects is not buried by the snow or rendered inaccessible by frost. He may be seen entering every bramble bush, and peering under the leaves there which yet remain green. There are a thousand and one places where insects lie torpid—under leaves, in the crevices of bark, and so on—perfectly well known to this happy little creature. The birds that feed on the ground suffer most; next, those that put much reliance on seeds or grain; those that may be called tree birds do not endure so much. The blue tomtit literally looks everywhere: in the porch, under the rafters of cowsheds and outhouses, even inside the open box that protects the bell-wire at the outer gate, and may be seen clinging to the boards against which the bill-poster sticks his advertisements, and looks under the strips of torn paper.

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Photo by Rebecca Welshman

Passing further up the road, the rooks have discovered an arable field, where, just before the snow fell, manure had been carted out and left in small heaps for spreading. These are now covered with snow, but near the bottom are perhaps not quite frozen. An oak-tree, white to the smallest twig, stands solitary in the midst. A whole flock of rooks are perched on it; every two or three minutes some descend to the immediate neighbourhood of the manure heaps, and after a short interval rise with a feeble caw and rest upon a branch. There is a perpetual stream of rooks like this passing up and down. The very bough the rook roosts on at night is coated with frozen snow, though his weight as he alights shakes it off in some degree under his claws. In the ash-trees by a farmhouse some hundreds of starlings are perched; the tree is black with them, and there is a long row on the railings round the rickyard beneath; but they are silent. At another time there would have been a continuous calling—a noise rising and sinking, a confusion of tongues: now they sit still and quiet. Then they would barely have remained in one place three minutes: now they do not seem to care to move at all. Their food, too, is cut off from them. Judging by the few flocks that are to be seen about, it would appear as if numbers must have left the district. So too, with the wood-pigeons. Just before the snow there were crowds of them in all the arable fields, to the annoyance of the farmers. Not a single flock is now visible. From out of a double mound one single wood-pigeon rises, so close that every marking of his feathers is apparent. He lifts himself heavily, as if wounded, but once in the air flies easily enough, though he goes but across a single field and alights in a tree: he is weakly for want of food.

Sheep-pens, where the snow has been removed by manual labour, or trodden down and melted by the sheep themselves, are favourite places with the birds in hard weather. The common wagtail is a frequenter of sheep-pens: half a dozen or more may be noticed at once on the ground there. Tat-tat—top-top-top!—a kind of quiet tapping sounds in the higher branches of a tall elm fifty yards away. A bird is clinging to the side of a bough; his head is thrown back, and every few seconds he delivers a sharp blow with his beak, peers again, climbs further up, gives a series of quick raps, and then flies to the next tree. A slight shower of snow falls from the bough on which he alights; in a minute the tapping sounds again; and thus he visits every elm in the hedgerow. It is the nuthatch, and it is surprising how far the quiet tap-tap can be heard in the stillness. When the foliage is thick on the trees in summer, though the tap may be heard, it is not so easy to watch his motions; the fall of the leaf is like removing a screen. A rustling, scratching sound on the bank where it is overhung by a stole, and clear of snow, shows that the hedge-mice are about, despite the severe weather. Some one, perhaps a sportsman, has dropped an empty fuse-box, without a lid, in the hedge. The scratching proceeds from this box—there is a mouse in it. The tiny creature is so small that the box, which is merely supported by a few dead oak leaves, allows it to turn round easily. He scratches and sniffs at every corner—pauses, and scratches again, as if in desperate hope that there must be something eatable about it. At last he gives up the useless attempt, and disappears under the oak leaves. Some distance further there is another rustling: something here is darting to and fro with an eager motion under the ground-ivy. This time it’s a weasel, whose hunting is greatly favoured by the snow. If it were deep it would not suit him; but two inches are just sufficient to weaken the prey, and yet cause him no inconvenience in chasing it. Rabbit tracks are everywhere in the snow, and especially round and round a long narrow mound in the open field, where the farmer has stacked his roots and covered them with straw and earth as a protection against the frost.”