‘January in the Sussex Woods’ by Richard Jefferies

woodlands co ukSource: woodlands.co.uk

The lost leaves measure our years; they are gone as the days are gone, and the bare branches silently speak of a new year, slowly advancing to its buds, its foliage, and fruit. Deciduous trees associate with human life as this yew never can. Clothed in its yellowish-green needles, its tarnished green, it knows no hope or sorrow; it is indifferent to winter, and does not look forward to summer. With their annual loss of leaves, and renewal, oak and elm and ash and beech seem to stand by us and to share our thoughts. There is no wind at the edge of the wood, and the few flakes of snow that fall from the overcast sky flutter as they drop, now one side higher and then the other, as the leaves did in the still hours of autumn. The delicacy of the outer boughs of the great trees visible against the dark background of cloud is as beautiful in its own way as the massed foliage of summer. Each slender bough is drawn out to a line; line follows line as shade grows under the pencil, but each of these lines is separate. Great boles of beech, heavy timber at the foot, thus end at their summits in the lightest and most elegant pencilling. Where the birches are tall, sometimes the number and closeness of these bare sprays causes a thickening almost as if there were leaves there. The leaves, in fact, when they come, conceal the finish of the trees; they give colour, but they hide the beautiful structure under them. Each tree at a distance is recognisable by its particular lines; the ash, for instance, grows with its own marked curve.

Some flakes of snow have remained on this bough of spruce, pure white on dull green. Sparingly dispersed, the snow can be seen falling far ahead between the trunks; indeed, the white dots appear to increase the distance the eye can penetrate; it sees farther because there is something to catch the glance. Nothing seems left for food in the woods for bird or animal. Some ivy berries and black privet berries remain, a few haws may be found; for the rest, it is gone; the squirrels have had the nuts, the acorns were taken by the jays, rooks, and pheasants. Bushels of acorns, too, were collected by hand as food for the fallow deer in the park. A great fieldfare rises, like a lesser pigeon; fieldfares often haunt the verge of woods, while the redwing thrushes go out into the meadows. It can scarcely be doubted that both these birds come over to escape the keener cold of the winters in Norway, or that the same cause drives the blackbirds hither. In spring we listen to Norwegian songs—the blackbird and the thrush that please us so much, if not themselves of Scandinavian birth, have had a Scandinavian origin. Any one walking about woods like these in January can understand how, where there are large flocks of birds, they must find the pressure of numbers through the insufficiency of food. They go then to seek a warmer climate and more to eat; more particularly probably for sustenance.

The original and simple theory that the majority of birds migrate for food or warmth is not overthrown by modern observations. That appears to be the primary impulse, though others may be traced or reasonably imagined. To suppose, as has been put forward, that birds are endowed with a migratory instinct for the express purpose of keeping down their numbers, in order, that is, that they may perish in crossing the sea, is really too absurd for serious consideration. If that were the end in view, it would be most easily obtained by keeping them at home, where snow would speedily starve them. On the contrary, it will appear to any one who walks about woods and fields that migration is essential to the preservation of these creatures. By migration, in fact, the species is kept in existence, and room is found for life. Apart from the necessity of food, movement and change is one of the most powerful agencies in renewing health. This we see in our own experience; the condition of the air is especially important, and it is well within reasonable supposition that some birds and animals may wish to avoid certain states of atmosphere. There is, too, the question of moulting and change of plumage, and the possibility that this physiological event may influence the removal to a different climate. Birds migrate principally for food and warmth; secondly, on account of the pressure of numbers (for in good seasons they increase very fast); thirdly, for the sake of health; fourthly, for sexual reasons; fifthly, from the operation of a kind of prehistoric memory; sixthly, from choice. One or other of these causes will explain almost every case of migration.

winter_bird_wallpaper_d2411Source: http://gardensupplyco.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/winter_bird_wallpaper_d2411.jpg

Birds are lively and intellectual, imaginative and affectionate creatures, and all their movements are not dictated by mere necessity. They love the hedge and bush where they were born, they return to the same tree, or the same spot under the eave. On the other hand, they like to roam about the fields and woods, and some of them travel long distances during the day. When the pleasurable cares of the nest are concluded, it is possible that they may in some cases cross the sea solely for the solace of change. Variety of food is itself a great pleasure. By prehistoric memory is meant the unconscious influence of ancient habit impressed upon the race in times when the conformation of land and sea and the conditions of life were different. No space is left for a mysterious agency; migration is purely natural, and acts for the general preservation. Try to put yourself in a bird’s place, and you will see that migration is very natural indeed. If at some future period of the world’s history men should acquire the art of flying, there can be no doubt that migration would become the custom, and whole nations would change their localities. Man has, indeed, been always a migratory animal. History is little beyond the record of migrations, how one race moved on and overcame the race in front of it. In ancient days lots were cast as to who should migrate, and those chosen by this conscription left their homes that the rest remaining might have room and food. Checking the attempted migration of the Helvetii was the beginning of Caesar’s exploits. What men do only at intervals birds do frequently, having greater freedom of movement.

Who can doubt that the wild fowl come south because the north is frozen over? The Laplander and the reindeer migrate together; the Tartars migrate all the year through, crossing the steppes in winding and devious but fixed paths, paths settled for each family, and kept without a map, though invisible to strangers. It is only necessary to watch the common sparrow. In spring his merry chirp and his few notes of song are heard on the roof or in the garden; here he spends his time till the broods are reared and the corn is ripe. Immediately he migrates into the fields. By degrees he is joined by those left behind to rear second broods, and at last the stubble is crowded with sparrows, such flocks no one would believe possible unless they had seen them. He has migrated for food, for his food changes with the season, being mainly insects in spring, and grain and seeds in autumn. Something may, I venture to think, in some cases of migration, be fairly attributed to the influence of a desire for change, a desire springing from physiological promptings for the preservation of health. I am personally subject twice a year to the migratory impulse. I feel it in spring and autumn, say about March, when the leaves begin to appear, and again as the corn is carried, and most strongly as the fields are left in stubble. I have felt it every year since boyhood, often so powerfully as to be quite unable to resist it. Go I must, and go I do, somewhere; if I do not I am soon unwell. The general idea of direction is southerly, both spring and autumn; no doubt the reason is because this is a northern country.

Rabbit Warren 1b cpt Bob CoyleSource: http://data.wildlifetrusts.org/sites/default/files/imagecache/reserve_web_large/sites/data.live.wt.precedenthost.co.uk/files/Rabbit%20Warren%201b%20cpt%20Bob%20Coyle.jpg

Some little green stays on the mounds where the rabbits creep and nibble the grasses. Cinquefoil remains green though faded, and wild parsley the freshest looking of all; plantain leaves are found under shelter of brambles, and the dumb nettles, though the old stalks are dead, have living leaves at the ground. Grey-veined ivy trails along, here and there is a frond of hart’s-tongue fern, though withered at the tip, and greenish grey lichen grows on the exposed stumps of trees. These together give a green tint to the mound, which is not so utterly devoid of colour as the season of the year might indicate. Where they fail, brown brake fern fills the spaces between the brambles; and in a moist spot the bunches of rushes are composed half of dry stalks, and half of green. Stems of willow-herb, four feet high, still stand, and tiny long-tailed tits perch sideways on them. Above, on the bank, another species of willow-herb has died down to a short stalk, from which springs a living branch, and at its end is one pink flower. A dandelion is opening on the same sheltered bank; farther on the gorse is sprinkled with golden spots of bloom. A flock of greenfinches starts from the bushes, and their colour shows against the ruddy wands of the osier-bed over which they fly. The path winds round the edge of the wood, where a waggon track goes up the hill; it is deeply grooved at the foot of the hill. These tracks wear deeply into the chalk just where the ascent begins. The chalk adheres to the shoes like mortar, and for some time after one has left it each footstep leaves a white mark on the turf. On the ridge the low trees and bushes have an outline like the flame of a candle in a draught—the wind has blown them till they have grown fixed in that shape. In an oak across the ploughed field a flock of wood-pigeons have settled; on the furrows there are chaffinches, and larks rise and float a few yards farther away. The snow has ceased, and though there is no wind on the surface, the clouds high above have opened somewhat, not sufficient for the sun to shine, but to prolong the already closing afternoon a few minutes. If the sun shines to-morrow morning the lark will soar and sing, though it is January, and the quick note of the chaffinch will be heard as he perches on the little branches projecting from the trunks of trees below the great boughs. Thrushes sing every mild day in December and January, entirely irrespective of the season, also before rain.

Chanctonbury Ring looking east   13 Feb 09   (Richard Reed)   SDS  CNP

View from Chanctonbury Ring, Sussex. Source: http://www.patadventures.com/wp-content/uploads/SOUTH-DOWNS-Chanctonbury-Ring-looking-east-February-2009-Richard-Reed.jpg

A curious instance of a starling having a young brood at this time of the year, recently recorded, seems to suggest that birds are not really deceived by the passing mildness of a few days, but are obliged to prepare nests, finding themselves in a condition to require them. The cause, in short, is physiological, and not the folly of the bird. This starling had had two previous broods, one in October, and now again in December-January. The starling was not, therefore, deceived by the chance of mild weather; her own bodily condition led her to the nest, and had she been a robin or thrush she would have built one instead of resorting to a cranny. It is certain that individuals among birds and animals do occasionally breed at later periods than is usual for the generality of their species. Exceptionally prolific individuals among birds continue to breed into the winter. They are not egregiously deceived any more than we are by a mild interval; the nesting is caused by their individual temperament.

The daylight has lingered on longer than expected, but now the gloom of the short January evening is settling down fast in the wood. The silent and motionless trees rise out of a mysterious shadow, which fills up the spaces between their trunks. Only above, where their delicate outer branches are shown against the dark sky, is there any separation between them. Somewhere in the deep shadow of the underwood a blackbird calls “ching, ching” before he finally settles himself to roost. In the yew the lesser birds are already quiet, sheltered by the evergreen spray; they have also sought the ivy-grown trunks. “Twit, twit,” sounds high overhead as one or two belated little creatures, scarcely visible, pass quickly for the cover of the furze on the hill. The short January evening is of but a few minutes’ duration; just now it was only dusky, and already the interior of the wood is impenetrable to the glance. There rises a loud though distant clamour of rooks and daws, who have restlessly moved in their roost-trees. Darkness is almost on them, yet they cannot quite settle. The cawing and dawing rises to a pitch, and then declines; the wood is silent, and it is suddenly night.

‘Light and Dark: Richard Jefferies was more than a Nature Writer’

by Rebecca Welshman

While many of Jefferies’ books can be read and enjoyed for their countryside observations, with their hidden depths and breathtaking description, there is another side to his works which is often overlooked. Jefferies celebrated the sun – he sought to bring more light into the world and to illuminate and improve the human condition. In a rare early poem, Jefferies declares his ambition to help alleviate suffering and loosen the grip of superstition that he believed kept the mind locked in place:

“Full of thoughts of past and future
Took I there a solemn vow —
Darkness I will overthrow!
List, my voice like clarion sounding,
Dreading neither priest nor ban,
He alone is abbot — hero,
Who can bless his fellow man” – ‘The Grave of the Last Abbot’ (1869)

Jefferies’ ‘solemn vow’ to ‘overthrow’ the darkness that he perceived to shroud existence eventually took the form of The Story of My Heart – a book charged with images of light, fire and burning. The Story of My Heart is not only a record of spiritual development but a chronology of the struggle between light and dark in the soul. Jefferies refers to ‘dust’, ‘infernal darkness’, the ‘void’ of space, and to personal loneliness and despair. In his account of difficult former years, he recalls the isolation and sense of crisis he experienced:

“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?” – The Story of My Heart

Jefferies did not have any easy life. After falling ill in his late teens he never regained full health. He died aged 38 from Tuberculosis – a particular form that gave him unbearable pain in his spine and stomach, and resulted in partial paralysis. He struggled to make a living as a writer, with most of the proceeds of his successful works going on medical bills. At the time he died, and through no fault of his own, he left his young family almost entirely destitute. And yet, during his illness and in the year of his death – 1887 – he produced some of his most movingly beautiful works.
howardavidjohnson The_Flower_Fairy_print_Z57

Through all, Jefferies’ desire to express beauty endured and grew stronger. In ‘The Pageant of Summer’ the beauty and movement of the season unfolds in his heart. An unseen but deeply felt presence dwells in the summer fields and connects him with everything around:

“Straight go the white petals to the heart; straight the mind’s glance goes back to how many other pageants of summer in old times! When perchance the sunny days were even more sunny; when the stilly oaks were full of mystery, lurking like the Druid’s mistletoe in the midst of their mighty branches. A glamour in the heart came back to it again from every flower; as the sunshine was reflected from them, so the feeling in the heart returned tenfold. 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. Let not the eyes grow dim, look not back but forward; the soul must uphold itself like the sun. Let us labour to make the heart grow larger as we become older, as the spreading oak gives more shelter. That we could but take to the soul some of the greatness and the beauty of the summer!”

Like the flowers of summer that seek the sun, the soul ‘must uphold itself’, even through the darkest times. Hope lies in the open bud of the future. Similar messages can be found in many of Jefferies’ later writings. In ‘Walks in the Wheatfields’, he recalls seeing a fox hunt passing through a field on a winter’s day. The scene is barren and bleak, but for the blades of young wheat which push through the soil. In these tiny shoots Jefferies finds a message of strength and resilience for the future:

“the foxhounds carry a bee-line straight from hedge to hedge, and after them come the hoofs, prospecting deeply into the earth, dashing down fibre and blade, crunching up the tender wheat and battering it to pieces. It will rise again all the fresher and stronger, for there is something human in wheat, and the more it is trampled on the better it grows. Despots grind half the human race, and despots stronger than man–plague, pestilence, and famine–grind the whole; and yet the world increases, and the green wheat of the human heart is not to be trampled out.”

Countryside-fields-Nottinghamshire

Source: http://1280x1024desktopwallpapers.jennifer-morrison-pics.com/images/Wallpaper/Landscapes/Countryside-fields-Nottinghamshire.jpg

The Meaning of the Stars

by Rebecca Welshman

starry skySource: http://www.fondosdepantalla.biz/images/wallpapers/cielo-estrellado-wallpaper-703669.jpeg

With the cold spell of weather there have been some remarkably good night skies of late. When staying in rural Devon the other week I saw the constellation Orion, and was reminded of how significant the stars were to Jefferies.

In Bevis: the Story of a Boy, the main character – who is a sketch of Jefferies himself – lies down on the garden path of the farmhouse at Coate, to watch the movements of the heavens. From this quiet little spot, beside the strawberry patch, he allows his mind to wander the depths of the night sky:

“He could not, as he reclined on the garden path by the strawberries, physically reach to and feel the oak; but he could feel the oak in his mind, and so from the oak, stepping beyond it, he felt the stars.”

The night sky was a vast space across which his imagination could roam; a route to somewhere beyond the boundaries of everyday life and thought. In The Amateur Poacher – a book that is primarily about the art of poaching, and engagement with the countryside – Jefferies hints at the subtle, more cosmic relationship he experienced with the natural world. This short sentence conjures the potential of outer space to absorb ordinary, everyday cares, and to nurture new, more experiential forms of thought:

“By night the stars shine, and there is no fathoming the dark spaces between those brilliant points, nor the thoughts that come as it were between the fixed stars and landmarks of the mind.”

In a short essay, written in the late 1870s, which Edward Thomas entitled ‘The Dawn’, Jefferies explores how the ‘pale visitor’ of dawn beckons forth the mind to somewhere beyond the ordinary world:

“The pale visitor hints that the stars are not the outside and rim of the universe, any more than the edge of horizon is the circumference of our globe. Beyond the star-stratum, what? Mere boundless space. Mind says certainly not. What then?”

These unresolved questions spurred Jefferies to imagine and record a new system of thought and feeling, which could encourage a more cosmic awareness of our condition on earth – a system that would awaken and sharpen our minds, and engage us spiritually too. In The Old House at Coate – written about the farmhouse where he was born – the house and garden become a solar observatory. Again, he records seeing the stars from the path by the strawberries, but this time he becomes more deeply aware of his position within the cosmos:

“Here was the centre of the world, the sun swung round us; we rode at night straight away into the space of the stars. On a dry summer night, when there was no dew, I used to lie down on my back at full length (looking to the east), on the grass footpath by the orchard, and gaze up into the sky. This is the only way to get at it and feel the stars: while you stand upright, the eye, and through the eye, the mind, is biased by the usual aspect of things: the house there, the trees yonder; it is difficult to forget the mere appearance of rising and setting. Looking straight up like this, from the path to the stars, it was clear and evident that I was really riding among them; they were not above, nor all round, but I was in the midst of them. There was no underneath, no above: everything was on a level with me; the sense of measurement and distance disappeared.

rj stars

As one walks in a wood, with trees all about, so then by day (when the light only hid them) I walked amongst the stars. I had not got then to leave this world to enter space: I was already there. The vision is indeed contracted, nor can we lift our feet further than the earth; yet we are really among these things to-day.” (The Old House at Coate)

There is a sense of movement – a centralising experience in which there is a perfect balance between the physically earth-bound human being and the boundless potential of the wandering, intelligent mind. Space is not somewhere outside or beyond the human condition, but something that we are ‘in the midst’ of, and actively participating in, all the time. To see the stars, as guiding lights in the darkness, gives Jefferies a broader and deeper sense of home and belonging – not just within the environment of the farmhouse, but in the wider Universe too.

Orion had special meaning for Jefferies. In his essay ‘The Mammoth Hunter’, Jefferies declares Orion to be the ‘greatest and grandest of all the constellations…the mighty hunter, the giant who slew the wild beasts by strength.’ He writes that ‘there is no assemblage of stars so brilliant as those which compose the outline of Orion; the Hunter takes the first place in the heavens.’ In Bevis, just to see Orion fills Jefferies with a sudden sense of strength, and renews his purpose of existence:

“Between these two groups of tall trees—so tall and thick that they were generally visible even on dark nights—the streamers of the Aurora Borealis shot up in winter, and between them in summer the faint reflection of the midnight sun, like the lunar dawn which precedes the rising of the moon always appeared. The real day-dawn—the white foot of Aurora—came through the sky-curtain a little to the right of the second group, and about over a young oak in the hedge across the road, opposite the garden wall.

When the few leaves left on this young oak were brown, and rustled in the frosty night, the massy shoulder of Orion came heaving up through it—first one bright star, then another; then the gleaming girdle, and the less definite scabbard; then the great constellation stretched across the east. At the first sight of Orion’s shoulder Bevis always felt suddenly stronger, as if a breath of the mighty hunter’s had come down and entered into him.

orionstarman

Source: http://www.crystalinks.com/orionstarman.jpg

He stood upright; his frame enlarged; his instep lifted him as he walked, as if he too could swing the vast club and chase the lion from his lair. The sparkle of Orion’s stars brought to him a remnant of the immense vigour of the young world, the frosty air braced his sinews, and power came into his arms.”

In the darkness of these January nights maybe we too can be energised and restored by the sparkle of Orion, and carry this feeling with us into the spring. If the power and guiding light of the stars can be embraced and brought into our lives we might discover new strength and resilience within ourselves.

After a Fall of Snow, by Richard Jefferies

robin on fenceSource: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/66/9b/92/669b9251a793ca1ccad7683e7ea9005d.jpg

“In the winter twilight, after a fall of snow, it is difficult to find one’s way across the ploughed fields of the open plain, for it melts on the south of every furrow, leaving a white line where it has ledged on the northern side, till the furrows resemble an endless succession of waves of earth tipped with foam-flecks of snow. These are dazzling to the eyes, and there are few hedges or trees visible for guidance. Snow lingers sometimes for weeks on the northern slopes of the downs—where shallow dry dykes, used as landmarks, are filled with it: the dark mass of the hill is streaked like the black hull of a ship with its line of white paint. Field work during what the men call ‘the dark days afore Christmas’ is necessarily much restricted and they are driven to find some amusement for the long evenings—such as blowing out candles at the ale-house with muzzle-loader guns for wagers of liquor, the wind of the cap alone being sufficient for the purpose at a short distance.

The children never forget Saint Thomas’s Day, which ancient custom has consecrated to alms, and they wend their way from farmhouse to farmhouse throughout the parish; it is usual to keep to the parish, for some of the old local feeling still remains even in these cosmopolitan times. At Christmas sometimes the children sing carols, not with much success so far as melody goes, but otherwise successfully enough; for recollections of the past soften the hearts of the crustiest.

The young men for weeks previously have been practising for the mumming—a kind of rude drama requiring, it would seem, as much rehearsal beforehand as the plays at famous theatres. They dress in a fantastic manner, with masks and coloured ribbons; anything grotesque answers, for there is little attempt at dressing in character. They stroll round to each farmhouse in the parish, and enact the play in the kitchen or brewhouse; after which the whole company are refreshed with ale, and, receiving a few coins, go on to the next homestead. Mumming, however, has much deteriorated, even in the last fifteen or twenty years. On nights when the players were known to be coming, in addition to the farmer’s household and visitors at that season, the cottagers residing near used to assemble, so that there was quite an audience. Now it is a chance whether they come round or not.

A more popular pastime with the young men, and perhaps more profitable, is the formation of a brass band. They practise vigorously before Christmas, and sometimes attain considerable proficiency. At the proper season they visit the farms in the evening, and as the houses are far apart, so that only a few can be called at in the hours available after work, it takes them some time to perambulate the parish. So that for two or three weeks about the end of the old and the beginning of the new year, if one chances to be out at night, every now and then comes the unwonted note of a distant trumpet sounding over the fields. The custom has grown frequent of recent years, and these bands collect a good deal of money.

The ringers from the church come too, with their hand-bells and ring pleasant tunes—which, however, on bells are always plaintive—standing on the crisp frozen grass of the green before the window. They are well rewarded, for bells are great favourites with all country people.”

from Wild Life in a Southern County

Women in the Fields and Nature’s Beauty

by Rebecca Welshman

the gleaners

‘The Gleaners’ by Jean-Francois Millet. Source: http://www.artistclon.com/images/201007/goods_img/37782_G_1278953004618.jpg

‘Women in the Field’ is a short article that Jefferies wrote for the Graphic newspaper in 1875. The piece is mainly concerned with the quality of life experienced by female agricultural labourers. The condition of the agricultural labourers was a popular subject in the newspapers of the time. The topic of women in the fields tended to fall by the wayside, however, in favour of arguments concerning wages, land reform, and the usurping of male labour by steam engines. Jefferies seeks to redress this balance by presenting a typical year in the life of a field labouring woman:

“Those who labour in the fields require no calendar, no carefully compiled book of reference to tell them when to sow and when to reap, to warn them of the flight of time. The flowers, blooming and fading, mark the months with unfailing regularity. When the sweet violet may be found in warm sheltered nooks, and the sleepy snake first crawls out from under the brown leaves, then it is time to gather the couch or roots after the plough, and to hoe the young turnips and swedes. This is the first work of the year for the agricultural women.”

Jefferies goes on to describe the arduous nature of this labour – walking over ploughed ridges and furrows in heavy nailed boots, stooping to collect the couch roots, the ‘cold clods of earth [that] numb the fingers’. In early spring, the winds can be raw, and the air temperature low – something, comments Jefferies, that may not cross the minds of many city readers as they scan the pages of the newspaper from the domestic comfort of their town houses. At the end of the labouring day, when the light is fading, the woman walks one or two miles home to her cottage where she prepares supper for her husband.

cottage imageSource: http://www.geodata.soton.ac.uk/newforest/public/resources/jude10.gif

As well as being difficult to carry out, labour is not always easy to find. This adds stress to an already over-strained system. Thus, the riches of spring which gradually unfold amongst the ‘rich fertile valleys’ are largely unheeded by the labouring woman:

“The woods are now carpeted with acres upon acres of the wild hyacincth, or blue bell, and far surpass in loveliness the most cultivated garden. The sheen of the rich deep blue shows like a lake of colour, in which the tall ash poles stand, and in the sunset each bell is tinged with purple. The nightingale sings in the hazel copse, or on the hawthorn bough, both day and night, and higher up, upon the downs, the skies are full of larks carolling at “Heaven’s gate”. But the poor woman hears them not. She has no memories of poetry; her mind can call up no beautiful thoughts to associate with the flower or the bird. She can sign her name in a scrawling hand, and she can spell through simple print …”

bluebells

Although she may not be entirely receptive to the beauty of the natural world – ‘she cannot … appreciate or feel with, the beauty with which she is surrounded’ – there yet remains ‘some little instinctive yearning after a higher condition’. Jefferies refers to labourers’ love of yellow flowers – how they populate their cottage gardens with gilly flowers, single stock, and marigolds. The golden presence of these flowers in Jefferies’ narrative suggests to me something of value, to treasure. The labouring life, however, leaves little time, energy, or aptitude for the appreciation of natural beauty. As Jefferies continues:

“Now the small creeping convolvus with pink-streaked petals winds along the edge of the corn-field, and the beautiful “blue-bottle” lifts its head among the wheat and barley. At three o’clock in the morning the women rise to clean the cottage, and wash the linen, and at five set out for the harvest-field. Often they walk two miles carrying the baby, and then leave it in charge of a girl while they reap. The wheat is bent back with a curved stick held in the left hand called a “fagging-stick”, and the right hand chops with the sharp sickle against the straw. Through the blazing heat of the long summer day, till night, and sometimes under the pale light of the harvest moon this labour continues. Its effects are visible in the thin frame, the bony wrist, the skinny arm showing the sinews, the rounded shoulders and stoop, the wrinkles and lines upon the sunburnt faces. Many women labour thus while still suckling their infants.”

Jefferies concludes by lamenting the lack of life developing opportunities available to female labourers:

“Their labour is too hard, and in too exposed places; and yet they cannot get sufficient of it, for machinery has taken their employment away. From earliest childhood they are injured to the coarse ways and rough talk of rude men … they dwell among the flowers, but the flowers are not for them.”

Jefferies suggests that one remedy would be for an organisation to be set up by ladies in the town and country, to offer situations for young school leavers as domestic servants. This would offer a kinder and healthier alternative to the typical life of women who work the fields. The article thus implicitly raises the question: if people (in this case women) are without the basic human necessities of comfort, warmth, rest, and enough food, how can the spiritual aspects of their lives ever be given a chance to develop? It was unjust, and Jefferies sought to effect change.

The Blue Doors at the Old House

Rebecca Welshman

round about coate

In The Old House at Coate, a collection of essays published after his lifetime, Jefferies fondly describes the old Wiltshire farmhouse and gardens where he was born. Two large blue doors, set within the enclosing stone wall, formed the main entrance. Jefferies recalls listening to them swing open and shut ‘from dawn to midnight’ with the activity of the mowers, milkers, and village people visiting the farm pump for water. The doors, although a manmade creation crafted by artificial means, have a place in the natural environment. Swallows fly over and under them, and robins and wrens come to the decaying bars looking for insects:

“The tiny brown wrens appear to have their regular rounds, visiting the same spot day after day and always singing on the same perches. One used to sing on the top of these doors, and then passing on, first to the eaves of the cowshed, next to a heap of stones, where he slipped through the interstices, then to some logs piled against the wall, sang again when he reached the woodpile, perched on the topmost faggot.
The eave swallows dropping from their nests under the thatch and gaining impetus from the downward slide seemed as if they must strike the broad doors, but suddenly rising with sleight-of-wing passed over upwards into the buoyant air.”

Pied wagtails would visit the farm through the blue doors too – as Jefferies observes, ‘the whole circuit of the place was open to them, yet they generally entered here.’ Jefferies describes a little stretch of path, just in front of the doors, enclosed by the walls of the farmhouse and cattle sheds, which ‘made a pleasant ambulatory…a kind of hollow way’. In the chill winds of early spring he would walk up and down, feeling, thinking, and observing as the midday sun ‘filled the place with light and warmth’.

In winter, although the profusion of wildlife would be absent, there still remained activity to be observed. When I was in the garden of the farmhouse the other afternoon, standing just behind the flanking wall of the former cattle shed, this passage from The Old House at Coate came to mind:

“In December, walking to and fro the roadway, from the blue doors to the walnut tree at the entrance to the meadow, as the afternoon drew on to four o’clock the sparrows began to come to the thick ivy around the fir tree in the corner of the wall. They came, too, to the ivy about the gable of the low over the window … the mass of leaves sheltered them like a cloak. The wrens went to the hayricks under the eaves of the thatch, to the holes the sparrows had made in the eaves of the sheds. Sometimes, in hard frost, the blackbirds came there, too – they could not find warmth in the hedges – and the sky, as the dusk deepened, was left to the wild fowl.”

coate gardens in progress

Gardens in progress: the old rickyard (the place where hay was once stored) next to the farmhouse. Found hidden amongst a rambling patch of brambles, is what we believe to be one of the original smaller blue doors from the gardens.

Pictured below are some of the Museum Trustees in the area that in Jefferies’ time was the rickyard, and which is in the process of being restored. The layer of turf that once covered the area has been dug away to expose the cobbled floors, and a series of vegetable plots have been constructed.

coate trustees in december

Jefferies saw the Blue Doors as a threshold that contained the farm’s spirit of place, but which also promised to lead to the exciting, unknown world beyond. Today, although the blue doors no longer exist, and have been replaced by wooden gates, the entrance to the farm continues to hold meaning. Jefferies can be considered one of the founders of the modern nature connection movement – he wrote with his senses and mind wide open, with the aim of helping others to experience the treasures of the natural world. Part of our work in taking care of and rejuvenating his birthplace and museum is to preserve its spirit of place – to welcome visitors to partake and enjoy this timeless environment, and to take Jefferies’ message out into the wider world.

coate the hollow wayThe entrance to Coate Farm. Photo by Tony Shaw

http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/richard-jefferies-in-coate-swindon.html

Sun-Spots under the Apple Tree at Coate

coatefarm

The works of Richard Jefferies offer some of the best and most consistent examples of connection with nature and place. In 1870, in the garden of the Wiltshire farmhouse where he was born, Jefferies observed some spots on the sun. Writing retrospectively, later in life, Jefferies recalls the experience:

“There was a great sun-spot at that time and every afternoon as the sun sank I used to sit facing the west under the russet apple tree waiting till the thin vapour on the horizon absorbed the glow of light so that I could see it. The great black speck with a smaller one near it became distinct upon the broad red disk, and I watched it till the sun went down …To me it was a wonderful and never-wearying spectacle, evening after evening as I watched it under the low boughs of the russet apple, the great fiery disk slowly dropping beyond the brook and the meadow, beyond the elms on the rise, beyond the distant hills. The green leaves over and the grass under the quiet rush of the brook, the evening song of the birds, the hushing hum of the bees at the hives set just there, I forgot all but these and the sun – by the spot I could touch out almost to it.
For centuries backwards perhaps no one with the naked eye had seen a sun-spot; for centuries to come no one might see them again; so that the moment of my existence in it seemed a link between the illimitable past and future; this moment made more vital, more fierce in its existence by the consciousness the sunspot gave of the long bygone and the endless to be.

Yet then I thought little of it, I did not value it, it was only one of the things I should see – hundreds more wonderful as life went on. It has not been so. I have never seen anything more wonderful than the things I saw then; never felt or thought like I used to in those youthful times. Nothing then was of any value; now if I could only get back those moments they would be to me more precious than gold.”

At the time, the sun spots sparked a series of commentaries in newspapers and magazines concerning their origin. Some believed the theory put forward by Maupertuis that the phenomena were caused by waste floating across the face of the sun. Others supported Lalande’s idea that the formations stood out from the surface but had come from within, and another theory explained them as meteoric stones, which eventually got absorbed by the sun. In his account Jefferies is not concerned with what the spots are, or how they were formed, but rather with the sort of luminous self-awareness that arises through their contemplation. The spot itself is a point of connection between the lone thinker and the magnitude of the wider universe; a mirror to the temporary condition of his life on earth. ‘The moment of [his] existence’ is realised through the enduring presence of the familiar natural surroundings in and beyond his own lifetime – the brook, the orchard, and the generations of wildlife. Jefferies uses language to locate himself – not simply in the environment of the garden, but – within the grander timescale of times past and future. The leaves ‘over’ the water and the grass ‘under’ suggest a microcosmic shape or form of containment, as does his own position ‘under’ the apple tree, near the hives which are ‘set just there’. The intimate experience of place conveys to the reader a deep and timeless sense of belonging, and implicitly suggests the worth of preserving natural beauty for future generations to enjoy.

The garden, with its apple trees and distant hills, still remains as part of the author’s birthplace at Coate on the outskirts of Swindon. It is run by a Trust and is open to the public: http://www.richardjefferies.org/