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/

Lost Civilisations and the “inner heart of man” Rebecca Welshman

snow on branches

In 1867, when the eighteen-year-old Richard Jefferies was thinking about writing his spiritual autobiography, an anonymous article titled ‘Snow’ in Sharpe’s London Magazine identified the hopeful promise of a new era in store for the soul:

“The snow has fallen under a cold temperature, and the flakes are perfectly crystallised; every shrub we pass bears wreaths which glitter as gorgeously as the nebula in Perseus; but in another hour of sunshine every one of those fragile outlines will disappear, and the white surface glitter no longer with stars, but with star-dust. On such a day, the universe seems to hold but three pure tints — blue, white, and green. The loveliness of the universe seems simplified to its last extreme of refined delicacy. That sensation we poor mortals have, of being just on the edge of infinite beauty, yet with always a lingering film between, never presses down more closely than on days like this. Everything seems perfectly prepared to satiate the soul with inexpressible felicity if we could only, by one infinitesimal step farther, reach the mood to dwell in it.”

The condition of ‘being just on the edge of infinite beauty’, with an obstructive ‘lingering film’ between the mind and what lay essentially beyond it, was akin to the ‘thin […] crust’ that Jefferies perceived between the artificiality of mankind and the natural world:

“There is but a thin, transparent sheet of brittle glass between the artificial man and the air, the light, the trees, and grass. So between him and the other innumerable organisms which live and breathe there is but a thin feeble crust of prejudice and social custom. Between him and those irresistible laws which keep the sun upon its course there is absolutely no bar whatever.” (‘Nature and Eternity’)

Jefferies’s desire to ‘burst through’ this crust — to allow the ‘li[f]e’ and ‘breath’ of natural things to enter and work through the body and mind — was sustained by beauty. Statuary offered a permanent representation of past beauty which would otherwise have been lost — what Jefferies described after seeing the Venus de Milo in Paris as ‘the beautiful made tangible in human form’. Contemplating statuary afforded time to formulate the human ideal into something more tangible than the fleeting glimpses he had experienced in the natural world. Sculpted from the earth’s raw material, these figures embodied wealth, enlightenment, healthy physique, and the warmth of the Greek climate, which encouraged his belief in the possibility of improvement for the soul:

“These were they who would have stayed with me under the shadow of the oaks while the blackbirds fluted and the south air swung the cowslips. They would have walked with me among the reddened gold of the wheat … These had thirsted of sun, and earth, and sea, and sky. Their shape spoke this thirst and desire like mine.” (The Story of My Heart)

Jefferies perceived that archaeology, as a process of retrieval, brought to light former conditions of life and furnished the mind with what Andrew Rossabi has termed ‘new saints and new ideals’. Discoveries of lost civilisations during the 1840s and 1850s set the scene for systematic explorations into what became known as ‘the old world’. One of the best known was the ancient civilisation of Lykia, now South West Turkey, discovered by Charles Fellows between 1838 and 1844. Fellows published his researches in 1839, and donated the worked marble, plaster casts, drawings and plans to the British Museum in 1843. The sculpture and architectural items caused a sensation when they were displayed and came to influence Victorian cemetery architecture in tombs of the Gothic revival.

parthenon sculptures

Source: http://www.athensguide.org

In The Story of My Heart, Jefferies uses the idea of discovering a new civilisation as a metaphor for his ambition to realise a ‘fourth idea’:

“Three ideas the Cavemen primeval wrested from the unknown, the night which is round us still in daylight — the existence of the soul, immortality, the deity. […] I desire to advance further, and to wrest a fourth, and even still more than a fourth, from the darkness of thought. I want more ideas of soul-life. I am certain that there are more yet to be found. A great life — an entire civilization — lies just outside the pale of common thought. Cities and countries, inhabitants, intelligences, culture — an entire civilization. Except by illustrations drawn from familiar things, there is no way of indicating a new idea. I do not mean actual cities, actual civilization. Such life is different from any yet imagined. A nexus of ideas exists of which nothing is known — a vast system of ideas — a cosmos of thought.”

The desire to ‘wrest’ truth ‘from the darkness of thought’ is analogous to the advancing knowledge of past civilisations which came to light through excavation. Archaeology and the advancement of knowledge — ‘Cities and countries, inhabitants, intelligences, culture’ — had provided Jefferies with the factual basis for what he termed the ‘first three ideas’, which he believed to be the soul, immortality, and the concept of a deity. The nebulous ‘fourth idea’ could only be given shape by ‘illustrations drawn from familiar things’. Evidence of early mankind’s spiritual relationship with the earth continued to emerge through discoveries of Bronze Age and Roman objects bearing sun and animal motifs. Yet the ancient Greek discoveries, with their own context of written history and philosophy, were perceived to be more relevant to the Victorian era, and their emphasis on the beauty of the human form suggested a more fundamentally human connection with the universe.

Although Jefferies recognised the sculptures to be a poor representation of their original state — ‘The statues are not, it is said, the best; broken too, and mutilated, and seen in a dull, commonplace light’ — it was more widely understood that part of their function had been to reflect the light with dazzling effect. Henry George Lidell recognised the word ‘marble’ to be derived from a Greek word meaning ‘shining stone’ and from the verb ‘to flash, sparkle, gleam’. Stone lions, which form part of the Lykian displays at the British Museum, have missing stones from their mouths. These are thought to have reflected and held the light, and would have flashed in the sun to catch the attention of passers-by. The fragmentary nature of the collections appealed to Jefferies, whose own vision was one of tantalising glimpses of a more complete and fulfilling human state. In imagining archaeology Jefferies found potential for the mind to explore new depths of the soul. In his novel The Scarlet Shawl (1874), in a digression about the ‘buried’ nature of the ‘inner heart’ of man, Jefferies uses the images of accumulated dust and the ‘buried city’ to symbolise the potential for humans to reconnect with their inner selves:
“Deep, deep down under the apparent man…there is a buried city, a city of the inner heart, lost and forgotten these many days. There, on the walls of the chambers of that city are pictures, fresh as they were painted by the alchemy of light in the long, long years gone by…. Yet deep as it lies hidden, heavy, and dull, and impenetrable as the crust may be, there shall come a time when the light of the sun, seen through a little crevice, shall pour in its brilliance upon them, and shall exhibit these chambers of imagery to the man walking in daytime. He shall awake, and shall walk through these chambers he builded in the olden times; and the pictures upon the walls shall pierce his soul.”

The image of the buried city was an implicit reference to Troy, the infamous city buried by sand, excavated by Schliemann in 1870. Unearthed from beneath the sands in Turkey, the extent of Troy and its treasures were revealed to the public in 1873, the year Jefferies was writing The Scarlet Shawl. Jefferies uses the image of temporarily lost treasures to suggest an imminent dawn of new life for the soul. The ‘fresh’ pictures, which appear as vibrant as the day they were painted, suggest that the potential for enlightenment – what Jefferies termed in 1875 ‘a beautiful springtime yet in store for the soul’ — lies dormant within all of us, just beneath the surface.

snowdrops stile Dorset