‘A ROMAN BROOK’

SIMON COLEMAN

paola dastra brook in the woods

Here is the full text of Jefferies’ subtle and poignant short essay, ‘A Roman Brook’.  This is a work that, for me, opens up creative pathways for thought – pathways into deep questions about life, death, love and time. The brook nourishes both the life of the fields and human life and it seems to wind through time as well as through the fields.  Jefferies explores the highly visual character of his memory which seems to acquire greater importance after he has reminded us that the brook possesses no memories of him.  Throughout there are references to hidden, forgotten or disappearing things.  He observes that nature’s beauty does not exist for human admiration, but for purposes beyond our ideas – a recurring theme in his late works.  The brook, having been associated with so much life, at the end reveals its melancholy secret.  Death, however long concealed, exists side by side with life.

 

The deceptively simple descriptions are coming directly from memory, shaped so as to present us with clear images – memory pictures.  His imagination adds some touches that point to a real depth of perception, such as  “…something that carries the mind home to primitive times”, and “… just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.”  And, typically, his beloved Homeric Greece is not left out.

 

‘A Roman Brook’

 

“The brook has forgotten me, but I have not forgotten the brook. Many faces have been mirrored since in the flowing water, many feet have waded in the sandy shallow. I wonder if any one else can see it in a picture before the eyes as I can, bright, and vivid as trees suddenly shown at night by a great flash of lightning. All the leaves and branches and the birds at roost are visible during the flash. It is barely a second; it seems much longer. Memory, like the lightning, reveals the pictures in the mind. Every curve, and shore, and shallow is as familiar now as when I followed the winding stream so often. When the mowing-grass was at its height, you could not walk far beside the bank; it grew so thick and strong and full of umbelliferous plants as to weary the knees. The life as it were of the meadows seemed to crowd down towards the brook in summer, to reach out and stretch towards the life-giving water. There the buttercups were taller and closer together, nails of gold driven so thickly that the true surface was not visible. Countless rootlets drew up the richness of the earth like miners in the darkness, throwing their petals of yellow ore broadcast above them. With their fulness of leaves the hawthorn bushes grow larger—the trees extend farther—and thus overhung with leaf and branch, and closely set about by grass and plant, the brook disappeared only a little way off, and could not have been known from a mound and hedge. It was lost in the plain of meads—the flowers alone saw its sparkle.

 

Hidden in those bushes and tall grasses, high in the trees and low on the ground, there were the nests of happy birds. In the hawthorns blackbirds and thrushes built, often overhanging the stream, and the fledglings fluttered out into the flowery grass. Down among the stalks of the umbelliferous plants, where the grasses were knotted together, the nettle-creeper concealed her treasure, having selected a hollow by the bank so that the scythe should pass over. Up in the pollard ashes and willows here and there wood-pigeons built. Doves cooed in the little wooded enclosures where the brook curved almost round upon itself. If there was a hollow in the oak a pair of starlings chose it, for there was no advantageous nook that was not seized on. Low beside the willow stoles the sedge-reedlings built; on the ledges of the ditches, full of flags, moor-hens made their nests. After the swallows had coursed long miles over the meads to and fro, they rested on the tops of the ashes and twittered sweetly. Like the flowers and grass, the birds were drawn towards the brook. They built by it, they came to it to drink; in the evening a grasshopper-lark trilled in a hawthorn bush. By night crossing the footbridge a star sometimes shone in the water underfoot. At morn and even the peasant girls came down to dip; their path was worn through the mowing-grass, and there was a flat stone let into the bank as a step to stand on. Though they were poorly habited, without one line of form or tint of colour that could please the eye, there is something in dipping water that is Greek—Homeric—something that carries the mind home to primitive times. Always the little children came with them; they too loved the brook like the grass and birds. They wanted to see the fishes dart away and hide in the green flags: they flung daisies and buttercups into the stream to float and catch awhile at the flags, and float again and pass away, like the friends of our boyhood, out of sight. Where there was pasture roan cattle came to drink, and horses, restless horses, stood for hours by the edge under the shade of ash trees. With what joy the spaniel plunged in, straight from the bank out among the flags—you could mark his course by seeing their tips bend as he brushed them swimming. All life loved the brook.

 

Far down away from roads and hamlets there was a small orchard on the very bank of the stream, and just before the grass grew too high to walk through I looked in the enclosure to speak to its owner. He was busy with his spade at a strip of garden, and grumbled that the hares would not let it alone, with all that stretch of grass to feed on. Nor would the rooks; and the moor-hens ran over it, and the water-rats burrowed; the wood-pigeons would have the peas, and there was no rest from them all. While he talked and talked, far from the object in hand, as aged people will, I thought how the apple tree in blossom before us cared little enough who saw its glory. The branches were in bloom everywhere, at the top as well as at the side; at the top where no one could see them but the swallows. They did not grow for human admiration: that was not their purpose; that is our affair only—we bring the thought to the tree. On a short branch low down the trunk there hung the weather-beaten and broken handle of an earthenware vessel; the old man said it was a jug, one of the old folks’ jugs—he often dug them up. Some were cracked, some nearly perfect; lots of them had been thrown out to mend the lane. There were some chips among the heap of weeds yonder. These fragments were the remains of Anglo-Roman pottery. Coins had been found—half a gallon of them—the children had had most. He took one from his pocket, dug up that morning; they were of no value, they would not ring. The labourers tried to get some ale for them, but could not; no one would take the little brass things. That was all he knew of the Caesars: the apples were in fine bloom now, weren’t they?

 

Fifteen centuries before there had been a Roman station at the spot where the lane crossed the brook. There the centurions rested their troops after their weary march across the downs, for the lane, now bramble-grown and full of ruts, was then a Roman road. There were villas, and baths, and fortifications; these things you may read about in books. They are lost now in the hedges, under the flowering grass, in the ash copses, all forgotten in the lane, and along the footpath where the June roses will bloom after the apple blossom has dropped. But just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.

 

The old man, seeing my interest in the fragments of pottery, wished to show me something of a different kind lately discovered. He led me to a spot where the brook was deep, and had somewhat undermined the edge. A horse trying to drink there had pushed a quantity of earth into the stream, and exposed a human skeleton lying within a few inches of the water. Then I looked up the stream and remembered the buttercups and tall grasses, the flowers that crowded down to the edge; I remembered the nests, and the dove cooing; the girls that came down to dip, the children that cast their flowers to float away. The wind blew the loose apple bloom and it fell in showers of painted snow. Sweetly the greenfinches were calling in the trees: afar the voice of the cuckoo came over the oaks. By the side of the living water, the water that all things rejoiced in, near to its gentle sound, and the sparkle of sunshine on it, had lain this sorrowful thing.”

 

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A New Dawn of Consciousness – Thoughts of the Future

Rebecca Welshman

 

Two books that have made a lasting impression on me are James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, and Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart. I read Redfield in 1995 and didn’t discover Jefferies until 2003.

When it was published in 1993, The Celestine Prophecy quickly established a following and was known to change the lives of its readers. When I read it, aged fifteen, it made sense to me – particularly the idea that we lived in a material world made of energies that was closely aligned with a spiritual dimension also made of energies. A poignant section of the book is summarised here:

“The book suggests that the world is undergoing an enormous shift in consciousness, elaborating on how things had been generally understood until now: 1) at first people believed the world to be governed by the forces of divinity; everything could be explained as an act of a god or gods, 2) with increased knowledge of their world brought about through scientific inquiry, people turned to the men and women of science for an explanation of life and their world, and 3) without a satisfactory answer from science, people instead had them focus on efforts to improve their lives materially and subdue the earth, illustrated by a hyper-focus on economic conditions and fluctuations. What was now occurring was that the baseness of current conditions was revealing itself in our souls. We had become restless and were now ready for another fundamental shift in thinking that would eventually bring about a better world.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Celestine_Prophecy)

This situation of spiritual crisis is not radically different to what Jefferies proposed in The Story of My Heart. Realising that the soul could not breathe through the crust of civilisation in which it was set, he sought to break through and seek out a new circle of ideas outside of divinity, science, and material reality. Writing about his book, Jefferies explains:

“He claims to have erased from his mind the traditions and learning of the past ages, and to stand face to face with nature and with the unknown. The general aim of the work is to free thought from every trammel, with the view of its entering upon another and larger series of ideas than those which have occupied the brain of man so many centuries. He believes that there is a whole world of ideas outside and beyond those which now exercise us.”

Redfield’s book, written in the form of a story, explores how to recognise and engage with the spiritual dimensions of our ordinary lives. Our thoughts and actions are motivated and directed by our engagement with energy – we need to learn how to ‘see’ this process and develop our conscious awareness. We can do this through focusing on the beauty and energy of natural things which raises our own positive energies. Many spiritual traditions recognise that the soul or spirit of a person does not need the body to exist. The Celestine Prophecy explores how it is possible for the spirit to consciously travel outside of the body –  a version of what is known as astral travel.

Many of us may be familiar with the passages in Jefferies’ works which describe him lying down on the ground and looking up at the stars. These occur in Bevis, The Old House at Coate, and are alluded to in The Story of My Heart. When he writes that he feels ‘among’ the stars, he seems to be close to a state of astral travel – almost willing his spirit to leave his body and travel freely:

“Seeing the sun thus day by day traverse the sky about the house, passing the fixed points corresponding to the compass, and changing her position with the seasons – so that the house, the garden, and the trees about it made one large sidereal dial – made the solar apparent motion and the phenomena of the heavens very real and almost tangible. …
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. 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 Seasons and the Stars’, in ‘The Old House at Coate’

 

seasons and the stars

The life of the soul follows no well-trodden paths, adheres to no fixed points of a compass, and carves its own unique journey. Jefferies grew to realise this, and part of this realisation involved changing his value system. By the time he wrote The Story of My Heart he had already let go of the trappings of society and considered the life of the soul the only future worth working for:

“Let the floor of the room be bare, let the furniture be a plank table, the bed a mere pallet. Let the house be plain and simple, but in the midst of air and light. These are enough a cave would be enough; in a warmer climate the open air would suffice. Let me be furnished in myself with health, safety, strength, the perfection of physical existence; let my mind be furnished with highest thoughts of soul-life. Let me be in myself myself fully. The pageantry of power, the still more foolish pageantry of wealth, the senseless precedence of place; I fail words to express my utter contempt for such pleasure or such ambitions.”

In his own words he describes the ambitions of the book:

“From all nature from the universe he desires to take its energy, grandeur, and beauty. He looks forward to the possibility of ideal man, and adduces reasons for the possibility of such ideal man living in enjoyment of his faculties for a great length of time. He is anxious that the culture of the soul should be earnestly carried out, as earnestly as the culture of the body was in ancient Greece, as that of the mind is at the present day. So highly does he place the soul, that if it can but retain its consciousness and attain its desires he thinks it matters not if the entire material world disappears. Yet the work teems with admiration of material beauty.”

Here Jefferies seems to be preparing us for a future without the material world. The idea of the material world not being necessary for the soul to exist is something that Redfield addresses in the volume that came after The Celestine Prophecy titled ‘The Tenth Insight’. In this book he writes about the higher perspective of the Afterlife, which can be reached by progressively working on our positive vibrations. What struck me about Redfield’s book was its dedication to advancing the life of the soul – something that Jefferies earnestly wished for, and refers to above as the ‘culture of the soul’.

It doesn’t really matter what critics have said about Redfield’s book because it is a work of light. The darkness of our own fears, doubts, and unresolved emotions holds us back, but these are realities which we ourselves are responsible for enforcing – no one else. Redfield and Jeferries both highlight the value of natural beauty as an energy source that can replenish us. Both recognise the concept of an Eternal Now with its potential to help us see beyond the limits of our historical and cultural circumstances, and even beyond the limits of consciousness itself. Like Redfield, Jefferies was a light-worker, and he believed that if the work of the soul could be developed, then it would be enough to lift us from the veils and webs that seemed determined to restrain us. Jefferies may only have got so far with his work, and he had much more to give, but such work can and should continue for the sake of our spiritual future.