The Fields in April

Rebecca Welshman

 

The last few days here in Cumbria have seen the return of the swallows to the barns adjacent to the house. On the evening of 24th April, after a few days of warm sunshine, there was a heavy snowfall, and it felt like winter once more. This sudden cold spell at the end of the month brought to mind Jefferies’ nature notes from 1881, written when he lived in Surbiton. In 1881 the earth was dry, and the growth of foliage slow. There was a bitter east wind, and Jefferies notes that at the end of the month it still did not quite feel like spring.

oak in April

April 1881

 

“A slight shower fell on the ninth of April, at last breaking the continuity of dry weather which had endured for weeks. The earth became so hard that in the arable fields men were employed to break the clods with the backs of old axes. Growth, if it went on at all, had been so very slow that the appearance of the Surrey fields in the second week of April was almost exactly what it was a month before. There was no more green—the surface remained dry, brown, and bare. The grass had hardly grown at all. There is little for the herds which must soon come out from the yards; and, unless rapid progress is now made the hay harvest will be late. It is usually said that it is better for such growths to be kept back than to be too forward; but they may be kept back too long; it is questionable if checking weather is ever of advan­tage to agriculture. Neither long drought, nor long-continued rain, nor frost, nor sunshine, suits us. Variety and change are best: the more especially since crops have become so complex.

North-east wind, blue sky, and sunshine produce a distinct atmosphere of their own. It is not exactly haze or mist; but there is a peculiar translucent vapour about trees and distant objects while the east wind blows under bright sunshine. It is as if the air were glazed—as if it had a smooth, dry, polished surface. Leafless trees and hedges, bare fields, and silent birds—not even the thrushes singing—contrasted in a singular manner with all that is seen and heard under a rich blue sky and a glowing sun.”

 

Jefferies’ observations of the dryness of the air and the particular atmosphere of early spring remind me of a recent visit to Orton Moors when the air was cold and the sunshine bright. We walked into a strong Westerly wind, and the ground was hard and dry. Even shallow stream beds, which had been wet all through the autumn and winter, had dried into flaking mosaics of mud. This photo is looking eastwards from Orton Moor, over Sunbiggin Tarn, where in the evenings giant flocks of starlings make dark patterns over the water:

orton moors April 2017

Jefferies’ observations for March and April continue thus:

“In the second week of March, there were sprays of haw­thorn out in leaf in warm corners. On the 10th of April, a month later, precisely the same thing might have been said. There were the hawthorn leaves out in places, but the hedges at large were still bare, the trees leafless, and the grass equally short. But signs appeared from time to time of the irresistible march of the days: the sun, rising higher, forced progress in spite of all. On the 12th of March the hedge-sparrows were hawking from the tops of the hedges, flying up and seizing insects—showing that insect-life was already teeming. The wood-pigeons called in the copse as late in the evening as half-past seven, by moonlight. In waste places the little chickweed-flowers came out, and in orchards the daffodils were almost open. A larch showed green buds on the 14th: the larch, which looks almost dead and dry during the winter, is one of the most interesting trees to watch in spring—its aspect changes so delicately. A yellow-hammer was singing on the topmost branch of a young oak on the 16th. The lesser celandine flowered on the moist ground in a withy-bed, between the scanty stoles; and in the wet furrows the marsh-marigold stalks were up. The ditches, where there was any running water, were now brown at the bottom, instead of clear as they had been previously. A brown butterfly was seen on the 18th. By the 20th the reddish flowers of the elm were so thick as to partly conceal the nests of the rooks in the upper branches. The sheaths had fallen from the buds of a horse-chestnut tree on the 21st; but the buds were not open. A spray of briar was in leaf on the 23rd and a burdock had risen about eight inches; but it grew no higher for a long while. A chiff-chaff, first of the spring migrants, called in the copse on the 26th despite the wind. By the 5th of April there was just the faintest green upon the boughs of the pollard willows: a green visible from a distance where the boughs were seen in the mass, but almost disap­pearing upon approaching. Walking across an arable field it was pleasant to see the light-blue flowers of grey speedwell among the rising clover. A bunch of red dead-nettle had evidently been in flower some time. On the 10th of April a tree-pipit sang, descending to a branch of elm: a willow wren was heard; and a white butterfly appeared. Hazel-buds were half open, but there were no leaves yet. On the next day a slight shower fell and the wind turned and came from the south. The effect was wonderful: in two days the hedges became green—quite green where before they had been’ bare; horse-chestnut leaves came out, sycamore buds opened, the grass took a fresh tint, and the sweet notes of blackbirds came from the trees. The delicate white petals of stitchwort appeared on the 14th; only four days before, on the 10th there was no sign of the flower opening, so quickly had the warm wind brought everything forward. On the 14th, too, some of the birches were slightly tinted with green, and a few leaves had come out on the lower branches of elms. Hedge-mustard had now risen high, though not in flower; hedge-parsley and white dead-nettle flowered. Blackthorn was in flower—a white spot in the middle of a low cropped hedge about an arable field recently rolled and bare of green. This bareness rendered the blackthorn bloom the more attractive. The same morning a nightingale was heard for the first time this season, in the same hedge where the first was heard last year.”

Here in Cumbria I have noticed the return of the birds. The Song Thrush was one of the first to sing, and the grey wagtails have returned to the beck. Swallows have been darting over the fields, and a pair of jackdaws have begun building a nest in the barn – taking straggly pieces of hay from the dungheap and flying with them up to the barn roof.

the_danes_brook1

Jefferies writes that “The 15th, Good Friday, was a most lovely day—a true spring day. Marsh-marigold was in flower, and the sedges between the stoles of withy beside the brook were tipped with this dark-brown, almost black, flower. Brown, unwholesome-looking horsetails had risen in the fields; on dry banks ground-ivy flowered. A wryneck was heard and seen on the 16th. A sycamore in flower was frequented by bees, whose humming seemed to promise summer. Barren strawberry flowered in the mounds: oak buds began to swell and open. On the 17th a sedge-reedling set up his welcome chirping, having returned to the same swampy spot, well surrounded with bushes, where he dwelt last year. Cowslips flowered in the meadows, and a cuckoo was heard and seen repeatedly. The cuckoo now perched on some rails, and now on the top of a small rick, then flew away, showing the slaty colour of his back, to return unseen and suddenly call again from an oak. While I watched his movements a kestrel approached and began to hover with beating wings over the meadow. Hardly had he got his balance when five rooks—a small flock—returning to their nest-trees less than half a mile distant, and well in sight, came up, and one of them at once attacked the hawk. First the rook flew straight at the hovering kestrel: and as he came from behind, the hawk did not appear to notice him till within a few yards, when suddenly recognizing his danger he ceased to hover and avoided the rook’s rush with a quick sideways spring, as it were, in the air. Now the kestrel swept round—the rook after him; with some labour the rook got highest, and closing his wings dived down, with neck and beak thrust out, on the hawk. Another twirl carried the kestrel out of the line of this swoop. And again he circled round to avoid his assailant; but his wide sweep brought near a second rook; and in an instant this rook too closed his wings, and, with his beak projecting like a white dagger (they were so near, all the colours were easily distinguished) darted down on the hawk. A third time the kestrel escaped; but he now seemed alarmed, for he descended to a hedge and followed it for some distance, and when he rose he was making off at full speed. The moment the rooks saw this, the whole five turned and pursued him, following so far that they were all lost to sight. Thus they drove the hawk from the neighbourhood of their trees.

Though the cuckoo had now been heard and seen, the lady’s-smock or cuckoo-flower could not be found by the furrows, where it usually announces the approach of the bird. No doubt the dry winds delayed it, just as they delayed everything. It is a plant fond of moisture, and all the furrows are dry, and even the marshy place where the marsh-marigolds are in flower is—not, indeed, dry, but without visible water; the surface of the mud white with the vegeta­tion that flourishes there, but which the sunshine has killed. So powerful has been the wind that even the hardy furze has not bloomed as it usually does: only a few bushes have put forth their golden flowers. Nor had we seen a swallow up to the date of the cuckoo’s appearance—not one of either species; their absence is probably local, still it is remarkable. And now the easterly wind has returned again—it is almost as bitter as ever. There is no dust left for it to raise: the dust was all carried away before; that from the arable fields quite whitened the boughs of an adjacent copse, and under these storms of dry particles, the dark foliage of the pines became grey.”

The surprise snowfall of 24th April did not lead to much of a covering, as it soon melted, but here is a photo of the snowstorm in full flow:

Snow April 24 2017

Yesterday the fells were looking more colourful. In this photo it is possible to see the line of deciduous trees which fringe the beck as it winds into the hills (mid-right). Each tree has a fine spray of green which grows deeper every day. The fields which surround the farm are developing richer pasture, and are being grazed by ewes with their lambs:

Howgll fells april 2017

 

Signs of Spring

Rebecca Welshman

nature-april-2013-016

Jefferies’ field notebooks are full of references to the passing seasons. Each year he carefully noted the first signs of spring and summer and found happiness in the visible tokens of the seasons as they returned.  As he wrote in The Open Air “I knew the very dates of them all—the reddening elm, the arum, the hawthorn leaf, the celandine, the may; the yellow iris of the waters, the heath of the hillside. The time of the nightingale—the place to hear the first note.”

The first arum is often noted, and he looks for it on the banks of woodlands or along the edges of lanes. In ‘Nature Near London’ he notes the connection between the arrival of spring plants and the activities of the birds:

“The spotted leaves of the arum appeared in the ditches in this locality very nearly simultaneously with the first whistling of the blackbirds in February; last spring the chiffchaff sang soon after the flowering of the lesser celandine (not in this hedge, but near by), and the first swift was noticed within a day or two of the opening of the May bloom. Although not exactly, yet in a measure, the movements of plant and bird life correspond.”

lesser-celandine-flowers-in-woodland-habitat

In ‘The Life of the Fields’ he describes a few warm days in early spring when it is possible to see and feel the growth of the season. An expanse of agricultural land, which in the winter months assumed a dreary and monotonous aspect, is lightened by the hazy sunshine. Larks are singing, and the bare banks that fringe the woods are slowly turning green:

“It is the February summer that comes, and lasts a week or so between the January frosts and the east winds that rush through the thorns. Some little green is even now visible along the mound where seed-leaves are springing up. The sun is warm, and the still air genial, the sky only dotted with a few white clouds. Wood-pigeons are busy in the elms, where the ivy is thick with ripe berries. There is a feeling of spring and of growth; in a day or two we shall find violets; and listen, how sweetly the larks are singing! Some chase each other, and then hover fluttering above the hedge. The stubble, whitened by exposure to the weather, looks lighter in the sunshine, and the distant view is softened by haze. A water-tank approaches, and the cart-horse steps in the pride of strength. The carter’s lad goes to look at the engine and to wonder at the uses of the gauge. All the brazen parts gleam in the bright sun, and the driver presses some waste against the piston now it works slowly, till it shines like polished silver. The red glow within, as the furnace-door is opened, lights up the lad’s studious face beneath like sunset. A few brown leaves yet cling to one bough of the oak, and the rooks come over cawing happily in the unwonted warmth. The low hum and the monotonous clanking, the rustling of the wire rope, give a sense of quiet. Let us wander along the hedge, and look for signs of spring. This is to-day. To-morrow, if we come, the engines are half hidden from afar by driving sleet and scattered snow-flakes fleeting aslant the field. Still sternly they labour in the cold and gloom. …

Among the meadows the buttercups in spring are as innumerable as ever and as pleasant to look upon. The petal of the buttercup has an enamel of gold; with the nail you may scrape it off, leaving still a yellow ground, but not reflecting the sunlight like the outer layer. From the centre the golden pollen covers the fingers with dust like that from the wing of a butterfly. In the bunches of grass and by the gateways the germander speedwell looks like tiny specks of blue stolen, like Prometheus’ fire, from the summer sky. When the mowing-grass is ripe the heads of sorrel are so thick and close that at a little distance the surface seems as if sunset were always shining red upon it. From the spotted orchis leaves in April to the honeysuckle-clover in June, and the rose and the honeysuckle itself, the meadow has changed in nothing that delights the eye. The draining, indeed, has made it more comfortable to walk about on, and some of the rougher grasses have gone from the furrows, diminishing at the same time the number of cardamine flowers; but of these there are hundreds by the side of every tiny rivulet of water, and the aquatic grasses flourish in every ditch. The meadow-farmers, dairymen, have not grubbed many hedges–only a few, to enlarge the fields, too small before, by throwing two into one. So that hawthorn and blackthorn, ash and willow, with their varied hues of green in spring, briar and bramble, with blackberries and hips later on, are still there as in the old, old time. Bluebells, violets, cowslips–the same old favourite flowers–may be found on the mounds or sheltered near by. The meadow-farmers have dealt mercifully with the hedges, because they know that for shade in heat and shelter in storm the cattle resort to them. The hedges–yes, the hedges, the very synonym of Merry England–are yet there, and long may they remain. Without hedges England would not be England. Hedges, thick and high, and full of flowers, birds, and living creatures, of shade and flecks of sunshine dancing up and down the bark of the trees–I love their very thorns. You do not know how much there is in the hedges.

hedgerow20j20wallen

Image source: cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk

We have still the woods, with here and there a forest, the beauty of the hills, and the charm of winding brooks. I never see roads, or horses, men, or anything when I get beside a brook. There is the grass, and the wheat, the clouds, the delicious sky, and the wind, and the sunlight which falls on the heart like a song. It is the same, the very same, only I think it is brighter and more lovely now than it was twenty years ago.”

stream_and_old_bridge_on_exmoor_devon_2545075797

Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stream_and_old_bridge_on_Exmoor,_Devon_(2545075797).jpg

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.”

 

FLOWERS AND FARMLAND

Simon Coleman

poppies simon blog

Source: http://il9.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/6578054/thumb/4.jpg

In this purely descriptive passage from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ (1879), Jefferies discusses various flowers found in and around cultivated land.  We can see both his fascination with habitats and understanding of what, today, would be termed ‘ecology’.

 

“On the other side the plough has left a narrow strip of green running along the hedge: the horses, requiring some space in which to turn at the end of each furrow, could not draw the share any nearer, and on this narrow strip the weeds and wild flowers flourish. The light-sulphur-coloured charlock is scattered everywhere—out among the corn, too, for no cleaning seems capable of eradicating this plant; the seeds will linger in the earth and retain their germinating power for a length of time, till the plough brings them near enough to the surface, when they are sure to shoot up unless the pigeons find them. Here also may be found the wild garlic, which sometimes gets among the wheat and lends an onion-like flavour to the bread. It grows, too, on the edge of the low chalky banks overhanging the narrow waggon-track, whose ruts are deep in the rubble—worn so in winter.

 

Such places, close to cultivated land yet undisturbed, are the best in which to look for wild flowers; and on the narrow strip beside the hedge and on the crumbling rubble bank of the rough track may be found a greater variety than by searching the broad acres beyond. In the season the large white bell-like flowers of the convolvulus will climb over the hawthorn, and the lesser striped kind will creep along the ground. The pink pimpernel hides on the very verge of the corn, which presently will be strewn with the beautiful ‘blue-bottle’ flower, than whose exquisite hue there is nothing more lovely in our fields. The great scarlet poppy with the black centre, and ‘eggs and butter’—curious name for a flower—will, of course, be there: the latter often flourishes on a high elevation, on the very ridges, provided only the plough has been near.”

 

 

FLOWERS AT COOMBE OAKS

Simon Coleman

 Spring-Flowers-1

Source: http://cheam.mycouncillor.org.uk/files/2014/04/Spring-Flowers-1.jpg

Towards the end of Jefferies’ last novel, ‘Amaryllis at the Fair’ (1887), a curious character from London turns up in the remote hamlet of Coombe Oaks.  He is Alere Flamma, a Fleet Street artist and engraver, who is bohemian in spirit and widely-travelled.  Jefferies presents him as the artist who is absolutely faithful to the beauty of nature, who knows instinctively what to draw and, above all, who loves wild flowers.

 

“If only Alere would have gone and sketched what he was asked to sketch! Ah! there is the difference; he could not do it, his nature would not let him; he could draw what he saw with his own eyes, but not what other people wanted him to see. A merry income he might have made if he would only have consented to see what other eyes – common, vulgar eyes – wanted to see, and which he could so easily have drawn for them.

 

Out of these piles of varied sketches there were two kinds the Editor instantly snapped at: the one was wild flowers, the other little landscape bits.

 

Wild flowers were his passion. They were to Flamma as Juliet to Romeo. Romeo’s love, indeed, rushed up like straw on fire, a great blaze of flame; he perished in it as the straw; perhaps he might not have worshipped Juliet next year. Flamma had loved his wild flowers close upon forty years, ever since he could remember; most likely longer, for doubtless the dumb infant loved the daisies put in his chubby hand.

 

His passion they were still as he drew near fifty, and saw all things become commonplace. That is the saddest of thoughts – as we grow older the romance fades, and all things become commonplace.

 

Half our lives are spent in wishing for to-morrow, the other half in wishing for yesterday.

 

Wild flowers alone never become commonplace. The white wood-sorrel at the foot of the oak, the violet in the hedge of the vale, the thyme on the wind-swept downs, they were as fresh this year as last, as dear to-day as twenty years since, even dearer, for they grow now, as it were, in the earth we have made for them of our hopes, our prayers, our emotions, our thoughts.

 

Sketch-book upon sketch-book in Alere’s room was full of wild flowers, drawn as he had found them in the lanes and woods at Coombe Oaks – by the footpaths, by the lake and the lesser ponds, on the hills – as he had found them, not formed into an artificial design, not torn up by the roots, or cut and posed for the occasion – exactly as they were when his eye caught sight of them. A difficult thing to do, but Alere did it.

 

In printing engravings of flowers the illustrated magazines usually make one of two mistakes; either the flower is printed without any surroundings or background, and looks thin, quite without interest, however cleverly drawn, or else it is presented with a heavy black pall of ink which dabs it out altogether.

 

These flowers the Editor bought eagerly, and the little landscapes. From a stile, beside a rick, through a gap in a hedge, odd, unexpected places, Alere caught views of the lake, the vale, the wood, groups of trees, old houses, and got them in his magical way on a few square inches of paper. They were very valuable for book illustration. They were absolutely true to nature and fact.”

Walter Murray: An Unacknowledged English Nature Mystic

A guest post by Tom Wareham

Walter murray034

Walter Murray: Nature Writer

It would be difficult for anyone who loves the writing of Richard Jefferies to have missed the recent boom in Nature writing in the UK. Following the path of Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin, we have benefitted from the work of some brilliant and thought-provoking writers, like Robert Macfarlane, Rob Cowen and Michael McCarthy – to name just a few. All of these express a growing concern about both the threat to Nature and our relationship with it. Richard Jefferies, of course, ranks as one of the great pioneers in exploring this latter point, and his work continues to inspire new writers. But in the earlier 20th century there were others, often unacknowledged. One of these was Walter J C Murray. If you have come across Murray it is most likely to be because of his book Copsford, first published in 1948. It is his most memorable work and was republished several times, the last being in 1986, the year after his death. But it was not his only work, and a study of all his books reveals how much Murray was a Nature Mystic like Jefferies.

Walter Murray was born in Seaford in East Sussex in 1900. His father was a clergyman and school master: (typically we know nothing of his mother). Murray appears to have served in the merchant navy at the end of WW1, and then made his way to London to try and earn a living as a journalist. He found little enthusiasm for the sort of hack-work he was given, recalling : “…my heart was not in it. I was of the country. I could not dip my pen in the life-blood of the city streets. I needed the very song of the shadow-dappled brook to write, with the sound of wild wings in my ears and the scent of wild flowers in my nostrils.”

Part of the problem was that he also loathed the environment of the big city. In particular he hated his bed-sit in Pimlico, “that third-floor-back with its tiny gas fire, its naked electric light and its distressing view.” A few pages later he again remembered that “appalling view of roofs and chimneys and slum yards.” Desperate to escape, he fled from London and sought sanctuary in a derelict and isolated cottage in the Sussex countryside. His description of his first visit to his prospective new home, gives us a clear indication of his intentions: “There was rain in the wind now, and the sky was as grey and sad as ever, yet there was something magical in this lonely countryside with its rough pastures, its unkempt hedges, snowy with ragged blackthorn, its woodlands hazy green, its winding brooks…..As I looked at the view from the top of the hill I thought of summer days. Through the grey curtains of rain that were now drawing across the wooded landscape I saw in imagination, summer blue, when all the shimmering countryside would be at my very door…I saw the possibility of doing what it had often been my great desire to do, to live alone and at one with Nature.

For the following year Murray lived in relative seclusion and isolation, spending his time by writing and collecting herbs for dispatch to London. In some ways, he seems to have replicated the experience of Thoreau a century earlier, observing at one stage “…simplification is, I believe, what millions are a-seeking, particularly in the appreciation of life and beauty.” Certainly over the course of the year Murray drew closer and closer to Nature. This observation, for example, was inspired early on a June morning: “It sometimes happens, at rare moments in our lives, we are suddenly aware of an altogether new world, different completely from that in which we commonly live. We feel as though we stand at the threshold of an undiscovered kingdom; for brief moments we understand life interpreted, we perceive meaning instead of things. In those golden minutes I understood every word on a single page of the magic book of life inscribed in a language neither written nor spoken. There was sublime tranquillity in the level white mists of the valley, a symphony like the ascending melodies of Greig in the sun rays that climbed aslant the hill, a quiet strength in the stillness of the trees, a brotherhood of life in all living things. I was no longer a single life pushing a difficult way amidst material things, I was part of all creation…It was a baptism into a saner way of living and thinking. The soreness of the slave-collar was salved. It was an outward and visible sign of my inward awareness of at-one-ment.”

Readers of The Story of My Heart will recognise what Murray is referring to here. But Murray also records a change in his relationship with Nature during the course of the year. At one point he describes his search for the herb centaury: “The search for it… sent me far and wide through deep woods and forest rides, into flowery clearings and bracken-clothed commons. I was no longer a fellow of the open lanes and hedgerows, I became a denizen of the woods. I travelled by spinney and copse, through shaw and forgotten corduroy, at first because there I expected to find my herbs, but later because I became secretive and shy. Living so close to the wild, almost instinctively I copied creatures of the wild. I travelled swiftly, silently and unseen. I learned woodland behaviour, I heard woodland sounds.” And in a most telling comment he refers to himself as a ‘Green Man’, signifying consciously or unconsciously, a mystical connection with the mythical being of the medieval period.

He also describes the transformation or transcendence that overtook him. : “…at Copsford there were seasons when time almost stood still, and I too learnt to be still. At first I was restless, miserable, a gnawing discontent tried to eat my heart out, and if I had not been blessed with an inborn love of the countryside it would have succeeded. But I slowly learned to stand and stare. The leaven was working. I not only stood and not only stared, but I began to see. I saw lovely things and rare things…saw the play of light across meadow and wood, saw a shaft of sunlight fill a spring-green copse till it glowed as though the glory of the Light of the World dwelled within. I caught an occasional glimpse of the intricate and complex pattern of life, and once or twice, as fleeting as the rainbow-flash from a trembling dewdrop, I perceived that all these things were but the external signs of a kingdom such as I had never dreamed of; that these colours were as a drop-curtain which, while it might never rise to disclose the stage within, grew transparent before my wondering eyes.

Murray had been permitted entry to the kingdom of Nature. But after a year he was driven out of the cottage by persistent and torrential rain. He had overcome loneliness, depression and the deep snow of a freezing winter, but the derelict state of the cottage offered no protection from penetrating rain, and the year at Copsford came to a soggy end. Not that Murray was depressed about the outcome. On the contrary Murray, who kept extensive notes throughout the year, was noticeably up-beat about the whole experience, and later found that it had a major influence over the rest of his life. In one of his later books he noted of Copsford: ‘Far from forgetting that freedom of meadow and marsh which I had enjoyed I was frequently almost overpowered by a desire to return to it. I longed for the smell of crushed mint in my nostrils, for the hum of insects and the song of birds in my ears, for the close contact with nature that I had experienced. Instead I had to be content with the briefest visits to the woods and streams, with the shortest of holidays among the hills, and from this occasional communion to renew health and strength and try to satisfy my heart.’

Many readers of Copsford are themselves captivated and haunted by the book. It is not just that Murray recreates for us an experience of drawing close to Nature for which we yearn, it is also the fact that he does not have to go to a distant ‘wilderness’ to achieve it. One of the great charms of Copsford is that it presents the ability to find solitude, beauty and a deep communion with nature much nearer at hand, in the English countryside. It is a book with a small but devoted following.

If we were to have to rely solely on Copsford as evidence for Murray’s Nature Mysticism, we might be on weak ground. Fortunately, as I suggested earlier, although Murray was not a prolific writer, this was not his only published work, nor was it his first. By the late 1930s, Murray had already become established as a broadcaster on the BBC Home Service, giving a range of talks on the natural world. At some point he met and began working with L Hugh Newman, (a renowned lepidopterist) and also Peter Scott. In 1944, he submitted the manuscript of his first book to the publishers Allen and Unwin. The book was later titled Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom, and it consisted of thirteen essays about wildlife and habitat. Almost the first comment made by the reader appointed by Allen & Unwin to evaluate the manuscript, was that it reminded him of the work of Richard Jefferies. This is not surprising, for the work contains many observations about communion with Nature which would have been recognised by Jefferies. For example, this observation on seeing a mountain beck after heavy rain: On seeing a mountain beck after heavy rain: “It was a living thing. The sun shone, and the water leapt into the mountain air a-sparkle of foam and spray…I was translated. It was the river of life, water, the superlative allegory; in the cloud, the raindrop, in the beck, the lake, in the ocean, in a myriad forms yet all one. Life in the heather, in the fish, the bird, in the lamb, in man, in a myriad forms, yet all one, one and the same with the source of all life.
        But I knew more than that in that ecstatic hour. The water and the life are one. No thing, animate or inanimate, can exist outside the mind of the Creator. I could enter into the waterfall, even as the tumbling water swept through me, not in prosaic fact, but in spirit and in truth. The breast of the mountain quivers, the spray blows in my face, the foam washes my feet; I shout aloud for pure joy.

View from E towards Copsford Hill, cottage to left of trees in centre - Copy (2)

View towards Copsford Hill

But Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom was not just a book of nature observation, it was an appeal for reconnection with Nature itself. “All that I have written in this little book goes to show that every one of us, at almost any time, in almost any place can with a little trying, a little quiet contemplation, find kinship with all creation, maybe in the garden, or in the wood, on the moor, by the waterfall, among the mountains. But…most of us are blunted to that fuller understanding of nature; and perhaps only by such simple experience as that of watching birds from a hide, shall we discover a kingdom, and learn the first words of its language.

Furthermore, anticipating a very modern concern, Murray was also calling for a change of attitude. In the introduction to the book he stated clearly, “Man lives his own life, goes his own way, and sees well-nigh nothing of the teeming life around him, and, when he does, only in relation to himself. Man has striven against the life of the wild so long that he no longer understands its expression, like an old man who no longer understands the life of little children.
The world of wild life is like the world of music, full of haunting melodies and rich harmonies, charged with messages for the spirit; yet to a man, to whose ear music means nothing, a symphony is no more than a noise, meaningless and interfering. In like manner the world of wild life has become meaningless, without melody or harmony. Man has been so long wrestling with nature that he has quite forgotten that Life is common to all living things, and that he plays but his part in expressing it.
       Man is so concerned over his own affairs, that he can only see other expressions of life in the light of and in relation to, his own. He fails to see that all the other expressions of life around him have a way of life wholly different from his. Yet he puts his constructions, his ideals, his sentiments, his conjectures, his fancies, as interpretations of their behaviour. But he is so often mistaken that the inner understanding of wild life is hidden from him.

Two years after the publication of Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom, Allen & Unwin also published Copsford. The latter received mixed reviews but was snapped up by the Readers Union as its book choice for 1950, which considerably boosted its sales and readership. In 1953 Murray’s third book, A Sanctuary Planted, was published. The book recounts the creation of a wildlife sanctuary during the dark years of World War II. The sanctuary was intended to emphasise life and renewal at a time of so much death and destruction; but it was also an appeal. Anticipating a very current concern, Murray opined – ‘The countryside is continually being invaded by the town and the townsman. Thousands of acres a year are overlaid with city and town, suburb and prefab., roads and railways, bungalow and amusement park. Unique habitats are destroyed, common and forest razed to the ground, and the living space of wild things for ever compressed. We must reserve. We must secure sanctuaries, no matter how small. They will be oases in the desert, and to them living things will come for life’s sake.’ It could almost be the inspiration for the RSPB’s ‘Giving Nature a Home’ campaign.

A Sanctuary Planted is in many ways a less satisfactory book than the other two, but it is still valuable as a source for Murray’s philosophical ideas, which tend to be inserted into the narrative with the minimum of fuss. In fact, Murray was never strident about his thoughts, and the reader has to pick carefully through all of his works to tease this out.

In the early 1950s, Murray produced three more books, co-written with L Hugh Newman. Unfortunately, these are less valuable, as a source for Murray’s mysticism since it is almost impossible to identify his contributions. In a rather sad twist of fate, Allen & Unwin rejected all of Murray’s later works and only Romney Marsh – a whimsical guide cum travelogue – was published in 1953, by Hale.

The paucity of Murray’s work, however, should not detract from the fact that he was both an excellent and respected naturalist, and an important Nature Mystic who deserves to be better recognised.

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Tom Wareham is currently researching the life and work of Walter Murray and would be pleased to hear from anyone in that connection. He can be contacted through his website http://www.tomwareham.com

THE SKYLARK

Simon Coleman

rspb skylarkSource: http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/skylark_tcm9-157792.jpg?width=768&crop=%2819,75,724,472%29

One of Jefferies’ favourite birds, the skylark, was for him associated not only with summer days, but with the promise of summer that is felt towards the end of winter. This small bird of the light and endless blue sky, that seemed to bring a message of hope, of love even, was one he could never tire of seeing and hearing. He would have concurred with W.H. Hudson who wrote that the lark’s song is “sunshine translated into sound”.

“The notes fall from the air over the dark wet earth, over the dank grass, and broken withered fern of the hedge, and listening to them it seems for a moment spring. There is sunshine in the song; the lark and the light are one. He gives us a few minutes of summer in February days. In May he rises before as yet the dawn is come, and the sunrise flows down to us under through his notes. On his breast, high above the earth, the first rays fall as the rim of the sun edges up at the eastward hill. The lark and the light are as one, and wherever he glides over the wet furrows the glint of the sun goes with him. Anon alighting he runs between the lines of the green corn. In hot summer, when the open hillside is burned with bright light, the larks are then singing and soaring. Stepping up the hill laboriously, suddenly a lark starts into the light and pours forth a rain of unwearied notes overhead. With bright light, and sunshine, and sunrise, and blue skies the bird is so associated in the mind, that even to see him in the frosty days of winter, at least assures us that summer will certainly return.

Ought not winter, in allegorical designs, the rather to be represented with such things that might suggest hope than such as convey a cold and grim despair? The withered leaf, the snowflake, the hedging bill that cuts and destroys, why these? Why not rather the dear larks for one? They fly in flocks, and amid the white expanse of snow (in the south) their pleasant twitter or call is heard as they sweep along seeking some grassy spot cleared by the wind. The lark, the bird of the light, is there in the bitter short days. Put the lark then for winter, a sign of hope, a certainty of summer.” (‘Out of Doors in February’)

“In the early spring, when love-making is in full progress, the cornfields where the young green blades are just showing, become the scene of the most amusing rivalry. Far as the eye can see across the ground it seems alive with larks—chasing each other to and fro, round and round, with excited calls, flying close to the surface, continually alighting, and springing up again. A gleam of sunshine and a warm south wind brings forth these merry antics. So like in general hue is the lark to the lumps of brown earth that even at a few paces it is difficult to distinguish her. Some seem always to remain in the meadows; but the majority frequent the arable land, and especially the cornfields on the slopes of the downs, where they may be found in such numbers as rival or perhaps exceed those of any other bird.” (Wild Life in a Southern County)

“How swiftly the much-desired summer comes upon us! Even with the reapers at work before one it is difficult to realise that it has not only come, but will soon be passing away. Sweet summer is but just long enough for the happy loves of the larks. It seems but yesterday, it is really more than five months since, that, leaning against the gate there, I watched a lark and his affianced on the ground among the grey stubble of last year still standing.

His crest was high and his form upright, he ran a little way and then sang, went on again and sang again to his love, moving parallel with him. Then passing from the old dead stubble to fresh-turned furrows, still they went side by side, now down in the valley between the clods, now mounting the ridges, but always together, always with song and joy, till I lost them across the brown earth. But even then from time to time came the sweet voice, full of hope in coming summer.

The day declined, and from the clear, cold sky of March the moon looked down, gleaming on the smooth planed furrow which the plough had passed. Scarce had she faded in the dawn ere the lark sang again, high in the morning sky. The evenings became dark; still he rose above the shadows and the dusky earth, and his song fell from the bosom of the night. With full untiring choir the joyous host heralded the birth of the corn; the slender forceless seed-leaves which came gently up till they had risen above the proud crests of the lovers.” (‘Wheatfields’)