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

 

OUR ONLY EARTH: AN INDIAN PERSPECTIVE

Simon Coleman

1-bluemarble_west

Image source: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/1-bluemarble_west.jpg

 

I recently came by chance upon a booklet of lectures by Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India in the 1960s and 1970s (her career continued into the 1980s).  I was particularly struck by her embracing of the earth as one community, with an outlook on humanity that was not merely international, but was in some sense ‘universal’.  The excerpts below from a 1972 lecture contain a powerful ecological message but Gandhi still welcomes technological advance to improve living standards, especially in poorer nations.  She wants to see technology and protection of Nature progress together, but for this to happen a higher level of thinking is required.  She also touches on Indian spirituality, emphasizing the rationality within that tradition rather than its more mystical elements that have often attracted western spiritual seekers.

 

Of course, we have to remember that this was delivered in 1972 when many of these ideas were relatively new.  But imagine a western leader ever delivering a lecture like this!  I’m posting it because I feel that the values and hopes it expresses are close to those found in some of Richard Jefferies’ humanistic and ecologically aware writings.

 

“I have the good fortune of growing up with a sense of kinship with Nature in all its manifestations.  Birds, plants and stones were companions and, sleeping under the star-strewn sky, I became familiar with the names and movements of the constellations.  But my deep interest in this our only earth was not for itself but as a fit home for man.

 

One cannot be truly human and civilized unless one looks upon not only all fellow men but all creation with the eyes of a friend.  Throughout India, edicts carved on rocks and pillars are reminders that twenty-two centuries ago the Emperor Asoka defined a king’s duty as not merely to protect citizens and punish wrong-doers but also to preserve animal life and forest trees…

 

Along with the rest of mankind, we in India – in spite of Asoka – have been guilty of wanton disregard for the sources of our sustenance.  We share your concern at the rapid deterioration of flora and fauna.  Some of our own wild life has been wiped out.  Vast areas of forest with beautiful old trees, mute witnesses of history, have been destroyed…

 

It is sad that in country after country, progress should become synonymous with an assault on Nature.  We, who are a part of Nature, and dependent on her for every need, speak constantly about exploiting Nature.  When the highest mountain in the world was climbed in 1953, Jawarharlal Nehru objected to the phrase ‘conquest of Everest’ which he thought was arrogant.  Is it surprising that this lack of consideration and the constant need to prove one’s superiority should be projected onto our treatment of our fellow men?…

 

Must there be conflict between technology and a truly better world or between enlightenment of the spirit and a higher standard of living?  Foreigners sometimes ask what to us seems a very strange question, whether progress in India would not mean a diminishing of her spirituality or her values.  Is spiritual quality so superficial as to be dependent upon the lack of material comfort?  As a country we are no more or less spiritual than any other but traditionally our people have respected the spirit of detachment and renunciation.  Historically, our great spiritual discoveries were made during periods of comparative affluence.  The doctrines of detachment from possessions were developed not as rationalization of deprivation but to prevent comfort and ease from dulling the senses.  Spirituality means the enrichment of the spirit, the strengthening of one’s inner resources and the stretching of one’s range of experience.  It is the ability to be still in the midst of activity and vibrantly alive in moments of calm; to separate the essence from circumstances; to accept joy and sorrow with some equanimity.  Perception and compassion are the marks of true spirituality…

 

The feeling is growing that we should reorder our priorities and move away from the single-dimensional model which has viewed growth from certain limited angles, which seems to have given a higher place to things rather than persons and which has increased our wants rather than our enjoyment.  We should have a more comprehensive approach to life, centred on man not as a statistic but as an individual with many sides to his personality…

 

Thus the higher standard of living must be achieved without alienating people from their heritage and without despoiling Nature of its beauty, freshness and purity so essential to our lives…

 

We want new directions in the wiser use of the knowledge and tools with which science has equipped us.  And this cannot be just one upsurge but a continuous search into cause and effect, an unending effort to match technology with higher levels of thinking.  We must concern ourselves not only with the kind of world we want but also with what kind of man should inhabit it.  We want thinking people, capable of spontaneous, self-directed activity…who are imbued with compassion and concern for others…

 

It has been my experience that people who are at cross purposes with Nature are cynical about mankind and ill at ease with themselves.  Modern man must re-establish an unbroken link with Nature and with life.  He must again learn to invoke the energy of growing things and to recognise, as did the ancients in India centuries ago, that one can take from the earth and the atmosphere only so much as one puts back into them.  In their Hymn to Earth, the sages of the Atharva Veda chanted:

 

                “What of thee I dig out, let that quickly grow over,

            Let me not hit thy vitals, or the heart.”

 

So can man himself be vital and of good heart and conscious of his responsibility.”

FOOD FROM THE CLOUDS

SIMON COLEMAN

 

 clouds-image

Source: http://media.gettyimages.com/videos/aerial-over-fields-with-shadows-of-clouds-in-the-south-downs-west-video-id864-33?s=640×640

 

Anyone who spends a lot of time out in the English countryside cannot fail to notice the great variety of atmospheric effects that can appear, especially over hilly land.  Effects of light, cloud and shadow and subtle plays of colour continually offer surprises to our eyes all year round.  In his different styles, Richard Jefferies possessed the ability to capture the varied moods of the sky and atmosphere, hardly ever missing an opportunity to say something about the clouds he observed.  In this passage from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, he provides a stark description of a drought in the Wiltshire downs before gently shifting our gaze to the dreamy clouds which mesmerize with their motion and hues.

 

“Once now and then in the cycle of the years there comes a summer which to the hills is almost like a fever to the blood, wasting and drying up with its heat the green things upon which animal life depends, so that drought and famine go hand in hand.  The days go by and grow to weeks, the weeks lengthen to months, and still no rain.  The sun pours down his burning rays, which become hotter as the season advances; the sky is blue and beautiful over the hills–beautiful, but pitiless to the bleating flocks beneath.  The breeze comes up from the south, bringing with it white clouds sailing at an immense height, with openings between like azure lakes or aerial Mediterraneans landlocked by banks of vapour.

 

These, if you watch them from the rampart, slowly dissolve; fragments break away from the mass as the edges of the polar glaciers slip off the ice-cliff into the sea, only these are noiseless.  The fragment detached grows visibly thinner and more translucent, its margin stretching out in an uneven fringe: the process is almost exactly like the unravelling of a spotless garment, the threads wavering and twisting as they are carried along by the current, diminishing till they fade and are lost in the ocean of blue.  This breaking of the clouds is commonly seen in weather that promises to be fine.  From the brow here, you may note a solitary cloud just risen above the horizon; it floats slowly towards us; presently it divides into several parts; these, again, fall away in jagged, irregular pieces like flecks of foam.  By the time it has reached the zenith these flecks have lengthened out, and shortly afterwards the cloud has entirely melted and is gone.  The delicate hue, the contrast of the fleecy white with the deepest azure, the ever-changing form, the light shining through the gauzy texture, the gentle dreamy motion, lend these clouds an exquisite beauty.”

 

Later in the book, he describes a very different cloud scene.

 

“When the sky is overcast—large masses of cloud, with occasional breaks, passing slowly across it at a considerable elevation without rain – sometimes through these narrow slits long beams of light fall aslant upon the distant fields of the vale.  They resemble, only on a greatly lengthened scales the beams that may be seen in churches of a sunny afternoon, falling from the upper windows on the tiled floor of the chancel, and made visible by motes in the air.  So through such slits in the cloudy roof of the sky the rays of the sun shoot downwards, made visible on their passage by the moisture or the motes floating in the atmosphere.  They seem to linger in their place as the clouds drift with scarcely perceptible motion; and the labourers say that the sun is sucking up water there.”

 

Typically in Jefferies’ writing, underlying the careful objectivity of his descriptions, we detect the presence of some deeper level of experience.  Here, in his children’s novel, ‘Bevis’, the clouds seem to lead the reposing mind towards an idea of eternal time.

 

“Lying at full length inside the shadow of the oak, Bevis gazed up at the clouds, which were at an immense height, and drifted so slowly as to scarcely seem to move, only he saw that they did because he had a fixed point in the edge of the oak boughs.  So thin and delicate was the texture of the white sky-lace above him that the threads scarcely hid the blue which the eye knew was behind and above it.  It was warm without the pressure of heat, soft, luxurious; the summer like them reclined, resting in the fulness of the time.”

 

On another occasion, in the High Weald of Sussex, he can celebrate an unending variety of cloud formations passing over.

 

“Clouds drift over; it is a wonderful observatory for cloud studies; they seem so close, the light is so strong, and there is nothing to check the sight as far as its powers will reach. Clouds come up no wider than a pasture-field, but in length stretching out to the very horizon, dividing the blue sky into two halves; but then every day has its different clouds—the fleets of heaven that are always sailing on and know no haven.”  (‘Buckhurst Park’)

 

Jefferies was not afraid of introducing occasional romantic touches, such as this one from ‘Hours of Spring’:

 

“…the beautiful clouds that go over, with the sweet rush of rain and burst of sun glory among the leafy trees.”

 

In a very late and sad essay, ‘My Old Village’, composed when he was bed-ridden and aware  he was dying of tuberculosis, Jefferies plunges into an astonishingly poignant reminiscence of his youth in the north Wiltshire countryside.  He also reveals a new depth to his love of clouds.

 

“There used to be clouds over the fields, white clouds in blue summer skies. I have lived a good deal on clouds; they have been meat to me often; they bring something to the spirit which even the trees do not. I see clouds now sometimes when the iron grip of hell permits for a minute or two; they are very different clouds, and speak differently. I long for some of the old clouds that had no memories.”

 

The clouds of that youthful time possessed something magical that never left him.  Near the end of the essay he complains that, “No one seems to understand how I got food from the clouds.”

 

It is perhaps not surprising that a dreamer like Jefferies, who understood the value of beauty rather than material wealth, was not comprehensible to late-Victorian society.  However, as we look back on Jefferies through the lens of our present digital age, I think many of us do feel the need to re-connect with a reality much greater than our endless flow of electronic information and stimuli.  We only have to think of the real earth and the real sky, and all that they mean to the human heart, and we sense something of what Jefferies found in the clouds and changing light over the wide chalk uplands or the summer pastures.  With a small shift of our attention, we too can re-discover beautiful things that have never left us.  There is, I believe, a Richard Jefferies in all of us.