A MORE BEAUTIFUL LIFE 

                               SIMON COLEMAN                                

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“Begin wholly afresh. Go straight to the sun, the immense forces of the universe, to the Entity unknown; go higher than a god; deeper than prayer; and open a new day.”

(‘The Story of My Heart’)

 

Jefferies reached a point in his life when he felt himself standing face to face with the great unknown, having erased much of traditional learning and culture from his mind.  With this feeling came a need to search for ‘higher’ ideas that might improve human life.  This search  became central to his life and it was heart-driven.  It was individual; sometimes passionate, sometimes calm and philosophical.

 

Reading ‘The Story of My Heart’, we find that the concentrated energy of the individual search gradually flows outwards to engage with the more universal questions of human existence.  It was not a purely personal journey.

 

“How pleasant it would be each day to think, To-day I have done something that will tend to render future generations more happy. The very thought would make this hour sweeter. It is absolutely necessary that something of this kind should be discovered. First, we must lay down the axiom that as yet nothing has been found; we have nothing to start with; all has to be begun afresh. All courses or methods of human life have hitherto been failures. Some course of life is needed based on things that are, irrespective of tradition. The physical ideal must be kept steadily in view.”

 

We could obviously take issue with the idea that ‘nothing has been found’ to improve human life, but Jefferies is speaking from the heart; I would prefer to say that he is thinking from the heart.  His body and its senses, his thought and emotions are all within the heart, and through their combined actions he is able to conceive a better human life: a more beautiful, free and hope-embracing life that moves away from past beliefs.  To this vision the magical, calm and dynamic presence of Nature is central.

 

At some level of being, human life is in harmony with the laws of Nature.  I don’t mean the scientific laws of nature which are the product of purely intellectual drives.  Let’s turn to the great American poet, Walt Whitman, who, in his ‘Leaves of Grass’, admired the cohesion and order of Nature, the earth and the universe.

 

 

“The soul is always beautiful,

The universe is duly in order, every thing is in its place,

What has arrived is in its place and what waits shall be in its place”

(‘The Sleepers’)

 

He sees no imperfection anywhere in Nature.

 

“Pleasantly and well-suited I walk,

Whither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good,

The whole universe indicates that it is good,

The past and the present indicate that it is good.

 

How beautiful and perfect are the animals!

How perfect the earth, and the minutest thing upon it!

What is called good is perfect, and what is called bad is just as perfect,

The vegetables and minerals are all perfect, and the imponderable

      fluids perfect;

Slowly and surely they have pass’d on to this, and slowly and surely

      they yet pass on.”

(‘Song of Myself’)

 

The natural order of the universe is in accord with the quality of the human heart which understands beauty and recognises the subtle truths woven into our lives.  Whitman was less concerned than Jefferies with actively searching for something of true value to mankind – he saw beauty and meaning everywhere.  Their language is different but both were exceptionally well attuned to their physical senses and responded instinctively to Nature.  From these responses they created great spiritual language, at times bringing mankind and Nature together in a perfect fusion.

 

The principal desire shared by Jefferies and Whitman was to make human life as perfect as possible; in other words, as beautiful and natural as possible.  To some this is simply pointless idealism but, in the view of Jefferies and Whitman, the existence of an ideal in the heart is a requirement for a full and healthy life.   If the perfect life is even to be imagined, Nature’s beauty must be invoked.   In the following passage from ‘The Story of My Heart’, Jefferies, while looking at Greek sculptures (which express both the ideal and the real), has a vision of supreme calm and beauty.  To me, this is real spiritual language: the language of the heart.

 

“The statues are not, it is said, the best; broken too, and mutilated, and seen in a dull, commonplace light. But they were shape—divine shape of man and woman; the form of limb and torso, of bust and neck, gave me a sighing sense of rest. 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. They would have rested with me on the hill-tops and in the narrow valley grooved of ancient times. They would have listened with me to the sob of the summer sea drinking the land. These had thirsted of sun, and earth, and sea, and sky. Their shape spoke this thirst and desire like mine—if I had lived with them from Greece till now I should not have had enough of them. Tracing the form of limb and torso with the eye gave me a sense of rest.

Sometimes I came in from the crowded streets and ceaseless hum; one glance at these shapes and I became myself. Sometimes I came from the Reading-room [of the British Museum], where under the dome I often looked up from the desk and realised the crushing hopelessness of books, useless, not equal to one bubble borne along on the running brook I had walked by, giving no thought like the spring when I lifted the water in my hand and saw the light gleam on it. Torso and limb, bust and neck instantly returned me to myself; I felt as I did lying on the turf listening to the wind among the grass; it would have seemed natural to have found butterflies fluttering among the statues. The same deep desire was with me. I shall always go to speak to them; they are a place of pilgrimage; wherever there is a beautiful statue there is a place of pilgrimage.”

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NATURE, TIME AND HEART

Simon Coleman

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“Swallows building under the eaves—swallows building in the chimneys; thrushes in the hawthorn- bushes; great missel-thrushes in the apple-trees of the orchard; the blue sparrow’s egg in the hedge; the chaffinch’s moss and lichen nest against the elm; the dove’s nest up in the copse, fearlessly building because no rude hand disturbed them; the pheasant’s eggs carelessly left on the ground by the bramble- bush, the corncrake’s found by the mower; the moorhen’s nest by the trout-pool. She knew and loved them all—the colour and sound and light, the changing days, the creatures of the wood and of the field. With these she lived, and they became familiar to her, as the threads of the pattern are known to those who sit the livelong day embroidering—the woven embroidery of the earth; so beautiful, because without design.”

 

This passage comes from Richard Jefferies’ pastoral novel, ‘The Dewy Morn’ (1884).  The book has a fairly straightforward romantic plot but is notable for its outstandingly vivid nature descriptions.  The sense of immersion in the infinite life and beauty of nature, which powered his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’, returns in ‘The Dewy Morn’ in the central character, Felise.  She is a young woman who loves and affirms life without the usual complexities and cares of human existence.  As she walks among nature, Felise seems to become almost a human embodiment of the forms, colours and songs of the fields and lanes.  The metaphor of nature as a woven pattern appears elsewhere in his writing.  In the essay, ‘The Pageant of Summer’,

 

“Earth holds secrets enough to give them the life of the fabled Immortals. My heart is fixed firm and stable in the belief that ultimately the sunshine and the summer, the flowers and the azure sky, shall become, as it were, interwoven into man’s existence.”

 

 

Nature is full of mesmerizing patterns which confound our everyday thinking minds, but the heart – the real mind – knows them and can work with them.  Discovering these currents of ‘true thought’ (as Jefferies described it) is becoming increasingly difficult in a society which seems to view everything through a linear time framework.  The language of linear time is predominant in the media, in politics and academia.  With rapid communications technology has come a fragmentation of even this ordinary time sequence, as a persistent hail of emails, texts and messages inhibits the continuity of attention that the human imagination needs.  And our evolutionary biologists, who dominate thinking on the human relationship with Nature, frame all their elaborate theories within a linear time context.  Nature as spontaneously creative, in an eternal dance of life, willing news forms, sounds and movement into existence – that’s not a vision they want to consider, let alone embrace.

 

Being receptive to Nature’s designless patterns and cycles requires a belief in the heart, but not the usual idea of heart as a chamber of emotion that has to be controlled by the mind.  Eastern thought understood the primacy of the heart and places what we call the mind (usually equated with the brain) within the heart.  The heart is what really thinks, and it knows much.  In his late essay, ‘Nature in the Louvre’, Jefferies, after gazing long at a beautiful classical statue, wrote:

 

“Old days which I had spent wandering among deep meadows and by green woods came back to me. In such days the fancy had often occurred to me that, besides the loveliness of leaves and flowers, there must be some secret influence drawing me on as a hand might beckon. The light and colour suspended in the summer atmosphere, as colour is in stained but translucent glass, were to me always on the point of becoming tangible in some beautiful form. The hovering lines and shape never became sufficiently defined for me to know what form it could be, yet the colours and the light meant something which I was not able to fix. I was now sitting in a gallery of stone, with cold marbles, cold floors, cold light from the windows. Without there were only houses, the city of Paris—a city above all other cities farthest from woods and meads. Here, nevertheless, there came back to me this old thought born in the midst of flowers and wind-rustled leaves, and I saw that with it the statue before me was in concord. The living original of this work was the human impersonation of the secret influence which had beckoned me on in the forest and by running streams. She expressed in loveliness of form the colour and light of sunny days…”

Perception of a beautiful, natural, almost tangible idea is woven into all of Jefferies’ more spiritually-themed writing.  A spirituality of the heart can never perceive human life as being outside Nature, though Jefferies often stresses the need for human self-reliance.  The heart is awakened and led by beauty.  It forever affirms life, creativity and hope, and makes time for itself.

THE SACRED TEMPLE OF LIFE

Simon Coleman

OHC hand in stream

 

Whenever a nature-related story comes up on the TV news, invariably it’s brought to us by their ‘science correspondent’. This is, of course, the perspective on nature that is so dominant throughout our society. Nature is relegated to a specific area of the academic spectrum. It is fenced off from society, viewed and explored through the clumsy frames of rationalism and evolutionary science. It is no longer recognised as an infinitely creative power, possessing a web of mystery and beauty that enriches the human heart. This astonishing attitude to nature was observed over 130 years ago by Richard Jefferies, who included his analysis of the human crisis in his mystical-confessional autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883).

Jefferies sought to express the depth of his emotional and intuitive interaction with nature. In an early novel, Restless Human Hearts, the boundary between his character’s personal self and the natural world dissolves.

“He reposed upon the grass under the shadow of a tree, til the warmth of the sun filled his veins with a drowsy, slumberous yet intense vitality, while the leaves danced in slow and intricate measure between him and the sky…He lost all sense of his own separate existence; his soul became merged in the life of the tree, of the grass, of the thousands of insects, finally in the life of the broad earth underneath, till he felt himself as it were a leaf upon the great cedar of existence …Time, thought, feeling, sense, were gone, all lost; nothing remained but the mere grand fact, the exquisite delight, the infinite joy of existence only”.

This ‘merging’ is consistent with an ‘animist’ approach to nature. The ‘broad earth’ itself is a living thing to Jefferies – an idea that has thankfully taken root again in human consciousness. Jefferies’ experience is usually classed as ‘mysticism’ or ‘nature mysticism’. I have begun to think of it as the expression of an enlarged heart-consciousness. The heart was regarded in some religions as the seat of intuitive knowledge and thought, as well as the link between the ‘physical’ and the ‘spiritual’. But these concepts don’t really matter if we can empathize with the feeling. Here is a passage from his sun-drenched essay, ‘Nature and Eternity’.

“It is only while in a dreamy, slumbrous, half-mesmerized state that nature’s ancient papyrus roll can be read – only when the mind is at rest, separated from care and labour; when the body is at ease, luxuriating in warmth and delicious languor; when the soul is in accord and sympathy with the sunlight, with the leaf, with the slender blades of grass, and can feel with the tiniest insect which climbs up them as up a mighty tree. As the genius of the great musicians, without an articulated word or printed letter, can carry with it all the emotions, so now, lying prone upon the earth in the shadow, with quiescent will, listening, thoughts and feelings rise respondent to the sunbeams, to the leaf, the very blade of grass. Resting the head upon the hand, gazing down upon the ground, the strange and marvellous inner sight of the mind penetrates the solid earth, grasps in part the mystery of its vast extension upon either side, bearing its majestic mountains, its deep forests, its grand oceans, and almost feels the life which in ten thousand thousand forms revels upon its surface. Returning upon itself, the mind joys in the knowledge that it too is a part of this wonder–akin to the ten thousand thousand creatures, akin to the very earth itself. How grand and holy is this life! how sacred the temple which contains it!”

The life principle expressed everywhere casts a kind of spell over the reposing mind. Nature seems to possess a mysterious language, and Jefferies’ inner mind (or ‘soul’ or ‘heart’) responds to it, entering into the life of the whole cosmos. Because of this merging with, and participation in, the web of life as a whole, everything living automatically becomes sacred. This is what the heart is searching for – and wants to know. His being, his self, in this state, is a complete expression of the cosmic life principle.

When he wrote The Story of My Heart, Jefferies strove for a sparser, more rhythmical form of prose to express the same feelings.

“Sometimes on lying down on the sward I first looked up at the sky, gazing for a long time till I could see deep into the azure and my eyes were full of the colour; then I turned my face to the grass and thyme, placing my hands at each side of my face so as to shut out everything and hide myself. Having drunk deeply of the heaven above and felt the most glorious beauty of the day, and remembering the old, old, sea, which (as it seemed to me) was but just yonder at the edge, I now became lost, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe. I felt down deep into the earth under, and high above into the sky, and farther still to the sun and stars. Still farther beyond the stars into the hollow of space, and losing thus my separateness of being came to seem like a part of the whole. Then I whispered to the earth beneath, through the grass and thyme, down into the depth of its ear, and again up to the starry space hid behind the blue of day. Travelling in an instant across the distant sea, I saw as if with actual vision the palms and cocoanut trees, the bamboos of India, and the cedars of the extreme south. Like a lake with islands the ocean lay before me, as clear and vivid as the plain beneath in the midst of the amphitheatre of hills.”

In his later years, Jefferies’ happiness was shattered by debilitating illnesses and poverty. Nevertheless, he continued to express his deepest emotions and his hope that mankind could carve out a more beautiful life in the future. He produced further great, evocative essays such as ‘The Pageant of Summer’, ‘Wildflowers’ and ‘Hours of Spring’, and attempted to sketch out an enlarged and improved sequel to The Story of My Heart. He also experimented with new forms of fiction but his death at the age of 38 cut short a career that had already journeyed far beyond conventional nature writing. He did, however, leave enough of his work for us to celebrate with him the enduring beauty and mystery of all life. Not only in adulthood, but also as a young boy, he discovered that

“…there was magic in everything, blades of grass and stars, the sun and the stones upon the ground.” (Bevis, 1882)