By a Brook in Spring

blue-kingfisher-bird-hunting-phiphat-suwanmon3

Photo by Phipat Suwanmon (http://iliketowastemytime.com/2013/04/15/closer-look-blue-kingfisher-hunting-12-pics)

In this short quotation from Round About a Great Estate, Jefferies provides us with a simple but engaging description of a spring scene – alive, as usual, with colour, movement and sound.  The place was real, being close to his childhood home in north Wiltshire, and the bridge is still there today.  The farmer’s daughter, Cicely, is fictional. — Simon Coleman

 

“Two meadows distant from the lower woods of the Chace there is what seems from afar a remarkably wide hedge irregularly bordered with furze. But on entering a gateway in it you find a bridge over a brook, which for some distance flows with a hedge on either side. The low parapet of the bridge affords a seat—one of Cicely’s favourite haunts—whence in spring it is pleasant to look up the brook; for the banks sloping down from the bushes to the water are yellow with primroses, and hung over with willow boughs. As the brook is straight, the eye can see under these a long way up; and presently a kingfisher, bright with azure and ruddy hues, comes down the brook, flying but just above the surface on which his reflection travels too. He perches for a moment on a branch close to the bridge, but the next sees that he is not alone, and instantly retreats with a shrill cry.

A moorhen ventures forth from under the arches, her favourite hiding-place, and feeds among the weeds by the shore, but at the least movement rushes back to shelter. A wood-pigeon comes over, flying slowly; he was going to alight on the ash tree yonder, but suddenly espying some one under the cover of the boughs increases his pace and rises higher. Two bright bold bullfinches pass; they have a nest somewhere in the thick hawthorn. A jay, crossing from the fir plantations, stays awhile in the hedge, and utters his loud harsh scream like the tearing of linen. For a few hours the winds are still and the sunshine broods warm over the mead. It is a delicious snatch of spring.”

 

THE FREEDOM OF THE HILLS

freedom of hills

Source: http://l.rgbimg.com/cache1nDItq/users/m/mz/mzacha/600/mhiBkbc.jpg

Simon Coleman

The following quotation comes from Jefferies’ essay, ‘Clematis Lane’. The scenes described are from the Sussex downs.

“Here it was pleasant to look back upon the beech woods at the foot of the great Downs, and far over the endless fields of the Weald or plain. Thirty fields could be counted in succession, one after the other, like irregular chess-squares, some corn, some grass, and these only extended to the first undulation, where the woods hid the fields behind them. But beyond these, in reality, succeeded another series of fields to the second undulation, and still a third series to the farthest undulation visible. Yet farther there was a faint line of hills, a dark cloud-like bank in the extreme distance. To the right and to the left were similar views. Reapers were at work in the wheat below, but already much of the corn had been carried, and the hum of a threshing engine came up from the ricks. A woodpecker called loudly in the beech wood; a “wish-wish” in the air overhead was caused by the swift motion of a wood-pigeon passing from “holt” to “hurst,” from copse to copse. On the dry short turf of the hill-top even the shadow of a swallow was visible as he flew but a few yards high.

In a little hollow where the rougher grasses grew longer a blue butterfly fluttered and could not get out. He was entangled with his own wings, he could not guide himself between the grass tops; his wings fluttered and carried him back again. The grass was like a net to him, and there he fluttered till the wind lifted him out, and gave him the freedom of the hills. One small green orchis stood in the grass, alone; the harebells were many. It is curious that, if gathered, in a few hours (if pressed between paper) they become a deeper blue than when growing. Another butterfly went over, large and velvety, flying head to the wind, but unable to make way against it, and so carried sidelong across the current. From the summit of the hill he drifted out into the air five hundred feet above the flowers of the plain. Perhaps it was a peacock; for there was a peacock-butterfly in Clematis Lane. The harebells swung, and the dry tips of the grass bent to the wind which came over the hills from the sea, but from which the sun had dried the sea-moisture, leaving it twice refined—once by the passage above a hundred miles of wave and foam and again by the grasses and the hills, which forced the current to a higher level, where the sunbeams dried it. Twice refined, the air was strong and pure, sweet like the scent of a flower. If the air at the sea-beach is good, that of the hills above the sea is at least twice as good, and twice as strengthening. It possesses all the virtue of the sea air without the moisture which ultimately loosens the joints, and seems to penetrate to the very nerves. Those who desire air and quick recovery should go to the hills, where the wind has a scent of the sunbeams.”

THE RED DEER OF EXMOOR

Simon Coleman

Red_Deer_Stag

Source: http://www.everythingexmoor.org.uk/uploads/image_store/images2/Red_Deer_Stag.jpg

(This post is adapted from a page on a website I created. The site was closed but parts of it were transferred to the Richard Jefferies Society web pages. The text below was included and can still be found on the Society website.)

In June 1882 Jefferies visited Exmoor, a vast expanse of high moorland intersected by deep wooded coombes covering part of West Somerset and North Devon. The resulting book, Red Deer, was a natural history of the moorland red deer and a detailed account of the methods of hunting them. The book concentrates on the Somerset sector of Exmoor which includes the heartland of deer hunting – the dramatic landscape around Dunkery Beacon and Horner which falls away to the Bristol Channel at Porlock. It is not difficult for Jefferies to celebrate the magnificent red deer stag, the ‘monarch’ of the dense forests and wild moorland.

From Chapter 3:

“In June the deer spend the whole of the day in the covers out of the heat. At this time they are more shy than at any other, both stags and hinds retiring out of sight. The stags’ antlers are as yet only partially grown, and while these weapons are soft and tender they conceal themselves. The hinds have their calves only recently dropped, or are about to calve, and consequently keep in the thickest woods.

One might walk across the entire width of the North Forest, and not see a single deer, and yet be in the midst of them; and so it is common for fishermen to whip for trout day after day for weeks together along streams which wind through favourite covers without obtaining a glimpse of deer. Wild and shy, they are lost in the foliage of their woods, and are only to be found with much labour and in certain particular places…

There are none visible to-day on this side of the Ball, so I walk round the mount, passing a very large mountain-ash in flower; a branch has been broken from it, but it is still a fine tree.* The mountain-ash grows freely on the hillsides wherever a tree can take root. A sound which I thought I heard just now rises and becomes distinctly audible; it is the rush of swift water, and comes up through the oaks from the hollow of the giant fosse. The name of the stream is Horner Water, flowing by Horner wood along the bottom of the deep trench. A wind draws across the summit of the Ball, bending the brake stems and stirring the mountain-ash. It is pleasant in the shade to feel the cool air and listen to the water far below…

Suddenly, as I looked once more, I caught sight of a red mark in the midst of an acre of brake surrounded by oak. I was sure it was a stag instantly by the bright colour, by the position, and yet if questioned I could not have positively asserted that I had any reason for my opinion at all. Certainty does not always depend upon proofs that can be explained. A secret judgement exists in the mind and acts on perceptions too delicate to be registered. I was certain it was a stag, and the glass at once confirmed my eyes.

He was standing in the fern beside a bush, with his head down as if feeding. The great oak woods were about him, above and below, and the sunlight fell on the golden red of his coat. A whistle – the sound was a moment or two reaching him – made him lift his head, and the upright carriage of the neck proved again that it was a stag and not a hind. His antlers had not yet risen as high as his ears…

He moved easily along the steep slope where even hounds sometimes find a difficulty in following.”

*Cloutsham Ball is a hill below Dunkery Beacon.

From Chapter 4:

“There is no more beautiful creature than a stag in his pride of antler, his coat of ruddy gold, his grace of form and motion. He seems the natural owner of the ferny coombes, the oak woods, the broad slopes of heather. They belong to him, and he steps upon the sward in lordly mastership. The land is his, and the hills, the sweet streams and rocky glens. He is infinitely more natural than the cattle and sheep that have strayed into his domains. For some inexplicable reason, although they too are in reality natural, when he is present they look as if they had been put there and were kept there by artificial means. They do not, as painters say, shade in with the colours and shape of the landscape. He is as natural as an oak, or a fern, or a rock itself. He is earth-born – autochthon – and holds possession by descent. Utterly scorning control, the walls and hedges are nothing to him – he roams where he chooses, as fancy leads, and gathers the food that pleases him.

Pillaging the crops and claiming his dues from the orchards and gardens, he exercises his ancient feudal rights, indifferent to the laws of house-people. Disturb him in his wild stronghold of oak wood or heather, and, as he yields to force, still he stops and looks back proudly. He is slain, but never conquered. He will not cross with the tame park deer; proud as a Spanish noble, he disdains the fallow deer, and breeds only with his own race. But it is chiefly because of his singular adaptation and fitness to the places where he is found that he obtains our sympathy.

The branching antlers accord so well with the deep shadowy boughs and the broad fronds of the brake; the golden red of his coat fits to the foxglove, the purple heather, and later on to the orange and red of the beech; his easy bounding motion springs from the elastic sward; his limbs climb the steep hill as if it were level; his speed covers the distances, and he goes from place to place as the wind. He not only lives in the wild, wild woods and moors – he grows out of them, as the oak grows from the ground. The noble stag in his pride of antler is lord and monarch of all the creatures left to us in English forests and on English hills.”

THE GARDEN OF IDEN

Simon Coleman

garden summerhouse

Source: http://housetohome.media.ipcdigital.co.uk/96/0000119e1/c800_orh550w550/6-Summerhouse–garden–country–Country-Homes–Interiors.jpg

Richard Jefferies published his last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair, in 1887, a few months before his death. Set in a rural farmhouse, Coombe Oaks, it is closely based on Jefferies’ own childhood environment of Coate. Though it lacks a compelling plot and seems to drift through a succession of largely static scenes, it is a remarkable book for a number of reasons. The two central characters, sixteen-year-old Amaryllis Iden and her father (known only as ‘Iden’), are outstandingly drawn. Amaryllis, a lover of wild flowers and a budding artist, is trying to make sense of the intrusion of aggressive creditors into the household, at the same time being discouraged in her creative endeavours by her parents. Iden has been a failure as a farmer and his debts weigh heavily on his family’s life. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of nature, can quote Shakespeare with ease; yet, to Amaryllis’ frustration, he seems content to stand and gossip with the ignorant hamlet-folk.

The great strengths of the novel are its truthful representations of rural life and its ability to examine, with penetrating insight, some of the universal problems of human life. Jefferies loves his characters and remains close to them throughout. The closing chapters see a change in mood with the unexpected arrival of two relatives: Alere Flamma, a London artist and engraver, and a sickly youth, Amadis, from somewhere over the hills. As the spring unfolds around the summer-house, Iden, the two visitors and Amaryllis (who mostly listens) talk ceaselessly, about anything, and everything, content just to be there. Simple human companionship in a beautiful garden, with nature living and growing all around them, is raised to the status of an ideal of life. And it’s all possible because Iden had long ago created the garden. His genius and philosophy now come to the fore. He knows how to work with nature to create not only a beautiful garden, but one to live and dream in, a place with potential for healing, and for love (between Amaryllis and Amadis). Even the orchard gate was the work of great care and expense. A practical man he was not: he built for ‘all time’ rather than for the requirements of the moment. For what the book lacks in narrative it more than compensates by its authenticity in portraying human life and its bond with nature. Its pictures are living ones and the strength of its humanity surely makes it one of the most spiritual books ever written.

The following quotations are from chapters 26 and 34.

“The round summer-house was their Parliament House whenever the east winds sank and the flowers shone forth like sunshine; as the sun shines when the clouds withdraw, so when the harsh east winds cease the May flowers immediately bloom and glow.

It was a large round house, properly builded of brick, as a summer-house should be—put not thy faith in lath work—and therefore dry and warm; to sit in it was like sitting in a shell, warm and comfortable, with a sea of meadow-grass, smooth and coloured, stretching in front, islanded about with oak, and elm, and ash.

The finches came to the boughs that hung over the ivy-grown thatch, and sang in the sycamore opposite the door, and in the apple-trees, whose bloom hung down almost to the ground.

These apple-trees, which Iden had planted, flung sackfuls of bloom at his feet. They poured themselves out in abandoned, open-armed, spendthrift, wasteful—perfectly prodigal—quantities of rose-tinted petal; prodigal as a river which flows full to the brim, never questioning but what there will be plenty of water to follow.

Flowers, and trees, and grass, seemed to spring up wherever Iden set down his foot: fruit and flowers fell from the air down upon him. It was his genius to make things grow—like sunshine and shower; a sort of Pan, a half-god of leaves and boughs, and reeds and streams, a sort of Nature in human shape, moving about and sowing Plenty and Beauty.

One side of the summer-house was a thick holly-bush, Iden had set it there; he builded the summer-house and set the ivy; and the pippin at the back, whose bloom was white; the copper-birch near by; the great sycamore alone had been there before him, but he set a seat under it, and got woodbine to flower there; the drooping-ash he planted, and if Amaryllis stood under it when the tree was in full leaf you could not see her, it made so complete an arbour; the Spanish oak in the corner; the box hedge along the ha-ha parapet; the red currants against the red wall; the big peony yonder; the damsons and pear; the yellow honey-bush; all these, and this was but one square, one mosaic of the garden, half of it sward, too, and besides these there was the rhubarb-patch at one corner; fruit, flowers, plants, and herbs, lavender, parsley, which has a very pleasant green, growing in a thick bunch, roses, pale sage—read Boccaccio and the sad story of the leaf of sage—ask Nature if you wish to know how many things more there were.

A place to eat and drink, and think of nothing in, listening to the goldfinches, and watching them carry up the moss, and lichen, and slender fibres for their nest in the fork of the apple; listening to the swallows as they twittered past, or stayed on the sharp, high top of the pear tree; to the vehement starlings, whistling and screeching like Mrs. Iden herself, on the chimneys; chaffinches “chink, chink,” thrushes, distant blackbirds, who like oaks; “cuckoo, cuckoo,” “crake, crake,” buzzing and burring of bees, coo of turtle-doves, now and then a neigh, to remind you that there were horses, fulness and richness of musical sound; a world of grass and leaf, humming like a hive with voices.

When the east wind ceases, and the sun shines above, and the flowers beneath, “a summer’s day in lusty May,” then is the time an Interlude in Heaven.

And all this, summer-house and all, had dropped out of the pocket of Iden’s ragged old coat…

Amaryllis went outside the court, and waited; Amadis rose and followed her. “Come a little way into the Brook-Field,” she said.

They left the apple-bloom behind them, and going down the gravel-path passed the plum trees—the daffodils there were over now—by the strawberry patch which Iden had planted under the parlour window; by the great box-hedge where a thrush sat on her nest undisturbed, though Amaryllis’s dress brushed the branches; by the espalier apple, to the little orchard-gate.

The parlour-window—there are no parlours now, except in old country houses; there were parlours in the days of Queen Anne; in the modern villas they have drawing-rooms.

The parlour-window hung over with pear-tree branches, planted beneath with strawberry; white blossom above, white flower beneath; birds’ nests in the branches of the pear—that was Iden.

They opened the little orchard-gate which pushed heavily against the tall meadow-grass growing between the bars. The path was almost gone—grown out with grass, and as they moved they left a broad trail behind them…

Iden’s flag-basket of tools lay by the gate, it was a new gate, and he had been fitting it before he went in to lunch. His basket was of flag because the substance of the flag is soft, and the tools, chisels, and so on, laid pleasant in it; he must have everything right. The new gate was of solid oak, no “sappy” stuff, real heart of oak, well-seasoned, without a split, fine, close-grained timber, cut on the farm, and kept till it was thoroughly fit, genuine English oak. If you would only consider Iden’s gate you might see there the man.

This gateway was only between two meadows, and the ordinary farmer, when the old gate wore out, would have stopped it with a couple of rails, or a hurdle or two, something very, very cheap and rough; at most a gate knocked up by the village carpenter of ash and willow, at the lowest possible charge.

Iden could not find a carpenter good enough to make his gate in the hamlet; he sent for one ten miles, and paid him full carpenter’s wages. He was not satisfied then, he watched the man at his work to see that the least little detail was done correctly, till the fellow would have left the job, had he not been made pliable by the Goliath ale. So he just stretched the job out as long as he could, and talked and talked with Iden, and stroked him the right way, and drank the ale, and “played it upon me and on William, That day in a way I despise.” Till what with the planing, and shaving, and smoothing, and morticing, and ale, and time, it footed up a pretty bill, enough for three commonplace gates, not of the Iden style.

Why, Iden had put away those pieces of timber years before for this very purpose, and had watched the sawyers saw them out at the pit. They would have made good oak furniture. There was nothing special or particular about this gateway; he had done the same in turn for every gateway on the farm; it was the Iden way.

A splendid gate it was, when it was finished, fit for a nobleman’s Home Park. I doubt, if you would find such a gate, so well proportioned, and made of such material on any great estate in the kingdom. For not even dukes can get an Iden to look after their property. An Iden is not to be “picked up,” I can tell you….

The neighbourhood round about could never understand Iden, never could see why he had gone to such great trouble to render the homestead beautiful with trees, why he had re-planted the orchard with pleasant eating apples in the place of the old cider apples, hard and sour. “Why wouldn’t thaay a’ done for he as well as for we?”

All the acts of Iden seemed to the neighbourhood to be the acts of a “vool.”

When he cut a hedge, for instance, Iden used to have the great bushes that bore unusually fine May bloom saved from the billhook, that they might flower in the spring. So, too, with the crab-apples—for the sake of the white blossom; so, too, with the hazel—for the nuts…

In truth Iden built for all time, and not for the little circumstance of the hour. His gate was meant to last for years, rain and shine, to endure any amount of usage, to be a work of Art in itself…

If only he could have lived three hundred years the greater world would have begun to find out Iden and to idolize him, and make pilgrimages from over sea to Coombe Oaks, to hear him talk, for Iden could talk of the trees and grass, and all that the Earth bears, as if one had conversed face to face with the great god Pan himself.”

Summer in Somerset

Reflections from Jefferies about time spent on Exmoor and the Quantock Hills in the early 1880s, which were published as ‘Summer in Somerset’

new forest dawn

“The brown Barle River running over red rocks aslant its course is pushed aside, and races round curving slopes. The first shoot of the rapid is smooth and polished like a gem by the lapidary’s art, rounded and smooth as a fragment of torso, and this convex undulation maintains a solid outline. Then the following scoop under is furrowed as if ploughed across, and the ridge of each furrow, where the particles move a little less swiftly than in the hollow of the groove, falls backwards as foam blown from a wave. At the foot of the furrowed decline the current rises over a rock in a broad white sheet–white because as it is dashed to pieces the air mingles with it. After this furious haste the stream does but just overtake those bubbles which have been carried along on another division of the water flowing steadily but straight. Sometimes there are two streams like this between the same banks, sometimes three or even more, each running at a different rate, and each gliding above a floor differently inclined. The surface of each of these streams slopes in a separate direction, and though under the same light they reflect it at varying angles. The river is animated and alive, rushing here, gliding there, foaming yonder; its separate and yet component parallels striving together, and talking loudly in incomplete sentences. Those rivers that move through midland meads present a broad, calm surface, at the same level from side to side; they flow without sound, and if you stood behind a thick hedge you would not know that a river was near. They dream along the meads, toying with their forget-me-nots, too idle even to make love to their flowers vigorously. The brown Barle enjoys his life, and splashes in the sunshine like boys bathing–like them he is sunburnt and brown. He throws the wanton spray over the ferns that bow and bend as the cool breeze his current brings sways them in the shade. He laughs and talks, and sings louder than the wind in his woods.

Here is a pool by the bank under an ash–a deep green pool inclosed by massive rocks, which the stream has to brim over. The water is green–or is it the ferns, and the moss, and the oaks, and the pale ash reflected? This rock has a purple tint, dotted with moss spots almost black; the green water laps at the purple stone, and there is one place where a thin line of scarlet is visible, though I do not know what causes it. Another stone the spray does not touch has been dried to a bright white by the sun. Inclosed, the green water slowly swirls round till it finds crevices, and slips through. A few paces farther up there is a red rapid–reddened stones, and reddened growths beneath the water, a light that lets the red hues overcome the others–a wild rush of crowded waters rotating as they go, shrill voices calling. This next bend upwards dazzles the eyes, for every inclined surface and striving parallel, every swirl, and bubble, and eddy, and rush around a rock chances to reflect the sunlight. Not one long pathway of quiet sheen, such as stretches across a rippled lake, each wavelet throwing back its ray in just proportion, but a hundred separate mirrors vibrating, each inclined at a different angle, each casting a tremulous flash into the face. The eyelids involuntarily droop to shield the gaze from a hundred arrows; they are too strong–nothing can be distinguished but a woven surface of brilliance, a mesh of light, under which the water runs, itself invisible. I will go back to the deep green pool, and walking now with the sun behind, how the river has changed!

Soft, cool shadows reach over it, which I did not see before; green surfaces are calm under trees; the rocks are less hard; the stream runs more gently, and the oaks come down nearer; the delicious sound of the rushing water almost quenches my thirst. My eyes have less work to do to meet the changing features of the current which now seems smooth as my glance accompanies its movement. The sky, which was not noticed before, now appears reaching in rich azure across the deep hollow, from the oaks on one side to the oaks on the other. These woods, which cover the steep and rocky walls of the gorge from river to summit, are filled with the June colour of oak. It is not green, nor russet, nor yellow; I think it may be called a glow of yellow under green. It is warmer than green; the glow is not on the outer leaves, but comes up beneath from the depth of the branches. The rush of the river soothes the mind, the broad descending surfaces of yellow-green oak carry the glance downwards from the blue over to the stream in the hollow. Rush! rush!–it is the river, like a mighty wind in the wood. A pheasant crows, and once and again falls the tap, tap of woodmen’s axes–scarce heard, for they are high above. They strip the young oaks of their bark as far as they can while the saplings stand, then fell them, and as they all lie downhill there are parallel streaks of buff (where the sap has dried) drawn between the yellow-green masses of living leaf. The pathway winds in among the trees at the base of the rocky hill; light green whortleberries fill every interstice, bearing tiny red globes of flower–flower-lamps–open at the top. Wood-sorrel lifts its delicate veined petals; the leaf is rounded like the shadow of a bubble on a stone under clear water. I like to stay by the wood-sorrel a little while–it is so chastely beautiful; like the purest verse, it speaks to the inmost heart. Staying, I hear unconsciously–listen! Rush! rush! like a mighty wind in the wood.

It draws me on to the deep green pool inclosed about by rocks–a pool to stand near and think into. The purple rock, dotted with black moss; the white rock; the thin scarlet line; the green water; the overhanging tree; the verdant moss upon the bank; the lady fern–are there still. But I see also now a little pink somewhere in the water, much brown too, and shades I know no name for. The water is not green, but holds in solution three separate sets of colours. The confervae on the stones, the growths beneath at the bottom waving a little as the water swirls like minute seaweeds–these are brown and green and somewhat reddish too. Under water the red rock is toned and paler, but has deep black cavities. Next, the surface, continually changing as it rotates, throws back a different light, and thirdly, the oaks’ yellow-green high up, the pale ash, the tender ferns drooping over low down confer their tints on the stream. So from the floor of the pool, from the surface, and from the adjacent bank, three sets of colours mingle. Washed together by the slow swirl, they produce a shade–the brown of the Barle–lost in darkness where the bank overhangs.

Following the current downwards at last the river for awhile flows in quietness, broad and smooth. A trout leaps for a fly with his tail curved in the air, full a foot out of water. Trout watch behind sunken stones, and shoot to and fro as insects droop in their flight and appear about to fall. So clear is the water and so brightly illuminated that the fish are not easily seen–for vision depends on contrast–but in a minute I find a way to discover them by their shadows. The black shadow of a trout is distinct upon the bottom of the river, and guides the eye to the spot; then looking higher in the transparent water there is the fish. It was curious to see these black shadows darting to and fro as if themselves animated and without bodies, for if the trout darted before being observed the light concealed him in motion. Some of the trout came up from under Torre-steps, a singular structure which here connects the shores of the stream. Every one has seen a row of stepping-stones across a shallow brook; now pile other stones on each of these, forming buttresses, and lay flat stones like unhewn planks from buttress to buttress, and you have the plan of this primitive bridge. It has a megalithic appearance, as if associated with the age of rude stone monuments. They say its origin is doubtful; there can be no doubt of the loveliness of the spot. The Barle comes with his natural rush and fierceness under the unhewn stone planking, then deepens, and there overhanging a black pool–for the shadow was so deep as to be black–grew a large bunch of marsh-marigolds in fullest flower, the broad golden cups almost resting on the black water. The bridge is not intended for wheels, and though it is as firm as the rock, foot passengers have to look at their steps, as the great planks, flecked with lichen at the edges, are not all level. The horned sheep and lambs go over it–where do they not go? Like goats they wander everywhere.

In a cottage some way up the hill we ate clotted cream and whortleberry jam. Through the open door came the ceaseless rush! rush! like a wind in the wood. The floor was of concrete, lime and sand; on the open hearth–pronounced ‘airth’–sods of turf cut from the moor and oak branches were smouldering under the chimney crook. Turf smoke from the piled-up fires of winter had darkened the beams of the ceiling, but from that rude room there was a view of the river, and the hill, and the oaks in full June colour, which the rich would envy. Sometimes in early morning the wild red deer are seen feeding on the slope opposite. As we drove away in reckless Somerset style, along precipices above the river, with nothing but a fringe of fern for parapet, the oak woods on the hills under us were shading down into evening coolness of tint, the yellow less warm, the green more to the surface. Upon the branches of the trees moss grows, forming a level green top to the round bough like a narrow cushion along it, with frayed edges drooping over each side. Though moss is common on branches, it does not often make a raised cushion, thick, as if green velvet pile were laid for the birds to run on. There were rooks’ nests in some tall ash trees; the scanty foliage left the nests exposed, they were still occupied by late broods. Rooks’ nests are not often seen in ashes as in elms.

By a mossy bank a little girl–a miniature Audrey–stout, rosy, and ragged, stood with a yellow straw hat aslant on her yellow hair, eating the leaves from a spray of beech in her hand. Audrey looked at us, eating the beech leaves steadily, but would not answer, not even ‘Where’s your father to?’ For in Somerset the ‘to’ is put last, and must never be omitted; thus, instead of saying ‘I bought this at Taunton,’ it is correct to say ‘I bought this to Taunton.’ There are models under glass cases in places of entertainment with a notice to say that if a penny be inserted the machine will go. Audrey the Little would not speak, but when a penny was put in her hand she began to move, and made off for home with the treasure. The road turned and turned, but whichever way the Barle was always under us, and the red rock rose high at the side. This rock fractures aslant if worked, vast flakes come out, and the cleavage is so natural that until closely approached a quarry appears a cliff. Stone got out in squares, or cut down straight, leaves an artificial wall; these rocks cannot be made to look artificial, and if painted a quarry would be certainly quite indistinguishable from a natural precipice. Entering a little town (Dulverton) the road is jammed tight between cottages: so narrow is the lane that foot passengers huddle up in doorways to avoid the touch of the wheels, and the windows of the houses are protected by iron bars like cages lest the splash-boards should crack the glass. Nowhere in closest-built London is there such a lane–one would imagine land to be dear indeed. The farm labourers, filing homewards after their day’s work, each carry poles of oak or fagots on their shoulders for their hearths, generally oak branches; it is their perquisite. The oak somehow takes root among the interstices of the stones of this rocky land. Past the houses the rush! rush! of the brown Barle rises again in the still evening air.

From the Devon border I drifted like a leaf detached from a tree, across to a deep coombe in the Quantock Hills. The vast hollow is made for repose and lotus-eating; its very shape, like a hammock, indicates idleness. There the days go over noiselessly and without effort, like white summer clouds. Ridges each side rise high and heroically steep–it would be proper to set out and climb them, but not to-day, not now: some time presently. To the left massive Will’s Neck stands out in black shadow defined and distinct, like a fragment of night in the bright light of the day. The wild red deer lie there, but the mountain is afar; a sigh is all I can give to it, for the Somerset sun is warm and the lotus sweet Yonder, if the misty heat moves on, the dim line of Dunkery winds along the sky, not unlike the curved back of a crouching hare. The weight of the mountains is too great–what is the use of attempting to move? It is enough to look at them. The day goes over like a white cloud; as the sun declines it is pleasant to go into the orchard–the vineyard of Somerset, and then perhaps westward may be seen a light in the sky by the horizon as if thrown up from an immense mirror under. The mirror is the Severn sea, itself invisible at this depth, but casting a white glow up against the vapour in the air. By it you may recognise the nearness of the sea. The thumb-nail ridges of the Quantocks begin to grow harder, they carry the eye along on soft curves like those of the South Downs in Sussex, but suddenly end in a flourish and point as if cut out with the thumb-nail. Draw your thumb-nail firmly along soft wood, and it will, by its natural slip, form such a curve. Blackbird and thrush commence to sing as the heavy heat decreases; the bloom on the apple trees is loose now, and the blackbird as he springs from the bough shakes down flakes of blossom.

Towards even a wind moves among the lengthening shadows, and my footsteps involuntarily seek the glen, where a streamlet trickles down over red flat stones which resound musically as the water strikes them. Ferns are growing so thickly in the hedge that soon it will seem composed of their fronds; the first June rose hangs above their green tips. A water-ousel with white breast rises and flies on; again disturbed, he makes a circle, and returns to the stream behind. On the moist earth there is the print of a hare’s pad; here is a foxglove out in flower; and now as the incline rises heather thickens on the slope. Sometimes we wander beside the streamlet which goes a mile into the coombe–the shadow is deep and cool in the vast groove of the hill, the shadow accumulates there, and is pressed by its own weight–up slowly as far as the ‘sog,’ or peaty place where the spring rises, and where the sundew grows. Sometimes climbing steep and rocky walls–scarce sprinkled with grass–we pause every other minute to look down on the great valley which reaches across to Dunkery. The horned sheep, which are practically wild, like wild creatures, have worn out holes for themselves to lie in beside the hill. If resolution is strong, we move through the dark heather (soon to be purple), startling the heath-poults, or black game, till at last the Channel opens, and the far-distant Flat and Steep Holms lie, as it looks, afloat on the dim sea. This is labour enough; stern indeed must be the mind that could work at summer’s noon in Somerset, when the apple vineyards slumber; when the tall foxgloves stand in the heavy heat and the soft air warms the deepest day-shadow so that nothing is cool to the touch but the ferns. Is there anything so good as to do nothing? …

Everywhere wild strawberries were flowering on the banks–wild strawberries have been found ripe in January here; everywhere ferns were thickening and extending, foxgloves opening their bells. Another deep coombe led me into the mountainous Quantocks, far below the heather, deep beside another trickling stream. In this land the sound of running water is perpetual, the red flat stones are resonant, and the speed of the stream draws forth music like quick fingers on the keys; the sound of running water and the pleading voice of the willow-wren are always heard in summer. Among the oaks growing on the steep hill-side the willow-wrens repeated their sweet prayer; the water as it ran now rose and now fell; there was a louder note as a little stone was carried over a fall. The shadow came slowly out from the oak-grown side of the coombe, it reached to the margin of the brook. Under the oaks there appears nothing but red stones, as if the trees were rooted in them; under the boughs probably the grass does not cover the rock as it does on the opposite side. There mountain-ashes flowered in loose order on the green slope. Redstarts perched on them, darting out to seize passing insects. Still deeper in the coombe the oaks stood on either side of the stream; it was the beginning of woods which reach for miles, in which occasionally the wild red deer wander, and drink at the clear waters. By now the shadow of the western hill-top had crossed the brooklet, and the still coombe became yet more silent. There was an alder, ivy-grown, beside the stream–a tree with those lines which take an artist’s fancy. Under the roots of alders the water-ousel often creeps by day, and the tall heron stalks past at night. Receding up the eastern slope of the coombe the sunlight left the dark alder’s foliage in the deep shadow of the hollow. I went up the slope till I could see the sun, and waited; in a few minutes the shadow reached me, and it was sunset; I went still higher, and presently the sun set again. A cool wind was drawing up the coombe, it was dusky in the recesses of the oaks, and the water of the stream had become dark when we emerged from the great hollow, and yet without the summer’s evening had but just commenced, and the banks were still heated by the sun.”

The Mowers at Harvest Time

Simon Coleman

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When Richard Jefferies was writing in the 1870s and 1880s, British agriculture was experiencing immense upheaval and profound change.  The effects of the depression were far reaching, while increasing mechanisation and the rise of farm ‘businesses’ challenged the old-style practices.  But many traditional methods were still very much in evidence, such as grass-cutting by teams of mowers armed with scythes.  For the typical Wiltshire dairy farmer, the working practices of these teams could be a major headache during the haymaking time.  In this passage from The Toilers of the Field, we get a good insight into the mayhem that the mowers were capable of causing.

“The nuisance of mowers must be gone through to be appreciated. They come and work very well for the first week. They slash down acre after acre, and stick to it almost day and night. In consequence the farmer puts on every man who applies for work, everything goes on first-rate, and there is a prospect of getting the crop in speedily. At the end of the week the mowers draw their money, quite a lump for them, and away they go to the ale-house. Saturday night sees them as drunk as men can be. They lie about the fields under the hedges all day Sunday, drinking when the public-house is open. Monday morning they go on to work for half-an-hour, but the fever engendered by so much liquor, and the disordered state of the stomach, cause a burning thirst. They fling the scythes down, and go off to the barrel. During all this week perhaps between them they manage to cut half an acre. What is the result? The haymakers have made all the grass that was cut the first week into hay, and are standing about idle, unable to proceed, but still drawing their wages from the unfortunate agriculturist. The hot sun is burning on—better weather for haymaking could not be—but there is not a rood of grass cut for them to work on. After a while the mowers come back, thoroughly tired and exhausted with their debauch, and go on feebly to work. There is hope again. But our climate is notoriously changeable. A fortnight of warm, close heat is pretty sure to breed a thunderstorm. Accordingly, just as the scythes begin to lay the tall grass prostrate again, there is a growl in the sky, and down comes the rain. A thunderstorm unsettles the weather, and here is perhaps another week lost. The farmer dares not discharge his haymakers, because he does not know but that he may require them any day. They are put to turn dung-heaps, clean out the yards, pick up the weeds in the garden, and such like little jobs, over which they can dawdle as much as they like. All the while they are on full pay. Now, what manufacturer could endure such conduct as this? Is it not enough to drive a saint out of his patience? Of course the larger farmers who can afford it have the resource of the mowing-machine, but there are hundreds and thousands of farms upon which its sharp rattle has not yet been heard. There is still a great divergence of opinion as to its merits, many maintaining that it does not cut so close to the ground, and therefore wastes a large percentage of the crop, and others that the action of the scissor-like knives bruises the grass, and prevents it growing up into a good after-math. Therefore many farmers who could afford it will not admit the mowing-machine into their fields, and the mowers may still be seen at work over miles and miles of meadow, and are still the plague of the agriculturist. The arable farmer has just the same difficulty to keep his labourers at their work, and unless he is constantly on the watch valuable time is lost daily. In the harvest, however, he has an advantage. The corn is reaped by piece-work, and the labourers therefore strain every nerve to do as much as they can. But then he must be on the lookout to see that they do not “scamp” it.”

See also former posts ‘Women in the Fields’: http://wp.me/p5jhXU-1r

and ‘The Story of the Wheat’: http://wp.me/p5jhXU-1y

 

‘Under the Snow’ by Richard Jefferies

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Photo by Rebecca Welshman 

“The smallest boughs and the tiniest twigs are coated on the upper part with a white rib of snow; for the flakes, scarcely slanting in their fall before the light air, rest on the first thing they touch; so that even the laurel leaves, which droop with the frost, are covered, and the crinkled holly-leaves hold the snow as if their spines grasped it like a claw. In the hedge the very peggles on the hawthorn bush are tipped—red fruit beneath, white snow above—and appear enlarged to twice their real size. The fields are levelled—the furrows filled and the clods hidden: a smooth white surface everywhere. Over the broad brook the branches of the trees hang low, heavily weighted, and dip their slender points in the water, black by contrast. Dark and silent, the stream flows without a ripple or a murmur against its frozen shores. But in the afternoon, when the sun shines in a cloudless sky, there floats above the current a golden vapour lit up by the rays. The sun sinks lower, and the disc becomes ruddy as it enters the mist above the horizon. Night falls, and the frost sharpens and the snow hardens on the boughs. Then in the morning as the sun rises the eastern side of the wood becomes glorified exceedingly. Each slender snow-laden branch—all the interlaced pattern of the trees—glows with an exquisite rosy light. Another day, a third, and still the beautiful snow lies everywhere. It shrinks a little, because now the tops of the larger clods in the ploughed fields are visible. There is a group of such dark clods in one place—eight or nine close together. Suddenly one moves: then another detaches itself and creeps a yard away: it is, in fact, a covey of partridges crouching hopelessly on the snow. These birds, like others that obtain their food on the ground, endure great privation when it is not only covered with snow but frozen hard beneath. It is indeed difficult to understand how they find sufficient to support life. They enter rickyards where the snow is partially cleared by the men; they venture, too, into gardens that are not immediately under the windows of a house. Their roosting-place—on the ground—is easily dis­covered during the snow, because it is partly scratched away and melted there and appears a darker patch in the white field. At other times the covey separates, and the various members spread abroad to feed, calling each other, and rejoining at dusk; but in bitter weather they remain together. To the hawthorn bush by the roadside, where the peggles are tipped with snow, a fieldfare comes as we go by, shaking down a shower of snow as he alights, but just beyond reach of the walking-stick. Though we pause and watch his motions he does not fly, but scrambles farther into the bush, bringing down fresh showers; so tame, or rather so bold, has hunger made him. The fieldfare is usually so wild that it is not possible to approach within gunshot, unless by a stratagem. Upon the lower branches of an elm—those that project from the trunk like brushwood—sits a redwing, his feathers puffed out, and betraying no trace of alarm. Though they come from the north, redwings seem among the first to suffer; a few days’ snow like this quite debilitates them, and they have not even the energy to escape. A stone, a stick, anything will bring them down; and they are killed in numbers by cats when they venture into gardens, as they constantly do. Another sits on the bank, partly hidden by the ground-ivy that there clothes a slight projection which, like a roof, has kept the snow from a tiny terrace. In the ditch, which is deep, the water is frozen, but the sides are a little moist near the bottom still, and to these places come the garden thrushes and blackbirds. At the gateway there is a short arched culvert for the water to pass through; it is dry now, and these birds enter the mouth, rinding that in this cellar-like spot the frost is not so hard.

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Photo by Rebecca Welshman

There is a place in the copse where, under the shelter of the trees and behind a thicket of briar and thorn, scarcely any snow has penetrated. It is overgrown with low brambles, and is several inches thick with dead leaves. These keep the frost away from the earth in the same manner as a mat, and here eight or ten blackbirds and thrushes are busily at work pulling up the leaves and searching beneath them. They quarrel constantly about the best localities, and drive each other away, fighting for existence. It is often remarked that the thrush dies quicker than any other bird in severe weather; and a comparison has been made between it and the tiny golden-crested wren, which scarcely heeds the frost or snow, as if the former was a delicate bird. The contrast is not just. The reason why the thrush dies so soon is because he is starved. Those who have watched the thrush, at ordinary times must have observed the really immense quantities of worms, snails, and similar food he consumes. The moment the ground is frozen all this is shut off from him, and he languishes. If frost be accompanied by continued snow he perishes. But the elegant golden-crested wren is not starved: his food of insects is not buried by the snow or rendered inaccessible by frost. He may be seen entering every bramble bush, and peering under the leaves there which yet remain green. There are a thousand and one places where insects lie torpid—under leaves, in the crevices of bark, and so on—perfectly well known to this happy little creature. The birds that feed on the ground suffer most; next, those that put much reliance on seeds or grain; those that may be called tree birds do not endure so much. The blue tomtit literally looks everywhere: in the porch, under the rafters of cowsheds and outhouses, even inside the open box that protects the bell-wire at the outer gate, and may be seen clinging to the boards against which the bill-poster sticks his advertisements, and looks under the strips of torn paper.

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Photo by Rebecca Welshman

Passing further up the road, the rooks have discovered an arable field, where, just before the snow fell, manure had been carted out and left in small heaps for spreading. These are now covered with snow, but near the bottom are perhaps not quite frozen. An oak-tree, white to the smallest twig, stands solitary in the midst. A whole flock of rooks are perched on it; every two or three minutes some descend to the immediate neighbourhood of the manure heaps, and after a short interval rise with a feeble caw and rest upon a branch. There is a perpetual stream of rooks like this passing up and down. The very bough the rook roosts on at night is coated with frozen snow, though his weight as he alights shakes it off in some degree under his claws. In the ash-trees by a farmhouse some hundreds of starlings are perched; the tree is black with them, and there is a long row on the railings round the rickyard beneath; but they are silent. At another time there would have been a continuous calling—a noise rising and sinking, a confusion of tongues: now they sit still and quiet. Then they would barely have remained in one place three minutes: now they do not seem to care to move at all. Their food, too, is cut off from them. Judging by the few flocks that are to be seen about, it would appear as if numbers must have left the district. So too, with the wood-pigeons. Just before the snow there were crowds of them in all the arable fields, to the annoyance of the farmers. Not a single flock is now visible. From out of a double mound one single wood-pigeon rises, so close that every marking of his feathers is apparent. He lifts himself heavily, as if wounded, but once in the air flies easily enough, though he goes but across a single field and alights in a tree: he is weakly for want of food.

Sheep-pens, where the snow has been removed by manual labour, or trodden down and melted by the sheep themselves, are favourite places with the birds in hard weather. The common wagtail is a frequenter of sheep-pens: half a dozen or more may be noticed at once on the ground there. Tat-tat—top-top-top!—a kind of quiet tapping sounds in the higher branches of a tall elm fifty yards away. A bird is clinging to the side of a bough; his head is thrown back, and every few seconds he delivers a sharp blow with his beak, peers again, climbs further up, gives a series of quick raps, and then flies to the next tree. A slight shower of snow falls from the bough on which he alights; in a minute the tapping sounds again; and thus he visits every elm in the hedgerow. It is the nuthatch, and it is surprising how far the quiet tap-tap can be heard in the stillness. When the foliage is thick on the trees in summer, though the tap may be heard, it is not so easy to watch his motions; the fall of the leaf is like removing a screen. A rustling, scratching sound on the bank where it is overhung by a stole, and clear of snow, shows that the hedge-mice are about, despite the severe weather. Some one, perhaps a sportsman, has dropped an empty fuse-box, without a lid, in the hedge. The scratching proceeds from this box—there is a mouse in it. The tiny creature is so small that the box, which is merely supported by a few dead oak leaves, allows it to turn round easily. He scratches and sniffs at every corner—pauses, and scratches again, as if in desperate hope that there must be something eatable about it. At last he gives up the useless attempt, and disappears under the oak leaves. Some distance further there is another rustling: something here is darting to and fro with an eager motion under the ground-ivy. This time it’s a weasel, whose hunting is greatly favoured by the snow. If it were deep it would not suit him; but two inches are just sufficient to weaken the prey, and yet cause him no inconvenience in chasing it. Rabbit tracks are everywhere in the snow, and especially round and round a long narrow mound in the open field, where the farmer has stacked his roots and covered them with straw and earth as a protection against the frost.”