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

 

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Signs of Spring

Rebecca Welshman

nature-april-2013-016

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

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

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

lesser-celandine-flowers-in-woodland-habitat

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

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

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

hedgerow20j20wallen

Image source: cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk

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

stream_and_old_bridge_on_exmoor_devon_2545075797

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

Winds of Summer

There have been gales and torrential rain here today in Cumbria. The beck by the farmhouse has risen to the highest it has been since spring – the brown waters are rushing and brawling over the stones, carrying away twigs and anything in their path in a torrent of haste. The winds have brought down branches from the Sycamore trees that overhang the beck, and little groups of sheep are huddling together in the lee of the stone barns.

In the essay ‘Winds of Heaven’ Jefferies recalls his experiences of summer winds:

“It is summer, and the wind-birds top the furze ; the bright stonechat, velvet-black and red and white, sits on the highest spray of the gorse, as if he were painted there. He is always in the wind on the hill, from the hail of April to August’s dry glow. All the mile-long slope of the hill under me is purple-clad with heath down to the tree-filled gorge where the green boughs seem to join the purple. The corn-fields and the pastures of the plain — count them one by one till the hedges and squares close together and cannot be separated. The surface of the earth melts away as if the eyes insensibly shut and grew dreamy in gazing, as the soft clouds melt and lose their outline at the horizon. But dwelling there, the glance slowly finds and fills out something that interposes its existence between us and the further space. Too shadowy for the substance of a cloud, too delicate for outline against the sky, fainter than haze, something of which the eye has consciousness, but cannot put into a word to itself. Something is there. It is the air-cloud adhering like a summer garment to the great downs by the sea. I cannot see the substance of the hills nor their exact curve along the sky ; all I can see is the air that has thickened and taken to itself form about them. The atmosphere has collected as the shadow collects in the distant corner of a room — it is the shadow of the summer wind. At times it is so soft, so little more than the air at hand, that I almost fancy I can look through the solid boundary. There is no cloud so faint ; the great hills are but a thought at the horizon; I think them there rather than see them ; if I were not thinking of them, I should scarce know there was even a haze, with so dainty a hand does the atmosphere throw its covering over the massy downs. Riding or passing quickly perhaps you would not observe them ; but stay among the heathbells, and the sketch appears in the south. Up from the sea over the corn-fields, through the green boughs of the forest, along the slope, comes a breath of wind, of honey-sweetened air, made more delicate by the fanning of a thousand wings.

The labour of the wind : the cymbals of the aspen clashing, from the lowest to the highest bough, each leaf twirling first forwards and then backwards and swinging to and fro, a double motion. Each lifts a little and falls back like a pendulum, twisting on itself ; and as it rises and sinks, strikes its fellow-leaf Striking the side of the dark pines, the wind changes their colour and turns them paler. The oak leaves slide one over the other, hand above hand, laying shadow upon shadow upon the white road. In the vast net of the wide elm-tops the drifting shadow of the cloud which the wind brings is caught for a moment. Pushing aside the stiff ranks of the wheat with both arms, the air reaches the sun-parched earth. It walks among the mowing-grass like a farmer feeling the crop with his hand one side, and opening it with his walking-stick the other. It rolls the wavelets carelessly as marbles to the shore ; the red cattle redden the pool and stand in their own colour. The green cater- pillar swings as he spins his thread and lengthens his cable to the tide of air, descending from the tree; before he can slip it the whitethroat takes him. With a thrust the wind hurls the swift fifty miles faster on his way ; it ruffles back the black velvet of the mole peeping forth from his burrow. Apple bloom and crab-apple bloom have been blown long since athwart the furrows over the orchard wall ; May petals and June roses scattered; the pollen and the seeds of the meadow-grasses thrown on the threshing-floor of earth in basketfuls. Thistle down and dandelion down, the brown down of the goat’s-beard ; by-and-by the keys of the sycamores twirling aslant — the wind carries them all on its back, gossamer web and great heron’s vanes — the same weight to the wind  the drops of the waterfall blown aside sprinkle the bright green ferns. The voice of the cuckoo in his season travels on the zephyr, and the note comes to the most distant hill, and deep into the deepest wood.

The light and fire of summer are made beautiful by the air, without whose breath the glorious summer were all spoiled. Thick are the hawthorn leaves, many deep on the spray ; and beneath them there is a twisted and intertangled winding in and out of boughs, such as no curious ironwork of ancient artist could equal; through the leaves and metal-work of boughs the soft west wind wanders at its ease. Wild wasp and tutored bee sing sideways on their course as the breeze fills their vanes; with broad coloured sails boomed out, the butterfly drifts alee. Beside a brown coated stone in the shadowed stream a brown trout watches for the puffs that slay the May-flies. Their ephemeral wings were made for a more exquisite life; they endure but one sun; they bear not the touch of the water; they die like a dream dropping into the river. To the amethyst in the deep ditch the wind comes; no petal so hidden under green it cannot find; to the blue hill-flower up by the sky; it lifts the guilty head of the passionate poppy that has sinned in the sun for love. Sweet is the rain the wind brings to the wallflower browned in the heat, a-dry on the crumbling stone. Pleasant the sunbeams to the marigold when the wind has carried the rain away and his sun-disc glows on the bank. Acres of perfume come on the wind from the black and white of the bean-field; the firs fill the air by the copse with perfume. I know nothing to which the wind has not some happy use.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE UNDAUNTED LAPWINGS

Simon Coleman

lapwing rspb

Source: http://www.rspb.org.uk

 

Rain, cold and deadening gloom: winter days we are all familiar with. There is no colour, no sound of birds – one might feel that life has left the earth altogether. Richard Jefferies, though a worshipper of the sun and the long days of light, always persisted with his winter walks. In this first part of a beautiful essay, ‘Haunts of the Lapwing’, he stumbles across some lapwings braving the dreadful weather and the sight of them instantly lifts his spirits. In that moment he finds them to be ‘the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness’.

 

“HAUNTS OF THE LAPWING, part 1: Winter”

 

“Coming like a white wall the rain reaches me, and in an instant everything is gone from sight that is more than ten yards distant. The narrow upland road is beaten to a darker hue, and two runnels of water rush along at the sides, where, when the chalk-laden streamlets dry, blue splinters of flint will be exposed in the channels. For a moment the air seems driven away by the sudden pressure, and I catch my breath and stand still with one shoulder forward to receive the blow. Hiss, the land shudders under the cold onslaught; hiss, and on the blast goes, and the sound with it, for the very fury of the rain, after the first second, drowns its own noise. There is not a single creature visible, the low and stunted hedgerows, bare of leaf, could conceal nothing; the rain passes straight through to the ground. Crooked and gnarled, the bushes are locked together as if in no other way could they hold themselves against the gales. Such little grass as there is on the mounds is thin and short, and could not hide a mouse. There is no finch, sparrow, thrush, blackbird. As the wave of rain passes over and leaves a hollow between the waters, that which has gone and that to come, the ploughed lands on either side are seen to be equally bare. In furrows full of water, a hare would not sit, nor partridge run; the larks, the patient larks which endure almost everything, even they have gone. Furrow on furrow with flints dotted on their slopes, and chalk lumps, that is all. The cold earth gives no sweet petal of flower, nor can any bud of thought or bloom of imagination start forth in the mind. But step by step, forcing a way through the rain and over the ridge, I find a small and stunted copse down in the next hollow. It is rather a wide hedge than a copse, and stands by the road in the corner of a field. The boughs are bare; still they break the storm, and it is a relief to wait a while there and rest. After a minute or so the eye gets accustomed to the branches and finds a line of sight through the narrow end of the copse. Within twenty yards—just outside the copse—there are a number of lapwings, dispersed about the furrows. One runs a few feet forward and picks something from the ground; another runs in the same manner to one side; a third rushes in still a third direction. Their crests, their green-tinted wings, and white breasts are not disarranged by the torrent. Something in the style of the birds recalls the wagtail, though they are so much larger. Beyond these are half a dozen more, and in a straggling line others extend out into the field. They have found some slight shelter here from the sweeping of the rain and wind, and are not obliged to face it as in the open. Minutely searching every clod they gather their food in imperceptible items from the surface.

 

Sodden leaves lie in the furrows along the side of the copse; broken and decaying burdocks still uphold their jagged stems, but will be soaked away by degrees; dank grasses droop outwards! the red seed of a dock is all that remains of the berries and fruit, the seeds and grain of autumn. Like the hedge, the copse is vacant. Nothing moves within, watch as carefully as I may. The boughs are blackened by wet and would touch cold. From the grasses to the branches there is nothing any one would like to handle, and I stand apart even from the bush that keeps away the rain. The green plovers are the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness. Heavily as the rain may fall, cold as the saturated wind may blow, the plovers remind us of the beauty of shape, colour, and animation. They seem too slender to withstand the blast—they should have gone with the swallows—too delicate for these rude hours; yet they alone face them.

 

Once more the wave of rain has passed, and yonder the hills appear; these are but uplands. The nearest and highest has a green rampart, visible for a moment against the dark sky, and then again wrapped in a toga of misty cloud. So the chilled Roman drew his toga around him in ancient days as from that spot he looked wistfully southwards and thought of Italy. Wee-ah-wee! Some chance movement has been noticed by the nearest bird, and away they go at once as if with the same wings, sweeping overhead, then to the right, then to the left, and then back again, till at last lost in the coming shower. After they have thus vibrated to and fro long enough, like a pendulum coming to rest, they will alight in the open field on the ridge behind. There in drilled ranks, well closed together, all facing the same way, they will stand for hours. Let us go also and let the shower conceal them. Another time my path leads over the hills.

 

It is afternoon, which in winter is evening. The sward of the down is dry under foot, but hard, and does not lift the instep with the springy feel of summer. The sky is gone, it is not clouded, it is swathed in gloom. Upwards the still air thickens, and there is no arch or vault of heaven. Formless and vague, it seems some vast shadow descending. The sun has disappeared, and the light there still is, is left in the atmosphere enclosed by the gloomy mist as pools are left by a receding tide. Through the sand the water slips, and through the mist the light glides away. Nearer comes the formless shadow and the visible earth grows smaller. The path has faded, and there are no means on the open downs of knowing whether the direction pursued is right or wrong, till a boulder (which is a landmark) is perceived. Thence the way is down the slope, the last and limit of the hills there. It is a rough descent, the paths worn by sheep may at any moment cause a stumble. At the foot is a waggon-track beside a low hedge, enclosing the first arable field. The hedge is a guide, but the ruts are deep, and it still needs slow and careful walking. Wee-ah-wee! Up from the dusky surface of the arable field springs a plover, and the notes are immediately repeated by another. They can just be seen as darker bodies against the shadow as they fly overhead. Wee-ah-wee! The sound grows fainter as they fetch a longer circle in the gloom.

 

There is another winter resort of plovers in the valley where a barren waste was ploughed some years ago. A few furze bushes still stand in the hedges about it, and the corners are full of rushes. Not all the grubbing of furze and bushes, the deep ploughing and draining, has succeeded in rendering the place fertile like the adjacent fields. The character of a marsh adheres to it still. So long as there is a crop, the lapwings keep away, but as soon as the ploughs turn up the ground in autumn they return. The place lies low, and level with the waters in the ponds and streamlets. A mist hangs about it in the evening, and even when there is none, there is a distinct difference in the atmosphere while passing it. From their hereditary home the lapwings cannot be entirely driven away. Out of the mist comes their plaintive cry; they are hidden, and their exact locality is not to be discovered. Where winter rules most ruthlessly, where darkness is deepest in daylight, there the slender plovers stay undaunted.”

In the Face of Climate Change: can Natural Beauty Help?

Rebecca Welshman

dewy harebell

I’ve been reading and thinking more of late about the very real problems which we face as a species. The degradation of our planet as a result of human-induced climate change is no longer simply an issue but a reality. It is something that I think about most days – it is an ever present shadow behind the beauty of the natural world, which more and more of us are becoming conscious of. We notice altered weather patterns, the greasy films over watercourses which once ran clear, loss of habitats, the falling populations of birds, animals, amphibians, flowers, plants. The list is too long.

Among climate scientists ‘gloom has set in’ (http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815/) as research repeatedly proves that the situation is worse than we thought. For activists, political groups, and individuals who wish to make a difference it is dispiriting to know that the climate initiatives are deliberately being sabotaged by political and corporate powers that seek to forge ahead with reliance on fossil fuels.As Glaciologist Jason Box has expressed:

“let’s get real, fossil fuels are the dominant industry on earth, and you can’t expect meaningful political change with them in control. There’s a growing consensus that there must be a shock to the system.”

We are already experiencing some of the environmental and social problems associated with climate change. Yet the ways in which the majority of us live do not encourage us to embrace climate change as a reality – we live in denial. Jeffrey Kiehl, senior scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, gained a degree in psychology so to research the psychology of climate change denial. He concluded that:

“consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, [that] we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes. Worse, accepting the facts threatens us with a loss of faith in the fundamental order of the universe.” (http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815/)

I was lying awake thinking about these things last night as our young baby slept beside, and I could envisage no ways in which these powers could be dissuaded from their agenda. There was one thought I had which perhaps offered some hope – that future generations, our children today, will be educated in climate science and climate crisis and will be better equipped to bring about change. One day fossil fuels will be a thing of the past – antiquated as they already seem in the face of other advanced renewable technologies. One day – though maybe only once renewable sources finally attract the sustained attention of the financial markets.

Many of our blog posts have shown the ways in which Jefferies appreciated and engaged with the world around him – in the country and the city, and in varied moods and times of day. He encouraged minds and hearts to open together, even when political and social systems seemed to be working to close them. He perceived then, in the 1880s that once connected with the world around us we need to act to make it a better place, in order for future generations to enjoy it:

“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 Story of My Heart)

His futuristic novel After London (1885), which depicts an England submerged by floods, and a regressive social and political system that is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, seems increasingly prophetic. The protagonist, Felix, embarks on a lonely sea voyage to begin a new social system. He discovers, amongst the poisonous swamps which cover submerged London, a large pile of gold coins, worthless and corroded by the toxic emanations of the lost city. Felix hopes to develop a more spiritual caring race, not driven by what Jefferies termed ‘the detestable creed that time is money’.

In the face of climate change we have very little time. We need natural beauty to keep us grounded, balanced, and healed. I can easily picture a future when beautiful natural images can only be found in books or on old hard drives – or exist as cuttings taken from old newspapers and magazines. They might be pinned to stone walls, which have been cobbled together from ruined upland dwellings, at a time when weaker modern homes have long since gone or been washed away. In the face of such scenarios I ask: can natural beauty help us now?

For Jefferies, nature’s timeless and ageless beauty expressed a better, more complete version of ourselves – a shared heart of mankind to connect with as a reality – “Does this reverie of flowers and waterfall and song form an ideal, a human ideal in the mind?”. As the rain falls down on this August Sunday I keep this ideal in mind.

Early in March

early_spring_at_shere

Painting by the Surrey artist Mick LeRoy ‘Early Spring at Shere’: http://www.sheredelight.com/early_spring_at_shere.jpg

Rebecca Welshman

Early March is a beautiful time of year. It is heartening to wander the sunken paths here among the Brendon Hills, where I live, and to see the emerging signs of spring. The banks are already dotted with early primroses, daises, and the occasional buttercup. Daffodils, snowdrops and crocuses are out in full bloom. The days of late have been dry and bright, and have left the lanes pale and dried by the wind. There is a feeling of spaciousness as one becomes aware of the gaps between the leafless trees, the wide blue skies over the lanes visible through the branches, and in the fields the trampled bare earth ready to be cushioned by the growth of spring. The woods and hedges seem to be filling with the joyous sounds of bird life as Robins, Wrens, Thrushes, Blackbirds and others welcome the warmer weather and begin to prepare for the nesting season.

I have selected this extract from Jefferies’ Hodge and His Masters, a book about farming, the habits of workers and wild life, and a series of other nature observations, which Jefferies wrote in the late 1870s. This extract formed part of a serialised piece in the London Standard.

“The labourer working all the year round in the open air cannot but note to some degree those changes in tree and plant which coincide with the variations of his daily employment. Early in March, as he walks along the southern side of the hedge, where the dead oak leaves still cumber the trailing ivy, he can scarcely avoid seeing that pointed tongues of green are pushing up. Some have widened into black-spotted leaves; some are notched like the many-barbed bone harpoons of savage races. The hardy docks are showing, and the young nettles have risen up. Slowly the dark and grey hues of winter are yielding to the lively tints of spring. The blackthorn has white buds on its lesser branches, and the warm rays of the sun have drawn forth the buds on one favoured hawthorn in a sheltered nook, so that the green of the coming leaf is visible. Bramble bushes still retain their forlorn, shrivelled foliage; the hardy all but evergreen leaves can stand cold, but when biting winds from the north and east blow for weeks together even these curl at the edge and die.

The remarkable power of wind upon leaves is sometimes seen in May, when a strong gale, even from the west, will so beat and batter the tender horse-chestnut sprays that they bruise and blacken. The slow plough traverses the earth, and the white dust rises from the road and drifts into the field. In winter the distant copse seemed black; now it appears of a dull reddish brown from the innumerable catkins and buds. The delicate sprays of the birch are fringed with them, the aspen has a load of brown, there are green catkins on the bare hazel boughs, and the willows have white ‘pussy-cats.’ The horse-chestnut buds—the hue of dark varnish—have enlarged, and stick to the finger if touched; some are so swollen as to nearly burst and let the green appear. Already it is becoming more difficult to look right through the copse. In winter the light could be seen on the other side; now catkin, bud, and opening leaf have thickened and check the view. The same effect was produced not long since by the rime on the branches in the frosty mornings; while each smallest twig was thus lined with crystal it was not possible to see through. Tangled weeds float down the brook, catching against projecting branches that dip into the stream, or slowly rotating and carried apparently up the current by the eddy and back-water behind the bridge. In the pond the frogs have congregated in great numbers; their constant ‘croo-croo’ is audible at some distance.

The meadows, so long bound by frost and covered with snow, are slowly losing their wan aspect, and assuming a warmer green as the young blades of grass come upwards. Where the plough or harrow has passed over the clods they quickly change from the rich brown of fresh-turned soil to a whiter colour, the dryness of the atmosphere immediately dissipating the moisture in the earth. So, examine what you will, from the clod to the tiniest branch, the hedge, the mound, the water—everywhere a step forward has been taken. The difference in a particular case may be minute; but it is there, and together these faint indications show how closely spring is approaching.

As the sun rises the chaffinch utters his bold challenge on the tree; the notes are so rapid that they seem to come all at once. Welcome, indeed, is the song of the first finch. Sparrows are busy in the garden—the hens are by far the most numerous now, half a dozen together perch on the bushes. One suddenly darts forth and seizes a black insect as it flies in the sunshine. The bee, too, is abroad, and once now and then a yellow butterfly. From the copse on the warmer days comes occasionally the deep hollow bass of the wood pigeon. On the very topmost branch of an elm a magpie has perched; now he looks this way, and then turns that, bowing in the oddest manner, and jerking his long tail up and down. Then two of them flutter across the field—feebly, as if they had barely strength to reach the trees in the opposite hedge. Extending their wings they float slowly, and every now and then the body undulates along its entire length. Rooks are building—they fly and feed now in pairs; the rookery is alive with them. To the steeple the jackdaws have returned and fly round and round; now one holds his wings rigid and slides down at an angle of sixty degrees at a breakneck pace, as if about to dash himself in fragments on the garden beneath.

Sometimes there come a few days which are like summer. There is an almost cloudless sky, a gentle warm breeze, and a bright sun filling the fields with a glow of light. The air, though soft and genial, is dry, and perhaps it is this quality which gives so peculiar a definition to hedge, tree, and hill. A firm, almost hard, outline brings copse and wood into clear relief; the distance across the broadest fields appears sensibly diminished. Such freedom from moisture has a deliciously exhilarating effect on those who breathe so pure an atmosphere. The winds of March differ, indeed, in a remarkable manner from, the gales of the early year, which, even when they blow from a mild quarter, compel one to keep in constant movement because of the aqueous vapour they carry. But the true March wind, though too boisterous to be exactly genial, causes a joyous sense of freshness, as if the very blood in the veins were refined and quickened upon inhaling it. There is a difference in its roar—the note is distinct from the harsh sound of the chilly winter blast. On the lonely highway at night, when other noises are silent, the March breeze rushes through the tall elms in a wild cadence. The white clouds hasten over, illuminated from behind by a moon approaching the full; every now and then a break shows a clear blue sky and a star shining. Now a loud roar resounds along the hedgerow like the deafening boom of the surge; it moderates, dies away, then an elm close by bends and sounds as the blast comes again. In another moment the note is caught up and repeated by a distant tree, and so one after another joins the song till the chorus reaches its highest pitch. Then it sinks again, and so continues with pauses and deep inspirations, for March is like a strong man drawing his breath full and long as he starts to run a race.”