SPIRIT HILLS

SIMON COLEMAN

beaminster chart knoll

Photo by Rebecca Welshman

 

When Richard Jefferies describes his move to Surrey in his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’, he alludes briefly to the meadows and woods which he wrote about at length in earlier works.  This landscape was obviously pleasing to him but he follows this with a powerful sentence that struck me with its sense of loving and profound reminiscence:

 

‘Hills that purify those who walk on them there were not’.

 

Hills play a prominent part in ‘The Story of My Heart’ which begins with Jefferies’ memorable ascent of Liddington Hill near his childhood home in north Wiltshire.  As those passages have been much-quoted by others, I searched for a hill-ascent description from a less familiar work by Jefferies.  This passage is from a manuscript, unpublished in his lifetime but included in S.J. Looker’s ‘Chronicles of the Hedges’ anthology.

 

‘It is the place of its growth which makes the wild thyme sweet. The labour of the ascent—the panting chest and quickened pulse—increases the pleasure of finding it. Up the long slope, over the turf, up till the strong air, inflating the chest, seems as if it would stretch the very bones: always upwards; but the grey bees win in this race and pass to the front easily. At each step the yoke of artificial life lightens on the shoulder; and at the summit falls away. The heart beats faster, being free; and the mind opens to the opening horizon. So intimately are the body and the mind bound together that, as the one climbs, the other aspires; and, on the ridge, we walk on a level above our old selves left beneath us.’

 

This might also be Liddington but we don’t know – and it doesn’t matter.  These are the chalk hills, the downs, where the wild thyme flourished in thick bunches.  The beautiful flower, with its magical, fresh scent became for Jefferies a symbol for a deeper, more aspiring, and more spiritual life.  ‘It is the place of its growth which makes the wild thyme sweet’.  The flower and the landscape act together, inspiring him to the physical effort of the climb.   The scent of moving air on these hills was, he tells us, ‘like an apple fresh plucked’.  The mind and body respond in equal measure and the inner places of the heart open to absorb the beauty and freedom of the experience.  The ‘artificial life’ of houses and bustling towns shrinks to insignificance.  The green ridges, the slowly curving horizons, the thyme and the rushing wind are true purifiers – of the mind, body and heart.

 

While the downs were the English hill ranges that he knew best, we should not neglect his writing on other upland areas where he spent time walking and thinking.  His 1882 expedition to Somerset, taking in Exmoor and the Quantock hills, produced some more fine prose.

 

‘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…. Yonder, if the misty heat moves on, the dim line of Dunkery [hill] 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.’

 

He communicates a wonderful sense of repose and contentment within the landscape.  There is no need here for an energetic climb to a summit to escape the artificiality of daily life.   His explorations of nearby Exmoor were documented in his 1884 book, ‘Red Deer’.  There he found that the vast expanses of heather moorland almost overwhelmed the eye’s sense of relative distance.

 

‘The eye had nothing to rest on; it kept travelling farther, and whichever way I turned still there was the same space. It was twenty miles to the white cloud yonder looking through the air, and so it was twenty miles to the ridge, not the farthest, under it. The moor undulated on, now a coombe, now a rise, now pale grey-green where the surface had been burnt, and then dark where the heather was high; the moor undulated on, and it was twenty miles to the ridge and twenty to the cloud, and there was nothing between me and the cloud and the hill. A noise of thunder came, weary and travelling with difficulty. I glanced round; I could not see any cloud of thunderous character. How far could it have come? In enclosed countries thunder is not heard more than ten miles, but at this height — this seemingly level moor is twelve hundred feet above the sea — it may come how far?’

 

As he did on the chalk downs, Jefferies encountered on Exmoor that sense of infinite space produced by gently rolling uplands, though here the effect might have been increased due to the much greater height of the moorland.  Every hill range I have visited has impressed upon me its special character in its shape, proportions, colours, as well as more intangible qualities.  These are not always easy to define: words such as ‘nobility’, ‘mystery’, ‘boldness’ only partially capture these elusive essences.  And, not surprisingly, Jefferies sought out the magical spirit of the hills.

 

Late in his life, when he unexpectedly moved to the heavily forested high weald of Sussex, he experienced an unusually hard winter.

 

‘Harder and harder grew the frost, yet still the forest-clad hills possessed a something that drew the mind open to their largeness and grandeur.’  (‘Hours of Spring’)

 

Some silent mysterious quality lingers over many hill ranges.  Returning to the Wiltshire downs, Jefferies reminisces in ‘The Pageant of Summer’: ‘There was a presence everywhere, though unseen, on the open hills…’  In ‘On the Downs’ he finds expression for this mysterious ‘presence’ that hovers at the edges of awareness.  He imagines that ‘deeper, wider thoughts’ might await us just over the horizon of our consciousness.

 

‘The blue hill line arouses a perception of a current of thought which lies for the most part unrecognized within – an unconscious thought. By looking at this blue hill line this dormant power within the mind becomes partly visible; the heart wakes up to it.’

 

The downs he knew in his youth were also heavily marked by the relics of much earlier civilizations.  Tumuli, stone circles, hill forts and ancient trackways suggested a network of forgotten knowledge, of subtle connections between the landscape and the world of the dead – the ancestors.  Jefferies once described the downs as being ‘alive with the dead’ and, by the side of a tumulus, he imagines the vigorous life once enjoyed by the warrior interred there (‘The Story of My Heart’, chapter 3).   All this is evidence that he perceived the links between life, death and landscape.

 

With their beauty and free, open spaces, the unspoilt hill ranges inspire the body and the mind to a greater activity and a wider perception.  With their undulations and varying horizons they induce calmer and deeper thoughts outside the commonplace concerns of society.  And, when these wilder regions with their narrow paths and ancient landmarks become familiar to the walker, then the imagination begins to wander back through time, feeling into the lives of earlier peoples who saw the role of humans in a landscape in terms very different to those of our modern world.  Jefferies wanted to ‘free thought from every trammel’ and I am in no doubt that his wanderings on the hills gave him the belief that this was possible.

 

I’ll end with a short quote from Jefferies’ essay, ‘To Brighton’, which gives an account of a train journey from London to Brighton.  Two sentences that perhaps encapsulate his special affinity with the English chalk downs, in this case the South Downs.  ‘A breeze comes in at the carriage window – a wild puff, disturbing the heated stillness of the summer day. It is easy to tell where that came from – silently the Downs have stolen into sight.’

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ANTARES: STAR OF SUMMER

SIMON COLEMAN

antares-star
Source: http://ridgefielddiscovery.org/images/antares-star.jpg

Antares is back! The beautiful star that leads us into the summer. I saw it from my bedroom window last night, hanging over the silhouetted hills. As always, this short passage from Jefferies’ ‘Round About a Great Estate’ comes to mind.

That evening was one of the most beautiful I remember. We all sat in the garden at Lucketts’ Place till ten o’clock; it was still light and it seemed impossible to go indoors. There was a seat under a sycamore tree with honeysuckle climbing over the bars of the back; the spot was near the orchard, but on slightly higher ground. From our feet the meadow sloped down to the distant brook, the murmur of whose stream as it fell over a bay could be just heard. Northwards the stars were pale, the sun seems so little below the horizon there that the glow of the sunset and the glow of the dawn nearly meet. But southwards shone the dull red star of summer—Antares, seen while the wheat ripens and the ruddy and golden tints come upon the fruits. Then nightly describing a low curve he looks down upon the white shimmering corn, and carries the mind away to the burning sands and palms of the far south. In the light and colour and brilliance of an English summer we sometimes seem very near those tropical lands.”

THE SKYLARK

Simon Coleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”