JUNE DAYS

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SIMON COLEMAN

 

Two excerpts here from Jefferies’ 1880 book, ‘Round About a Great Estate’.  The fourth and last of the four ‘country books’ that launched his career, it is an attractive miscellany of rural life, country lore and natural history.  John Fowles wrote that the book ‘comes from the heart of his special landscape, in every sense: personally, historically, spiritually, aesthetically.’

 

“It happened one Sunday morning in June that a swarm of bees issued from a hive in a cottage garden near Okebourne church. The queen at first took up her position in an elm tree just outside the churchyard, where a large cluster of bees quickly depended from a bough. Being at a great height the cottager could not take them, and, anxious not to lose the swarm, he resorted to the ancient expedient of rattling fire-tongs and shovel together in order to attract them by the clatter. The discordant banging of the fire-irons resounded in the church, the doors being open to admit the summer air; and the noise became so uproarious that the clerk presently, at a sign from the rector, went out to stop it, for the congregation were in a grin. He did stop it, the cottager desisting with much reluctance; but, as if to revenge the bee-master’s wrongs, in the course of the day the swarm, quitting the elm, entered the church and occupied a post in the roof.

 

After a while it was found that the swarm had finally settled there, and were proceeding to build combs and lay in a store of honey. The bees, indeed, became such a terror to nervous people, buzzing without ceremony over their heads as they stood up to sing, and caused such a commotion and buffeting with Prayer-books and fans and handkerchiefs, that ultimately the congregation were compelled to abandon their pews. All efforts to dislodge the bees proving for the time ineffectual, the rector had a temporary reading-desk erected in the porch, and there held the service, the congregation sitting on chairs and forms in the yard, and some on the stone tombs, and even on the sward under the shade of the yew tree.

 

In the warm dry hay-making weather this open-air worship was very pleasant, the flowers in the grass and the roses in the little plots about the tombs giving colour and sweet odours, while the swallows glided gracefully overhead and sometimes a blackbird whistled. The bees, moreover, interfered with the baptisms, and even caused several marriages to be postponed. Inside the porch was a recess where the women left their pattens in winter, instead of clattering iron-shod down the aisle.”

 

“The heat of a warm June day seemed still more powerful in this hollow. The sedges, into which two or three moorhens had retired at my approach, were still, and the leaves on the boughs overhanging the water were motionless. Where there was a space free from weeds—a deeper hole near the bank—a jack basked at the surface in the sunshine. High above on the hill stood a tall dead fir, from whose trunk the bark was falling; it had but one branch, which stood out bare and stark across the sky. There came a sound like distant thunder, but there were no clouds overhead, and it was not possible to see far round. Pushing gently through the hawthorn bushes and ash-stoles at the farther end of the pond, I found a pleasant little stream rushing swiftly over a clear chalky bottom, hastening away down to the larger brook.

 

Beyond it rose a mound and hedgerow, up to which came the meadows, where, from the noise, the cattle seemed racing to and fro, teased by insects. Tiny black flies alighting on my hands and face, irritated the skin; the haymakers call them ‘thunder-flies;’ but the murmur of the running water was so delicious that I sat down on a bulging tree-root, almost over the stream, and listened to the thrushes singing. Had it been merely warm they would have been silent. They do not sing in dry sunshine, but they knew what was coming; so that there is no note so hated by the haymaker as that of the thrush. The birds were not in the firs, but in the ash-trees along the course of the rill.

 

The voice of the thrush is the most ‘cultivated,’ so to speak, of all our birds: the trills, the runs, the variations, are so numerous and contrasted. Not even the nightingale can equal it: the nightingale has not nearly such command: the thrush seems to know no limit. I own I love the blackbird best, but in excellence of varied music the thrush surpasses all. Few birds, except those that are formed for swimming, come to a still pond. They like a clear running stream; they visit the sweet running water for drinking and bathing. Dreaming away the time, listening to the rush of the water bubbling about the stones, I did not notice that the sky had become overcast, till suddenly a clap of thunder near at hand awakened me. Some heavy drops of rain fell; I looked up and saw the dead branch of the fir on the hill stretched out like a withered arm across a black cloud.”

 

Signs of Spring

Rebecca Welshman

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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

THE WATER-COLLEY

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Simon Coleman

When he visited Exmoor in the summer of 1882, Jefferies soon fell in love with the sweeping expanses of heather moors and the rocky, bubbling streams which supported a variety of wildlife. This short piece is a close-up study of the water-colley, more commonly known as the dipper. Notice also the presence of the corncrake, then a fairly common bird which, sadly, has been rare in England for several decades.

“The sweet grass was wet with dew as I walked through a meadow in Somerset to the river. The cuckoo sang, the pleasanter perhaps because his brief time was nearly over, and all pleasant things seem to have a deeper note as they draw towards an end. Dew and sweet green grass were the more beautiful because of the knowledge that the high hills around were covered by sun-dried, wiry heather. River-side mead, dew-laden grass, and sparkling stream were like an oasis in the dry desert. They refreshed the heart to look upon as water refreshes the weary. The shadows were more marked and defined than they are as day advances, the hues of the flowers brighter, for the dew was to shadow and flower as if the colours of the artist were not yet dry. Humblebees went down with caution into the long grass, not liking to wet their wings. Butterflies and the brilliant moths of a hot summer’s morn alight on a dry heated footpath till the dew is gone. A great rock rising from the grass by the river’s edge alone looked arid, and its surface already heated, yet it also cast a cool shadow. By a copse, two rabbits—the latest up of all those which had sported during the night—stayed till I came near, and then quietly moved in among the ferns and foxgloves.

In the narrowest part of the wood between the hedge and the river a corncrake called his loudest “crake, crake,” incessantly. The corncrake or landrail is difficult even to see, so closely does he conceal himself in the tall grasses, and his call echoed and re-echoed deceives those who try to find him. Yet by great patience and watchful skilfulness the corncrake is sometimes caught by hand. If tracked, and if you can see him—the most difficult part—you can put your hand on him. Now and then a corncrake is caught in the same way by hand while sitting on her nest on the ground. It is not, however, as easy as it reads. Walking through the grass, and thinking of the dew and the beautiful morning sunshine, I scarcely noticed the quantity of cuckoo-flowers, or cardamine, till presently it occurred to me that it was very late in the season for cuckoo-flowers and stooping I picked one, and in the act saw it was an orchis—the early purple. The meadow was coloured, or rather tinted, with the abundance of the orchis, palest of pale pink, dotted with red, the small narrow leaves sometimes with black spots. They grew in the pasture everywhere, from the river’s side in the deep valley to the top of the hill by the wood.

As soon as the surface of the river was in sight I stood and watched, but no ripple or ring of wavelets appeared; the trout were not feeding. The water was so low that the river consisted of a series of pools, connected by rapids descending over ledges of stones and rocky fragments. Illumined to the very bottom, every trout was visible, even those under the roots of trees and the hollow of the bank. A cast with the fly there was useless; the line would be seen; there was no ripple to hide it. As the trout, too, were in the pools, it might be concluded that those worth taking had fed, and only the lesser fish would be found in the eddies, where they are permitted by the larger fish to feed after they have finished. Experience and reason were all against the attempt, yet so delightful is the mere motion and delicate touch of the fly-line on the water that I could not but let myself enjoy that at least. The slender lancewood rod swayed, the line swished through the air, and the fly dropped a few inches too high up the rapid among the stones—I had meant it to fall farther across in the dark backwater at the foot of the fall. The swift rush of the current carried the fly instantly downwards, but not so quick as to escape a troutlet; he took it, and was landed immediately. But to destroy these under-sized fish was not sport, and as at that moment a water-colley passed I determined to let the trout alone, and observe his ways.

Colley means a blackbird; water-colley, the water-blackbird or water-ousel—called the dipper in the North. In districts where the bird is seldom seen it is occasionally shot and preserved as a white blackbird. But in flight and general appearance the water-colley is almost exactly like a starling with a white neck. His colour is not black or brown—it is a rusty, undecided brown, at a distance something the colour of a young starling, and he flies in a straight line, and yet clumsily, as a young starling does. His very cry, too, sounds immature, pettish, and unfinished, as if from a throat not capable of a full note. There are usually two together, and they pass and re-pass all day as you fish, but if followed are not to be observed without care. I came on the colley too suddenly the first time, at a bend of the river; he was beneath the bank towards me, and flew out from under my feet, so that I did not see him till he was on the wing. Away he flew with a call like a young bird just tumbled out of its nest, following the curves of the stream. Presently I saw him through an alder bush which hid me; he was perched on a root of alder under the opposite bank. Worn away by the stream the dissolved earth had left the roots exposed, the colley was on one of them; in a moment he stepped on to the shore under the hollow, and was hidden behind the roots under a moss-grown stole. When he came out he saw me, and stopped feeding.

He bobbed himself up and down as he perched on the root in the oddest manner, bending his legs so that his body almost touched his perch, and rising again quickly, this repeated in quick succession as if curtsying. This motion with him is a sign of uncertainty—it shows suspicion; after he had bobbed to me ten times, off he went. I found him next on a stone in the middle of the river; it stood up above the surface of a rapid connecting two pools. Like the trout, the colley always feeds at the rapids, and flies as they swim, from fall to fall. He was bobbing up and down, his legs bent, and his rusty brown body went up and down, but as I was hidden by a hedge he pained confidence, suspended his curtsying, and began to feed. First he looked all round the stone, and then stepped to another similar island in the midst of the rushing water, pushing his head over the edge into it. Next he stepped into the current, which, though shallow, looked strong enough to sweep him away. The water checked against him rose to the white mark on his breast. He waded up the rapid, every now and then thrusting his head completely under the water; sometimes he was up to his neck, sometimes not so deep; now and then getting on a stone, searching right and left as he climbed the cascade. The eddying water shot by his slender legs, but he moved against it easily, and soon ascended the waterfall. At the summit a second colley flew past, and he rose and accompanied his friend.

Upon a ledge of rock I saw him once more, but there was no hedge to hide me, and he would not feed; he stood and curtsied, and at the moment of bobbing let his wings too partly down, his tail drooping at the same time. Calling in an injured tone, as if much annoyed, he flew, swept round the meadow, and so to the river behind me. His friend followed. On reaching the river at a safe distance down, he skimmed along the surface like a kingfisher. They find abundance of insect life among the stones at the falls, and everywhere in shallow water. Some accuse them of taking the ova of trout, and they are shot at trout nurseries; but it is doubtful if they are really guilty, nor can they do any appreciable injury in an open stream, not being in sufficient numbers. It is the birds and other creatures peculiar to the water that render fly-fishing so pleasant; were they all destroyed, and nothing left but the mere fish, one might as well stand and fish in a stone cattle-trough. I hope all true lovers of sport will assist in preserving rather than in killing them.”

By a Brook in Spring

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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.”