Among the Shadows of Summer

woods

Rebecca Welshman

In Jefferies’ writings a shadow, as an indicator of light, is something ordinary, yet it contains the extraordinary. Jefferies would often notice and record the position and length of shadows cast by trees. In The Old House at Coate the shadows of the elm trees and the old oak in the field boundary reflect the position of the summer sun:

“In the morning, the shadows of the elms by the rick-yard on the east side of the roadway extended almost across the meadow: at noon, in summer, even the wide- spreading oak in the first hedgerow to the south scarcely darkened the grass”

In Bevis the shifting seasons are echoed by the changing length of the oak’s shadow:

“At noon he was twice as high as the southern oak, and every day at noontide the shadows gradually shortened. The nightingale sang in the musical April night, the cowslips opened, and the bees hummed over the meadows.”

A shadow is not simply caused by an obstruction to the light, it is a phenomenon in itself – it tells us things about the world in which we live. Shadow is an essential condition of contrast to the light, which can illuminate other states or aspects of ourselves. In The Dewy Morn, after a period of separation and misunderstanding, Felise and Martial finally come to understand and accept one another. The two are reconciled in a peaceful green spot, overlooking undulating cornfields and meadows, beneath the shade of a beech tree. Jefferies writes that they sit on a green bank, near a sundial, where patches of sunlight dapple the grass. The scene suggests the importance of being able to give oneself up fully to the moment, even with the knowledge that one day all the beauty will fade into the past:

“So great was her joy in her love, it seemed the width of the dome of the sky was not wide enough to express it. Upon the green and tarnished face of the ancient sundial there was written in worn letters, Nihil nisi mnbra — Nothing without shadow; no, not even love. The fervour of passion must needs cast the deepest shadow beside it. Let us welcome the shadow if only we can have the sunlight of love. …. Till he came the fields, the woods, the hills, the broad sea were incomplete; to all he gave a meaning. She endowed him with all that she perceived in the glory and mystery around her by day and by night. Of old time the shadow of the gnomon glided over marble; sometimes they built great structures to show the passage of the shadow more distinctly — observatories of shadow. Not only on this round horizontal disk of greenish metal, not only on those ancient marble slabs, but over the whole earth the shadow advances, for the earth is the gnomon of night. The sunlight and the night, year by year, century by century, cycle by cycle; how long is it? Can anyone say? So long has love, too, endured, passing on and handed down from heart to heart.

The long Roll of Love reaching back into the profoundest abyss of Time, upon it fresh names are written day by day.

Felise’s love was pure indeed; yet what is there that the purest love is not capable of for the one to whom the soul is devoted?

Self-immolation, self-sacrifice, death — is there anything love refuses?

Still the shadow slips on the green rust of the dial. Let even life pass from us if only we can have love.

Felise saw the beauty of the earth, and with that beauty she loved; the cool green flags in the meadow-brook; the reeds which moved forward and advanced as if about to step forth from the water as they swayed; the deep blue of the sky; the ruddy gold of the wheat under the pale yellow haze.

The rolling boom of the thunder came through the fields of light, the earth glowed warmer.

That the wonderful mechanism of the mind, the heart, of life, should be capable of emotion so divine, and yet should so soon perish — is it not unutterably cruel?

So many, and so many, who have loved in the long passage of time, but are gone as the shadow goes from the dial when the sun sinks. Are, then, our noblest feelings to fade and become void?

Upon the sundial there were curious graven circles and interwoven angles, remnants of the ancient lore which saw fate in the stars and read things above nature in nature. Symbols and signs are still needed, for the earth and life are still mysterious; they cannot be written, they require the inarticulate sign of the magician.

Let us not outlive love in our days, and come to look back with sorrow on those times.

You have seen the ships upon the sea; they sail hither and thither thousands of miles. Do they find aught equal to love? Can they bring back precious gems to rival it from the rich south?

The reapers have been in the corn these thousand years, the miners in the earth, the toilers in the city; in all the labour and long-suffering is there anything like unto love? Any reward or profit in the ships, the mines, the warehouses?

What are the institutions of man, the tawdry state, the false law, the subsidized superstition, and poor morality, that pale shadow of truth — what are these by love?

Could but love stay, could but love have its will, and no more would be needed for eternity.”

Through the image of a shadow continually advancing over the earth Jefferies imagines a vast dial to be an ever present reminder of our earthly condition. The sundial motto – ‘nothing without shadow; no, not even love’ – suggests that even love needs a shadow by which to be seen and appreciated. Until this point in the novel, Felise and Martial have been out of harmony with one another and unable to trust one another’s motives or feelings. It has taken a journey through the darkness of misunderstanding, loneliness and despair in order to reach the other side and emerge into the light and air of romance. The sundial, with its indicator of shade – the gnomon – is thus imbued with significance for understanding the passing of life and the meaning of love.

In other works shadows hold something mysterious – they beckon and entice the thought outwards to somewhere beyond the self. Reading and writing outside under an apple tree, among the shadows of summer, tells Jefferies something about the principles and limitations of human existence.

“I can never read in summer out of doors. Though in shadow the bright light fills it, summer shadows are broadest daylight. The page is so white and hard, the letters so very black, the meaning and drift not quite intelligible, because neither eye nor mind will dwell upon it. Human thoughts and imaginings written down are pale and feeble in bright summer light. The eye wanders away, and rests more lovingly on greensward and green lime leaves.”

The heat of a summer’s day is bearable in the shade and affords the perfect balance in temperature. However, ‘the very shade of the pen on the paper’ expresses to him the difficulty of writing down the ‘delicacy and beauty of thought or feeling’. The printed words of the book are dark on the bright page:

‘there is the shade and the brilliant gleaming whiteness; now tell me in plain written words the simple contrast of the two. Not in twenty pages, for the bright light shows the paper in its common fibre-ground, coarse aspect, in its reality, not as a mind-tablet.’

In the contrast between light and shade the vitality of the living world suddenly becomes visible and luminous. The flowering veronica and its neighbouring grass blade ‘throw light and beauty on each other’ – they demonstrate their mirror existence, as a sundial and its gnomon are mutually dependent. Light and beauty are thus two parts of the same whole.

In The Story of My Heart beauty is a principle expressed through harmony between light and shade:

“The grass stood high above me, and the shadows of the tree-branches danced on my face. I looked up at the sky, with half-closed eyes to bear the dazzling light. Bees buzzed over me, sometimes a butterfly passed, there was a hum in the air”

A shadow is a mark upon the earth that leaves no imprint or trace. Yet without shadow we would not know the light. The very nature of this contrast suggests to Jefferies a condition in which our hearts and minds are open to the harmonic energies around us, which can contribute to well-being, health, and wholeness of spirit. Jefferies considers whether it might be possible to somehow keep this ideal condition active within the human heart.

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In his essay ‘Wildflowers’ Jefferies associates the birds’ innate desire to sing with their recognition of the light:

“I do not want change: I want the same old and loved things, the same wild-flowers, the same trees and soft ash-green; the turtle-doves, the blackbirds, the coloured yellowhammer sing, sing, singing so long as there is light to cast a shadow on the dial, for such is the measure of his song, and I want them in the same place.”

The yellowhammer is content to sing for as long the sun casts its light upon the earth. ‘Such is the measure of his song’ – measure meaning not only of time, but the meaning and reality of the song itself: what the bird imparts through its instinctive connection with the elements and condition of existence. Such, we might say, is the measure of life. The message being that we need to embrace the brief window of light in which we dwell, before the sun sets and we can no longer sing.

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The Blackbird in Movement and Song

Rebecca Welshman

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In Jefferies’ writings the blackbird appears in different environments – often in the garden, but also in the hedges as he walks among the fields. In The Amateur Poacher, when he is out at night near water meadows, Jefferies spots a blackbird roosting:

“In the thick blackthorn bush a round dark ball indicates the blackbird, who has puffed out his feathers to shield him from the frost, and who will sit so close and quiet that you may see the moonlight glitter on his eye.”

This more unusual depiction of a blackbird – at rest, and ‘quiet’ – offers an insightful alternative to the movement and song usually associated with its daytime activity. The bird is so motionless that the moonlight glitters on the stillness of his eye. That he roosts alone and waits patiently for the cold night to pass suggests his stoicism and independence. There is resilience in the puffing out of his feathers which ‘shield him from the frost’.

To the human onlooker, birds’ daily activities can express certain qualities. In one of Jefferies’ early novels the garden birds contribute to the mood of the scene. Here, the blackbird displays qualities of defiance and fearlessness:

“The starlings marched to and fro upon the lawn; the blackbird washed himself in the fountain before the door, fearless, unhesitatingly.” (Restless Human Hearts)

And again, in the same novel, “a great blackbird with his ‘tawny bill’ splashed himself in a rill not three yards from their feet, and then sat on a bough, and plumed his feathers, and uttered his loud and defiant cry.”

Elsewhere the Blackbird is a symbol of the latent potential of the present moment and the determination needed to move forward and embrace the future. In Field and Hedgerow the movement of the blackbird among the apple blossom reminds Jefferies that spring is changing into summer:

“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.”

The suddenness and purity of the blackbird’s melody never fails to incite wonder. As a performer the blackbird is “fully conscious” and confident of his individuality:

“Like a great human artist, the blackbird makes no effort, being fully conscious that his liquid tone cannot be matched. He utters a few delicious notes, and carelessly quits the green stage of the oak till it pleases him to sing again.” (‘The Pageant of Summer’)

The “green stage of the oak” may symbolise the larger stage of life upon which we all briefly appear. Contrary to human displays of fear or nervousness, the Blackbird exhibits qualities of strength, stoicism, and independence, and as seen in the earlier examples, is not afraid to defend himself when necessary. The Blackbird lives life in the present and responds to all that it holds.

In a leafy hollow at Long Ditton, Surrey, Jefferies is conscious of the unfolding summer. In this “valley…of music” every oak tree has a blackbird. Perched in the uppermost branches, concealed by foliage, each bird voices its own exquisite song. In the blackbird’s melody Jefferies perceives something human – the bird expresses the beauty of the moment, and encourages a similar form of recognition in Jefferies:

“The blackbird’s whistle is very human, like a human being playing the flute; an uncertain player, now drawing forth a bar of a beautiful melody and then losing it again. He does not know what quiver or what turn his note will take before it ends; the note leads him and completes itself. It is a song which strives to express the singer’s keen delight, the singer’s exquisite appreciation of the loveliness of the days; the golden glory of the meadow, the light, the luxurious shadows, the indolent clouds reclining on their azure couch. Such thoughts can only be expressed in fragments, like a sculptor’s chips thrown off as the inspiration seizes him, not mechanically sawn to a set line. Now and again the blackbird feels the beauty of the time, the large white daisy stars, the grass with yellow-dusted tips, the air which comes so softly unperceived by any precedent rustle of the hedge, the water which runs slower, held awhile by rootlet, flag, and forget-me-not. He feels the beauty of the time and he must say it. His notes come like wild flowers, not sown in order. The sunshine opens and shuts the stops of his instrument.” (‘The Coming of Summer’)

As a person can feel and express emotion through playing an instrument, the Blackbird is able to feel and express beauty through song. The Blackbird, however, is closer to the life of the sun – so close that he responds instinctively to the appearance and disappearance of the sun from behind cloud. He does not plan his notes but surrenders entirely to the spontaneity of the moment.

The flute’s association with the ancient Greek Goddess Athena, who invented the first bridle, first chariot, and built the first ship, connects the Blackbird with the human ability to harness energy and embrace the present. In Jefferies’ natural scene, the harmonious surroundings work subtly together to create a symphony of beauty, with each part bearing its own intrinsic and equal value. Jefferies’ observations of the Blackbird implicitly encourage us to embrace the present more fully through expanding our awareness and mindfulness. How often do we take time to remember that the present knows nothing of the moments which have preceded it, or of the moments yet to come? Like the Blackbird’s song, ‘the beauty of the time’, and all that it holds for us, is complete in itself.

WILD THYME OF THE HILLS

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Source: http://www.sunlandherbs.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/wildmountainthyme1.jpg

by Simon Coleman

The wonder of the flowers of the fields, hedges and hills was never absent from Jefferies’ world of thought and feeling.  He writes in ‘Locality and Nature’: “To anyone who takes a delight in wild flowers some spot or other of the earth is always becoming consecrated.”  As a boy he would gather flowers from the meadows when the grass was being cut.

 

“I used to stand by the mower and follow the scythe sweeping down thousands of the broad-flowered daisies, the knotted knapweeds, the blue scabious, the yellow rattles, sweeping so close and true that nothing escaped; and, yet although I had seen so many hundreds of each, although I had lifted armfuls day after day, still they were fresh. They never lost their newness, and even now each time I gather a wild flower it feels a new thing.”

 

On the chalk hills of Wiltshire and Sussex, Jefferies found an abundance of thyme, the purplish-pink flower, loved by the bees, to which he refers so often.  On Wolstanbury Hill in Sussex,

“…you may lie on the grassy rampart, high up in the most delicate air – Grecian air, pellucid – alone, among the butterflies and humming bees at the thyme…”

 

He would often rest at places where the thyme grew thickly, inhaling its ‘delicious odour’.   On Beachy Head he found “turf thus washed by wind and rain, sun-dried and dew-scented, is a couch prepared with thyme to rest on.” This connection between thyme and repose is a recurring theme in his writing.  In his rural novel, Green Fern Farm, for example, Geoffrey’s “weary head drooped on the pillow of thyme; with a deep-drawn sigh he slept.”

The hills themselves he could describe as ‘thyme-scented’. They were a wilder, more open and less populated district than the farmlands around Coate where he grew up.  Breezes were forever washing over them, as pure as the scent of the thyme.  The hills were in some sense an ‘other’, more primitive world, bare of trees, littered with prehistoric entrenchments and barrows which awoke the imagination to the passage of great cycles of time.  They were ever fresh and charged with life-giving powers.  The colours of flowers and grasses stood out with superb clarity on the chalky slopes.  Jefferies found another type of beauty on the hills, and the thyme was interwoven into his feelings and experiences there.  It might even have expressed for him something of the ‘unseen presence’ that dwelt among these gently curving uplands.

His unquenchable desire for such beauty could take the form of a silent ‘prayer’.  We are not talking about a god here: he denied the existence of deity, believing it to be a tiny idea.  This prayer was his life-desire, his passion for the fullest existence, here on earth.  He describes it in The Story of My Heart, in impassioned prose-poetry:

“…I prayed by the sweet thyme, whose little flowers I touched with my hand; by the slender grass; by the crumble of dry chalky earth I took up and let fall through my fingers. Touching the crumble of earth, the blade of grass, the thyme flower, breathing the earth-encircling air, thinking of the sea and the sky, holding out my hand for the sunbeams to touch it, prone on the sward in token of deep reverence, thus I prayed that I might touch to the unutterable existence infinitely higher than deity.”

 

The focus of this experience was Liddington Hill at the northern edge of the Wiltshire downs.   He refers to his ‘hill-prayer’ in his notebooks and it is clear that the chalk downs, the land of the wild thyme, was where this rapture came upon him with the greatest intensity.  In Jefferies’ children’s novel, Wood Magic, “Bevis gathered the harebell, and ran with the flower in his hand down the hill, and as he ran the wild thyme kissed his feet and said: ‘Come again, Bevis, come again’ “. The thyme, while remaining a simple flower, became a symbol which helped him to shape his desire, his hill-prayer, into something almost tangible.  Only through touch could he gather its deepest beauty and significance.

Some years after his wanderings on the downs around Liddington, Jefferies, now living in suburban Surrey, visited the famous botanical gardens at Kew.  At length he came upon some thyme:

“This bunch of wild thyme once again calls up a vision of the Downs; it is not so thick and strong, and it lacks that cushion of herbage which so often marks the site of its growth on the noble slopes of the hills, and along the sward-grown fosse of ancient earthworks, but it is wild thyme, and that is enough.”

The Meaning of the Stars

by Rebecca Welshman

starry skySource: http://www.fondosdepantalla.biz/images/wallpapers/cielo-estrellado-wallpaper-703669.jpeg

With the cold spell of weather there have been some remarkably good night skies of late. When staying in rural Devon the other week I saw the constellation Orion, and was reminded of how significant the stars were to Jefferies.

In Bevis: the Story of a Boy, the main character – who is a sketch of Jefferies himself – lies down on the garden path of the farmhouse at Coate, to watch the movements of the heavens. From this quiet little spot, beside the strawberry patch, he allows his mind to wander the depths of the night sky:

“He could not, as he reclined on the garden path by the strawberries, physically reach to and feel the oak; but he could feel the oak in his mind, and so from the oak, stepping beyond it, he felt the stars.”

The night sky was a vast space across which his imagination could roam; a route to somewhere beyond the boundaries of everyday life and thought. In The Amateur Poacher – a book that is primarily about the art of poaching, and engagement with the countryside – Jefferies hints at the subtle, more cosmic relationship he experienced with the natural world. This short sentence conjures the potential of outer space to absorb ordinary, everyday cares, and to nurture new, more experiential forms of thought:

“By night the stars shine, and there is no fathoming the dark spaces between those brilliant points, nor the thoughts that come as it were between the fixed stars and landmarks of the mind.”

In a short essay, written in the late 1870s, which Edward Thomas entitled ‘The Dawn’, Jefferies explores how the ‘pale visitor’ of dawn beckons forth the mind to somewhere beyond the ordinary world:

“The pale visitor hints that the stars are not the outside and rim of the universe, any more than the edge of horizon is the circumference of our globe. Beyond the star-stratum, what? Mere boundless space. Mind says certainly not. What then?”

These unresolved questions spurred Jefferies to imagine and record a new system of thought and feeling, which could encourage a more cosmic awareness of our condition on earth – a system that would awaken and sharpen our minds, and engage us spiritually too. In The Old House at Coate – written about the farmhouse where he was born – the house and garden become a solar observatory. Again, he records seeing the stars from the path by the strawberries, but this time he becomes more deeply aware of his position within the cosmos:

“Here was the centre of the world, the sun swung round us; we rode at night straight away into the space of the stars. On a dry summer night, when there was no dew, I used to lie down on my back at full length (looking to the east), on the grass footpath by the orchard, and gaze up into the sky. This is the only way to get at it and feel the stars: while you stand upright, the eye, and through the eye, the mind, is biased by the usual aspect of things: the house there, the trees yonder; it is difficult to forget the mere appearance of rising and setting. Looking straight up like this, from the path to the stars, it was clear and evident that I was really riding among them; they were not above, nor all round, but I was in the midst of them. There was no underneath, no above: everything was on a level with me; the sense of measurement and distance disappeared.

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As one walks in a wood, with trees all about, so then by day (when the light only hid them) I walked amongst the stars. I had not got then to leave this world to enter space: I was already there. The vision is indeed contracted, nor can we lift our feet further than the earth; yet we are really among these things to-day.” (The Old House at Coate)

There is a sense of movement – a centralising experience in which there is a perfect balance between the physically earth-bound human being and the boundless potential of the wandering, intelligent mind. Space is not somewhere outside or beyond the human condition, but something that we are ‘in the midst’ of, and actively participating in, all the time. To see the stars, as guiding lights in the darkness, gives Jefferies a broader and deeper sense of home and belonging – not just within the environment of the farmhouse, but in the wider Universe too.

Orion had special meaning for Jefferies. In his essay ‘The Mammoth Hunter’, Jefferies declares Orion to be the ‘greatest and grandest of all the constellations…the mighty hunter, the giant who slew the wild beasts by strength.’ He writes that ‘there is no assemblage of stars so brilliant as those which compose the outline of Orion; the Hunter takes the first place in the heavens.’ In Bevis, just to see Orion fills Jefferies with a sudden sense of strength, and renews his purpose of existence:

“Between these two groups of tall trees—so tall and thick that they were generally visible even on dark nights—the streamers of the Aurora Borealis shot up in winter, and between them in summer the faint reflection of the midnight sun, like the lunar dawn which precedes the rising of the moon always appeared. The real day-dawn—the white foot of Aurora—came through the sky-curtain a little to the right of the second group, and about over a young oak in the hedge across the road, opposite the garden wall.

When the few leaves left on this young oak were brown, and rustled in the frosty night, the massy shoulder of Orion came heaving up through it—first one bright star, then another; then the gleaming girdle, and the less definite scabbard; then the great constellation stretched across the east. At the first sight of Orion’s shoulder Bevis always felt suddenly stronger, as if a breath of the mighty hunter’s had come down and entered into him.

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Source: http://www.crystalinks.com/orionstarman.jpg

He stood upright; his frame enlarged; his instep lifted him as he walked, as if he too could swing the vast club and chase the lion from his lair. The sparkle of Orion’s stars brought to him a remnant of the immense vigour of the young world, the frosty air braced his sinews, and power came into his arms.”

In the darkness of these January nights maybe we too can be energised and restored by the sparkle of Orion, and carry this feeling with us into the spring. If the power and guiding light of the stars can be embraced and brought into our lives we might discover new strength and resilience within ourselves.

After a Fall of Snow, by Richard Jefferies

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“In the winter twilight, after a fall of snow, it is difficult to find one’s way across the ploughed fields of the open plain, for it melts on the south of every furrow, leaving a white line where it has ledged on the northern side, till the furrows resemble an endless succession of waves of earth tipped with foam-flecks of snow. These are dazzling to the eyes, and there are few hedges or trees visible for guidance. Snow lingers sometimes for weeks on the northern slopes of the downs—where shallow dry dykes, used as landmarks, are filled with it: the dark mass of the hill is streaked like the black hull of a ship with its line of white paint. Field work during what the men call ‘the dark days afore Christmas’ is necessarily much restricted and they are driven to find some amusement for the long evenings—such as blowing out candles at the ale-house with muzzle-loader guns for wagers of liquor, the wind of the cap alone being sufficient for the purpose at a short distance.

The children never forget Saint Thomas’s Day, which ancient custom has consecrated to alms, and they wend their way from farmhouse to farmhouse throughout the parish; it is usual to keep to the parish, for some of the old local feeling still remains even in these cosmopolitan times. At Christmas sometimes the children sing carols, not with much success so far as melody goes, but otherwise successfully enough; for recollections of the past soften the hearts of the crustiest.

The young men for weeks previously have been practising for the mumming—a kind of rude drama requiring, it would seem, as much rehearsal beforehand as the plays at famous theatres. They dress in a fantastic manner, with masks and coloured ribbons; anything grotesque answers, for there is little attempt at dressing in character. They stroll round to each farmhouse in the parish, and enact the play in the kitchen or brewhouse; after which the whole company are refreshed with ale, and, receiving a few coins, go on to the next homestead. Mumming, however, has much deteriorated, even in the last fifteen or twenty years. On nights when the players were known to be coming, in addition to the farmer’s household and visitors at that season, the cottagers residing near used to assemble, so that there was quite an audience. Now it is a chance whether they come round or not.

A more popular pastime with the young men, and perhaps more profitable, is the formation of a brass band. They practise vigorously before Christmas, and sometimes attain considerable proficiency. At the proper season they visit the farms in the evening, and as the houses are far apart, so that only a few can be called at in the hours available after work, it takes them some time to perambulate the parish. So that for two or three weeks about the end of the old and the beginning of the new year, if one chances to be out at night, every now and then comes the unwonted note of a distant trumpet sounding over the fields. The custom has grown frequent of recent years, and these bands collect a good deal of money.

The ringers from the church come too, with their hand-bells and ring pleasant tunes—which, however, on bells are always plaintive—standing on the crisp frozen grass of the green before the window. They are well rewarded, for bells are great favourites with all country people.”

from Wild Life in a Southern County

Bird-life of the Orchard

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By Simon Coleman

The old orchard next to the farmhouse of his childhood was one of Jefferies’ favourite places for observing wildlife. He was distressed at the disappearance of many such orchards, as he explains in the essay ‘Nature and Eternity’ (The Hills and the Vale): “Foolish fashion has banished the orchard from the mansion—the orchard which Homer tells us kings once valued as part of their demesne—and has substituted curious evergreens to which the birds do not take readily.” He goes on to describe the abundant and varied bird-life of his own orchard. Despite the close proximity of human habitation, it is ‘a city of the birds and beasts’ where there is continual coming and going.

“As there are wide plains even in thickly populated England where man has built no populous city, so in bird-life there are fields and woods almost deserted by the songsters, who at the same time congregate thickly in a few favourite resorts, where experience gathered in slow time has shown them they need fear nothing from human beings. Such a place, such a city of the birds and beasts, is this old orchard. The bold and handsome bullfinch builds in the low hawthorn hedge which bounds it upon one side. In the walls of the arbour formed of thick ivy and flowering creepers, the robin and thrush hide their nests. On the topmost branches of the tall pear-trees the swallows rest and twitter. The noble blackbird, with full black eye, pecks at the decaying apples upon the sward, and takes no heed of a footstep. Sometimes the loving pair of squirrels who dwell in the fir-copse at the end of the meadow find their way down the hedges—staying at each tree as an inn by the road—into the orchard, and play their fantastic tricks upon the apple-boughs. The flycatchers perch on a branch clear from the tree, and dart at the passing flies. Merriest of all, the tomtits chatter and scold, hanging under the twigs, head downwards, and then away to their nest in the crumbling stone wall which encloses one side of the orchard. They have worked their way by a cranny deep into the thick wall. On the other side runs the king’s highway, and ever and anon the teams go by, making music with their bells. One day a whole nation of martins savagely attacked this wall. Pressure of population probably had compelled them to emigrate from the sand quarry, and the chinks in the wall pleased their eyes. Five-and-thirty brown little birds went to work like miners at twelve or fourteen holes, tapping at the mortar with their bills, scratching out small fragments of stone, twittering and talking all the time, and there undoubtedly they would have founded a colony had not the jingling teams and now and then a barking dog disturbed them. Resting on the bench and leaning back against an apple-tree, it is easy to watch the eager starlings on the chimney-top, and see them tear out the straw of the thatch to form their holes. They are all orators born. They live in a democracy, and fluency of speech leads the populace. Perched on the edge of the chimney, his bronze-tinted wings flapping against his side to give greater emphasis—as a preacher moves his hands—the starling pours forth a flood of eloquence, now rising to screaming-pitch, now modulating his tones to soft persuasion, now descending to deep, low, complaining, regretful sounds—a speech without words—addressed to a dozen birds gravely listening on the ash-tree yonder. He is begging them to come with him to a meadow where food is abundant.”

In the characteristic style of Jefferies’ later works, the rich description leads on to some more profound musings about both nature and the human condition. As ever, nature was infinitely more to him than a place of peaceful recreation. His writing expresses an undying sympathy for all the earth’s life and a deep reverence for nature’s sacred and mysterious powers.

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

The Blue Doors at the Old House

Rebecca Welshman

round about coate

In The Old House at Coate, a collection of essays published after his lifetime, Jefferies fondly describes the old Wiltshire farmhouse and gardens where he was born. Two large blue doors, set within the enclosing stone wall, formed the main entrance. Jefferies recalls listening to them swing open and shut ‘from dawn to midnight’ with the activity of the mowers, milkers, and village people visiting the farm pump for water. The doors, although a manmade creation crafted by artificial means, have a place in the natural environment. Swallows fly over and under them, and robins and wrens come to the decaying bars looking for insects:

“The tiny brown wrens appear to have their regular rounds, visiting the same spot day after day and always singing on the same perches. One used to sing on the top of these doors, and then passing on, first to the eaves of the cowshed, next to a heap of stones, where he slipped through the interstices, then to some logs piled against the wall, sang again when he reached the woodpile, perched on the topmost faggot.
The eave swallows dropping from their nests under the thatch and gaining impetus from the downward slide seemed as if they must strike the broad doors, but suddenly rising with sleight-of-wing passed over upwards into the buoyant air.”

Pied wagtails would visit the farm through the blue doors too – as Jefferies observes, ‘the whole circuit of the place was open to them, yet they generally entered here.’ Jefferies describes a little stretch of path, just in front of the doors, enclosed by the walls of the farmhouse and cattle sheds, which ‘made a pleasant ambulatory…a kind of hollow way’. In the chill winds of early spring he would walk up and down, feeling, thinking, and observing as the midday sun ‘filled the place with light and warmth’.

In winter, although the profusion of wildlife would be absent, there still remained activity to be observed. When I was in the garden of the farmhouse the other afternoon, standing just behind the flanking wall of the former cattle shed, this passage from The Old House at Coate came to mind:

“In December, walking to and fro the roadway, from the blue doors to the walnut tree at the entrance to the meadow, as the afternoon drew on to four o’clock the sparrows began to come to the thick ivy around the fir tree in the corner of the wall. They came, too, to the ivy about the gable of the low over the window … the mass of leaves sheltered them like a cloak. The wrens went to the hayricks under the eaves of the thatch, to the holes the sparrows had made in the eaves of the sheds. Sometimes, in hard frost, the blackbirds came there, too – they could not find warmth in the hedges – and the sky, as the dusk deepened, was left to the wild fowl.”

coate gardens in progress

Gardens in progress: the old rickyard (the place where hay was once stored) next to the farmhouse. Found hidden amongst a rambling patch of brambles, is what we believe to be one of the original smaller blue doors from the gardens.

Pictured below are some of the Museum Trustees in the area that in Jefferies’ time was the rickyard, and which is in the process of being restored. The layer of turf that once covered the area has been dug away to expose the cobbled floors, and a series of vegetable plots have been constructed.

coate trustees in december

Jefferies saw the Blue Doors as a threshold that contained the farm’s spirit of place, but which also promised to lead to the exciting, unknown world beyond. Today, although the blue doors no longer exist, and have been replaced by wooden gates, the entrance to the farm continues to hold meaning. Jefferies can be considered one of the founders of the modern nature connection movement – he wrote with his senses and mind wide open, with the aim of helping others to experience the treasures of the natural world. Part of our work in taking care of and rejuvenating his birthplace and museum is to preserve its spirit of place – to welcome visitors to partake and enjoy this timeless environment, and to take Jefferies’ message out into the wider world.

coate the hollow wayThe entrance to Coate Farm. Photo by Tony Shaw

http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/richard-jefferies-in-coate-swindon.html