‘A ROMAN BROOK’

SIMON COLEMAN

paola dastra brook in the woods

Here is the full text of Jefferies’ subtle and poignant short essay, ‘A Roman Brook’.  This is a work that, for me, opens up creative pathways for thought – pathways into deep questions about life, death, love and time. The brook nourishes both the life of the fields and human life and it seems to wind through time as well as through the fields.  Jefferies explores the highly visual character of his memory which seems to acquire greater importance after he has reminded us that the brook possesses no memories of him.  Throughout there are references to hidden, forgotten or disappearing things.  He observes that nature’s beauty does not exist for human admiration, but for purposes beyond our ideas – a recurring theme in his late works.  The brook, having been associated with so much life, at the end reveals its melancholy secret.  Death, however long concealed, exists side by side with life.

 

The deceptively simple descriptions are coming directly from memory, shaped so as to present us with clear images – memory pictures.  His imagination adds some touches that point to a real depth of perception, such as  “…something that carries the mind home to primitive times”, and “… just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.”  And, typically, his beloved Homeric Greece is not left out.

 

‘A Roman Brook’

 

“The brook has forgotten me, but I have not forgotten the brook. Many faces have been mirrored since in the flowing water, many feet have waded in the sandy shallow. I wonder if any one else can see it in a picture before the eyes as I can, bright, and vivid as trees suddenly shown at night by a great flash of lightning. All the leaves and branches and the birds at roost are visible during the flash. It is barely a second; it seems much longer. Memory, like the lightning, reveals the pictures in the mind. Every curve, and shore, and shallow is as familiar now as when I followed the winding stream so often. When the mowing-grass was at its height, you could not walk far beside the bank; it grew so thick and strong and full of umbelliferous plants as to weary the knees. The life as it were of the meadows seemed to crowd down towards the brook in summer, to reach out and stretch towards the life-giving water. There the buttercups were taller and closer together, nails of gold driven so thickly that the true surface was not visible. Countless rootlets drew up the richness of the earth like miners in the darkness, throwing their petals of yellow ore broadcast above them. With their fulness of leaves the hawthorn bushes grow larger—the trees extend farther—and thus overhung with leaf and branch, and closely set about by grass and plant, the brook disappeared only a little way off, and could not have been known from a mound and hedge. It was lost in the plain of meads—the flowers alone saw its sparkle.

 

Hidden in those bushes and tall grasses, high in the trees and low on the ground, there were the nests of happy birds. In the hawthorns blackbirds and thrushes built, often overhanging the stream, and the fledglings fluttered out into the flowery grass. Down among the stalks of the umbelliferous plants, where the grasses were knotted together, the nettle-creeper concealed her treasure, having selected a hollow by the bank so that the scythe should pass over. Up in the pollard ashes and willows here and there wood-pigeons built. Doves cooed in the little wooded enclosures where the brook curved almost round upon itself. If there was a hollow in the oak a pair of starlings chose it, for there was no advantageous nook that was not seized on. Low beside the willow stoles the sedge-reedlings built; on the ledges of the ditches, full of flags, moor-hens made their nests. After the swallows had coursed long miles over the meads to and fro, they rested on the tops of the ashes and twittered sweetly. Like the flowers and grass, the birds were drawn towards the brook. They built by it, they came to it to drink; in the evening a grasshopper-lark trilled in a hawthorn bush. By night crossing the footbridge a star sometimes shone in the water underfoot. At morn and even the peasant girls came down to dip; their path was worn through the mowing-grass, and there was a flat stone let into the bank as a step to stand on. Though they were poorly habited, without one line of form or tint of colour that could please the eye, there is something in dipping water that is Greek—Homeric—something that carries the mind home to primitive times. Always the little children came with them; they too loved the brook like the grass and birds. They wanted to see the fishes dart away and hide in the green flags: they flung daisies and buttercups into the stream to float and catch awhile at the flags, and float again and pass away, like the friends of our boyhood, out of sight. Where there was pasture roan cattle came to drink, and horses, restless horses, stood for hours by the edge under the shade of ash trees. With what joy the spaniel plunged in, straight from the bank out among the flags—you could mark his course by seeing their tips bend as he brushed them swimming. All life loved the brook.

 

Far down away from roads and hamlets there was a small orchard on the very bank of the stream, and just before the grass grew too high to walk through I looked in the enclosure to speak to its owner. He was busy with his spade at a strip of garden, and grumbled that the hares would not let it alone, with all that stretch of grass to feed on. Nor would the rooks; and the moor-hens ran over it, and the water-rats burrowed; the wood-pigeons would have the peas, and there was no rest from them all. While he talked and talked, far from the object in hand, as aged people will, I thought how the apple tree in blossom before us cared little enough who saw its glory. The branches were in bloom everywhere, at the top as well as at the side; at the top where no one could see them but the swallows. They did not grow for human admiration: that was not their purpose; that is our affair only—we bring the thought to the tree. On a short branch low down the trunk there hung the weather-beaten and broken handle of an earthenware vessel; the old man said it was a jug, one of the old folks’ jugs—he often dug them up. Some were cracked, some nearly perfect; lots of them had been thrown out to mend the lane. There were some chips among the heap of weeds yonder. These fragments were the remains of Anglo-Roman pottery. Coins had been found—half a gallon of them—the children had had most. He took one from his pocket, dug up that morning; they were of no value, they would not ring. The labourers tried to get some ale for them, but could not; no one would take the little brass things. That was all he knew of the Caesars: the apples were in fine bloom now, weren’t they?

 

Fifteen centuries before there had been a Roman station at the spot where the lane crossed the brook. There the centurions rested their troops after their weary march across the downs, for the lane, now bramble-grown and full of ruts, was then a Roman road. There were villas, and baths, and fortifications; these things you may read about in books. They are lost now in the hedges, under the flowering grass, in the ash copses, all forgotten in the lane, and along the footpath where the June roses will bloom after the apple blossom has dropped. But just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.

 

The old man, seeing my interest in the fragments of pottery, wished to show me something of a different kind lately discovered. He led me to a spot where the brook was deep, and had somewhat undermined the edge. A horse trying to drink there had pushed a quantity of earth into the stream, and exposed a human skeleton lying within a few inches of the water. Then I looked up the stream and remembered the buttercups and tall grasses, the flowers that crowded down to the edge; I remembered the nests, and the dove cooing; the girls that came down to dip, the children that cast their flowers to float away. The wind blew the loose apple bloom and it fell in showers of painted snow. Sweetly the greenfinches were calling in the trees: afar the voice of the cuckoo came over the oaks. By the side of the living water, the water that all things rejoiced in, near to its gentle sound, and the sparkle of sunshine on it, had lain this sorrowful thing.”

 

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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