Thoughts at Dawn

Simon Coleman

dawn light

There are many references to the magic of the dawn in Jefferies’ writings. In the following passage, from an untitled manuscript unpublished during his lifetime*, his desire for a life filled with beauty and expanded knowledge returns with every dawn. The ‘upheld finger of light’ brings with it a clear and direct message: existence contains infinite possibilities. The dawn rays emerge from the unknown depths of space, never ceasing to bring daylight to the earth. Light has no limit. It comes as a guide to Jefferies, pointing a way through the darkness of human ignorance and the miasma of petty circumstances. Characteristically, he wonders about the possibilities beyond light: the things that might be hidden from scientific inquiry.

The goddess of dawn features regularly in Jefferies’ favourite book, Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. When he came to write an Odyssey of his own, the strange futuristic novel ‘After London’, he named his heroine ‘Aurora’, the Roman name for dawn.
(* The work shows similarities to a passage in ‘The Story of My Heart’ and to an essay titled ‘The Dawn’.)

“Dawn causes a desire for larger thought. The recognition of the light at the moment of awaking kindles afresh the wish for a broad day of the mind. The certainty that there are yet ideas further and more great, that there are things yet more beautiful, that there is still the limitless something beyond urges a stronger search. This dim white light tells of so much that must sometime be. So many many songs in the wood that the birds will presently sing; so many flowers that will open! Music for the mind yet unheard, and loveliness undreamed of! Up to this hour a mere nothing has been known, a mere nothing enjoyed. But the dawn speaks of an expanse from which endless songs and flowers may still be drawn. This dim white light is like a crevice which admits a beam into a cave and leads the wanderer from the dark catacomb to the open air and heavens. As infinite as that sky are the possibilities of the morning.

A river runs itself clear during the night, and in sleep the thought becomes pellucid. All the hurrying to and fro, the unrest and stress, the agitation and confusion subside. Like a sweet spring thought pours forth to meet the light and is illumined to its utmost depth. I know that there is no limit to the things that may be yet in material and tangible shape besides those immaterial imaginings and perceptions which are the very dew of the soul. I know it: I am certain and assured: the dim white light speaks it. This prophet which has come with its miracle every morn so many thousands of years faces me once again with the upheld finger of light. Where is the limit to that sign? From the hills it has come to my room: from the far sea it has come to the hills: from the azure sky to the sea: from the illimitable space to the sky. How much farther backwards shall be traced it? This is only to me. To every blade of grass, to every leaf, to the tiniest insect, to the million waves of ocean, to all earth, it comes. But this still is all only an atom in the majesty of the profound: our vast earth a mote in that sunbeam by which we are conscious of one narrow streak in the abyss. A beam crosses a silent chamber from the window, or aslant between the fixtures, and in it a thousand particles are visible, while the air each side is blank. Through the heavens a beam falls and we are aware of the star-stratum in which our earth moves. But what may be without that star-stratum? To the strongest instrument it is a blank: but be certain it is not a void. This light tells us much, but I think in the course of time still more delicate and subtle mediums will be found to exist, and through these we shall see into the shadows of the sky.”

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.

nature sparrow wildflowers birds 1920x1200 wallpaper_www.animalhi.com_4Source: http://www.animalhi.com/thumbnails/detail/20121102/nature%20sparrow%20wildflowers%20birds%201920×1200%20wallpaper_www.animalhi.com_4.jpg

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.

Summer in Somerset

Reflections from Jefferies about time spent on Exmoor and the Quantock Hills in the early 1880s, which were published as ‘Summer in Somerset’

new forest dawn

“The brown Barle River running over red rocks aslant its course is pushed aside, and races round curving slopes. The first shoot of the rapid is smooth and polished like a gem by the lapidary’s art, rounded and smooth as a fragment of torso, and this convex undulation maintains a solid outline. Then the following scoop under is furrowed as if ploughed across, and the ridge of each furrow, where the particles move a little less swiftly than in the hollow of the groove, falls backwards as foam blown from a wave. At the foot of the furrowed decline the current rises over a rock in a broad white sheet–white because as it is dashed to pieces the air mingles with it. After this furious haste the stream does but just overtake those bubbles which have been carried along on another division of the water flowing steadily but straight. Sometimes there are two streams like this between the same banks, sometimes three or even more, each running at a different rate, and each gliding above a floor differently inclined. The surface of each of these streams slopes in a separate direction, and though under the same light they reflect it at varying angles. The river is animated and alive, rushing here, gliding there, foaming yonder; its separate and yet component parallels striving together, and talking loudly in incomplete sentences. Those rivers that move through midland meads present a broad, calm surface, at the same level from side to side; they flow without sound, and if you stood behind a thick hedge you would not know that a river was near. They dream along the meads, toying with their forget-me-nots, too idle even to make love to their flowers vigorously. The brown Barle enjoys his life, and splashes in the sunshine like boys bathing–like them he is sunburnt and brown. He throws the wanton spray over the ferns that bow and bend as the cool breeze his current brings sways them in the shade. He laughs and talks, and sings louder than the wind in his woods.

Here is a pool by the bank under an ash–a deep green pool inclosed by massive rocks, which the stream has to brim over. The water is green–or is it the ferns, and the moss, and the oaks, and the pale ash reflected? This rock has a purple tint, dotted with moss spots almost black; the green water laps at the purple stone, and there is one place where a thin line of scarlet is visible, though I do not know what causes it. Another stone the spray does not touch has been dried to a bright white by the sun. Inclosed, the green water slowly swirls round till it finds crevices, and slips through. A few paces farther up there is a red rapid–reddened stones, and reddened growths beneath the water, a light that lets the red hues overcome the others–a wild rush of crowded waters rotating as they go, shrill voices calling. This next bend upwards dazzles the eyes, for every inclined surface and striving parallel, every swirl, and bubble, and eddy, and rush around a rock chances to reflect the sunlight. Not one long pathway of quiet sheen, such as stretches across a rippled lake, each wavelet throwing back its ray in just proportion, but a hundred separate mirrors vibrating, each inclined at a different angle, each casting a tremulous flash into the face. The eyelids involuntarily droop to shield the gaze from a hundred arrows; they are too strong–nothing can be distinguished but a woven surface of brilliance, a mesh of light, under which the water runs, itself invisible. I will go back to the deep green pool, and walking now with the sun behind, how the river has changed!

Soft, cool shadows reach over it, which I did not see before; green surfaces are calm under trees; the rocks are less hard; the stream runs more gently, and the oaks come down nearer; the delicious sound of the rushing water almost quenches my thirst. My eyes have less work to do to meet the changing features of the current which now seems smooth as my glance accompanies its movement. The sky, which was not noticed before, now appears reaching in rich azure across the deep hollow, from the oaks on one side to the oaks on the other. These woods, which cover the steep and rocky walls of the gorge from river to summit, are filled with the June colour of oak. It is not green, nor russet, nor yellow; I think it may be called a glow of yellow under green. It is warmer than green; the glow is not on the outer leaves, but comes up beneath from the depth of the branches. The rush of the river soothes the mind, the broad descending surfaces of yellow-green oak carry the glance downwards from the blue over to the stream in the hollow. Rush! rush!–it is the river, like a mighty wind in the wood. A pheasant crows, and once and again falls the tap, tap of woodmen’s axes–scarce heard, for they are high above. They strip the young oaks of their bark as far as they can while the saplings stand, then fell them, and as they all lie downhill there are parallel streaks of buff (where the sap has dried) drawn between the yellow-green masses of living leaf. The pathway winds in among the trees at the base of the rocky hill; light green whortleberries fill every interstice, bearing tiny red globes of flower–flower-lamps–open at the top. Wood-sorrel lifts its delicate veined petals; the leaf is rounded like the shadow of a bubble on a stone under clear water. I like to stay by the wood-sorrel a little while–it is so chastely beautiful; like the purest verse, it speaks to the inmost heart. Staying, I hear unconsciously–listen! Rush! rush! like a mighty wind in the wood.

It draws me on to the deep green pool inclosed about by rocks–a pool to stand near and think into. The purple rock, dotted with black moss; the white rock; the thin scarlet line; the green water; the overhanging tree; the verdant moss upon the bank; the lady fern–are there still. But I see also now a little pink somewhere in the water, much brown too, and shades I know no name for. The water is not green, but holds in solution three separate sets of colours. The confervae on the stones, the growths beneath at the bottom waving a little as the water swirls like minute seaweeds–these are brown and green and somewhat reddish too. Under water the red rock is toned and paler, but has deep black cavities. Next, the surface, continually changing as it rotates, throws back a different light, and thirdly, the oaks’ yellow-green high up, the pale ash, the tender ferns drooping over low down confer their tints on the stream. So from the floor of the pool, from the surface, and from the adjacent bank, three sets of colours mingle. Washed together by the slow swirl, they produce a shade–the brown of the Barle–lost in darkness where the bank overhangs.

Following the current downwards at last the river for awhile flows in quietness, broad and smooth. A trout leaps for a fly with his tail curved in the air, full a foot out of water. Trout watch behind sunken stones, and shoot to and fro as insects droop in their flight and appear about to fall. So clear is the water and so brightly illuminated that the fish are not easily seen–for vision depends on contrast–but in a minute I find a way to discover them by their shadows. The black shadow of a trout is distinct upon the bottom of the river, and guides the eye to the spot; then looking higher in the transparent water there is the fish. It was curious to see these black shadows darting to and fro as if themselves animated and without bodies, for if the trout darted before being observed the light concealed him in motion. Some of the trout came up from under Torre-steps, a singular structure which here connects the shores of the stream. Every one has seen a row of stepping-stones across a shallow brook; now pile other stones on each of these, forming buttresses, and lay flat stones like unhewn planks from buttress to buttress, and you have the plan of this primitive bridge. It has a megalithic appearance, as if associated with the age of rude stone monuments. They say its origin is doubtful; there can be no doubt of the loveliness of the spot. The Barle comes with his natural rush and fierceness under the unhewn stone planking, then deepens, and there overhanging a black pool–for the shadow was so deep as to be black–grew a large bunch of marsh-marigolds in fullest flower, the broad golden cups almost resting on the black water. The bridge is not intended for wheels, and though it is as firm as the rock, foot passengers have to look at their steps, as the great planks, flecked with lichen at the edges, are not all level. The horned sheep and lambs go over it–where do they not go? Like goats they wander everywhere.

In a cottage some way up the hill we ate clotted cream and whortleberry jam. Through the open door came the ceaseless rush! rush! like a wind in the wood. The floor was of concrete, lime and sand; on the open hearth–pronounced ‘airth’–sods of turf cut from the moor and oak branches were smouldering under the chimney crook. Turf smoke from the piled-up fires of winter had darkened the beams of the ceiling, but from that rude room there was a view of the river, and the hill, and the oaks in full June colour, which the rich would envy. Sometimes in early morning the wild red deer are seen feeding on the slope opposite. As we drove away in reckless Somerset style, along precipices above the river, with nothing but a fringe of fern for parapet, the oak woods on the hills under us were shading down into evening coolness of tint, the yellow less warm, the green more to the surface. Upon the branches of the trees moss grows, forming a level green top to the round bough like a narrow cushion along it, with frayed edges drooping over each side. Though moss is common on branches, it does not often make a raised cushion, thick, as if green velvet pile were laid for the birds to run on. There were rooks’ nests in some tall ash trees; the scanty foliage left the nests exposed, they were still occupied by late broods. Rooks’ nests are not often seen in ashes as in elms.

By a mossy bank a little girl–a miniature Audrey–stout, rosy, and ragged, stood with a yellow straw hat aslant on her yellow hair, eating the leaves from a spray of beech in her hand. Audrey looked at us, eating the beech leaves steadily, but would not answer, not even ‘Where’s your father to?’ For in Somerset the ‘to’ is put last, and must never be omitted; thus, instead of saying ‘I bought this at Taunton,’ it is correct to say ‘I bought this to Taunton.’ There are models under glass cases in places of entertainment with a notice to say that if a penny be inserted the machine will go. Audrey the Little would not speak, but when a penny was put in her hand she began to move, and made off for home with the treasure. The road turned and turned, but whichever way the Barle was always under us, and the red rock rose high at the side. This rock fractures aslant if worked, vast flakes come out, and the cleavage is so natural that until closely approached a quarry appears a cliff. Stone got out in squares, or cut down straight, leaves an artificial wall; these rocks cannot be made to look artificial, and if painted a quarry would be certainly quite indistinguishable from a natural precipice. Entering a little town (Dulverton) the road is jammed tight between cottages: so narrow is the lane that foot passengers huddle up in doorways to avoid the touch of the wheels, and the windows of the houses are protected by iron bars like cages lest the splash-boards should crack the glass. Nowhere in closest-built London is there such a lane–one would imagine land to be dear indeed. The farm labourers, filing homewards after their day’s work, each carry poles of oak or fagots on their shoulders for their hearths, generally oak branches; it is their perquisite. The oak somehow takes root among the interstices of the stones of this rocky land. Past the houses the rush! rush! of the brown Barle rises again in the still evening air.

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. To the left massive Will’s Neck stands out in black shadow defined and distinct, like a fragment of night in the bright light of the day. The wild red deer lie there, but the mountain is afar; a sigh is all I can give to it, for the Somerset sun is warm and the lotus sweet Yonder, if the misty heat moves on, the dim line of Dunkery 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. The day goes over like a white cloud; as the sun declines it is pleasant to go into the orchard–the vineyard of Somerset, and then perhaps westward may be seen a light in the sky by the horizon as if thrown up from an immense mirror under. The mirror is the Severn sea, itself invisible at this depth, but casting a white glow up against the vapour in the air. By it you may recognise the nearness of the sea. The thumb-nail ridges of the Quantocks begin to grow harder, they carry the eye along on soft curves like those of the South Downs in Sussex, but suddenly end in a flourish and point as if cut out with the thumb-nail. Draw your thumb-nail firmly along soft wood, and it will, by its natural slip, form such a curve. 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.

Towards even a wind moves among the lengthening shadows, and my footsteps involuntarily seek the glen, where a streamlet trickles down over red flat stones which resound musically as the water strikes them. Ferns are growing so thickly in the hedge that soon it will seem composed of their fronds; the first June rose hangs above their green tips. A water-ousel with white breast rises and flies on; again disturbed, he makes a circle, and returns to the stream behind. On the moist earth there is the print of a hare’s pad; here is a foxglove out in flower; and now as the incline rises heather thickens on the slope. Sometimes we wander beside the streamlet which goes a mile into the coombe–the shadow is deep and cool in the vast groove of the hill, the shadow accumulates there, and is pressed by its own weight–up slowly as far as the ‘sog,’ or peaty place where the spring rises, and where the sundew grows. Sometimes climbing steep and rocky walls–scarce sprinkled with grass–we pause every other minute to look down on the great valley which reaches across to Dunkery. The horned sheep, which are practically wild, like wild creatures, have worn out holes for themselves to lie in beside the hill. If resolution is strong, we move through the dark heather (soon to be purple), startling the heath-poults, or black game, till at last the Channel opens, and the far-distant Flat and Steep Holms lie, as it looks, afloat on the dim sea. This is labour enough; stern indeed must be the mind that could work at summer’s noon in Somerset, when the apple vineyards slumber; when the tall foxgloves stand in the heavy heat and the soft air warms the deepest day-shadow so that nothing is cool to the touch but the ferns. Is there anything so good as to do nothing? …

Everywhere wild strawberries were flowering on the banks–wild strawberries have been found ripe in January here; everywhere ferns were thickening and extending, foxgloves opening their bells. Another deep coombe led me into the mountainous Quantocks, far below the heather, deep beside another trickling stream. In this land the sound of running water is perpetual, the red flat stones are resonant, and the speed of the stream draws forth music like quick fingers on the keys; the sound of running water and the pleading voice of the willow-wren are always heard in summer. Among the oaks growing on the steep hill-side the willow-wrens repeated their sweet prayer; the water as it ran now rose and now fell; there was a louder note as a little stone was carried over a fall. The shadow came slowly out from the oak-grown side of the coombe, it reached to the margin of the brook. Under the oaks there appears nothing but red stones, as if the trees were rooted in them; under the boughs probably the grass does not cover the rock as it does on the opposite side. There mountain-ashes flowered in loose order on the green slope. Redstarts perched on them, darting out to seize passing insects. Still deeper in the coombe the oaks stood on either side of the stream; it was the beginning of woods which reach for miles, in which occasionally the wild red deer wander, and drink at the clear waters. By now the shadow of the western hill-top had crossed the brooklet, and the still coombe became yet more silent. There was an alder, ivy-grown, beside the stream–a tree with those lines which take an artist’s fancy. Under the roots of alders the water-ousel often creeps by day, and the tall heron stalks past at night. Receding up the eastern slope of the coombe the sunlight left the dark alder’s foliage in the deep shadow of the hollow. I went up the slope till I could see the sun, and waited; in a few minutes the shadow reached me, and it was sunset; I went still higher, and presently the sun set again. A cool wind was drawing up the coombe, it was dusky in the recesses of the oaks, and the water of the stream had become dark when we emerged from the great hollow, and yet without the summer’s evening had but just commenced, and the banks were still heated by the sun.”

‘January in the Sussex Woods’ by Richard Jefferies

woodlands co ukSource: woodlands.co.uk

The lost leaves measure our years; they are gone as the days are gone, and the bare branches silently speak of a new year, slowly advancing to its buds, its foliage, and fruit. Deciduous trees associate with human life as this yew never can. Clothed in its yellowish-green needles, its tarnished green, it knows no hope or sorrow; it is indifferent to winter, and does not look forward to summer. With their annual loss of leaves, and renewal, oak and elm and ash and beech seem to stand by us and to share our thoughts. There is no wind at the edge of the wood, and the few flakes of snow that fall from the overcast sky flutter as they drop, now one side higher and then the other, as the leaves did in the still hours of autumn. The delicacy of the outer boughs of the great trees visible against the dark background of cloud is as beautiful in its own way as the massed foliage of summer. Each slender bough is drawn out to a line; line follows line as shade grows under the pencil, but each of these lines is separate. Great boles of beech, heavy timber at the foot, thus end at their summits in the lightest and most elegant pencilling. Where the birches are tall, sometimes the number and closeness of these bare sprays causes a thickening almost as if there were leaves there. The leaves, in fact, when they come, conceal the finish of the trees; they give colour, but they hide the beautiful structure under them. Each tree at a distance is recognisable by its particular lines; the ash, for instance, grows with its own marked curve.

Some flakes of snow have remained on this bough of spruce, pure white on dull green. Sparingly dispersed, the snow can be seen falling far ahead between the trunks; indeed, the white dots appear to increase the distance the eye can penetrate; it sees farther because there is something to catch the glance. Nothing seems left for food in the woods for bird or animal. Some ivy berries and black privet berries remain, a few haws may be found; for the rest, it is gone; the squirrels have had the nuts, the acorns were taken by the jays, rooks, and pheasants. Bushels of acorns, too, were collected by hand as food for the fallow deer in the park. A great fieldfare rises, like a lesser pigeon; fieldfares often haunt the verge of woods, while the redwing thrushes go out into the meadows. It can scarcely be doubted that both these birds come over to escape the keener cold of the winters in Norway, or that the same cause drives the blackbirds hither. In spring we listen to Norwegian songs—the blackbird and the thrush that please us so much, if not themselves of Scandinavian birth, have had a Scandinavian origin. Any one walking about woods like these in January can understand how, where there are large flocks of birds, they must find the pressure of numbers through the insufficiency of food. They go then to seek a warmer climate and more to eat; more particularly probably for sustenance.

The original and simple theory that the majority of birds migrate for food or warmth is not overthrown by modern observations. That appears to be the primary impulse, though others may be traced or reasonably imagined. To suppose, as has been put forward, that birds are endowed with a migratory instinct for the express purpose of keeping down their numbers, in order, that is, that they may perish in crossing the sea, is really too absurd for serious consideration. If that were the end in view, it would be most easily obtained by keeping them at home, where snow would speedily starve them. On the contrary, it will appear to any one who walks about woods and fields that migration is essential to the preservation of these creatures. By migration, in fact, the species is kept in existence, and room is found for life. Apart from the necessity of food, movement and change is one of the most powerful agencies in renewing health. This we see in our own experience; the condition of the air is especially important, and it is well within reasonable supposition that some birds and animals may wish to avoid certain states of atmosphere. There is, too, the question of moulting and change of plumage, and the possibility that this physiological event may influence the removal to a different climate. Birds migrate principally for food and warmth; secondly, on account of the pressure of numbers (for in good seasons they increase very fast); thirdly, for the sake of health; fourthly, for sexual reasons; fifthly, from the operation of a kind of prehistoric memory; sixthly, from choice. One or other of these causes will explain almost every case of migration.

winter_bird_wallpaper_d2411Source: http://gardensupplyco.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/winter_bird_wallpaper_d2411.jpg

Birds are lively and intellectual, imaginative and affectionate creatures, and all their movements are not dictated by mere necessity. They love the hedge and bush where they were born, they return to the same tree, or the same spot under the eave. On the other hand, they like to roam about the fields and woods, and some of them travel long distances during the day. When the pleasurable cares of the nest are concluded, it is possible that they may in some cases cross the sea solely for the solace of change. Variety of food is itself a great pleasure. By prehistoric memory is meant the unconscious influence of ancient habit impressed upon the race in times when the conformation of land and sea and the conditions of life were different. No space is left for a mysterious agency; migration is purely natural, and acts for the general preservation. Try to put yourself in a bird’s place, and you will see that migration is very natural indeed. If at some future period of the world’s history men should acquire the art of flying, there can be no doubt that migration would become the custom, and whole nations would change their localities. Man has, indeed, been always a migratory animal. History is little beyond the record of migrations, how one race moved on and overcame the race in front of it. In ancient days lots were cast as to who should migrate, and those chosen by this conscription left their homes that the rest remaining might have room and food. Checking the attempted migration of the Helvetii was the beginning of Caesar’s exploits. What men do only at intervals birds do frequently, having greater freedom of movement.

Who can doubt that the wild fowl come south because the north is frozen over? The Laplander and the reindeer migrate together; the Tartars migrate all the year through, crossing the steppes in winding and devious but fixed paths, paths settled for each family, and kept without a map, though invisible to strangers. It is only necessary to watch the common sparrow. In spring his merry chirp and his few notes of song are heard on the roof or in the garden; here he spends his time till the broods are reared and the corn is ripe. Immediately he migrates into the fields. By degrees he is joined by those left behind to rear second broods, and at last the stubble is crowded with sparrows, such flocks no one would believe possible unless they had seen them. He has migrated for food, for his food changes with the season, being mainly insects in spring, and grain and seeds in autumn. Something may, I venture to think, in some cases of migration, be fairly attributed to the influence of a desire for change, a desire springing from physiological promptings for the preservation of health. I am personally subject twice a year to the migratory impulse. I feel it in spring and autumn, say about March, when the leaves begin to appear, and again as the corn is carried, and most strongly as the fields are left in stubble. I have felt it every year since boyhood, often so powerfully as to be quite unable to resist it. Go I must, and go I do, somewhere; if I do not I am soon unwell. The general idea of direction is southerly, both spring and autumn; no doubt the reason is because this is a northern country.

Rabbit Warren 1b cpt Bob CoyleSource: http://data.wildlifetrusts.org/sites/default/files/imagecache/reserve_web_large/sites/data.live.wt.precedenthost.co.uk/files/Rabbit%20Warren%201b%20cpt%20Bob%20Coyle.jpg

Some little green stays on the mounds where the rabbits creep and nibble the grasses. Cinquefoil remains green though faded, and wild parsley the freshest looking of all; plantain leaves are found under shelter of brambles, and the dumb nettles, though the old stalks are dead, have living leaves at the ground. Grey-veined ivy trails along, here and there is a frond of hart’s-tongue fern, though withered at the tip, and greenish grey lichen grows on the exposed stumps of trees. These together give a green tint to the mound, which is not so utterly devoid of colour as the season of the year might indicate. Where they fail, brown brake fern fills the spaces between the brambles; and in a moist spot the bunches of rushes are composed half of dry stalks, and half of green. Stems of willow-herb, four feet high, still stand, and tiny long-tailed tits perch sideways on them. Above, on the bank, another species of willow-herb has died down to a short stalk, from which springs a living branch, and at its end is one pink flower. A dandelion is opening on the same sheltered bank; farther on the gorse is sprinkled with golden spots of bloom. A flock of greenfinches starts from the bushes, and their colour shows against the ruddy wands of the osier-bed over which they fly. The path winds round the edge of the wood, where a waggon track goes up the hill; it is deeply grooved at the foot of the hill. These tracks wear deeply into the chalk just where the ascent begins. The chalk adheres to the shoes like mortar, and for some time after one has left it each footstep leaves a white mark on the turf. On the ridge the low trees and bushes have an outline like the flame of a candle in a draught—the wind has blown them till they have grown fixed in that shape. In an oak across the ploughed field a flock of wood-pigeons have settled; on the furrows there are chaffinches, and larks rise and float a few yards farther away. The snow has ceased, and though there is no wind on the surface, the clouds high above have opened somewhat, not sufficient for the sun to shine, but to prolong the already closing afternoon a few minutes. If the sun shines to-morrow morning the lark will soar and sing, though it is January, and the quick note of the chaffinch will be heard as he perches on the little branches projecting from the trunks of trees below the great boughs. Thrushes sing every mild day in December and January, entirely irrespective of the season, also before rain.

Chanctonbury Ring looking east   13 Feb 09   (Richard Reed)   SDS  CNP

View from Chanctonbury Ring, Sussex. Source: http://www.patadventures.com/wp-content/uploads/SOUTH-DOWNS-Chanctonbury-Ring-looking-east-February-2009-Richard-Reed.jpg

A curious instance of a starling having a young brood at this time of the year, recently recorded, seems to suggest that birds are not really deceived by the passing mildness of a few days, but are obliged to prepare nests, finding themselves in a condition to require them. The cause, in short, is physiological, and not the folly of the bird. This starling had had two previous broods, one in October, and now again in December-January. The starling was not, therefore, deceived by the chance of mild weather; her own bodily condition led her to the nest, and had she been a robin or thrush she would have built one instead of resorting to a cranny. It is certain that individuals among birds and animals do occasionally breed at later periods than is usual for the generality of their species. Exceptionally prolific individuals among birds continue to breed into the winter. They are not egregiously deceived any more than we are by a mild interval; the nesting is caused by their individual temperament.

The daylight has lingered on longer than expected, but now the gloom of the short January evening is settling down fast in the wood. The silent and motionless trees rise out of a mysterious shadow, which fills up the spaces between their trunks. Only above, where their delicate outer branches are shown against the dark sky, is there any separation between them. Somewhere in the deep shadow of the underwood a blackbird calls “ching, ching” before he finally settles himself to roost. In the yew the lesser birds are already quiet, sheltered by the evergreen spray; they have also sought the ivy-grown trunks. “Twit, twit,” sounds high overhead as one or two belated little creatures, scarcely visible, pass quickly for the cover of the furze on the hill. The short January evening is of but a few minutes’ duration; just now it was only dusky, and already the interior of the wood is impenetrable to the glance. There rises a loud though distant clamour of rooks and daws, who have restlessly moved in their roost-trees. Darkness is almost on them, yet they cannot quite settle. The cawing and dawing rises to a pitch, and then declines; the wood is silent, and it is suddenly night.

‘Light and Dark: Richard Jefferies was more than a Nature Writer’

by Rebecca Welshman

While many of Jefferies’ books can be read and enjoyed for their countryside observations, with their hidden depths and breathtaking description, there is another side to his works which is often overlooked. Jefferies celebrated the sun – he sought to bring more light into the world and to illuminate and improve the human condition. In a rare early poem, Jefferies declares his ambition to help alleviate suffering and loosen the grip of superstition that he believed kept the mind locked in place:

“Full of thoughts of past and future
Took I there a solemn vow —
Darkness I will overthrow!
List, my voice like clarion sounding,
Dreading neither priest nor ban,
He alone is abbot — hero,
Who can bless his fellow man” – ‘The Grave of the Last Abbot’ (1869)

Jefferies’ ‘solemn vow’ to ‘overthrow’ the darkness that he perceived to shroud existence eventually took the form of The Story of My Heart – a book charged with images of light, fire and burning. The Story of My Heart is not only a record of spiritual development but a chronology of the struggle between light and dark in the soul. Jefferies refers to ‘dust’, ‘infernal darkness’, the ‘void’ of space, and to personal loneliness and despair. In his account of difficult former years, he recalls the isolation and sense of crisis he experienced:

“years bringing much suffering, grinding the very life out; new troubles, renewed insults, loss of what hard labour had earned, the bitter question: Is it not better to leap into the sea?” – The Story of My Heart

Jefferies did not have any easy life. After falling ill in his late teens he never regained full health. He died aged 38 from Tuberculosis – a particular form that gave him unbearable pain in his spine and stomach, and resulted in partial paralysis. He struggled to make a living as a writer, with most of the proceeds of his successful works going on medical bills. At the time he died, and through no fault of his own, he left his young family almost entirely destitute. And yet, during his illness and in the year of his death – 1887 – he produced some of his most movingly beautiful works.
howardavidjohnson The_Flower_Fairy_print_Z57

Through all, Jefferies’ desire to express beauty endured and grew stronger. In ‘The Pageant of Summer’ the beauty and movement of the season unfolds in his heart. An unseen but deeply felt presence dwells in the summer fields and connects him with everything around:

“Straight go the white petals to the heart; straight the mind’s glance goes back to how many other pageants of summer in old times! When perchance the sunny days were even more sunny; when the stilly oaks were full of mystery, lurking like the Druid’s mistletoe in the midst of their mighty branches. A glamour in the heart came back to it again from every flower; as the sunshine was reflected from them, so the feeling in the heart returned tenfold. To the dreamy summer haze, love gave a deep enchantment, the colours were fairer, the blue more lovely in the lucid sky. Each leaf finer, and the gross earth enamelled beneath the feet. A sweet breath on the air, a soft warm hand in the touch of the sunshine, a glance in the gleam of the rippled waters, a whisper in the dance of the shadows. The ethereal haze lifted the heavy oaks and they were buoyant on the mead, the rugged bark was chastened and no longer rough, each slender flower beneath them again refined. There was a presence everywhere, though unseen, on the open hills, and not shut out under the dark pines. Dear were the June roses then because for another gathered. Yet even dearer now with so many years as it were upon the petals; all the days that have been before, all the heart-throbs, all our hopes lie in this opened bud. Let not the eyes grow dim, look not back but forward; the soul must uphold itself like the sun. Let us labour to make the heart grow larger as we become older, as the spreading oak gives more shelter. That we could but take to the soul some of the greatness and the beauty of the summer!”

Like the flowers of summer that seek the sun, the soul ‘must uphold itself’, even through the darkest times. Hope lies in the open bud of the future. Similar messages can be found in many of Jefferies’ later writings. In ‘Walks in the Wheatfields’, he recalls seeing a fox hunt passing through a field on a winter’s day. The scene is barren and bleak, but for the blades of young wheat which push through the soil. In these tiny shoots Jefferies finds a message of strength and resilience for the future:

“the foxhounds carry a bee-line straight from hedge to hedge, and after them come the hoofs, prospecting deeply into the earth, dashing down fibre and blade, crunching up the tender wheat and battering it to pieces. It will rise again all the fresher and stronger, for there is something human in wheat, and the more it is trampled on the better it grows. Despots grind half the human race, and despots stronger than man–plague, pestilence, and famine–grind the whole; and yet the world increases, and the green wheat of the human heart is not to be trampled out.”

Countryside-fields-Nottinghamshire

Source: http://1280x1024desktopwallpapers.jennifer-morrison-pics.com/images/Wallpaper/Landscapes/Countryside-fields-Nottinghamshire.jpg