THE GROOVED VALLEY

Simon Coleman

south-downs-firle-beacon-getty

The South Downs.  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/east-sussex/south-downs/articles/The-South-Downs-pub-walks/

 

The following passage from Richard Jefferies’ autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’, provides a perfect example of how a particular landscape can induce a calm and creative state of mind.  The landscape in this case is chalk downland, where sharp valleys can suddenly cut into wide stretches of smooth, rolling surfaces.  I feel that the sides of the narrow valley help to ‘shut out’ the everyday concerns of his life, the memories and personal perspectives, allowing a concentration of mind on the blue sky, the earth, time and the power of the sun.  His life is no longer personal – he is part of all that there is, and belongs to all that there is.

 

‘Sometimes I went to a deep, narrow valley in the hills, silent and solitary. The sky crossed from side to side, like a roof supported on two walls of green. Sparrows chirped in the wheat at the verge above, their calls falling like the twittering of swallows from the air. There was no other sound. The short grass was dried grey as it grew by the heat; the sun hung over the narrow vale as if it had been put there by hand. Burning, burning, the sun glowed on the sward at the foot of the slope where these thoughts burned into me. How many, many years, how many cycles of years, how many bundles of cycles of years, had the sun glowed down thus on that hollow? Since it was formed how long? Since it was worn and shaped, groove-like, in the flanks of the hills by mighty forces which had ebbed. Alone with the sun which glowed on the work when it was done, I saw back through space to the old time of tree-ferns, of the lizard flying through the air, the lizard-dragon wallowing in sea foam, the mountainous creatures, twice-elephantine, feeding on land; all the crooked sequence of life. The dragon-fly which passed me traced a continuous descent from the fly marked on stone in those days. The immense time lifted me like a wave rolling under a boat; my mind seemed to raise itself as the swell of the cycles came; it felt strong with the power of the ages. With all that time and power I prayed: that I might have in my soul the intellectual part of it; the idea, the thought. Like a shuttle the mind shot to and fro the past and the present, in an instant.’

 

This narrow, ‘grooved’ valley experience was clearly of major significance in Jefferies’ early life.  The autobiography returns to it more than once.  It can be seen as a symbol or motif for his desire to become absorbed in a greater, limitless, non-personal reality.  Later he is in London:

 

‘Burning on, the great sun stood in the sky, heating the parapet [of London Bridge] , glowing steadfastly upon me as when I rested in the narrow valley grooved out in prehistoric times. Burning on steadfast, and ever present as my thought. Lighting the broad river, the broad walls; lighting the least speck of dust; lighting the great heaven; gleaming on my finger-nail. The fixed point of day—the sun. I was intensely conscious of it; I felt it; I felt the presence of the immense powers of the universe…’

 

In the final paragraph of the book, the valley motif appears once more, perhaps with an even sharper clarity of meaning.  He has found a new grooved valley, this time in the Sussex South Downs, near the sea, and its discovery seems to add a deeper level of perception to the whole book.  In the intervening years between these two valley experiences, his desire for natural beauty and immersion in a greater reality has never diminished.  The language in this last paragraph now seems calmer and more certain.  This desire is of the soul and it knows no limit.

 

‘…the sweet short rain comes mingled with sunbeams and flower-scented air. The finches sing among the fresh green leaves of the beeches. Beautiful it is, in summer days, to see the wheat wave, and the long grass foam—flecked of flower yield and return to the wind. My soul of itself always desires; these are to it as fresh food. I have found in the hills another valley grooved in prehistoric times, where, climbing to the top of the hollow, I can see the sea. Down in the hollow I look up; the sky stretches over, the sun burns as it seems but just above the hill, and the wind sweeps onward. As the sky extends beyond the valley, so I know that there are ideas beyond the valley of my thought…’

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SPIRIT HILLS

SIMON COLEMAN

beaminster chart knoll

Photo by Rebecca Welshman

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘From the Devon border I drifted like a leaf detached from a tree, across to a deep coombe in the Quantock Hills. The vast hollow is made for repose and lotus-eating; its very shape, like a hammock, indicates idleness. There the days go over noiselessly and without effort, like white summer clouds. Ridges each side rise high and heroically steep—it would be proper to set out and climb them, but not to-day, not now: some time presently…. Yonder, if the misty heat moves on, the dim line of Dunkery [hill] winds along the sky, not unlike the curved back of a crouching hare. The weight of the mountains is too great—what is the use of attempting to move? It is enough to look at them.’

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

SUN, SEA AND GRASS

SIMON COLEMAN

 beachy head

Source: http://i.imgur.com/WxPrk.jpg

Here is a fine piece of writing by Jefferies, taken from ‘The Breeze on Beachy Head’.  In it he captures the sense of freedom, exultation and possibility experienced beside the sea.  His imagination drifts back to the ancient past, while the appearance of the ‘Orient’ suddenly awakens him to the wonders of his own age.  He finds interest in small details: soil marks on the chalk and debris on the beach.  Typically, the prose dances with light and movement, and scraps of personal philosophy are almost casually thrown in.  The many contrasts of the scene become almost overwhelming and a deeper perception is revealed when he says, ‘I feel that I want the presence of grass’.  The ‘Gap’ is Birling Gap, Sussex.

 

“The waves coming round the promontory before the west wind still give the idea of a flowing stream, as they did in Homer’s days. Here beneath the cliff, standing where beach and sand meet, it is still; the wind passes six hundred feet overhead. But yonder, every larger wave rolling before the breeze breaks over the rocks; a white line of spray rushes along them, gleaming in the sunshine; for a moment the dark rock-wall disappears, till the spray sinks.

 

The sea seems higher than the spot where I stand, its surface on a higher level—raised like a green mound—as if it could burst in and occupy the space up to the foot of the cliff in a moment. It will not do so, I know; but there is an infinite possibility about the sea; it may do what it is not recorded to have done. It is not to be ordered, it may overleap the bounds human observation has fixed for it. It has a potency unfathomable. There is still something in it not quite grasped and understood—something still to be discovered—a mystery.

 

So the white spray rushes along the low broken wall of rocks, the sun gleams on the flying fragments of the wave, again it sinks and the rhythmic motion holds the mind, as an invisible force holds back the tide. A faith of expectancy, a sense that something may drift up from the unknown, a large belief in the unseen resources of the endless space out yonder, soothes the mind with dreamy hope.

 

The little rules and little experiences, all the petty ways of narrow life, are shut off behind by the ponderous and impassable cliff; as if we had dwelt in the dim light of a cave, but coming out at last to look at the sun, a great stone had fallen and closed the entrance, so that there was no return to the shadow. The impassable precipice shuts off our former selves of yesterday, forcing us to look out over the sea only, or up to the deeper heaven.

 

These breadths draw out the soul; we feel that we have wider thoughts than we knew; the soul has been living, as it were, in a nutshell, all unaware of its own power, and now suddenly finds freedom in the sun and the sky. Straight, as if sawn down from turf to beach, the cliff shuts off the human world, for the sea knows no time and no era; you cannot tell what century it is from the face of the sea. A Roman trireme suddenly rounding the white edge-line of chalk, borne on wind and oar from the Isle of Wight towards the gray castle at Pevensey (already old in olden days), would not seem strange. What wonder could surprise us coming from the wonderful sea?

 

The little rills winding through the sand have made an islet of a detached rock by the beach; limpets cover it, adhering like rivet-heads. In the stillness here, under the roof of the wind so high above, the sound of the sand draining itself is audible. From the cliff blocks of chalk have fallen, leaving hollows as when a knot drops from a beam. They lie crushed together at the base, and on the point of this jagged ridge a wheatear perches.

 

There are ledges three hundred feet above, and from these now and then a jackdaw glides out and returns again to his place, where, when still and with folded wings, he is but a speck of black. A spire of chalk still higher stands out from the wall, but the rains have got behind it and will cut the crevice deeper and deeper into its foundation. Water, too, has carried the soil from under the turf at the summit over the verge, forming brown streaks.

 

Upon the beach lies a piece of timber, part of a wreck; the wood is torn and the fibres rent where it was battered against the dull edge of the rocks. The heat of the sun burns, thrown back by the dazzling chalk; the river of ocean flows ceaselessly, casting the spray over the stones; the unchanged sky is blue.

 

Let us go back and mount the steps at the Gap, and rest on the sward there. I feel that I want the presence of grass. The sky is a softer blue, and the sun genial now the eye and the mind alike are relieved—the one of the strain of too great solitude (not the solitude of the woods), the other of too brilliant and hard a contrast of colours. Touch but the grass and the harmony returns; it is repose after exaltation.

 

A vessel comes round the promontory; it is not a trireme of old Rome, nor the “fair and stately galley” Count Arnaldus hailed with its seamen singing the mystery of the sea. It is but a brig in ballast, high out of the water, black of hull and dingy of sail: still it is a ship, and there is always an interest about a ship. She is so near, running along but just outside the reef, that the deck is visible. Up rises her stern as the billows come fast and roll under; then her bow lifts, and immediately she rolls, and, loosely swaying with the sea, drives along.

 

The slope of the billow now behind her is white with the bubbles of her passage, rising, too, from her rudder. Steering athwart with a widening angle from the land, she is laid to clear the distant point of Dungeness. Next, a steamer glides forth, unseen till she passed the cliff; and thus each vessel that comes from the westward has the charm of the unexpected. Eastward there is many a sail working slowly into the wind, and as they approach, talking in the language of flags with the watch on the summit of the Head.

 

Once now and then the great Orient pauses on her outward route to Australia, slowing her engines: the immense length of her hull contains every adjunct of modern life; science, skill, and civilisation are there. She starts, and is lost sight of round the cliff, gone straight away for the very ends of the world. The incident is forgotten, when one morning, as you turn over the newspaper, there is the Orient announced to start again. It is like a tale of enchantment; it seems but yesterday that the Head hid her from view; you have scarcely moved, attending to the daily routine of life, and scarce recognise that time has passed at all. In so few hours has the earth been encompassed.

 

The sea-gulls as they settle on the surface ride high out of the water, like the mediæval caravals, with their sterns almost as tall as the masts. Their unconcerned flight, with crooked wings unbent, as if it were no matter to them whether they flew or floated, in its peculiar jerking motion somewhat reminds one of the lapwing—the heron has it, too, a little—as if aquatic or water-side birds had a common and distinct action of the wing.

 

Sometimes a porpoise comes along, but just beyond the reef; looking down on him from the verge of the cliff, his course can be watched. His dark body, wet and oily, appears on the surface for two seconds; and then, throwing up his tail like the fluke of an anchor, down he goes. Now look forward, along the waves, some fifty yards or so, and he will come up, the sunshine gleaming on the water as it runs off his back, to again dive, and reappear after a similar interval. Even when the eye can no longer distinguish the form, the spot where he rises is visible, from the slight change in the surface.

 

The hill receding in hollows leaves a narrow plain between the foot of the sward and the cliff; it is ploughed, and the teams come to the footpath which follows the edge; and thus those who plough the sea and those who plough the land look upon each other. The one sees the vessel change her tack, the other notes the plough turning at the end of the furrow. Bramble bushes project over the dangerous wall of chalk, and grasses fill up the interstices, a hedge suspended in air; but be careful not to reach too far for the blackberries.”

THE UNDAUNTED LAPWINGS

Simon Coleman

lapwing rspb

Source: http://www.rspb.org.uk

 

Rain, cold and deadening gloom: winter days we are all familiar with. There is no colour, no sound of birds – one might feel that life has left the earth altogether. Richard Jefferies, though a worshipper of the sun and the long days of light, always persisted with his winter walks. In this first part of a beautiful essay, ‘Haunts of the Lapwing’, he stumbles across some lapwings braving the dreadful weather and the sight of them instantly lifts his spirits. In that moment he finds them to be ‘the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness’.

 

“HAUNTS OF THE LAPWING, part 1: Winter”

 

“Coming like a white wall the rain reaches me, and in an instant everything is gone from sight that is more than ten yards distant. The narrow upland road is beaten to a darker hue, and two runnels of water rush along at the sides, where, when the chalk-laden streamlets dry, blue splinters of flint will be exposed in the channels. For a moment the air seems driven away by the sudden pressure, and I catch my breath and stand still with one shoulder forward to receive the blow. Hiss, the land shudders under the cold onslaught; hiss, and on the blast goes, and the sound with it, for the very fury of the rain, after the first second, drowns its own noise. There is not a single creature visible, the low and stunted hedgerows, bare of leaf, could conceal nothing; the rain passes straight through to the ground. Crooked and gnarled, the bushes are locked together as if in no other way could they hold themselves against the gales. Such little grass as there is on the mounds is thin and short, and could not hide a mouse. There is no finch, sparrow, thrush, blackbird. As the wave of rain passes over and leaves a hollow between the waters, that which has gone and that to come, the ploughed lands on either side are seen to be equally bare. In furrows full of water, a hare would not sit, nor partridge run; the larks, the patient larks which endure almost everything, even they have gone. Furrow on furrow with flints dotted on their slopes, and chalk lumps, that is all. The cold earth gives no sweet petal of flower, nor can any bud of thought or bloom of imagination start forth in the mind. But step by step, forcing a way through the rain and over the ridge, I find a small and stunted copse down in the next hollow. It is rather a wide hedge than a copse, and stands by the road in the corner of a field. The boughs are bare; still they break the storm, and it is a relief to wait a while there and rest. After a minute or so the eye gets accustomed to the branches and finds a line of sight through the narrow end of the copse. Within twenty yards—just outside the copse—there are a number of lapwings, dispersed about the furrows. One runs a few feet forward and picks something from the ground; another runs in the same manner to one side; a third rushes in still a third direction. Their crests, their green-tinted wings, and white breasts are not disarranged by the torrent. Something in the style of the birds recalls the wagtail, though they are so much larger. Beyond these are half a dozen more, and in a straggling line others extend out into the field. They have found some slight shelter here from the sweeping of the rain and wind, and are not obliged to face it as in the open. Minutely searching every clod they gather their food in imperceptible items from the surface.

 

Sodden leaves lie in the furrows along the side of the copse; broken and decaying burdocks still uphold their jagged stems, but will be soaked away by degrees; dank grasses droop outwards! the red seed of a dock is all that remains of the berries and fruit, the seeds and grain of autumn. Like the hedge, the copse is vacant. Nothing moves within, watch as carefully as I may. The boughs are blackened by wet and would touch cold. From the grasses to the branches there is nothing any one would like to handle, and I stand apart even from the bush that keeps away the rain. The green plovers are the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness. Heavily as the rain may fall, cold as the saturated wind may blow, the plovers remind us of the beauty of shape, colour, and animation. They seem too slender to withstand the blast—they should have gone with the swallows—too delicate for these rude hours; yet they alone face them.

 

Once more the wave of rain has passed, and yonder the hills appear; these are but uplands. The nearest and highest has a green rampart, visible for a moment against the dark sky, and then again wrapped in a toga of misty cloud. So the chilled Roman drew his toga around him in ancient days as from that spot he looked wistfully southwards and thought of Italy. Wee-ah-wee! Some chance movement has been noticed by the nearest bird, and away they go at once as if with the same wings, sweeping overhead, then to the right, then to the left, and then back again, till at last lost in the coming shower. After they have thus vibrated to and fro long enough, like a pendulum coming to rest, they will alight in the open field on the ridge behind. There in drilled ranks, well closed together, all facing the same way, they will stand for hours. Let us go also and let the shower conceal them. Another time my path leads over the hills.

 

It is afternoon, which in winter is evening. The sward of the down is dry under foot, but hard, and does not lift the instep with the springy feel of summer. The sky is gone, it is not clouded, it is swathed in gloom. Upwards the still air thickens, and there is no arch or vault of heaven. Formless and vague, it seems some vast shadow descending. The sun has disappeared, and the light there still is, is left in the atmosphere enclosed by the gloomy mist as pools are left by a receding tide. Through the sand the water slips, and through the mist the light glides away. Nearer comes the formless shadow and the visible earth grows smaller. The path has faded, and there are no means on the open downs of knowing whether the direction pursued is right or wrong, till a boulder (which is a landmark) is perceived. Thence the way is down the slope, the last and limit of the hills there. It is a rough descent, the paths worn by sheep may at any moment cause a stumble. At the foot is a waggon-track beside a low hedge, enclosing the first arable field. The hedge is a guide, but the ruts are deep, and it still needs slow and careful walking. Wee-ah-wee! Up from the dusky surface of the arable field springs a plover, and the notes are immediately repeated by another. They can just be seen as darker bodies against the shadow as they fly overhead. Wee-ah-wee! The sound grows fainter as they fetch a longer circle in the gloom.

 

There is another winter resort of plovers in the valley where a barren waste was ploughed some years ago. A few furze bushes still stand in the hedges about it, and the corners are full of rushes. Not all the grubbing of furze and bushes, the deep ploughing and draining, has succeeded in rendering the place fertile like the adjacent fields. The character of a marsh adheres to it still. So long as there is a crop, the lapwings keep away, but as soon as the ploughs turn up the ground in autumn they return. The place lies low, and level with the waters in the ponds and streamlets. A mist hangs about it in the evening, and even when there is none, there is a distinct difference in the atmosphere while passing it. From their hereditary home the lapwings cannot be entirely driven away. Out of the mist comes their plaintive cry; they are hidden, and their exact locality is not to be discovered. Where winter rules most ruthlessly, where darkness is deepest in daylight, there the slender plovers stay undaunted.”

The Hard Craft of Writing

peven 2

Pevensey Castle, on a visit in November 2011

Rebecca Welshman

I am currently redrafting my first novel and it is a lengthy arduous process. When you are told that the first draft is not right and you have to return to it and come up with something new, and repeat this process, it takes its toll. I was warned that it would be difficult, but you don’t appreciate how difficult until you are in the midst of it.

 

Richard Jefferies understood how difficult it was to perfect your craft as a writer. He spend years drafting and redrafting his novels. His essays did not seem to cause him so much trouble as he was able to edit The Gamekeeper and Home, Wild Life in a Southern County, and The Amateur Poacher from their serialised versions into book form quite rapidly. Fiction writing did not come so easily to Jefferies, and he experimented with attempts in sensation fiction in the early 1870s before finding a reliable fiction voice.

 

But it wasn’t just his fiction writing that troubled Jefferies. He refers to The Story of My Heart as being the record of seventeen years’ thought and feeling. In his notes, and in the text itself, he alludes to trying to compose the book earlier in life, at a spot by the River Churn in Cirencester, and later at Pevensey Castle in Sussex, in 1880:

 

“It happened just afterwards that I went to Pevensey, and immediately the ancient wall swept my mind back seventeen hundred years to the eagle, the pilum, and the short sword. The grey stones, the thin red bricks laid by those whose eyes had seen Caesar’s Rome, lifted me out of the grasp of houselife, of modern civilization, of those minutiae which occupy the moment. The grey stone made me feel as if I had existed from then till now, so strongly did I enter into and see my own life as if reflected. My own existence was focussed back on me; I saw its joy, its unhappiness, its birth, its death, its possibilities among the infinite, above all its yearning Question. Why? Seeing it thus clearly, and lifted out of the moment by the force of seventeen centuries, I recognised the full mystery and the depth of things in the roots of the dry grass on the wall, in the green sea flowing near. Is there anything I can do?”

 

In his notes for The Story of My Heart Jefferies writes that he had burned all previous attempts ‘in anger or despair’, but in 1880, after visiting Pevensey Castle, he made notes which he kept and from which developed the finished manuscript. In the book he describes his thoughts and feelings on entering the site and being surrounded by the Roman wall:

 

“The mystery and the possibilities are not in the roots of the grass, nor is the depth of things in the sea; they are in my existence, in my soul. The marvel of existence, almost the terror of it, was flung on me with crushing force by the sea, the sun shining, the distant hills. With all their ponderous weight they made me feel myself: all the time, all the centuries made me feel myself this moment a hundred-fold. I determined that I would endeavour to write what I had so long thought of, and the same evening put down one sentence. There the sentence remained two years. I tried to carry it on; I hesitated because I could not express it: nor can I now, though in desperation I am throwing these rude stones of thought together, rude as those of the ancient wall.”

 

Throughout history, Pevensey was the site of struggle and capture. Knowledge of its long sieges, starving inhabitants for weeks at a time, caught the imagination of poets and authors. For Jefferies, who borrowed from the Romantic tradition of celebrating heroes and their conquering prowess, the historical fight for freedom translated into a fight for liberty in expression; a personal fight to free the mind from the oppression of engrained social, political and spiritual structures and discover new territory. (from my thesis: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10871/10921/WelshmanR.pdf?sequence=2)

 

Just how hard the struggle got we will never know. But something of Jefferies’ anguish can be discerned from the record he leaves us in The Story of my Heart of the difficulty of self-expression in a world that seems indifferent to your efforts. In the late 1870s, on a walk to Beachy Head, he pondered what he describes as ‘the bitter question’:

 

“Time went on; good fortune and success never for an instant deceived me that they were in themselves to be sought; only my soul-thought was worthy. Further 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?”

 

What was the reward of struggling and striving to produce things that people seemed to have no interest in reading? Jefferies could hardly have been consoled by the poor sales figures of The Story of My Heart when it was published in 1883, and the scathing reviews in the press. Yet, this did not deter him, as he resolved to rework the book and produce something larger and more comprehensive. He says that he ‘regrets’ not having written about his difficulties – ‘to give expression to this passion’ – and that The Story of My Heart, so many years later, is ‘in part’ this expression. Although the book was a failure on publication it went on to become the most successful of any of his books, being reprinted sixteen times between 1891 and 1922. Jefferies could not have anticipated the reception of his ideas, and he died in 1887 without knowing that his efforts had not been in vain.

 

Writing requires belief in the value of the idea and belief in your own ability as a writer to carry it through. Jefferies may have been ahead of his time but he never gave up the fight for creative expression.

Joy in Life

Simon Coleman

june image

This is an extract from Jefferies’ essay, ‘Woodlands’, from ‘Nature Near London’. We find him in a mood of pure celebration as June puts on a dazzling show of life.

When the June roses open their petals on the briars, and the scent of new-mown hay is wafted over the hedge from the meadows, the lane seems to wind through a continuous wood. The oaks and chestnuts, though too young to form a complete arch, cross their green branches, and cast a delicious shadow. For it is in the shadow that we enjoy the summer, looking forth from the gateway upon the mowing grass where the glowing sun pours down his fiercest beams.

Tall bennets and red sorrel rise above the grass, white ox-eye daisies chequer it below; the distant hedge quivers as the air, set in motion by the intense heat, runs along. The sweet murmuring coo of the turtle dove comes from the copse, and the rich notes of the blackbird from the oak into which he has mounted to deliver them.

Slight movements in the hawthorn, or in the depths of the tall hedge grasses, movements too quick for the glance to catch their cause, are where some tiny bird is passing from spray to spray. It may be a white-throat creeping among the nettles after his wont, or a wren. The spot where he was but a second since may be traced by the trembling of the leaves, but the keenest attention may fail to detect where he is now. That slight motion in the hedge, however, conveys an impression of something living everywhere within.

There are birds in the oaks overhead whose voice is audible though they are themselves unseen. From out of the mowing grass, finches rise and fly to the hedge; from the hedge again others fly out, and, descending into the grass, are concealed as in a forest. A thrush travelling along the hedgerow just outside goes by the gateway within a yard. Bees come upon the light wind, gliding with it, but with their bodies aslant across the line of current. Butterflies flutter over the mowing grass, hardly clearing the bennets. Many-coloured insects creep up the sorrel stems and take wing from the summit.

Everything gives forth a sound of life. The twittering of swallows from above, the song of greenfinches in the trees, the rustle of hawthorn sprays moving under the weight of tiny creatures, the buzz upon the breeze; the very flutter of the butterflies’ wings, noiseless as it is, and the wavy movement of the heated air across the field cause a sense of motion and of music.

The leaves are enlarging, and the sap rising, and the hard trunks of the trees swelling with its flow; the grass blades pushing upwards; the seeds completing their shape; the tinted petals uncurling. Dreamily listening, leaning on the gate, all these are audible to the inner senses, while the ear follows the midsummer hum, now sinking, now sonorously increasing over the oaks. An effulgence fills the southern boughs, which the eye cannot sustain, but which it knows is there.

The sun at its meridian pours forth his light, forgetting, in all the inspiration of his strength and glory, that without an altar-screen of green his love must scorch. Joy in life; joy in life. The ears listen, and want more: the eyes are gratified with gazing, and desire yet further; the nostrils are filled with the sweet odours of flower and sap. The touch, too, has its pleasures, dallying with leaf and flower. Can you not almost grasp the odour-laden air and hold it in the hollow of the hand?

Leaving the spot at last, and turning again into the lane, the shadows dance upon the white dust under the feet, irregularly circular spots of light surrounded with umbra shift with the shifting branches. By the wayside lie rings of dandelion stalks carelessly cast down by the child who made them, and tufts of delicate grasses gathered for their beauty but now sprinkled with dust. Wisps of hay hang from the lower boughs of the oaks where they brushed against the passing load.

After a time, when the corn is ripening, the herb betony flowers on the mounds under the oaks. Following the lane down the hill and across the small furze common at the bottom, the marks of traffic fade away, the dust ceases, and is succeeded by sward. The hedgerows on either side are here higher than ever, and are thickly fringed with bramble bushes, which sometimes encroach on the waggon ruts in the middle, and are covered with flowers, and red, and green, and ripe blackberries together.”

THE SKYLARK

Simon Coleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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