A MORE BEAUTIFUL LIFE 

                               SIMON COLEMAN                                

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“Begin wholly afresh. Go straight to the sun, the immense forces of the universe, to the Entity unknown; go higher than a god; deeper than prayer; and open a new day.”

(‘The Story of My Heart’)

 

Jefferies reached a point in his life when he felt himself standing face to face with the great unknown, having erased much of traditional learning and culture from his mind.  With this feeling came a need to search for ‘higher’ ideas that might improve human life.  This search  became central to his life and it was heart-driven.  It was individual; sometimes passionate, sometimes calm and philosophical.

 

Reading ‘The Story of My Heart’, we find that the concentrated energy of the individual search gradually flows outwards to engage with the more universal questions of human existence.  It was not a purely personal journey.

 

“How pleasant it would be each day to think, To-day I have done something that will tend to render future generations more happy. The very thought would make this hour sweeter. It is absolutely necessary that something of this kind should be discovered. First, we must lay down the axiom that as yet nothing has been found; we have nothing to start with; all has to be begun afresh. All courses or methods of human life have hitherto been failures. Some course of life is needed based on things that are, irrespective of tradition. The physical ideal must be kept steadily in view.”

 

We could obviously take issue with the idea that ‘nothing has been found’ to improve human life, but Jefferies is speaking from the heart; I would prefer to say that he is thinking from the heart.  His body and its senses, his thought and emotions are all within the heart, and through their combined actions he is able to conceive a better human life: a more beautiful, free and hope-embracing life that moves away from past beliefs.  To this vision the magical, calm and dynamic presence of Nature is central.

 

At some level of being, human life is in harmony with the laws of Nature.  I don’t mean the scientific laws of nature which are the product of purely intellectual drives.  Let’s turn to the great American poet, Walt Whitman, who, in his ‘Leaves of Grass’, admired the cohesion and order of Nature, the earth and the universe.

 

 

“The soul is always beautiful,

The universe is duly in order, every thing is in its place,

What has arrived is in its place and what waits shall be in its place”

(‘The Sleepers’)

 

He sees no imperfection anywhere in Nature.

 

“Pleasantly and well-suited I walk,

Whither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good,

The whole universe indicates that it is good,

The past and the present indicate that it is good.

 

How beautiful and perfect are the animals!

How perfect the earth, and the minutest thing upon it!

What is called good is perfect, and what is called bad is just as perfect,

The vegetables and minerals are all perfect, and the imponderable

      fluids perfect;

Slowly and surely they have pass’d on to this, and slowly and surely

      they yet pass on.”

(‘Song of Myself’)

 

The natural order of the universe is in accord with the quality of the human heart which understands beauty and recognises the subtle truths woven into our lives.  Whitman was less concerned than Jefferies with actively searching for something of true value to mankind – he saw beauty and meaning everywhere.  Their language is different but both were exceptionally well attuned to their physical senses and responded instinctively to Nature.  From these responses they created great spiritual language, at times bringing mankind and Nature together in a perfect fusion.

 

The principal desire shared by Jefferies and Whitman was to make human life as perfect as possible; in other words, as beautiful and natural as possible.  To some this is simply pointless idealism but, in the view of Jefferies and Whitman, the existence of an ideal in the heart is a requirement for a full and healthy life.   If the perfect life is even to be imagined, Nature’s beauty must be invoked.   In the following passage from ‘The Story of My Heart’, Jefferies, while looking at Greek sculptures (which express both the ideal and the real), has a vision of supreme calm and beauty.  To me, this is real spiritual language: the language of the heart.

 

“The statues are not, it is said, the best; broken too, and mutilated, and seen in a dull, commonplace light. But they were shape—divine shape of man and woman; the form of limb and torso, of bust and neck, gave me a sighing sense of rest. These were they who would have stayed with me under the shadow of the oaks while the blackbirds fluted and the south air swung the cowslips. They would have walked with me among the reddened gold of the wheat. They would have rested with me on the hill-tops and in the narrow valley grooved of ancient times. They would have listened with me to the sob of the summer sea drinking the land. These had thirsted of sun, and earth, and sea, and sky. Their shape spoke this thirst and desire like mine—if I had lived with them from Greece till now I should not have had enough of them. Tracing the form of limb and torso with the eye gave me a sense of rest.

Sometimes I came in from the crowded streets and ceaseless hum; one glance at these shapes and I became myself. Sometimes I came from the Reading-room [of the British Museum], where under the dome I often looked up from the desk and realised the crushing hopelessness of books, useless, not equal to one bubble borne along on the running brook I had walked by, giving no thought like the spring when I lifted the water in my hand and saw the light gleam on it. Torso and limb, bust and neck instantly returned me to myself; I felt as I did lying on the turf listening to the wind among the grass; it would have seemed natural to have found butterflies fluttering among the statues. The same deep desire was with me. I shall always go to speak to them; they are a place of pilgrimage; wherever there is a beautiful statue there is a place of pilgrimage.”

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Signs of Spring

Rebecca Welshman

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Jefferies’ field notebooks are full of references to the passing seasons. Each year he carefully noted the first signs of spring and summer and found happiness in the visible tokens of the seasons as they returned.  As he wrote in The Open Air “I knew the very dates of them all—the reddening elm, the arum, the hawthorn leaf, the celandine, the may; the yellow iris of the waters, the heath of the hillside. The time of the nightingale—the place to hear the first note.”

The first arum is often noted, and he looks for it on the banks of woodlands or along the edges of lanes. In ‘Nature Near London’ he notes the connection between the arrival of spring plants and the activities of the birds:

“The spotted leaves of the arum appeared in the ditches in this locality very nearly simultaneously with the first whistling of the blackbirds in February; last spring the chiffchaff sang soon after the flowering of the lesser celandine (not in this hedge, but near by), and the first swift was noticed within a day or two of the opening of the May bloom. Although not exactly, yet in a measure, the movements of plant and bird life correspond.”

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In ‘The Life of the Fields’ he describes a few warm days in early spring when it is possible to see and feel the growth of the season. An expanse of agricultural land, which in the winter months assumed a dreary and monotonous aspect, is lightened by the hazy sunshine. Larks are singing, and the bare banks that fringe the woods are slowly turning green:

“It is the February summer that comes, and lasts a week or so between the January frosts and the east winds that rush through the thorns. Some little green is even now visible along the mound where seed-leaves are springing up. The sun is warm, and the still air genial, the sky only dotted with a few white clouds. Wood-pigeons are busy in the elms, where the ivy is thick with ripe berries. There is a feeling of spring and of growth; in a day or two we shall find violets; and listen, how sweetly the larks are singing! Some chase each other, and then hover fluttering above the hedge. The stubble, whitened by exposure to the weather, looks lighter in the sunshine, and the distant view is softened by haze. A water-tank approaches, and the cart-horse steps in the pride of strength. The carter’s lad goes to look at the engine and to wonder at the uses of the gauge. All the brazen parts gleam in the bright sun, and the driver presses some waste against the piston now it works slowly, till it shines like polished silver. The red glow within, as the furnace-door is opened, lights up the lad’s studious face beneath like sunset. A few brown leaves yet cling to one bough of the oak, and the rooks come over cawing happily in the unwonted warmth. The low hum and the monotonous clanking, the rustling of the wire rope, give a sense of quiet. Let us wander along the hedge, and look for signs of spring. This is to-day. To-morrow, if we come, the engines are half hidden from afar by driving sleet and scattered snow-flakes fleeting aslant the field. Still sternly they labour in the cold and gloom. …

Among the meadows the buttercups in spring are as innumerable as ever and as pleasant to look upon. The petal of the buttercup has an enamel of gold; with the nail you may scrape it off, leaving still a yellow ground, but not reflecting the sunlight like the outer layer. From the centre the golden pollen covers the fingers with dust like that from the wing of a butterfly. In the bunches of grass and by the gateways the germander speedwell looks like tiny specks of blue stolen, like Prometheus’ fire, from the summer sky. When the mowing-grass is ripe the heads of sorrel are so thick and close that at a little distance the surface seems as if sunset were always shining red upon it. From the spotted orchis leaves in April to the honeysuckle-clover in June, and the rose and the honeysuckle itself, the meadow has changed in nothing that delights the eye. The draining, indeed, has made it more comfortable to walk about on, and some of the rougher grasses have gone from the furrows, diminishing at the same time the number of cardamine flowers; but of these there are hundreds by the side of every tiny rivulet of water, and the aquatic grasses flourish in every ditch. The meadow-farmers, dairymen, have not grubbed many hedges–only a few, to enlarge the fields, too small before, by throwing two into one. So that hawthorn and blackthorn, ash and willow, with their varied hues of green in spring, briar and bramble, with blackberries and hips later on, are still there as in the old, old time. Bluebells, violets, cowslips–the same old favourite flowers–may be found on the mounds or sheltered near by. The meadow-farmers have dealt mercifully with the hedges, because they know that for shade in heat and shelter in storm the cattle resort to them. The hedges–yes, the hedges, the very synonym of Merry England–are yet there, and long may they remain. Without hedges England would not be England. Hedges, thick and high, and full of flowers, birds, and living creatures, of shade and flecks of sunshine dancing up and down the bark of the trees–I love their very thorns. You do not know how much there is in the hedges.

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Image source: cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk

We have still the woods, with here and there a forest, the beauty of the hills, and the charm of winding brooks. I never see roads, or horses, men, or anything when I get beside a brook. There is the grass, and the wheat, the clouds, the delicious sky, and the wind, and the sunlight which falls on the heart like a song. It is the same, the very same, only I think it is brighter and more lovely now than it was twenty years ago.”

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

FLOWERS AND FARMLAND

Simon Coleman

poppies simon blog

Source: http://il9.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/6578054/thumb/4.jpg

In this purely descriptive passage from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ (1879), Jefferies discusses various flowers found in and around cultivated land.  We can see both his fascination with habitats and understanding of what, today, would be termed ‘ecology’.

 

“On the other side the plough has left a narrow strip of green running along the hedge: the horses, requiring some space in which to turn at the end of each furrow, could not draw the share any nearer, and on this narrow strip the weeds and wild flowers flourish. The light-sulphur-coloured charlock is scattered everywhere—out among the corn, too, for no cleaning seems capable of eradicating this plant; the seeds will linger in the earth and retain their germinating power for a length of time, till the plough brings them near enough to the surface, when they are sure to shoot up unless the pigeons find them. Here also may be found the wild garlic, which sometimes gets among the wheat and lends an onion-like flavour to the bread. It grows, too, on the edge of the low chalky banks overhanging the narrow waggon-track, whose ruts are deep in the rubble—worn so in winter.

 

Such places, close to cultivated land yet undisturbed, are the best in which to look for wild flowers; and on the narrow strip beside the hedge and on the crumbling rubble bank of the rough track may be found a greater variety than by searching the broad acres beyond. In the season the large white bell-like flowers of the convolvulus will climb over the hawthorn, and the lesser striped kind will creep along the ground. The pink pimpernel hides on the very verge of the corn, which presently will be strewn with the beautiful ‘blue-bottle’ flower, than whose exquisite hue there is nothing more lovely in our fields. The great scarlet poppy with the black centre, and ‘eggs and butter’—curious name for a flower—will, of course, be there: the latter often flourishes on a high elevation, on the very ridges, provided only the plough has been near.”

 

 

FLOWERS AT COOMBE OAKS

Simon Coleman

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Source: http://cheam.mycouncillor.org.uk/files/2014/04/Spring-Flowers-1.jpg

Towards the end of Jefferies’ last novel, ‘Amaryllis at the Fair’ (1887), a curious character from London turns up in the remote hamlet of Coombe Oaks.  He is Alere Flamma, a Fleet Street artist and engraver, who is bohemian in spirit and widely-travelled.  Jefferies presents him as the artist who is absolutely faithful to the beauty of nature, who knows instinctively what to draw and, above all, who loves wild flowers.

 

“If only Alere would have gone and sketched what he was asked to sketch! Ah! there is the difference; he could not do it, his nature would not let him; he could draw what he saw with his own eyes, but not what other people wanted him to see. A merry income he might have made if he would only have consented to see what other eyes – common, vulgar eyes – wanted to see, and which he could so easily have drawn for them.

 

Out of these piles of varied sketches there were two kinds the Editor instantly snapped at: the one was wild flowers, the other little landscape bits.

 

Wild flowers were his passion. They were to Flamma as Juliet to Romeo. Romeo’s love, indeed, rushed up like straw on fire, a great blaze of flame; he perished in it as the straw; perhaps he might not have worshipped Juliet next year. Flamma had loved his wild flowers close upon forty years, ever since he could remember; most likely longer, for doubtless the dumb infant loved the daisies put in his chubby hand.

 

His passion they were still as he drew near fifty, and saw all things become commonplace. That is the saddest of thoughts – as we grow older the romance fades, and all things become commonplace.

 

Half our lives are spent in wishing for to-morrow, the other half in wishing for yesterday.

 

Wild flowers alone never become commonplace. The white wood-sorrel at the foot of the oak, the violet in the hedge of the vale, the thyme on the wind-swept downs, they were as fresh this year as last, as dear to-day as twenty years since, even dearer, for they grow now, as it were, in the earth we have made for them of our hopes, our prayers, our emotions, our thoughts.

 

Sketch-book upon sketch-book in Alere’s room was full of wild flowers, drawn as he had found them in the lanes and woods at Coombe Oaks – by the footpaths, by the lake and the lesser ponds, on the hills – as he had found them, not formed into an artificial design, not torn up by the roots, or cut and posed for the occasion – exactly as they were when his eye caught sight of them. A difficult thing to do, but Alere did it.

 

In printing engravings of flowers the illustrated magazines usually make one of two mistakes; either the flower is printed without any surroundings or background, and looks thin, quite without interest, however cleverly drawn, or else it is presented with a heavy black pall of ink which dabs it out altogether.

 

These flowers the Editor bought eagerly, and the little landscapes. From a stile, beside a rick, through a gap in a hedge, odd, unexpected places, Alere caught views of the lake, the vale, the wood, groups of trees, old houses, and got them in his magical way on a few square inches of paper. They were very valuable for book illustration. They were absolutely true to nature and fact.”

‘THE LONG-LIVED SUMMER DAYS’

Simon Coleman

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In the following two passages Jefferies demonstrates how far he has progressed from his early writing which earned him a reputation as a naturalist and a chronicler of rural life. His prose now feels completely in tune with nature, being able to communicate his deep and reverent absorption in the life all around him. The great universal life principle is expressing itself everywhere, and he knows he is as much a part of it as the grasses and the butterflies. It is enough for him just to be alive in these long days of sunlight.

From ‘The Story of My Heart’ (1883)

The long-lived summer days dried and warmed the turf in the meadows. I used to lie down in solitary corners at full length on my back, so as to feel the embrace of the earth. 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, greenfinches sang in the hedge. Gradually entering into the intense life of the summer days—a life which burned around as if every grass blade and leaf were a torch—I came to feel the long-drawn life of the earth back into the dimmest past, while the sun of the moment was warm on me…..Dreamy in appearance, I was breathing full of existence; I was aware of the grass blades, the flowers, the leaves on hawthorn and tree. I seemed to live more largely through them, as if each were a pore through which I drank. The grasshoppers called and leaped, the greenfinches sang, the blackbirds happily fluted, all the air hummed with life. I was plunged deep in existence…”

From ‘The July Grass’ in ‘Field and Hedgerow’ (1889)

The fly whirls his scarlet-spotted wings about and splashes himself with sunlight, like the children on the sands. He thinks not of the grass and sun; he does not heed them at all—and that is why he is so happy — any more than the barefoot children ask why the sea is there, or why it does not quite dry up when it ebbs. He is unconscious; he lives without thinking about living; and if the sunshine were a hundred hours long, still it would not be long enough. No, never enough of sun and sliding shadows that come like a hand over the table to lovingly reach our shoulder, never enough of the grass that smells sweet as a flower, not if we could live years and years equal in number to the tides that have ebbed and flowed counting backwards four years to every day and night, backward still till we found out which came first, the night or the day. The scarlet-dotted fly knows nothing of the names of the grasses that grow here where the sward nears the sea, and thinking of him I have decided not to wilfully seek to learn any more of their names either. My big grass book I have left at home, and the dust is settling on the gold of the binding. I have picked a handful this morning of which I know nothing. I will sit here on the turf and the scarlet-dotted flies shall pass over me, as if I too were but a grass. I will not think, I will be unconscious, I will live.”

Joy in Life

Simon Coleman

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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 LAST SPRING

Simon Coleman

blackbird feeding chicks

Source: http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/65886000/jpg/_65886820_maleblackbirdfeedingchickskevinlangham.jpg

In his fine essay, ‘Hours of Spring’, written late in his life, Jefferies once again combines his senses and mind to filter the sounds, colours and odours of early spring into a river of deep feeling.  In the first quotation below, the opening paragraph of the essay, nature seems to possess the power of communication, ‘speaking’ to him of some hidden meaning that is present everywhere.

The tragedy behind ‘Hours of Spring’ is that Jefferies was dying of tuberculosis at the time of writing.  While he could hear some birdsong, he was unable to get out of doors to welcome in the new season and the re-birth of life.  But still he knew everything that was happening in the garden and the fields – his heart’s memory truthfully re-created it.  Perhaps there is a wonderful poignancy in his description of the wind.  While he can’t go out to touch the things that bring joy, he thinks of the wind which touches everything and ‘crumbles the earth in its fingers’.

“It is sweet on awaking in the early morn to listen to the small bird singing on the tree. No sound of voice or flute is like to the bird’s song; there is something in it distinct and separate from all other notes. The throat of woman gives forth a more perfect music, and the organ is the glory of man’s soul. The bird upon the tree utters the meaning of the wind—a voice of the grass and wild flower, words of the green leaf; they speak through that slender tone. Sweetness of dew and rifts of sunshine, the dark hawthorn touched with breadths of open bud, the odour of the air, the colour of the daffodil—all that is delicious and beloved of spring-time are expressed in his song. Genius is nature, and his lay, like the sap in the bough from which he sings, rises without thought. Nor is it necessary that it should be a song; a few short notes in the sharp spring morning are sufficient to stir the heart. But yesterday the least of them all came to a bough by my window, and in his call I heard the sweet-briar wind rushing over the young grass. Refulgent fall the golden rays of the sun; a minute only, the clouds cover him and the hedge is dark. The bloom of the gorse is shut like a book; but it is there—a few hours of warmth and the covers will fall open. The meadow is bare, but in a little while the heart-shaped celandine leaves will come in their accustomed place. On the pollard willows the long wands are yellow-ruddy in the passing gleam of sunshine, the first colour of spring appears in their bark. The delicious wind rushes among them and they bow and rise; it touches the top of the dark pine that looks in the sun the same now as in summer; it lifts and swings the arching trail of bramble; it dries and crumbles the earth in its fingers; the hedge-sparrow’s feathers are fluttered as he sings on the bush.”

The obvious intimacy between his senses and his mind is what seems to give his writing its ‘living’ quality.  His scenes are much more than descriptions.  His mind reads from the book of nature, where every event unfolds in its own time.  Behind his words we sense the presence of his heart, trying always to reach what is beautiful.  It finds something of itself in every fresh sight and sound and, being a whole entity, it perceives nature also as a whole.

Unlike ‘The Pageant of Summer’ and ‘Meadow Thoughts’, ‘Hours of Spring’ has a pronounced, and understandable, strain of melancholy.  The spring will come and go without him, but his work has bequeathed to us something of the magic of all English springs.  The season was always new to Jefferies and the earth ever-young, because his heart was ever-young.

“The green hawthorn buds prophesy on the hedge; the reed pushes up in the moist earth like a spear thrust through a shield; the eggs of the starling are laid in the knot-hole of the pollard elm—common eggs, but within each a speck that is not to be found in the cut diamond of two hundred carats—the dot of protoplasm, the atom of life. There was one row of pollards where they always began laying first. With a big stick in his beak the rook is blown aside like a loose feather in the wind; he knows his building-time from the fathers of his house—hereditary knowledge handed down in settled course: but the stray things of the hedge, how do they know? The great blackbird has planted his nest by the ash-stole, open to every one’s view, without a bough to conceal it and not a leaf on the ash—nothing but the moss on the lower end of the branches. He does not seek cunningly for concealment. I think of the drift of time, and I see the apple bloom coming and the blue veronica in the grass. A thousand thousand buds and leaves and flowers and blades of grass, things to note day by day, increasing so rapidly that no pencil can put them down and no book hold them, not even to number them—and how to write the thoughts they give? All these without me—how can they manage without me?”

 

The despair contained in the last sentence above is gradually absorbed as the essay moves forward.  Jefferies reaches out beyond personal unhappiness to bring the human condition into sharp focus.  Nature can be loved for her beauty but we humans have no special place in the scheme of life.  We have to help ourselves as a species, and for this we need some sense of an ideal.  Realising that his time was running out, Jefferies felt out into the future, hopeful that those to follow him would in time enjoy a more beautiful and fulfilled life.  He reminds us that this is the only reason to have a future – to imagine it as better than the present – and that we should do something now, while we can, to realise its potential.  The emergence of every spring from winter and the continual re-birth of life is the clearest illustration of this universal principle.

“The bitter truth that human life is no more to the universe than that of the unnoticed hill-snail in the grass should make us think more and more highly of ourselves as human—as men—living things that think. We must look to ourselves to help ourselves. We must think ourselves into an earthly immortality. By day and by night, by years and by centuries, still striving, studying, searching to find that which shall enable us to live a fuller life upon the earth—to have a wider grasp upon its violets and loveliness, a deeper draught of the sweet-briar wind. Because my heart beats feebly to-day, my trickling pulse scarcely notating the passing of the time, so much the more do I hope that those to come in future years may see wider and enjoy fuller than I have done; and so much the more gladly would I do all that I could to enlarge the life that shall be then. There is no hope on the old lines—they are dead, like the empty shells; from the sweet delicious violets think out fresh petals of thought and colours, as it were, of soul.”

NATURE AND THE HUMAN HEART

Simon Coleman

sunlight on water

Source: http://ak.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/5957222/preview/stock-footage-sunlight-reflection-in-river-star-reflections-on-stream-running-water-sunset.jpg

In his autobiography, The Story of My Heart, Richard Jefferies relates some of his moving and profound experiences in the natural world. Of one such experience he writes:

“The rich blue of the unattainable flower of the sky drew my soul towards it, and there it rested, for pure colour is rest of heart.”

Interestingly, a similar idea occurred to the great 17th century Japanese haiku master, Matsuo Basho:

“A flower unknown
To bird and butterfly –
The sky of autumn.”

So often in his writing Jefferies celebrates colour in nature, whether it’s the cowslips and violets of the field or the fresh green of the beeches. It was his heart that received their pure and delicate hues and which “opened wide as the broad, broad earth.” “Rest of heart” was a state which allowed him to experience a wider and deeper sense of being. The condition of gratitude for merely being alive on this earth also pervades his writing. This calmness of heart could perhaps open up possibilities for creating more ‘natural’ patterns of thought and feeling in the world, as opposed to the ‘goal-directed’ patterns that are so dominant at present.

We in the West tend to equate the heart with the seat of the emotions only and separate it from the ‘rational’ mind. In eastern traditions, however, the heart is more than this: it is a whole reality which, in its true state, contains the mind. It is critical in bringing balance and structure to life. Attempting to realise the nature of the heart would be a genuine spiritual journey. In today’s increasingly excitable and sensation-driven society, it is not easy to bring a sense of depth and balance to life. To achieve this, the presence of the heart is necessary.

Richard Jefferies’ heart led him to the fields and woods, to the banks of clear streams where the sunlight sparkled and the breeze rustled the leaves above. He didn’t go to lengths to plan out his days – he simply responded to a natural instinct to seek beauty in the open air,

“…to drink deeply once more at the fresh fountains of life. An inspiration—a long deep breath of the pure air of thought—could alone give health to the heart.”

The above quote is from the first paragraph of The Story of My Heart. He immediately links thought to the heart. Natural thought is what he seeks: thought which arises from sensitive contact with nature, not the type that is concerned with information, conventional learning, projects, concepts and all the minutiae of daily life. In the essay ‘On the Downs’, he writes:

“Three-fourths of the mind still sleeps. That little atom of it needed to conduct the daily routine of the world is, indeed, often strained to the utmost. That small part of it, again, occasionally exercised in re-learning ancient thoughts, is scarcely half employed—small as it is. There is so much more capacity in the inner mind—a capacity of which but few even dream. Until favourable times and chances bring fresh materials for it, it is not conscious of itself. Light and freedom, colour, and delicious air—sunshine, blue hill lines, and flowers—give the heart to feel that there is so much more to be enjoyed of which we walk in ignorance.”

The heart is the key to unlocking this almost limitless potential of the ‘inner mind’, but it has to awaken to it.

“By looking at this blue hill line this dormant power within the mind becomes partly visible; the heart wakes up to it.”

Returning to the autobiography, we can also find examples of Jefferies seeking this natural, ‘pure’ thought from the elements of nature, or any particular one of them:

“There was a secluded spring to which I sometimes went to drink the pure water, lifting it in the hollow of my hand. Drinking the lucid water, clear as light itself in solution, I absorbed the beauty and purity of it. I drank the thought of the element…”

The heart is where this desire comes from: more precisely, perhaps, it is itself the desire. But all this feeling for nature and its beauty would, of course, be futile if the heart were not also capable of pure love and sympathy for other human beings. Jefferies is as interested in the happiness of the human race and the realisation of love as anyone who has ever put pen to paper.

“I hope succeeding generations will be able to be ideal. I hope that nine-tenths of their time will be leisure time; that they may enjoy their days, and the earth, and the beauty of this beautiful world; that they may rest by the sea and dream; that they may dance and sing, and eat and drink. I will work towards that end with all my heart.”

Most of the second half of the book is devoted to hopes for a more fulfilled human life: i.e., the development of a stronger, healthier body and the expansion of the mind to its full potential. This would be a natural consequence of an awakened heart, conscious of the ideal life which he terms ‘soul-life’. He saw his writing as work towards that more beautiful existence: it was a labour not merely of love, but of heart. In his essay, ‘The Pageant of Summer’, Jefferies’ philosophy of the beautiful life attains possibly its most complete expression.

“Steeped in flower and pollen to the music of bees and birds, the stream of the atmosphere became a living thing. It was life to breathe it, for the air itself was life. The strength of the earth went up through the leaves into the wind. Fed thus on the food of the Immortals, the heart opened to the width and depth of the summer—to the broad horizon afar, down to the minutest creature in the grass, up to the highest swallow.”

This opening of the heart to bring about a broader feeling for all living things has echoes of Buddhism. Further on in the essay comes an experience of greater depth. The imaginative power of the heart suddenly bursts into the open when he sees a June rose – the first of the summer, a little earlier than expected:

“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.”

Imagining the beauty of past summers, with the sense of their merging into the present, can open up new pathways for feeling. And Jefferies wants this expanded feeling, this knowledge of beauty, to enter all human lives, and to flow on unchecked into the future. Love begins with beauty and the natural awakening of the imagination. Heart awareness is all that is required for this shift in consciousness. Much of the nature of the heart appears to have been forgotten in our world, and the various belief systems and spiritual programmes that have gripped mankind down to this day have not helped us to remember.

In his novel The Dewy Morn (see earlier post ‘Among the Shadows of Summer’), the heroine Felise is unable to feel anything other than love while in the midst of nature. This love is due to “the wonderful mechanism of the mind, the heart, of life”. It arises in her long before she meets a man to love. The heart (and the mind) is a primary reality, like the sun, the air and the grass. Felise’s love grows out of the earth itself, and in its own time it fills her mind with thoughts of love for a man.

For Jefferies, the Greek ideal of perfection of both mind and body was a continual inspiration, permeating his autobiography, novels and many essays. When reading his expression of the ideal life, an understandable reaction is to question the achievability of such a condition. We might easily ask: the world’s never going to be perfect, and nor will we, so shouldn’t we just make the best of things and not fill our minds with empty hopes? Jefferies himself asked that question, but his own heart would never let him abandon those higher hopes. The idea expressed by the Greek statue became a reality somewhere in his imagination and it sought communication and connection with the wider world. The Story of My Heart, a book meditated on for seventeen years and finally written with great urgency following illness, is the record of the presence of that heart-ideal in his life. Did it all come to an end with Jefferies, or might it still have relevance, and resonance, in the world of today?

“How willingly I would strew the paths of all with flowers; how beautiful a delight to make the world joyous! The song should never be silent, the dance never still, the laugh should sound like water which runs for ever.” The Story of My Heart

THE GARDEN OF IDEN

Simon Coleman

garden summerhouse

Source: http://housetohome.media.ipcdigital.co.uk/96/0000119e1/c800_orh550w550/6-Summerhouse–garden–country–Country-Homes–Interiors.jpg

Richard Jefferies published his last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair, in 1887, a few months before his death. Set in a rural farmhouse, Coombe Oaks, it is closely based on Jefferies’ own childhood environment of Coate. Though it lacks a compelling plot and seems to drift through a succession of largely static scenes, it is a remarkable book for a number of reasons. The two central characters, sixteen-year-old Amaryllis Iden and her father (known only as ‘Iden’), are outstandingly drawn. Amaryllis, a lover of wild flowers and a budding artist, is trying to make sense of the intrusion of aggressive creditors into the household, at the same time being discouraged in her creative endeavours by her parents. Iden has been a failure as a farmer and his debts weigh heavily on his family’s life. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of nature, can quote Shakespeare with ease; yet, to Amaryllis’ frustration, he seems content to stand and gossip with the ignorant hamlet-folk.

The great strengths of the novel are its truthful representations of rural life and its ability to examine, with penetrating insight, some of the universal problems of human life. Jefferies loves his characters and remains close to them throughout. The closing chapters see a change in mood with the unexpected arrival of two relatives: Alere Flamma, a London artist and engraver, and a sickly youth, Amadis, from somewhere over the hills. As the spring unfolds around the summer-house, Iden, the two visitors and Amaryllis (who mostly listens) talk ceaselessly, about anything, and everything, content just to be there. Simple human companionship in a beautiful garden, with nature living and growing all around them, is raised to the status of an ideal of life. And it’s all possible because Iden had long ago created the garden. His genius and philosophy now come to the fore. He knows how to work with nature to create not only a beautiful garden, but one to live and dream in, a place with potential for healing, and for love (between Amaryllis and Amadis). Even the orchard gate was the work of great care and expense. A practical man he was not: he built for ‘all time’ rather than for the requirements of the moment. For what the book lacks in narrative it more than compensates by its authenticity in portraying human life and its bond with nature. Its pictures are living ones and the strength of its humanity surely makes it one of the most spiritual books ever written.

The following quotations are from chapters 26 and 34.

“The round summer-house was their Parliament House whenever the east winds sank and the flowers shone forth like sunshine; as the sun shines when the clouds withdraw, so when the harsh east winds cease the May flowers immediately bloom and glow.

It was a large round house, properly builded of brick, as a summer-house should be—put not thy faith in lath work—and therefore dry and warm; to sit in it was like sitting in a shell, warm and comfortable, with a sea of meadow-grass, smooth and coloured, stretching in front, islanded about with oak, and elm, and ash.

The finches came to the boughs that hung over the ivy-grown thatch, and sang in the sycamore opposite the door, and in the apple-trees, whose bloom hung down almost to the ground.

These apple-trees, which Iden had planted, flung sackfuls of bloom at his feet. They poured themselves out in abandoned, open-armed, spendthrift, wasteful—perfectly prodigal—quantities of rose-tinted petal; prodigal as a river which flows full to the brim, never questioning but what there will be plenty of water to follow.

Flowers, and trees, and grass, seemed to spring up wherever Iden set down his foot: fruit and flowers fell from the air down upon him. It was his genius to make things grow—like sunshine and shower; a sort of Pan, a half-god of leaves and boughs, and reeds and streams, a sort of Nature in human shape, moving about and sowing Plenty and Beauty.

One side of the summer-house was a thick holly-bush, Iden had set it there; he builded the summer-house and set the ivy; and the pippin at the back, whose bloom was white; the copper-birch near by; the great sycamore alone had been there before him, but he set a seat under it, and got woodbine to flower there; the drooping-ash he planted, and if Amaryllis stood under it when the tree was in full leaf you could not see her, it made so complete an arbour; the Spanish oak in the corner; the box hedge along the ha-ha parapet; the red currants against the red wall; the big peony yonder; the damsons and pear; the yellow honey-bush; all these, and this was but one square, one mosaic of the garden, half of it sward, too, and besides these there was the rhubarb-patch at one corner; fruit, flowers, plants, and herbs, lavender, parsley, which has a very pleasant green, growing in a thick bunch, roses, pale sage—read Boccaccio and the sad story of the leaf of sage—ask Nature if you wish to know how many things more there were.

A place to eat and drink, and think of nothing in, listening to the goldfinches, and watching them carry up the moss, and lichen, and slender fibres for their nest in the fork of the apple; listening to the swallows as they twittered past, or stayed on the sharp, high top of the pear tree; to the vehement starlings, whistling and screeching like Mrs. Iden herself, on the chimneys; chaffinches “chink, chink,” thrushes, distant blackbirds, who like oaks; “cuckoo, cuckoo,” “crake, crake,” buzzing and burring of bees, coo of turtle-doves, now and then a neigh, to remind you that there were horses, fulness and richness of musical sound; a world of grass and leaf, humming like a hive with voices.

When the east wind ceases, and the sun shines above, and the flowers beneath, “a summer’s day in lusty May,” then is the time an Interlude in Heaven.

And all this, summer-house and all, had dropped out of the pocket of Iden’s ragged old coat…

Amaryllis went outside the court, and waited; Amadis rose and followed her. “Come a little way into the Brook-Field,” she said.

They left the apple-bloom behind them, and going down the gravel-path passed the plum trees—the daffodils there were over now—by the strawberry patch which Iden had planted under the parlour window; by the great box-hedge where a thrush sat on her nest undisturbed, though Amaryllis’s dress brushed the branches; by the espalier apple, to the little orchard-gate.

The parlour-window—there are no parlours now, except in old country houses; there were parlours in the days of Queen Anne; in the modern villas they have drawing-rooms.

The parlour-window hung over with pear-tree branches, planted beneath with strawberry; white blossom above, white flower beneath; birds’ nests in the branches of the pear—that was Iden.

They opened the little orchard-gate which pushed heavily against the tall meadow-grass growing between the bars. The path was almost gone—grown out with grass, and as they moved they left a broad trail behind them…

Iden’s flag-basket of tools lay by the gate, it was a new gate, and he had been fitting it before he went in to lunch. His basket was of flag because the substance of the flag is soft, and the tools, chisels, and so on, laid pleasant in it; he must have everything right. The new gate was of solid oak, no “sappy” stuff, real heart of oak, well-seasoned, without a split, fine, close-grained timber, cut on the farm, and kept till it was thoroughly fit, genuine English oak. If you would only consider Iden’s gate you might see there the man.

This gateway was only between two meadows, and the ordinary farmer, when the old gate wore out, would have stopped it with a couple of rails, or a hurdle or two, something very, very cheap and rough; at most a gate knocked up by the village carpenter of ash and willow, at the lowest possible charge.

Iden could not find a carpenter good enough to make his gate in the hamlet; he sent for one ten miles, and paid him full carpenter’s wages. He was not satisfied then, he watched the man at his work to see that the least little detail was done correctly, till the fellow would have left the job, had he not been made pliable by the Goliath ale. So he just stretched the job out as long as he could, and talked and talked with Iden, and stroked him the right way, and drank the ale, and “played it upon me and on William, That day in a way I despise.” Till what with the planing, and shaving, and smoothing, and morticing, and ale, and time, it footed up a pretty bill, enough for three commonplace gates, not of the Iden style.

Why, Iden had put away those pieces of timber years before for this very purpose, and had watched the sawyers saw them out at the pit. They would have made good oak furniture. There was nothing special or particular about this gateway; he had done the same in turn for every gateway on the farm; it was the Iden way.

A splendid gate it was, when it was finished, fit for a nobleman’s Home Park. I doubt, if you would find such a gate, so well proportioned, and made of such material on any great estate in the kingdom. For not even dukes can get an Iden to look after their property. An Iden is not to be “picked up,” I can tell you….

The neighbourhood round about could never understand Iden, never could see why he had gone to such great trouble to render the homestead beautiful with trees, why he had re-planted the orchard with pleasant eating apples in the place of the old cider apples, hard and sour. “Why wouldn’t thaay a’ done for he as well as for we?”

All the acts of Iden seemed to the neighbourhood to be the acts of a “vool.”

When he cut a hedge, for instance, Iden used to have the great bushes that bore unusually fine May bloom saved from the billhook, that they might flower in the spring. So, too, with the crab-apples—for the sake of the white blossom; so, too, with the hazel—for the nuts…

In truth Iden built for all time, and not for the little circumstance of the hour. His gate was meant to last for years, rain and shine, to endure any amount of usage, to be a work of Art in itself…

If only he could have lived three hundred years the greater world would have begun to find out Iden and to idolize him, and make pilgrimages from over sea to Coombe Oaks, to hear him talk, for Iden could talk of the trees and grass, and all that the Earth bears, as if one had conversed face to face with the great god Pan himself.”

WILD THYME OF THE HILLS

wildmountainthyme1

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

by Simon Coleman

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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