The July Grass

Simon Coleman

july grass

Source: http://foottrails.co.uk/dorsets-meadows-weave-their-spell/

Complete text here of a short essay, ‘The July Grass’, from Jefferies’ last collection, ‘Field and Hedgerow’.  To live unconsciously among beautiful things and to show us how easily accessible they are: this is the simple mission of his life.  It comes to the fore in this essay of close-up and sensitive observation, leading us into areas of feeling that lie beyond the reach of conventional nature-studies.  The following sentence can perhaps stand as an expression of his life-desire, ‘philosophy’ or mission:  “I wish I could do something more than gaze at all this scarlet and gold and crimson and green, something more than see it, not exactly to drink it or inhale it, but in some way to make it part of me that I might live it.”

 

“A July fly went sideways over the long grass. His wings made a burr about him like a net, beating so fast they wrapped him round with a cloud. Every now and then, as he flew over the trees of grass, a taller one than common stopped him, and there he clung, and then the eye had time to see the scarlet spots—the loveliest colour—on his wings. The wind swung the bennet and loosened his hold, and away he went again over the grasses, and not one jot did he care if they were Poa or Festuca, or Bromus or Hordeum, or any other name. Names were nothing to him; all he had to do was to whirl his scarlet spots about in the brilliant sun, rest when he liked, and go on again. I wonder whether it is a joy to have bright scarlet spots, and to be clad in the purple and gold of life; is the colour felt by the creature that wears it? The rose, restful of a dewy morn before the sunbeams have topped the garden wall, must feel a joy in its own fragrance, and know the exquisite hue of its stained petals. The rose sleeps in its beauty.

 

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.

 

Listen! that was the low sound of a summer wavelet striking the uncovered rock over there beneath in the green sea. All things that are beautiful are found by chance, like everything that is good. Here by me is a praying-rug, just wide enough to kneel on, of the richest gold inwoven with crimson. All the Sultans of the East never had such beauty as that to kneel on. It is, indeed, too beautiful to kneel on, for the life in these golden flowers must not be broken down even for that purpose. They must not be defaced, not a stem bent; it is more reverent not to kneel on them, for this carpet prays itself I will sit by it and let it pray for me. It is so common, the bird’s-foot lotus, it grows everywhere; yet if I purposely searched for days I should not have found a plot like this, so rich, so golden, so glowing with sunshine. You might pass by it in one stride, yet it is worthy to be thought of for a week and remembered for a year. Slender grasses, branched round about with slenderer boughs, each tipped with pollen and rising in tiers cone-shaped—too delicate to grow tall—cluster at the base of the mound. They dare not grow tall or the wind would snap them. A great grass, stout and thick, rises three feet by the hedge, with a head another foot nearly, very green and strong and bold, lifting itself right up to you; you must say, ‘What a fine grass!’ Grasses whose awns succeed each other alternately; grasses whose tops seem flattened; others drooping over the shorter blades beneath; some that you can only find by parting the heavier growth around them; hundreds and hundreds, thousands and thousands. The kingly poppies on the dry summit of the mound take no heed of these, the populace, their subjects so numerous they cannot be numbered. A barren race they are, the proud poppies, lords of the July field, taking no deep root, but raising up a brilliant blazon of scarlet heraldry out of nothing. They are useless, they are bitter, they are allied to sleep and poison and everlasting night; yet they are forgiven because they are not commonplace. Nothing, no abundance of them, can ever make the poppies commonplace. There is genius in them, the genius of colour, and they are saved. Even when they take the room of the corn we must admire them. The mighty multitude of nations, the millions and millions of the grass stretching away in intertangled ranks, through pasture and mead from shore to shore, have no kinship with these their lords. The ruler is always a foreigner. From England to China the native born is no king; the poppies are the Normans of the field. One of these on the mound is very beautiful, a width of petal, a clear silkiness of colour three shades higher than the rest—it is almost dark with scarlet. I wish I could do something more than gaze at all this scarlet and gold and crimson and green, something more than see it, not exactly to drink it or inhale it, but in some way to make it part of me that I might live it.

 

The July grasses must be looked for in corners and out-of-the-way places, and not in the broad acres—the scythe has taken them there. By the wayside on the banks of the lane, near the gateway—look, too, in uninteresting places behind incomplete buildings on the mounds cast up from abandoned foundations where speculation has been and gone. There weeds that would not have found resting-place elsewhere grow unchecked, and uncommon species and unusually large growths appear. Like everything else that is looked for, they are found under unlikely conditions. At the back of ponds, just inside the enclosure of woods, angles of corn-fields, old quarries, that is where to find grasses, or by the sea in the brackish marsh. Some of the finest of them grow by the mere road-side; you may look for others up the lanes in the deep ruts, look too inside the hollow trees by the stream. In a morning you may easily garner together a great sheaf of this harvest. Cut the larger stems aslant, like the reeds imitated deep in old green glass. You must consider as you gather them the height and slenderness of the stems, the droop and degree of curve, the shape and colour of the panicle, the dusting of the pollen, the motion and sway in the wind. The sheaf you may take home with you, but the wind that was among it stays without.”

 

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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.”

Walter Murray: An Unacknowledged English Nature Mystic

A guest post by Tom Wareham

Walter murray034

Walter Murray: Nature Writer

It would be difficult for anyone who loves the writing of Richard Jefferies to have missed the recent boom in Nature writing in the UK. Following the path of Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin, we have benefitted from the work of some brilliant and thought-provoking writers, like Robert Macfarlane, Rob Cowen and Michael McCarthy – to name just a few. All of these express a growing concern about both the threat to Nature and our relationship with it. Richard Jefferies, of course, ranks as one of the great pioneers in exploring this latter point, and his work continues to inspire new writers. But in the earlier 20th century there were others, often unacknowledged. One of these was Walter J C Murray. If you have come across Murray it is most likely to be because of his book Copsford, first published in 1948. It is his most memorable work and was republished several times, the last being in 1986, the year after his death. But it was not his only work, and a study of all his books reveals how much Murray was a Nature Mystic like Jefferies.

Walter Murray was born in Seaford in East Sussex in 1900. His father was a clergyman and school master: (typically we know nothing of his mother). Murray appears to have served in the merchant navy at the end of WW1, and then made his way to London to try and earn a living as a journalist. He found little enthusiasm for the sort of hack-work he was given, recalling : “…my heart was not in it. I was of the country. I could not dip my pen in the life-blood of the city streets. I needed the very song of the shadow-dappled brook to write, with the sound of wild wings in my ears and the scent of wild flowers in my nostrils.”

Part of the problem was that he also loathed the environment of the big city. In particular he hated his bed-sit in Pimlico, “that third-floor-back with its tiny gas fire, its naked electric light and its distressing view.” A few pages later he again remembered that “appalling view of roofs and chimneys and slum yards.” Desperate to escape, he fled from London and sought sanctuary in a derelict and isolated cottage in the Sussex countryside. His description of his first visit to his prospective new home, gives us a clear indication of his intentions: “There was rain in the wind now, and the sky was as grey and sad as ever, yet there was something magical in this lonely countryside with its rough pastures, its unkempt hedges, snowy with ragged blackthorn, its woodlands hazy green, its winding brooks…..As I looked at the view from the top of the hill I thought of summer days. Through the grey curtains of rain that were now drawing across the wooded landscape I saw in imagination, summer blue, when all the shimmering countryside would be at my very door…I saw the possibility of doing what it had often been my great desire to do, to live alone and at one with Nature.

For the following year Murray lived in relative seclusion and isolation, spending his time by writing and collecting herbs for dispatch to London. In some ways, he seems to have replicated the experience of Thoreau a century earlier, observing at one stage “…simplification is, I believe, what millions are a-seeking, particularly in the appreciation of life and beauty.” Certainly over the course of the year Murray drew closer and closer to Nature. This observation, for example, was inspired early on a June morning: “It sometimes happens, at rare moments in our lives, we are suddenly aware of an altogether new world, different completely from that in which we commonly live. We feel as though we stand at the threshold of an undiscovered kingdom; for brief moments we understand life interpreted, we perceive meaning instead of things. In those golden minutes I understood every word on a single page of the magic book of life inscribed in a language neither written nor spoken. There was sublime tranquillity in the level white mists of the valley, a symphony like the ascending melodies of Greig in the sun rays that climbed aslant the hill, a quiet strength in the stillness of the trees, a brotherhood of life in all living things. I was no longer a single life pushing a difficult way amidst material things, I was part of all creation…It was a baptism into a saner way of living and thinking. The soreness of the slave-collar was salved. It was an outward and visible sign of my inward awareness of at-one-ment.”

Readers of The Story of My Heart will recognise what Murray is referring to here. But Murray also records a change in his relationship with Nature during the course of the year. At one point he describes his search for the herb centaury: “The search for it… sent me far and wide through deep woods and forest rides, into flowery clearings and bracken-clothed commons. I was no longer a fellow of the open lanes and hedgerows, I became a denizen of the woods. I travelled by spinney and copse, through shaw and forgotten corduroy, at first because there I expected to find my herbs, but later because I became secretive and shy. Living so close to the wild, almost instinctively I copied creatures of the wild. I travelled swiftly, silently and unseen. I learned woodland behaviour, I heard woodland sounds.” And in a most telling comment he refers to himself as a ‘Green Man’, signifying consciously or unconsciously, a mystical connection with the mythical being of the medieval period.

He also describes the transformation or transcendence that overtook him. : “…at Copsford there were seasons when time almost stood still, and I too learnt to be still. At first I was restless, miserable, a gnawing discontent tried to eat my heart out, and if I had not been blessed with an inborn love of the countryside it would have succeeded. But I slowly learned to stand and stare. The leaven was working. I not only stood and not only stared, but I began to see. I saw lovely things and rare things…saw the play of light across meadow and wood, saw a shaft of sunlight fill a spring-green copse till it glowed as though the glory of the Light of the World dwelled within. I caught an occasional glimpse of the intricate and complex pattern of life, and once or twice, as fleeting as the rainbow-flash from a trembling dewdrop, I perceived that all these things were but the external signs of a kingdom such as I had never dreamed of; that these colours were as a drop-curtain which, while it might never rise to disclose the stage within, grew transparent before my wondering eyes.

Murray had been permitted entry to the kingdom of Nature. But after a year he was driven out of the cottage by persistent and torrential rain. He had overcome loneliness, depression and the deep snow of a freezing winter, but the derelict state of the cottage offered no protection from penetrating rain, and the year at Copsford came to a soggy end. Not that Murray was depressed about the outcome. On the contrary Murray, who kept extensive notes throughout the year, was noticeably up-beat about the whole experience, and later found that it had a major influence over the rest of his life. In one of his later books he noted of Copsford: ‘Far from forgetting that freedom of meadow and marsh which I had enjoyed I was frequently almost overpowered by a desire to return to it. I longed for the smell of crushed mint in my nostrils, for the hum of insects and the song of birds in my ears, for the close contact with nature that I had experienced. Instead I had to be content with the briefest visits to the woods and streams, with the shortest of holidays among the hills, and from this occasional communion to renew health and strength and try to satisfy my heart.’

Many readers of Copsford are themselves captivated and haunted by the book. It is not just that Murray recreates for us an experience of drawing close to Nature for which we yearn, it is also the fact that he does not have to go to a distant ‘wilderness’ to achieve it. One of the great charms of Copsford is that it presents the ability to find solitude, beauty and a deep communion with nature much nearer at hand, in the English countryside. It is a book with a small but devoted following.

If we were to have to rely solely on Copsford as evidence for Murray’s Nature Mysticism, we might be on weak ground. Fortunately, as I suggested earlier, although Murray was not a prolific writer, this was not his only published work, nor was it his first. By the late 1930s, Murray had already become established as a broadcaster on the BBC Home Service, giving a range of talks on the natural world. At some point he met and began working with L Hugh Newman, (a renowned lepidopterist) and also Peter Scott. In 1944, he submitted the manuscript of his first book to the publishers Allen and Unwin. The book was later titled Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom, and it consisted of thirteen essays about wildlife and habitat. Almost the first comment made by the reader appointed by Allen & Unwin to evaluate the manuscript, was that it reminded him of the work of Richard Jefferies. This is not surprising, for the work contains many observations about communion with Nature which would have been recognised by Jefferies. For example, this observation on seeing a mountain beck after heavy rain: On seeing a mountain beck after heavy rain: “It was a living thing. The sun shone, and the water leapt into the mountain air a-sparkle of foam and spray…I was translated. It was the river of life, water, the superlative allegory; in the cloud, the raindrop, in the beck, the lake, in the ocean, in a myriad forms yet all one. Life in the heather, in the fish, the bird, in the lamb, in man, in a myriad forms, yet all one, one and the same with the source of all life.
        But I knew more than that in that ecstatic hour. The water and the life are one. No thing, animate or inanimate, can exist outside the mind of the Creator. I could enter into the waterfall, even as the tumbling water swept through me, not in prosaic fact, but in spirit and in truth. The breast of the mountain quivers, the spray blows in my face, the foam washes my feet; I shout aloud for pure joy.

View from E towards Copsford Hill, cottage to left of trees in centre - Copy (2)

View towards Copsford Hill

But Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom was not just a book of nature observation, it was an appeal for reconnection with Nature itself. “All that I have written in this little book goes to show that every one of us, at almost any time, in almost any place can with a little trying, a little quiet contemplation, find kinship with all creation, maybe in the garden, or in the wood, on the moor, by the waterfall, among the mountains. But…most of us are blunted to that fuller understanding of nature; and perhaps only by such simple experience as that of watching birds from a hide, shall we discover a kingdom, and learn the first words of its language.

Furthermore, anticipating a very modern concern, Murray was also calling for a change of attitude. In the introduction to the book he stated clearly, “Man lives his own life, goes his own way, and sees well-nigh nothing of the teeming life around him, and, when he does, only in relation to himself. Man has striven against the life of the wild so long that he no longer understands its expression, like an old man who no longer understands the life of little children.
The world of wild life is like the world of music, full of haunting melodies and rich harmonies, charged with messages for the spirit; yet to a man, to whose ear music means nothing, a symphony is no more than a noise, meaningless and interfering. In like manner the world of wild life has become meaningless, without melody or harmony. Man has been so long wrestling with nature that he has quite forgotten that Life is common to all living things, and that he plays but his part in expressing it.
       Man is so concerned over his own affairs, that he can only see other expressions of life in the light of and in relation to, his own. He fails to see that all the other expressions of life around him have a way of life wholly different from his. Yet he puts his constructions, his ideals, his sentiments, his conjectures, his fancies, as interpretations of their behaviour. But he is so often mistaken that the inner understanding of wild life is hidden from him.

Two years after the publication of Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom, Allen & Unwin also published Copsford. The latter received mixed reviews but was snapped up by the Readers Union as its book choice for 1950, which considerably boosted its sales and readership. In 1953 Murray’s third book, A Sanctuary Planted, was published. The book recounts the creation of a wildlife sanctuary during the dark years of World War II. The sanctuary was intended to emphasise life and renewal at a time of so much death and destruction; but it was also an appeal. Anticipating a very current concern, Murray opined – ‘The countryside is continually being invaded by the town and the townsman. Thousands of acres a year are overlaid with city and town, suburb and prefab., roads and railways, bungalow and amusement park. Unique habitats are destroyed, common and forest razed to the ground, and the living space of wild things for ever compressed. We must reserve. We must secure sanctuaries, no matter how small. They will be oases in the desert, and to them living things will come for life’s sake.’ It could almost be the inspiration for the RSPB’s ‘Giving Nature a Home’ campaign.

A Sanctuary Planted is in many ways a less satisfactory book than the other two, but it is still valuable as a source for Murray’s philosophical ideas, which tend to be inserted into the narrative with the minimum of fuss. In fact, Murray was never strident about his thoughts, and the reader has to pick carefully through all of his works to tease this out.

In the early 1950s, Murray produced three more books, co-written with L Hugh Newman. Unfortunately, these are less valuable, as a source for Murray’s mysticism since it is almost impossible to identify his contributions. In a rather sad twist of fate, Allen & Unwin rejected all of Murray’s later works and only Romney Marsh – a whimsical guide cum travelogue – was published in 1953, by Hale.

The paucity of Murray’s work, however, should not detract from the fact that he was both an excellent and respected naturalist, and an important Nature Mystic who deserves to be better recognised.

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Tom Wareham is currently researching the life and work of Walter Murray and would be pleased to hear from anyone in that connection. He can be contacted through his website http://www.tomwareham.com

THE SACRED TEMPLE OF LIFE

Simon Coleman

OHC hand in stream

 

Whenever a nature-related story comes up on the TV news, invariably it’s brought to us by their ‘science correspondent’. This is, of course, the perspective on nature that is so dominant throughout our society. Nature is relegated to a specific area of the academic spectrum. It is fenced off from society, viewed and explored through the clumsy frames of rationalism and evolutionary science. It is no longer recognised as an infinitely creative power, possessing a web of mystery and beauty that enriches the human heart. This astonishing attitude to nature was observed over 130 years ago by Richard Jefferies, who included his analysis of the human crisis in his mystical-confessional autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883).

Jefferies sought to express the depth of his emotional and intuitive interaction with nature. In an early novel, Restless Human Hearts, the boundary between his character’s personal self and the natural world dissolves.

“He reposed upon the grass under the shadow of a tree, til the warmth of the sun filled his veins with a drowsy, slumberous yet intense vitality, while the leaves danced in slow and intricate measure between him and the sky…He lost all sense of his own separate existence; his soul became merged in the life of the tree, of the grass, of the thousands of insects, finally in the life of the broad earth underneath, till he felt himself as it were a leaf upon the great cedar of existence …Time, thought, feeling, sense, were gone, all lost; nothing remained but the mere grand fact, the exquisite delight, the infinite joy of existence only”.

This ‘merging’ is consistent with an ‘animist’ approach to nature. The ‘broad earth’ itself is a living thing to Jefferies – an idea that has thankfully taken root again in human consciousness. Jefferies’ experience is usually classed as ‘mysticism’ or ‘nature mysticism’. I have begun to think of it as the expression of an enlarged heart-consciousness. The heart was regarded in some religions as the seat of intuitive knowledge and thought, as well as the link between the ‘physical’ and the ‘spiritual’. But these concepts don’t really matter if we can empathize with the feeling. Here is a passage from his sun-drenched essay, ‘Nature and Eternity’.

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

The life principle expressed everywhere casts a kind of spell over the reposing mind. Nature seems to possess a mysterious language, and Jefferies’ inner mind (or ‘soul’ or ‘heart’) responds to it, entering into the life of the whole cosmos. Because of this merging with, and participation in, the web of life as a whole, everything living automatically becomes sacred. This is what the heart is searching for – and wants to know. His being, his self, in this state, is a complete expression of the cosmic life principle.

When he wrote The Story of My Heart, Jefferies strove for a sparser, more rhythmical form of prose to express the same feelings.

“Sometimes on lying down on the sward I first looked up at the sky, gazing for a long time till I could see deep into the azure and my eyes were full of the colour; then I turned my face to the grass and thyme, placing my hands at each side of my face so as to shut out everything and hide myself. Having drunk deeply of the heaven above and felt the most glorious beauty of the day, and remembering the old, old, sea, which (as it seemed to me) was but just yonder at the edge, I now became lost, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe. I felt down deep into the earth under, and high above into the sky, and farther still to the sun and stars. Still farther beyond the stars into the hollow of space, and losing thus my separateness of being came to seem like a part of the whole. Then I whispered to the earth beneath, through the grass and thyme, down into the depth of its ear, and again up to the starry space hid behind the blue of day. Travelling in an instant across the distant sea, I saw as if with actual vision the palms and cocoanut trees, the bamboos of India, and the cedars of the extreme south. Like a lake with islands the ocean lay before me, as clear and vivid as the plain beneath in the midst of the amphitheatre of hills.”

In his later years, Jefferies’ happiness was shattered by debilitating illnesses and poverty. Nevertheless, he continued to express his deepest emotions and his hope that mankind could carve out a more beautiful life in the future. He produced further great, evocative essays such as ‘The Pageant of Summer’, ‘Wildflowers’ and ‘Hours of Spring’, and attempted to sketch out an enlarged and improved sequel to The Story of My Heart. He also experimented with new forms of fiction but his death at the age of 38 cut short a career that had already journeyed far beyond conventional nature writing. He did, however, leave enough of his work for us to celebrate with him the enduring beauty and mystery of all life. Not only in adulthood, but also as a young boy, he discovered that

“…there was magic in everything, blades of grass and stars, the sun and the stones upon the ground.” (Bevis, 1882)

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.

Thoughts at Dawn

Simon Coleman

dawn light

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

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

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

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