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)

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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.

In the Face of Climate Change: can Natural Beauty Help?

Rebecca Welshman

dewy harebell

I’ve been reading and thinking more of late about the very real problems which we face as a species. The degradation of our planet as a result of human-induced climate change is no longer simply an issue but a reality. It is something that I think about most days – it is an ever present shadow behind the beauty of the natural world, which more and more of us are becoming conscious of. We notice altered weather patterns, the greasy films over watercourses which once ran clear, loss of habitats, the falling populations of birds, animals, amphibians, flowers, plants. The list is too long.

Among climate scientists ‘gloom has set in’ (http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815/) as research repeatedly proves that the situation is worse than we thought. For activists, political groups, and individuals who wish to make a difference it is dispiriting to know that the climate initiatives are deliberately being sabotaged by political and corporate powers that seek to forge ahead with reliance on fossil fuels.As Glaciologist Jason Box has expressed:

“let’s get real, fossil fuels are the dominant industry on earth, and you can’t expect meaningful political change with them in control. There’s a growing consensus that there must be a shock to the system.”

We are already experiencing some of the environmental and social problems associated with climate change. Yet the ways in which the majority of us live do not encourage us to embrace climate change as a reality – we live in denial. Jeffrey Kiehl, senior scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, gained a degree in psychology so to research the psychology of climate change denial. He concluded that:

“consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, [that] we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes. Worse, accepting the facts threatens us with a loss of faith in the fundamental order of the universe.” (http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815/)

I was lying awake thinking about these things last night as our young baby slept beside, and I could envisage no ways in which these powers could be dissuaded from their agenda. There was one thought I had which perhaps offered some hope – that future generations, our children today, will be educated in climate science and climate crisis and will be better equipped to bring about change. One day fossil fuels will be a thing of the past – antiquated as they already seem in the face of other advanced renewable technologies. One day – though maybe only once renewable sources finally attract the sustained attention of the financial markets.

Many of our blog posts have shown the ways in which Jefferies appreciated and engaged with the world around him – in the country and the city, and in varied moods and times of day. He encouraged minds and hearts to open together, even when political and social systems seemed to be working to close them. He perceived then, in the 1880s that once connected with the world around us we need to act to make it a better place, in order for future generations to enjoy it:

“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 Story of My Heart)

His futuristic novel After London (1885), which depicts an England submerged by floods, and a regressive social and political system that is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, seems increasingly prophetic. The protagonist, Felix, embarks on a lonely sea voyage to begin a new social system. He discovers, amongst the poisonous swamps which cover submerged London, a large pile of gold coins, worthless and corroded by the toxic emanations of the lost city. Felix hopes to develop a more spiritual caring race, not driven by what Jefferies termed ‘the detestable creed that time is money’.

In the face of climate change we have very little time. We need natural beauty to keep us grounded, balanced, and healed. I can easily picture a future when beautiful natural images can only be found in books or on old hard drives – or exist as cuttings taken from old newspapers and magazines. They might be pinned to stone walls, which have been cobbled together from ruined upland dwellings, at a time when weaker modern homes have long since gone or been washed away. In the face of such scenarios I ask: can natural beauty help us now?

For Jefferies, nature’s timeless and ageless beauty expressed a better, more complete version of ourselves – a shared heart of mankind to connect with as a reality – “Does this reverie of flowers and waterfall and song form an ideal, a human ideal in the mind?”. As the rain falls down on this August Sunday I keep this ideal in mind.

More THOUGHTS IN TRAFALGAR SQUARE

trafalgar sq

Source: britainexpress.com

SIMON COLEMAN

Jefferies often sees the past in the midst of the present. Here he reminds us that the swallows were singing back in Roman times. As in other works, he laments the endless burden of labour that the human race has imposed upon itself through the ages. Intense and repetitive work robs us of the golden hours of light and colour that are part of a healthy life. For Jefferies, such experience of beauty ought to be a right, not a luxury. He hopes that sometime in the future mankind will find a way to walk freely in the sunlight. He looks away, symbolically, from the National Gallery to find the scene in front of him as great as any work of art. This is the scene that he himself has painted so lovingly for us. And, passing through it is a stream of living human hearts – just as there was in Rome, in old times.

‘SUNLIGHT IN A LONDON SQUARE’, continued from previous post

“I stood under the portico of the National Gallery in the shade looking southwards, across the fountains and the lions, towards the green trees under the distant tower. Once a swallow sang in passing on the wing, garrulous still as in the time of old Rome and Augustan Virgil. From the high pediments dropped the occasional chatter of sparrows and the chirp of their young in the roofs. The second brood, they were late; they would not be in time for the harvest and the fields of stubble. A flight of blue pigeons rose from the central pavement to the level line of the parapet of the western houses. A starling shot across the square, swift, straight, resolute. I looked for the swifts, but they had gone, earliest of all to leave our sky for distant countries. Away in the harvest field the reaper, pausing in his work, had glanced up at the one stray fleck of cloud in the sky, which to my fancy might be a Cupid on a blue panel, and seeing it smiled in the midst of the corn, wiping his blackened face, for he knew it meant dry weather. Heat, and the dust of the straw, the violent labour had darkened his face from brown almost to blackness—a more than swarthiness, a blackness. The stray cloud was spreading out in filaments, each thread drawn to a fineness that ended presently in disappearance. It was a sign to him of continued sunshine and the prosperity of increased wages. The sun from whose fiery brilliance I escaped into the shadow was to him a welcome friend; his neck was bare to the fierceness of the sun. His heart was gladdened because the sky promised him permission to labour till the sinews of his fingers stiffened in their crooked shape (as they held the reaping-hook), and he could hardly open them to grasp the loaf he had gained.

So men laboured of old time, whether with plough or sickle or pruning-hook, in the days when Augustan Virgil heard the garrulous swallow, still garrulous. An endless succession of labour, under the brightness of summer, under the gloom of winter; to my thought it is a sadness even in the colour and light and glow of this hour of sun, this ceaseless labour, repeating the furrow, reiterating the blow, the same furrow, the same stroke—shall we never know how to lighten it, how to live with the flowers, the swallows, the sweet delicious shade, and the murmur of the stream? Not the blackened reaper only, but the crowd whose low hum renders the fountain inaudible, the nameless and unknown crowd of this immense city wreathed round about the central square. I hope that at some time, by dint of bolder thought and freer action, the world shall see a race able to enjoy it without stint, a race able to enjoy the flowers with which the physical world is strewn, the colours of the garden of life. To look backwards with the swallow there is sadness, to-day with the fleck of cloud there is unrest; but forward, with the broad sunlight, there is hope.

Except you see these colours, and light, and tones, except you see the blue heaven over the parapet, you know not, you cannot feel, how great are the possibilities of man. At my back, within the gallery, there is many a canvas painted under Italian skies, in glowing Spain, in bright Southern France. There are scenes lit with the light that gleams on orange grove and myrtle; these are faces tinted with the golden hue that floats in southern air. But yet, if any one impartial will stand here outside, under the portico, and forgetting that it is prosaic London, will look at the summer enclosed within the square, and acknowledge it for itself as it is, he must admit that the view—light and colour, tone and shade—is equal to the painted canvas, is full, as it were, to the brim of interest, suggestion, and delight. Before the painted canvas you stand with prepared mind; you have come to see Italy, you are educated to find colour, and the poetry of tone. Therefore you see it, if it is there. Here in the portico you are unprepared, uneducated; no one has ever given a thought of it. But now trace out the colour and the brightness; gaze up into the sky, watch the swallows, note the sparkle of the fountain, observe the distant tower chiselled with the light and shade. Think, then, of the people, not as mere buyers and sellers, as mere counters, but as human beings—beings possessed of hearts and minds, full of the passions and the hopes and fears which made the ancient poets great merely to record. These are the same passions that were felt in antique Rome, whose very name is a section of human life. There is colour in these lives now as then.”

Footnote: “The sunlight and the winds enter London, and the life of the fields is there too, if you will but see it.”

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

“In the Midst of the Stream of Light”: recognising the soul

‘The Life of the Soul’ selected & introduced by Simon Coleman

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In a short, untitled, autobiographical piece of writing, probably dating from the last five years of his life, Jefferies turns his mind inwards towards the inexpressible thought that had haunted his entire adult life.  He wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Heart: “as the brook ran winding through the meadow, so one thought ran winding through my days.”  The second part of this sentence is reproduced in the untitled piece which was eventually published in 1948, in S.J. Looker’s collection The Old House at Coate.  Looker gave the manuscript the title, “The Life of the Soul”, recognising it as a pure fragment chipped from the edifice of Jefferies’ thought and life-expression.

In his autobiography Jefferies sought to “free thought from every trammel”, believing in the infinite potential of the human mind.  His “one thought” was the hidden impulse driving his desire for the most complete freedom of mind, health of body, and power of soul that he could conceive.

In the following quotations from the “Life of the Soul” manuscript, we become aware of the deep currents of his inner life.  Jefferies uses the things of outer nature as symbols as he strives to communicate his Thought, aware that words are painfully inadequate for this purpose.  The Thought is present wherever there is light and earth, but he knows that it really moves within: it is his life.

The manuscript might have been connected to the composition process for The Story of My Heart, or it might have been written later.  The language shows some differences to that in the autobiography.  It is calmer, less concerned with an active search for something, and more internally focused.  It is certainly less polished and in places resembles a collection of notes brought together.  But it has a force that comes from true engagement with natural beauty, and from a life whose physical, emotional and imaginative aspects were finely interwoven.  It does have some poetic touches, such as, “feeling the existence of the soul – in the midst of the stream of light – in the way of the rush of the wind.”

Jefferies is forever on the side of life, seeking an enlarged consciousness of its beauty.  This is ultimately gained through the ‘higher’ faculties: the mind (in its infinite aspect), the heart and the soul.  He doesn’t always differentiate between them: ‘heart’, after all, was in the title of the autobiography.  Nor does he ever forget the wonder of the body and its senses.  He reminds us in “The Life of the Soul” that the physical or material is the opening to other, ‘immaterial’ levels of existence.

Jefferies had complete conviction that we possess the power to make real inner discoveries for ourselves, regardless of the dispiriting routines of life.  These possibilities are near, but sometimes seem distant or lost to our daily lives.  He looked forward to a time when the ‘language’ of the soul could be ‘translated’ and fully understood.  To bring this ideal a few steps nearer was, I believe, the true mission of his life.

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“THE LIFE OF THE SOUL”

 

“The dawn to me is when I open my eyes, and my first thought is of my prayer, repeated by that thought, the same prayed on the hills and everywhere else so long.

 

The light is the first thing I see, and by the light I say: Give me the reality of the feeling, which comes into existence with life.  I am awakened and I live, give me that fullness of existence which I have so long desired and the idea of which is given by the light and by every loveliness of the earth.

 

But the sun has been up for many hours, and the summer day is already far advanced. I feel that I have lost these hours, this light and beauty which has been pouring over the wheat and the meadows, over the woods and sea, all this time….Must I always feel that it has been going by me like a stream?

 

The wheat-ear as it turns yellow has taken the sunlight and the beauty into itself.  So I would take the beauty into myself.

 

But I have the same desire when there is nothing about me – nothing but walls – when I cannot see the outside earth or the sunlight – the same desire in my mind; it is like a thirst of the mind, like a drawing-in the breath for this beauty in itself.  It does not exist as a separate thing, I know, but I desire that which answers to it – which I read from it – in my mind.  The letters or the words of a book are nothing – but the thought they give is real.  The sunlight and the wheat-ear are the letters and the word: the thought that comes is real; and I feel it when they are not visible.

 

…The pressure of every day, of doing things, puts it aside, but if I stay still as it were for a moment and think of myself, the same wish returns unending, though the surroundings of the moment be commonplace and dusty enough. The thought runs winding through my days.

 

It is in me and within the sunbeam, or the wheat-ear, or the grass.  In the secret, separate entity of the soul, wishing, impelled to it, it almost represents or is my soul…

 

Why have I not gone forth for this soul life, searching for it more by the forest and by the sea?

 

That I may see through the sunlight and the earth, the enclosure with which the mind is surrounded, the wall, into the depth of the soul behind…let me see beyond, deeper through.  It is not the air that blows over the dry, rustling barley; not the warm sunshine; not the earth with the flowers; not the water, nor the light; it is the thing beyond, which I would see and feel…

 

There is not one of us but has a mind-power of which he hardly dreams.  Touching a flower, we seem as if we were absorbing something of this dormant mind-power.  It flows from the flower, like its odour.  The perfume of the flower cannot be written.  The violet cannot be expressed in words, though it is material.  There is no language, yet, to express the feeling which flows from the flower.  From the touch of the green sward a feeling flows as if the great earth sent a mystic perfume – an immaterial influence – through the frame.  More of this influence: more and more; it cannot be translated, yet, but it can be felt.  Some day it will be translated; it is like hovering on the verge of a great truth.

 

We can only get at the immaterial through the material.  How many books must be written to explain it; and even then, would it be explained?

 

So that the thought that there is more yet for the mind can be put in a sentence, but requires pages to explain.  It is not that the mind is limited and cannot understand: it is that the facts have not yet been put before it.  Like a lens, the mind can only examine that which is passed before it.  Those things which are dimly shadowed forth by the flower, the leaf, the very touch of earth – which are felt, rather than perceived – have not yet been put before it…

 

Many of us have partially recognised the existence of a current of unconscious thought, which gradually works its way and decides our course, even against our own waking decisions.  We get a glimpse of such a current now and then, and lose sight of it again…

 

The feeling caused by the view of flower and distant hill-line – the very touch of the green sward – is it not a recognition of our own life? It is seeing – feeling the existence of the soul – in the midst of the stream of light – in the way of the rush of the wind.

 

In daily routine and work we really forget ourselves.  Here the light and air recalls us.  Give us more of our inner selves: not the course, rude, outer covering, and its wishes, but of the inner secret existence.  That inner secret existence desires nothing but beauty.  But the word ‘beauty’ is weak to carry the feeling meant.

 

Those who have ever experienced the depth of this feeling must perforce pray with every glimpse of sunlight and of the unknown beyond.