Bird-life of the Orchard

Rummer's Lane Orchard 010 small

By Simon Coleman

The old orchard next to the farmhouse of his childhood was one of Jefferies’ favourite places for observing wildlife. He was distressed at the disappearance of many such orchards, as he explains in the essay ‘Nature and Eternity’ (The Hills and the Vale): “Foolish fashion has banished the orchard from the mansion—the orchard which Homer tells us kings once valued as part of their demesne—and has substituted curious evergreens to which the birds do not take readily.” He goes on to describe the abundant and varied bird-life of his own orchard. Despite the close proximity of human habitation, it is ‘a city of the birds and beasts’ where there is continual coming and going.

“As there are wide plains even in thickly populated England where man has built no populous city, so in bird-life there are fields and woods almost deserted by the songsters, who at the same time congregate thickly in a few favourite resorts, where experience gathered in slow time has shown them they need fear nothing from human beings. Such a place, such a city of the birds and beasts, is this old orchard. The bold and handsome bullfinch builds in the low hawthorn hedge which bounds it upon one side. In the walls of the arbour formed of thick ivy and flowering creepers, the robin and thrush hide their nests. On the topmost branches of the tall pear-trees the swallows rest and twitter. The noble blackbird, with full black eye, pecks at the decaying apples upon the sward, and takes no heed of a footstep. Sometimes the loving pair of squirrels who dwell in the fir-copse at the end of the meadow find their way down the hedges—staying at each tree as an inn by the road—into the orchard, and play their fantastic tricks upon the apple-boughs. The flycatchers perch on a branch clear from the tree, and dart at the passing flies. Merriest of all, the tomtits chatter and scold, hanging under the twigs, head downwards, and then away to their nest in the crumbling stone wall which encloses one side of the orchard. They have worked their way by a cranny deep into the thick wall. On the other side runs the king’s highway, and ever and anon the teams go by, making music with their bells. One day a whole nation of martins savagely attacked this wall. Pressure of population probably had compelled them to emigrate from the sand quarry, and the chinks in the wall pleased their eyes. Five-and-thirty brown little birds went to work like miners at twelve or fourteen holes, tapping at the mortar with their bills, scratching out small fragments of stone, twittering and talking all the time, and there undoubtedly they would have founded a colony had not the jingling teams and now and then a barking dog disturbed them. Resting on the bench and leaning back against an apple-tree, it is easy to watch the eager starlings on the chimney-top, and see them tear out the straw of the thatch to form their holes. They are all orators born. They live in a democracy, and fluency of speech leads the populace. Perched on the edge of the chimney, his bronze-tinted wings flapping against his side to give greater emphasis—as a preacher moves his hands—the starling pours forth a flood of eloquence, now rising to screaming-pitch, now modulating his tones to soft persuasion, now descending to deep, low, complaining, regretful sounds—a speech without words—addressed to a dozen birds gravely listening on the ash-tree yonder. He is begging them to come with him to a meadow where food is abundant.”

In the characteristic style of Jefferies’ later works, the rich description leads on to some more profound musings about both nature and the human condition. As ever, nature was infinitely more to him than a place of peaceful recreation. His writing expresses an undying sympathy for all the earth’s life and a deep reverence for nature’s sacred and mysterious powers.

“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!”

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The Sun and the Brook

An Invisible Touch

by Simon Coleman

bed of stream

Some of Jefferies’ most evocative and profound writing can be found in his essays – a format which suited his talent for combining vivid description with a powerful idealism. In the 1880s he developed a more poetic and fluid style, enabling him to create prose pieces that suggested, in a subtle way, a meeting of nature and the human mind. Two such essays, ‘Meadow Thoughts’ and ‘On the Downs’, have been featured in other posts. Another example is ‘The Sun and the Brook’ (The Hills and the Vale), a short essay in which sky and earth, nature and the human senses, the real and the ideal, seem to merge into each other. The brook is the one near his childhood home at Coate and is lovingly remembered, not only as a clear, beautiful stream, but one whose banks and surrounding fields the young Jefferies knew intimately.

“The sun first sees the brook in the meadow where some roach swim under a bulging root of ash. Leaning against the tree, and looking down into the water, there is a picture of the sky. Its brightness hides the sandy floor of the stream as a picture conceals the wall where it hangs, but, as if the water cooled the rays, the eye can bear to gaze on the image of the sun. Over its circle thin threads of summer cloud are drawn; it is only the reflection, yet the sun seems closer seen in the brook, more to do with us, like the grass, and the tree, and the flowing stream. In the sky it is so far, it cannot be approached, nor even gazed at, so that by the very virtue and power of its own brilliance it forces us to ignore, and almost forget it. The summer days go on, and no one notices the sun. The sweet water slipping past the green flags, with every now and then a rushing sound of eager haste, receives the sky, and it becomes a part of the earth and of life. No one can see his own face without a glass; no one can sit down and deliberately think of the soul till it appears a visible thing. It eludes—the mind cannot grasp it. But hold a flower in the hand—a rose, this later honeysuckle, or this the first harebell—and in its beauty you can recognize your own soul reflected as the sun in the brook. For the soul finds itself in beautiful things.”

The scene is in late summer, “the days of the convolvulus, of ripening berry, and dropping nut. In the gateways, ears of wheat hang from the hawthorn boughs, which seized them from the passing load. The broad aftermath is without flowers; the flowers are gone to the uplands and the untilled wastes.” He reminds us of the earlier part of the summer and its “long drama” that proceeded the day described. Restrained emotion has a powerful presence in this essay. Jefferies does not indulge in crude romantic sentiment and metaphor; instead, he maintains the tension between physical nature and the higher aspiration that it seems to symbolize.

“The long, loving touch of the sun has left some of its own mystic attraction in the brook. Resting here, and gazing down into it, thoughts and dreams come flowing as the water flows. Thoughts without words, mobile like the stream, nothing compact that can be grasped and stayed: dreams that slip silently as water slips through the fingers. The grass is not grass alone; the leaves of the ash above are not leaves only. From tree, and earth, and soft air moving, there comes an invisible touch which arranges the senses to its waves as the ripples of the lake set the sand in parallel lines. The grass sways and fans the reposing mind; the leaves sway and stroke it, till it can feel beyond itself and with them, using each grass blade, each leaf, to abstract life from earth and ether. These then become new organs, fresh nerves and veins running afar out into the field, along the winding brook, up through the leaves, bringing a larger existence. The arms of the mind open wide to the broad sky.
Some sense of the meaning of the grass, and leaves of the tree, and sweet waters hovers on the confines of thought, and seems ready to be resolved into definite form. There is a meaning in these things, a meaning in all that exists, and it comes near to declare itself. Not yet, not fully, nor in such shape that it may be formulated—if ever it will be—but sufficiently so to leave, as it were, an unwritten impression that will remain when the glamour is gone, and grass is but grass, and a tree a tree.”

His deep love of a place, of home, of a simple stream in a field, has led us into profound and beautiful possibilities for the imagination. The sun makes the day and Jefferies, as if taking on the role of the sun, has re-made it for us. Perhaps we could see this as a process of ‘imaginative realism’. Nature always appeared as intensely real to Jefferies, a fact that distinguishes him from eastern mysticism which tends to view the physical world as illusory. The complete immersion of Jefferies’ senses and mind in the scene has created a subtle union of man and nature. This was not really the product of one day only; he had wandered the bank of the brook day after day, summer after summer, until the water, leaves and grasses became part of his being. Jefferies was always able to think outside the span of his lifetime. We can be sure that he wanted more people in the future to share such an experience. He writes in ‘Hours of Spring’, near the end of his life, “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.”