The Value of Nature: Little Things do Matter

Rebecca Welshman

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Photo: Rebecca Welshman

Findings from a research study suggest that those of us who value possessions, status and wealth are more anxious, depressed and unsociable than those who don’t. These claims were made by a group of researchers at the Northwestern University, who published their findings in Psychological Science, the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science in 2012.

 

But these debates are hardly new. Richard Jefferies, known for his writings on nature and society, questioned the value of materialism 150 years ago. He recognised that the pursuit of wealth promised nothing in itself, and through his writing tried to help people find happiness in nature. The Victorian era saw the birth of materialism as we know it today. London became the fastest growing metropolis in the world, and with the expansion of towns and railways, Britain underwent a radical rural to urban transition.

 

Known best for his writing on nature and rural life, Jefferies made his living as a journalist, writing for the Pall Mall Gazette, and other papers and magazines of the time. Last autumn marked 143 years since the publication of his letters to The Times about the working conditions and pay of Wiltshire agricultural labourers, which brought him national acclaim and helped earn him a special place in Victorian literature.

 

As a country lad who moved to the city – first Surbiton, then Brighton, Jefferies was well qualified to comment on the changes taking place around him. In his articles in the London Standard he conveyed the physical and psychological health benefits of spending time out of doors and encouraged people to take more notice of the nature around them. As he wrote in his novel Restless Human Hearts (1875), nature could be found even in the heart of London:

 

The dead brown leaves, driven by the wind, penetrate even into stony London, and rustle along the pavement and whirl round in eddies at the corners of the street. They are a voice from the woods, an echo from the forgotten land, messengers from Nature, abiding still in her solitudes, warning wilful and blinded men to return ere it be too late.

 

One of Jefferies’ London thinking places was a spot in front of the Royal Exchange, the hub of the Victorian commercial world, which remained the centre of commerce until 1939. Here he stood and watched the streams of traffic flow past – hundreds of men, women, horses and carriages, bustling and rushing to and fro. Amidst the hurrying footsteps, wheels, different coloured omnibuses, some carrying bales of straw, stirring up the dust in their efforts to reach their different destinations, Jefferies pondered where it was all going. Everyone seemed wrapped up in their own world, indifferent, it seemed to the character of the place itself:

 

all these men and women that pass through are driven on by the push of accumulated circumstances; they cannot stay, they must go …. Where will be these millions of to-day in a hundred years? But, further than that, let us ask, Where then will be the sum and outcome of their labour? … There will not be any sum or outcome or result of this ceaseless labour and movement; it vanishes in the moment that it is done, and in a hundred years nothing will be there, for nothing is there now.

 

Jefferies strove to answer these questions in his soul-searching autobiography, The Story of My Heart, a book that brought him posthumous fame as a nature mystic and social commentator. These questions remain as important today as they did then, not least because they remain unanswered. The research by Northwestern University has shown that materialism not only negatively affects people, but also the environment.  Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen claims that ‘irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in wellbeing, including negative affect and social disengagement.’ As many others have done since, Jefferies questioned what people were working for – beyond money, what real value did all this labour have? He hoped his writings would offer people ways to experience more joy in the simple things of life – ‘more sunshine and more flowers’ – feelings that couldn’t be generated by the pursuit of materialism.

 

Jefferies found beauty in the most ordinary things – a blade of grass, a flower, even a patch of ground. Man-made things paled into insignificance next to the design-less beauty of natural phenomena:

 

I had forgotten that the parlour, beside the chair and table, had a carpet. The carpet has a pattern: it is woven; the threads can be discerned, and a little investigation shows beyond doubt that it was designed and made by a man. It is certainly pretty and ingenious. But the grass of my golden meadow has no design, and no purpose: it is beautiful, and more; it is divine. (The Old House at Coate)

 

It is well-known that the beauty of nature promotes feelings of wholeness and well being. A 2011 survey of 3000 people on behalf of ‘Three Barrels Brandy’, about what boosts our happiness, ranked 3 of nature’s own remedies in the top 10, which suggests that we are already a nation that finds enjoyment in the simple things. ‘Swimming in the sea’, ‘waking up on a sunny day’, and ‘sitting in the sun’ outranked ‘booking a holiday’, ‘finding a bargain’, winning a £10 lottery prize’, and ‘getting a promotion’. ‘Finding a £10 note in an old pair of jeans’ and ‘going on holiday’ topped the poll, with spending time with friends and family, and quiet moments of reflection, including listening to old songs and looking at photos, largely constituted the top 30.

 

Yet there are perhaps things even closer to us (and less expensive) that can increase happiness. Jefferies’ love of nature was so strong that ‘the buzz of a bee at the window’ would cause him to feel connected to the abundance of treasures which lay just outside, at his fingertips. The sounds, textures, colours and forms of nature were powerfully alive to him, even during years’ of illness. Mysterious and ever-changing, with the weather and the seasons, nature held him under its spell.

 

London has some of the largest and well maintained parks in Europe, many of which don’t charge entry fees, with flowers, open spaces, and water fountains which capture the sunlight. These things are all around us, but how often do we really notice them? In 2010 a series of studies were conducted by the University of Rochester which found that nature increases energy levels, feelings of vitality, and general happiness. Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education, Richard Ryan, commented that ‘Nature is fuel for the soul,’ and that ‘often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.’ Ryan added that nature can help us to fight infection, fight exhaustion, and increase our general physical health.

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Like all good relationships, our connection with nature needs to be cultivated and maintained. We can all make a little difference to the happiness of the wildlife and flora around us, even just by considering and appreciating that we live in an ever-changing and vibrant living world. Nature is amazingly receptive to positive efforts to help and sustain it. Only the other day the Robin that I have been leaving food out for came to the stone wall outside my study and looked directly at me, and with a little bob of his tail, flew away. I knew that he was asking me for food. Each time now he comes to feed when I am sitting at my desk I see that he is aware of my presence and I try not to move suddenly or alarm him. My feeding the Robin is a small thing. Yet I like to think that he will live through the winter and go on to nurture broods of youngsters of his own next spring. Every little thing we do, however small, has an effect and leaves a legacy for the future.

SPIRITS OF PLACE

Simon Coleman

Coate and May 050Richard Jefferies’ Home in Coate, Wiltshire, by Rebecca Welshman

A sense of place is becoming increasingly important in today’s fast moving and disjointed society. To feel that we belong in a certain locality, where we have memories – perhaps some early ones – gives us that vital feeling of ‘rooted-ness’, of being part of something that has long preceded us and will endure long after us. Many great writers have evoked a spirit of place in their works. The American poet, Walt Whitman, often introduced city scenes, particularly of New York, into his free verse poetry.

“Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.” (‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’)

Whitman dissolves boundaries between present and future, to the point where he reaches out to the people who will follow him, as if to join his experience to theirs. His powerful and direct engagement with place is somehow removed from ordinary time: he almost invites the future in to share the scene with him. A very commonplace, everyday scene now appears to be connected to some larger human purpose.

In a very different piece of writing, Richard Jefferies describes the kitchen of an ancient farmhouse (one very familiar to him that he has populated with fictional characters) with a strong emphasis on continuity from the past. The kitchen has been part of the life there for hundreds of years, but everything old in it still has a use in the present.

“In the kitchen at Lucketts’ Place there was a stool made by sawing off about six inches of the butt of a small ash tree. The bark remained on, and it was not smoothed or trimmed in any way. This mere log was Cicely Luckett’s favourite seat as a girl; she was Hilary’s only daughter. The kitchen had perhaps originally been the house, the rest having been added to it in the course of years as the mode of life changed and increasing civilisation demanded more convenience and comfort. The walls were quite four feet thick, and the one small lattice-window in its deep recess scarcely let in sufficient light, even on a summer’s day, to dispel the gloom, except at one particular time.

The little panes, yellow and green, were but just above the ground, looking out upon the road into the rickyard, so that the birds which came searching along among the grasses and pieces of wood thrown carelessly aside against the wall could see into the room. Robins, of course, came every morning, perching on the sill and peering in with the head held on one side. Blackbird and thrush came, but always passed the window itself quickly, though they stayed without fear within a few inches of it on either hand.

There was an old oak table in the centre of the room—a table so solid that young Aaron, the strong labourer, could only move it with difficulty. There was no ceiling properly speaking, the boards of the floor above and a thick beam which upheld it being only whitewashed; and much of that had scaled off. An oaken door led down a few steps into the cellar, and over both cellar and kitchen there sloped a long roof, thatched, whose eaves were but just above the ground.

Now, when there was no one in the kitchen, as in the afternoon, when even the indoor servants had gone out to help in the hayfield, little Cicely used to come in here and sit dreaming on the ash log by the hearth. The rude stool was always placed inside the fireplace, which was very broad for burning wood, faggots and split pieces of timber. Bending over the grey ashes, she could see right up the great broad tunnel of the chimney to the blue sky above, which seemed the more deeply azure, as it does from the bottom of a well. In the evenings when she looked up she sometimes saw a star shining above. In the early mornings of the spring, as she came rushing down to breakfast, the tiny yellow panes of the window which faced the east were all lit up and rosy with the rays of the rising sun.

The beautiful light came through the elms of the rickyard, away from the ridge of the distant Down, and then for the first hour of the day the room was aglow. For quite two hundred years every visible sunrise had shone in at that window more or less, as the season changed and the sun rose to the north of east. Perhaps it was that sense of ancient homeliness that caused Cicely, without knowing why, to steal in there alone to dream, for nowhere else indoors could she have been so far away from the world of to-day.” (‘Round About a Great Estate’)

Past and present are beautifully interwoven and there is also intimacy between the human world and nature. The sun and the stars feel like regular guests that appear through the small apertures of window pane and chimney. The light doesn’t simply emerge from millions of miles of vacant space: it comes ‘through the elms of the rickyard, away from the ridge of the distant Down’. Everything is joined. Sun and stars are part of the place as well, and the farmhouse is thus part of the universe. While Whitman is exuberant, propelling his love of the river and the teeming crowds far into the future, Jefferies, in quieter, more introspective language, guides the reader into the larger and deeper reality to which the rustic old kitchen belongs. What connects these two pieces of writing, I think, is their ability to show the scenes described as repeating patterns, not as one-off snapshots of random groups of people and objects. Whitman repeats words (‘others’ and ‘just as’) at the start of lines and Jefferies reminds us of the 200 years of sunrises. Everything in the scene is meant to be there, and needs to be there.

Places develop a dynamic reality when we encounter in them more than a simple reflection of our own times. Real literature of place conveys a continuity, a timelessness, a pattern, a sense of meaningful repetition. Great writers can bring these subtle possibilities to life because they perceive place as a whole. Jefferies and Whitman made their scenes part of the fabric of their lives. They were themselves spirits of place.