Chronicles of the Hedges: the Billhook

farm scene.jpg

Image source: http://www.rackcdn.com

Rebecca Welshman

 

Jefferies writes of the “bill” or “bill-hook” that it was “the national weapon of the English labourer”. In the collection ‘Chronicles of the Hedges’ he describes different instances of its use in rural communities and the encounters with nature that it could afford:

 

“At the farmstead of a wintry morning, the hedger, perhaps, is told off to sit on a stool and chop up the faggots he made last year, about the same time, for convenience of burning. He cuts the withy-bond with which the faggot is held together, then, taking a stick at a time, shortens them to handy lengths with the bill upon a log. A monotonous task, yet comfortable, sitting in the wood-house, well protected from the wind and snow-flakes—chip, chop, whistle; now a robin peeping in, as robins have done since England first had a king, for a crumb of luncheon; now the serving-maid to gossip, or perhaps carry a pint of beer in a mug for him. As he comes home from the field, the hedger, having no frog in which to hang his bill like a cutlass or a tomahawk, waits till he reaches the gate to light his pipe, and sticks it into the gate-post of the stile.

 

Towards April, when the stone-pickers have done, and made a row of cairns in the meadows of the flints and pottery to be removed from the mower’s way or the brittle knives of the mowing machine, when the herd is marched out from the cowyard to the young grass, the labourer is sent with his bill to mend the rents in the hedges, where folk bent on a short cut have gone through, or sheep who love to force their way up on a mound have opened a gap. Selecting bushes where the hedge is thicker than necessary, he cuts them and fastens them into these holes to keep cattle from the rising mowing grass. Or new bushes have to be fixed in the bush-harrow—bushes that must be well chosen and skilfully arranged, so that when drawn over the grass they may stir and yet smooth it, and not tear up the turf, or drag the fibres out, but like a larger fuller’s teazle lay the nap of this green cloth. If there is a copse on the farm the gate has to be defended by thorns cut with the billhook, and worked in between the spars to exclude trespassers. Almost every day of the year the billhook is in request, here or yonder, in the field or the rickyard: the broad back of the blade drives in not a few nails at times.

 

Rusty and clumsy, awkward to the amateur to handle, in its iron hardness it is a symbol of that ceaseless struggle which, even in our highly cultivated country, must be carried on against thorn and bramble. The labourer and the farmer stand face to face with nature in a way that it is difficult for the folk of cities to understand. Rain and sunshine, snow and frost, and wind, have a significance to those who dwell on the land far beyond the petty inconvenience they may cause to the town. The clouds which the hurrying passengers in the street scarcely notice are to the labourer an irresistible enemy or a gracious friend, according to the season. They may mean partial famine—for although wheat comes now so plentifully that bread is always cheap, yet if he has not got the money to pay for it, it may be dear indeed. Wet summers take away the chance of earning higher wages in the harvest wherewith to meet the winter’s rigour with food and clothing. Snow or heavy storms and floods in winter, again, cause the billhook to be idle. It is always a hard fight for these our billmen of the peaceful field, a fight, not only of labour, but of grim endurance. They had need be as hard as the iron of the hook.

 

The father, as he rests at his luncheon, sitting on a faggot on the side of the hedge, mayhap spells slowly over the scrap of newspaper in which his cheese was wrapped, leaving its inky letters on the slice; his boy yonder playing with the billhook, chopping off the ends of branches, trying his strength and skill, can read the newspaper with ease. He reads the news of the earth aloud in the thatched cottage. Thus the germs are sown, knowledge is scattered broadcast as the sower throws the seed; the hum of learning resounds in the village street, echoing from the hollow ceiling of the school; and the coming billmen of the new generation will make their voices heard. When the day’s work is over, if any hour of daylight yet remains, the hedger trims his own hedge. With his bill he slashes up the thorn and elder about his garden; it is astonishing, when a man has a garden of his own, what an amount of labour he can find to do in it! There is a dead branch to be cut off the apple-tree here, a gap to be stopped there, the gate wants a new spar, the drain to be cleared; besides the digging, the weeding, and the planting. Always something to be done, and with it peace for the mind, which would otherwise rust as a billhook left out in the dew, with the edge off it in the morning.

 

But now the soft rain, with bursts of sunshine, the happy calls of the passing larks whose flocks have broken up and who go to play in couples over the clods of the ploughed field, the sense of something moving, an invisible force about to exert itself in the bushes—all these warn the woodman that he must hasten. As he clears away the brambles with his billhook he comes on a rabbit hole and observes it has been recently used. The rabbits, then, have returned after the ferreting, and the mound will be populous again in the summer, this will be a little news for his employer, who likes a few rabbits about for sport and eating. Or he may suddenly discover in the long white grass, dead and whitened by , winter’s rain and snow, which still stands on the mound, a hollow, clearly made by something which pressed against it softly. It is a hare’s form: he is loth to destroy the cover of the bushes round it; he leaves them a little while, but reflects that the hare has probably forsaken it several days, hearing his chip-chop, and the cracking of branches so near by.”

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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 GARDEN OF IDEN

Simon Coleman

garden summerhouse

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

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

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

The following quotations are from chapters 26 and 34.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mowers at Harvest Time

Simon Coleman

mowers

When Richard Jefferies was writing in the 1870s and 1880s, British agriculture was experiencing immense upheaval and profound change.  The effects of the depression were far reaching, while increasing mechanisation and the rise of farm ‘businesses’ challenged the old-style practices.  But many traditional methods were still very much in evidence, such as grass-cutting by teams of mowers armed with scythes.  For the typical Wiltshire dairy farmer, the working practices of these teams could be a major headache during the haymaking time.  In this passage from The Toilers of the Field, we get a good insight into the mayhem that the mowers were capable of causing.

“The nuisance of mowers must be gone through to be appreciated. They come and work very well for the first week. They slash down acre after acre, and stick to it almost day and night. In consequence the farmer puts on every man who applies for work, everything goes on first-rate, and there is a prospect of getting the crop in speedily. At the end of the week the mowers draw their money, quite a lump for them, and away they go to the ale-house. Saturday night sees them as drunk as men can be. They lie about the fields under the hedges all day Sunday, drinking when the public-house is open. Monday morning they go on to work for half-an-hour, but the fever engendered by so much liquor, and the disordered state of the stomach, cause a burning thirst. They fling the scythes down, and go off to the barrel. During all this week perhaps between them they manage to cut half an acre. What is the result? The haymakers have made all the grass that was cut the first week into hay, and are standing about idle, unable to proceed, but still drawing their wages from the unfortunate agriculturist. The hot sun is burning on—better weather for haymaking could not be—but there is not a rood of grass cut for them to work on. After a while the mowers come back, thoroughly tired and exhausted with their debauch, and go on feebly to work. There is hope again. But our climate is notoriously changeable. A fortnight of warm, close heat is pretty sure to breed a thunderstorm. Accordingly, just as the scythes begin to lay the tall grass prostrate again, there is a growl in the sky, and down comes the rain. A thunderstorm unsettles the weather, and here is perhaps another week lost. The farmer dares not discharge his haymakers, because he does not know but that he may require them any day. They are put to turn dung-heaps, clean out the yards, pick up the weeds in the garden, and such like little jobs, over which they can dawdle as much as they like. All the while they are on full pay. Now, what manufacturer could endure such conduct as this? Is it not enough to drive a saint out of his patience? Of course the larger farmers who can afford it have the resource of the mowing-machine, but there are hundreds and thousands of farms upon which its sharp rattle has not yet been heard. There is still a great divergence of opinion as to its merits, many maintaining that it does not cut so close to the ground, and therefore wastes a large percentage of the crop, and others that the action of the scissor-like knives bruises the grass, and prevents it growing up into a good after-math. Therefore many farmers who could afford it will not admit the mowing-machine into their fields, and the mowers may still be seen at work over miles and miles of meadow, and are still the plague of the agriculturist. The arable farmer has just the same difficulty to keep his labourers at their work, and unless he is constantly on the watch valuable time is lost daily. In the harvest, however, he has an advantage. The corn is reaped by piece-work, and the labourers therefore strain every nerve to do as much as they can. But then he must be on the lookout to see that they do not “scamp” it.”

See also former posts ‘Women in the Fields’: http://wp.me/p5jhXU-1r

and ‘The Story of the Wheat’: http://wp.me/p5jhXU-1y

 

CLOSE TO LONDON

by Simon Coleman

 Hogsmill Surrey

The Hogsmill River, Surrey

In 1877 Jefferies moved to Surbiton, Surrey, to be closer to the journal editors for whom he was writing.  The outcome of his explorations in Surrey was a book, Nature Near London, published in 1883, which was a collection of articles that he had written for “The Standard”.  This book, in a number of ways, was a departure from his earlier country books such as Wild Life in a Southern County and Round About a Great Estate.  It represents a shift in his perception, as he now examines the relationship between city and country in a way that had not been possible in his native Wiltshire.  And, furthermore, he was exploring the effect of the new landscape and the altered rhythm of life on himself.

In these articles he provides some fine sketches of typical scenes in Surrey which, in those days, was considerably more rural than it is today.  He finds as much in the way of animals, birds and plants to write about as in his earlier books.  As he explains in his preface to Nature Near London, his expectations regarding the quantity of wildlife to be found near London turned out to be completely at odds with actual experience.

“It is usually supposed to be necessary to go far into the country to find wild birds and animals in sufficient numbers to be pleasantly studied. Such was certainly my own impression till circumstances led me, for the convenience of access to London, to reside for awhile about twelve miles from town. There my preconceived views on the subject were quite overthrown by the presence of as much bird-life as I had been accustomed to in distant fields and woods…

“Along the roads and lanes the quantity and variety of life in the hedges was really astonishing. Magpies, jays, woodpeckers—both green and pied—kestrels hovering overhead, sparrow-hawks darting over gateways, hares by the clover, weasels on the mounds, stoats at the edge of the corn. I missed but two birds, the corncrake and the grasshopper lark, and found these another season. Two squirrels one day ran along the palings and up into a guelder-rose tree in the garden. As for the finches and sparrows their number was past calculation.”

During his excursions into his new environment, however, Jefferies began to become conscious of “a dim sense of something wanting”.  In the country lanes and woods “there arose a restlessness, a feeling that it was essential to be moving. In no grassy mead was there a nook where I could stretch myself in slumberous ease and watch the swallows ever wheeling, wheeling in the sky. This was the unseen influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetised me, and I felt it under the calm oaks. The something wanting in the fields was the absolute quiet, peace, and rest which dwells in the meadows and under the trees and on the hilltops in the country. Under its power the mind gradually yields itself to the green earth, the wind among the trees, the song of birds, and comes to have an understanding with them all. For this it is still necessary to seek the far-away glades and hollow coombes, or to sit alone beside the sea.”

So, while the complete sense of tranquillity found in the deep countryside was absent, he felt, nevertheless, some indefinable attraction to the great city’s power.  He had come into its orbit and the effect could not be ignored.  One of his biographers, W.J. Keith, notes that Jefferies, alone among English nature writers, possessed a strong sensitivity to London and a fascination with its dense human life.  Jefferies’ impressions of the life and atmosphere of London contribute much to his later writing, resonating strongly in The Story of My Heart and in his last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair.

In Nature Near London, a wide-ranging and contemplative essay, “Wheatfields”, explores the meeting place of city and country.  Jefferies describes a vivid scene in a cornfield close to London, before shifting his attention to the complex life of the city.  A short distance away a train passes over an iron bridge, but the reapers at work in the field are too busy to notice the sound.  He then imagines a commuting businessman on the train who is himself completely wrapped up in his own world of city institutions.

“And if the merchant spares an abstracted glance from the morning or evening newspaper out upon the fields from the carriage window, the furrows of the field can have but little meaning. Each looks to him exactly alike. To the farmers and the labourer such and such a furrow marks an acre and has its bearing, but to the passing glance it is not so. The work in the field is so slow; the passenger by rail sees, as it seems to him, nothing going on; the corn may sow itself almost for all that is noteworthy in apparent labour.”

The highly contrasted worlds of country and city come into brief contact but they remain separated, apparently incomprehensible to each other.  This in-between land, where the fields approach the edge of the city, allows Jefferies’ imagination to wander between the two environments.  He finds that repetitive patterns of labour are largely to blame for this puzzling division in the human mind.  While the merchant’s mind is “rapt and absorbed in discount and dollars, in bills and merchandise”, he cannot see that his dependence on the wheat produced by agriculture has in no way diminished.  And those at work in the fields, whose lives are “hard toil and hard fare”, haven’t even the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful colours and sounds all around them.

Faced with this dispiriting state of human civilisation, Jefferies, instinctively, looks for some simple, visible connection between city and country: something to provide a sense of beauty and hope.

“It is easy in London to forget that it is midsummer, till, going some day into Covent Garden Market, you see baskets of the cornflower, or blue-bottle as it is called in the country, ticketed ‘Corinne’, and offered for sale. The lovely azure of the flower recalls the scene where it was first gathered long since at the edge of the wheat.”

Women in the Fields and Nature’s Beauty

by Rebecca Welshman

the gleaners

‘The Gleaners’ by Jean-Francois Millet. Source: http://www.artistclon.com/images/201007/goods_img/37782_G_1278953004618.jpg

‘Women in the Field’ is a short article that Jefferies wrote for the Graphic newspaper in 1875. The piece is mainly concerned with the quality of life experienced by female agricultural labourers. The condition of the agricultural labourers was a popular subject in the newspapers of the time. The topic of women in the fields tended to fall by the wayside, however, in favour of arguments concerning wages, land reform, and the usurping of male labour by steam engines. Jefferies seeks to redress this balance by presenting a typical year in the life of a field labouring woman:

“Those who labour in the fields require no calendar, no carefully compiled book of reference to tell them when to sow and when to reap, to warn them of the flight of time. The flowers, blooming and fading, mark the months with unfailing regularity. When the sweet violet may be found in warm sheltered nooks, and the sleepy snake first crawls out from under the brown leaves, then it is time to gather the couch or roots after the plough, and to hoe the young turnips and swedes. This is the first work of the year for the agricultural women.”

Jefferies goes on to describe the arduous nature of this labour – walking over ploughed ridges and furrows in heavy nailed boots, stooping to collect the couch roots, the ‘cold clods of earth [that] numb the fingers’. In early spring, the winds can be raw, and the air temperature low – something, comments Jefferies, that may not cross the minds of many city readers as they scan the pages of the newspaper from the domestic comfort of their town houses. At the end of the labouring day, when the light is fading, the woman walks one or two miles home to her cottage where she prepares supper for her husband.

cottage imageSource: http://www.geodata.soton.ac.uk/newforest/public/resources/jude10.gif

As well as being difficult to carry out, labour is not always easy to find. This adds stress to an already over-strained system. Thus, the riches of spring which gradually unfold amongst the ‘rich fertile valleys’ are largely unheeded by the labouring woman:

“The woods are now carpeted with acres upon acres of the wild hyacincth, or blue bell, and far surpass in loveliness the most cultivated garden. The sheen of the rich deep blue shows like a lake of colour, in which the tall ash poles stand, and in the sunset each bell is tinged with purple. The nightingale sings in the hazel copse, or on the hawthorn bough, both day and night, and higher up, upon the downs, the skies are full of larks carolling at “Heaven’s gate”. But the poor woman hears them not. She has no memories of poetry; her mind can call up no beautiful thoughts to associate with the flower or the bird. She can sign her name in a scrawling hand, and she can spell through simple print …”

bluebells

Although she may not be entirely receptive to the beauty of the natural world – ‘she cannot … appreciate or feel with, the beauty with which she is surrounded’ – there yet remains ‘some little instinctive yearning after a higher condition’. Jefferies refers to labourers’ love of yellow flowers – how they populate their cottage gardens with gilly flowers, single stock, and marigolds. The golden presence of these flowers in Jefferies’ narrative suggests to me something of value, to treasure. The labouring life, however, leaves little time, energy, or aptitude for the appreciation of natural beauty. As Jefferies continues:

“Now the small creeping convolvus with pink-streaked petals winds along the edge of the corn-field, and the beautiful “blue-bottle” lifts its head among the wheat and barley. At three o’clock in the morning the women rise to clean the cottage, and wash the linen, and at five set out for the harvest-field. Often they walk two miles carrying the baby, and then leave it in charge of a girl while they reap. The wheat is bent back with a curved stick held in the left hand called a “fagging-stick”, and the right hand chops with the sharp sickle against the straw. Through the blazing heat of the long summer day, till night, and sometimes under the pale light of the harvest moon this labour continues. Its effects are visible in the thin frame, the bony wrist, the skinny arm showing the sinews, the rounded shoulders and stoop, the wrinkles and lines upon the sunburnt faces. Many women labour thus while still suckling their infants.”

Jefferies concludes by lamenting the lack of life developing opportunities available to female labourers:

“Their labour is too hard, and in too exposed places; and yet they cannot get sufficient of it, for machinery has taken their employment away. From earliest childhood they are injured to the coarse ways and rough talk of rude men … they dwell among the flowers, but the flowers are not for them.”

Jefferies suggests that one remedy would be for an organisation to be set up by ladies in the town and country, to offer situations for young school leavers as domestic servants. This would offer a kinder and healthier alternative to the typical life of women who work the fields. The article thus implicitly raises the question: if people (in this case women) are without the basic human necessities of comfort, warmth, rest, and enough food, how can the spiritual aspects of their lives ever be given a chance to develop? It was unjust, and Jefferies sought to effect change.