FOOD FROM THE CLOUDS

SIMON COLEMAN

 

 clouds-image

Source: http://media.gettyimages.com/videos/aerial-over-fields-with-shadows-of-clouds-in-the-south-downs-west-video-id864-33?s=640×640

 

Anyone who spends a lot of time out in the English countryside cannot fail to notice the great variety of atmospheric effects that can appear, especially over hilly land.  Effects of light, cloud and shadow and subtle plays of colour continually offer surprises to our eyes all year round.  In his different styles, Richard Jefferies possessed the ability to capture the varied moods of the sky and atmosphere, hardly ever missing an opportunity to say something about the clouds he observed.  In this passage from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, he provides a stark description of a drought in the Wiltshire downs before gently shifting our gaze to the dreamy clouds which mesmerize with their motion and hues.

 

“Once now and then in the cycle of the years there comes a summer which to the hills is almost like a fever to the blood, wasting and drying up with its heat the green things upon which animal life depends, so that drought and famine go hand in hand.  The days go by and grow to weeks, the weeks lengthen to months, and still no rain.  The sun pours down his burning rays, which become hotter as the season advances; the sky is blue and beautiful over the hills–beautiful, but pitiless to the bleating flocks beneath.  The breeze comes up from the south, bringing with it white clouds sailing at an immense height, with openings between like azure lakes or aerial Mediterraneans landlocked by banks of vapour.

 

These, if you watch them from the rampart, slowly dissolve; fragments break away from the mass as the edges of the polar glaciers slip off the ice-cliff into the sea, only these are noiseless.  The fragment detached grows visibly thinner and more translucent, its margin stretching out in an uneven fringe: the process is almost exactly like the unravelling of a spotless garment, the threads wavering and twisting as they are carried along by the current, diminishing till they fade and are lost in the ocean of blue.  This breaking of the clouds is commonly seen in weather that promises to be fine.  From the brow here, you may note a solitary cloud just risen above the horizon; it floats slowly towards us; presently it divides into several parts; these, again, fall away in jagged, irregular pieces like flecks of foam.  By the time it has reached the zenith these flecks have lengthened out, and shortly afterwards the cloud has entirely melted and is gone.  The delicate hue, the contrast of the fleecy white with the deepest azure, the ever-changing form, the light shining through the gauzy texture, the gentle dreamy motion, lend these clouds an exquisite beauty.”

 

Later in the book, he describes a very different cloud scene.

 

“When the sky is overcast—large masses of cloud, with occasional breaks, passing slowly across it at a considerable elevation without rain – sometimes through these narrow slits long beams of light fall aslant upon the distant fields of the vale.  They resemble, only on a greatly lengthened scales the beams that may be seen in churches of a sunny afternoon, falling from the upper windows on the tiled floor of the chancel, and made visible by motes in the air.  So through such slits in the cloudy roof of the sky the rays of the sun shoot downwards, made visible on their passage by the moisture or the motes floating in the atmosphere.  They seem to linger in their place as the clouds drift with scarcely perceptible motion; and the labourers say that the sun is sucking up water there.”

 

Typically in Jefferies’ writing, underlying the careful objectivity of his descriptions, we detect the presence of some deeper level of experience.  Here, in his children’s novel, ‘Bevis’, the clouds seem to lead the reposing mind towards an idea of eternal time.

 

“Lying at full length inside the shadow of the oak, Bevis gazed up at the clouds, which were at an immense height, and drifted so slowly as to scarcely seem to move, only he saw that they did because he had a fixed point in the edge of the oak boughs.  So thin and delicate was the texture of the white sky-lace above him that the threads scarcely hid the blue which the eye knew was behind and above it.  It was warm without the pressure of heat, soft, luxurious; the summer like them reclined, resting in the fulness of the time.”

 

On another occasion, in the High Weald of Sussex, he can celebrate an unending variety of cloud formations passing over.

 

“Clouds drift over; it is a wonderful observatory for cloud studies; they seem so close, the light is so strong, and there is nothing to check the sight as far as its powers will reach. Clouds come up no wider than a pasture-field, but in length stretching out to the very horizon, dividing the blue sky into two halves; but then every day has its different clouds—the fleets of heaven that are always sailing on and know no haven.”  (‘Buckhurst Park’)

 

Jefferies was not afraid of introducing occasional romantic touches, such as this one from ‘Hours of Spring’:

 

“…the beautiful clouds that go over, with the sweet rush of rain and burst of sun glory among the leafy trees.”

 

In a very late and sad essay, ‘My Old Village’, composed when he was bed-ridden and aware  he was dying of tuberculosis, Jefferies plunges into an astonishingly poignant reminiscence of his youth in the north Wiltshire countryside.  He also reveals a new depth to his love of clouds.

 

“There used to be clouds over the fields, white clouds in blue summer skies. I have lived a good deal on clouds; they have been meat to me often; they bring something to the spirit which even the trees do not. I see clouds now sometimes when the iron grip of hell permits for a minute or two; they are very different clouds, and speak differently. I long for some of the old clouds that had no memories.”

 

The clouds of that youthful time possessed something magical that never left him.  Near the end of the essay he complains that, “No one seems to understand how I got food from the clouds.”

 

It is perhaps not surprising that a dreamer like Jefferies, who understood the value of beauty rather than material wealth, was not comprehensible to late-Victorian society.  However, as we look back on Jefferies through the lens of our present digital age, I think many of us do feel the need to re-connect with a reality much greater than our endless flow of electronic information and stimuli.  We only have to think of the real earth and the real sky, and all that they mean to the human heart, and we sense something of what Jefferies found in the clouds and changing light over the wide chalk uplands or the summer pastures.  With a small shift of our attention, we too can re-discover beautiful things that have never left us.  There is, I believe, a Richard Jefferies in all of us.

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DAYS OF LIGHT

 Simon Coleman

days of light image.jpg

Image by Rebecca Welshman

The dark season has come upon us again but the words of Richard Jefferies can keep the magic of sunlight, greenery and birdsong alive in our minds.  A selection of short quotes from various works:

“Gradually entering into the intense life of the summer days—a life which burned around as if every grass blade and leaf were a torch—I came to feel the long-drawn life of the earth back into the dimmest past, while the sun of the moment was warm on me.”

 

“Each moment, as with the greenfinches, is so full of life that it seems so long and so sufficient in itself.  Not only the days, but life itself lengthens in summer. I would spread abroad my arms and gather more of it to me, could I do so.”

 

“Human thoughts and imaginings written down are pale and feeble in bright summer light. The eye wanders away, and rests more lovingly on greensward and green lime leaves. The mind wanders yet deeper and farther into the dreamy mystery of the azure sky.”

 

“Out from the hedge, not five yards distant, pours a rush of deep luscious notes, succeeded by the sweetest trills heard by man. It is the nightingale, which tradition assigns to the night only, but which in fact sings as loudly, and to my ear more joyously, in the full sunlight, especially in the morning, and always close to the nest. The sun has moved onward upon his journey, and this spot is no longer completely shaded, but the foliage of a great oak breaks the force of his rays, and the eye can even bear to gaze at his disc for a few moments.”

 

“Pure colour almost always gives the idea of fire, or, rather, it is perhaps as if a light shone through as well as the colour itself. The fresh green blade of corn is like this – so pellucid, so clear and pure in its green as to seem to shine with colour. It is not brilliant-not a surface gleam nor an enamel – it is stained through. Beside the moist clods the slender flags arise, filled with the sweetness of the earth. Out of the darkness under – that darkness which knows no day save when the ploughshare opens its chinks – they have come to the light. To the light they have brought a colour which will attract the sunbeams from now till harvest.”  

“The sun shone there for a very long time, and the water rippled and sang, and it always seemed to me that I could feel the rippling and the singing and the sparkling back through the centuries.”

In the Early Autumn

Rebecca Welshman

autumnparkland

Source: http://foam.merseyforest.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/image1.jpeg

Jefferies wrote this article for the Pall Mall Gazette in 1879, which formed part of a seasonal series. The entire article can be found in the collection ‘Chronicles of the Hedges’. Here Jefferies captures the changeability of autumn, that raw, almost hushed excitement that you can feel upon walking through an autumnal landscape. The colours of the season are a celebration in themselves – as if the foliage of the land is making its final stand against the onset of winter with vibrancy and stoicism. In autumn the leaves of spring finally find their ultimate forms before they drop from their boughs altogether. Crisp, curled, stained in brown and russet, they form a collage that so many of us look forward to seeing and experiencing. The winds of change are abroad…so let us step into October…

“Hardy October has an especial charm to those who love the open air. The winds rush forward with a bluff freedom, and welcome you to the fields with hearty rudeness. Something seems to prepare the frame to stand the coming winter. The footsteps would fain wander farther and farther through the woodland, where the sward is hidden under fallen leaves. The scene changes with the hour of the day. Come to the hedgerow here, beside the stubble, early in the morning, and the mist conceals the other side of the field; the great hawthorn bushes loom out from it, and the grass by the ditch is white with heavy dew. By-and-by the mist clears, and the sky gives its own grey tint to all things. All sounds are hushed, and all colours subdued. Yet later on the breeze rises, and as it sweeps past throws a golden largesse of leaves on either hand. The monotonous grey sky resolves itself into separate clouds, which hasten overhead, with gaps where the sun seems nearly to shine through. These places are brightly illuminated from above, and yet the beams do not penetrate. After a while there comes a gleam of sunshine, and the eyes that have been bent on earth instinctively look up- The hedge is still so green with leaves that the wind is warded off and the sunshine is pleasantly warm. The rays have immediately found out and lit up every spot of colour. In the hawthorn the dull red haws, very large this year; on the briar the scarlet hips; a few flowers still lingering on the gambles; a pale herb of betony under the bushes, a late knapweed, a few thistles yet blooming—these catch the glance along the hedge. The short stubble is almost concealed by a rank growth of weeds, above which rise the fading  yellow heads of the camomile, heads from which the white petals have drooped and fallen. The boughs of yonder horse-chestnuts have been thinned of foliage by the wind; but every leaf that remains is bright with tints of yellow. One tree especially stands out above the hedge; the leaves are almost crimson, so deeply has the frost touched them. It is not often that the foliage of the horse-chestnut takes so rich a dye as may be seen this autumn. The leaves commonly fall before their first pale yellow has reddened. The elms and oaks are still green, and show but little apparent change, though in truth much of their foliage has dropped. A brown oak leaf lies on the sward; it glistens with dew as if the colour laid on it was still wet. Along the shore of the pond a broad fringe of fallen leaves—from the elm that overshadows it— undulates on the wavelets that roll into the rushes and are lost. Up the slender rushes a tint of yellow is rising; the pointed flags that lift their green swords so proudly have bent, and their tips rest in the water. In the corner by the copse the thick growth of fern has become brown, and the tuffets of grass are streaked with grey. Overhead, the sky is now a beautiful blue; and if you look into the shadows of the trees—as in the copse where there is an open space—you will note that they are very soft and delicate. There are no sharply defined dark edges—the shadow between the tree-trunks appears like an indistinct mist. The eye as it gazes becomes conscious of undertones of colour for which there is no name. A cloud passes over the sun, and instantly they are blotted out. The beams fall again upon the wood, and the glow as immediately returns.

The acorns are full on the oak boughs, but they are still quite green, and none have dropped. Glad in the sunshine, the greenfinches troop along the hedge calling to each other sweetly. Larks rise and hover just above the trees, wheeling round, and returning to the earth. Now and then one soars and sings. On the top of the hawthorn bushes in the hedge the hedge-sparrows utter a single note from time to time-Not now, but early in the morning, the song of the robin comes through the mist, and the lively ‘fink’ of the chaffinch sounds in the tree. Thrushes sometimes sing in October; but hitherto the sharp frosts at the dawn have silenced them. Two or three swallows still float to-day in the blue sky above the wood. How slowly the plough goes through the stubble; the horses scarcely seem to move! Yet by degrees the space between the furrows becomes less, till nothing but a narrow path remains; and that is finally upturned by the share. They who live by the earth must be patient, and content to move slow like the seasons. Passing the gateway the shelter of the hedge is for the moment lost, and the northern blast rushes with all its force full in the face. This is the pleasure of October—the deep blue sky, the glowing colour of the leaves, the bright sun that lights up even the grey lichen on the oak bark, and with it the keen invigorating breeze that strengthens every limb. Travellers tell us of the wonderful colours of tropical forests; but then the moist sweltering heat renders the explorer incapable of enjoying them. But in English woodlands autumn colour is accompanied by a subtle change in the atmosphere which braces the wanderer.”

SUN, SEA AND GRASS

SIMON COLEMAN

 beachy head

Source: http://i.imgur.com/WxPrk.jpg

Here is a fine piece of writing by Jefferies, taken from ‘The Breeze on Beachy Head’.  In it he captures the sense of freedom, exultation and possibility experienced beside the sea.  His imagination drifts back to the ancient past, while the appearance of the ‘Orient’ suddenly awakens him to the wonders of his own age.  He finds interest in small details: soil marks on the chalk and debris on the beach.  Typically, the prose dances with light and movement, and scraps of personal philosophy are almost casually thrown in.  The many contrasts of the scene become almost overwhelming and a deeper perception is revealed when he says, ‘I feel that I want the presence of grass’.  The ‘Gap’ is Birling Gap, Sussex.

 

“The waves coming round the promontory before the west wind still give the idea of a flowing stream, as they did in Homer’s days. Here beneath the cliff, standing where beach and sand meet, it is still; the wind passes six hundred feet overhead. But yonder, every larger wave rolling before the breeze breaks over the rocks; a white line of spray rushes along them, gleaming in the sunshine; for a moment the dark rock-wall disappears, till the spray sinks.

 

The sea seems higher than the spot where I stand, its surface on a higher level—raised like a green mound—as if it could burst in and occupy the space up to the foot of the cliff in a moment. It will not do so, I know; but there is an infinite possibility about the sea; it may do what it is not recorded to have done. It is not to be ordered, it may overleap the bounds human observation has fixed for it. It has a potency unfathomable. There is still something in it not quite grasped and understood—something still to be discovered—a mystery.

 

So the white spray rushes along the low broken wall of rocks, the sun gleams on the flying fragments of the wave, again it sinks and the rhythmic motion holds the mind, as an invisible force holds back the tide. A faith of expectancy, a sense that something may drift up from the unknown, a large belief in the unseen resources of the endless space out yonder, soothes the mind with dreamy hope.

 

The little rules and little experiences, all the petty ways of narrow life, are shut off behind by the ponderous and impassable cliff; as if we had dwelt in the dim light of a cave, but coming out at last to look at the sun, a great stone had fallen and closed the entrance, so that there was no return to the shadow. The impassable precipice shuts off our former selves of yesterday, forcing us to look out over the sea only, or up to the deeper heaven.

 

These breadths draw out the soul; we feel that we have wider thoughts than we knew; the soul has been living, as it were, in a nutshell, all unaware of its own power, and now suddenly finds freedom in the sun and the sky. Straight, as if sawn down from turf to beach, the cliff shuts off the human world, for the sea knows no time and no era; you cannot tell what century it is from the face of the sea. A Roman trireme suddenly rounding the white edge-line of chalk, borne on wind and oar from the Isle of Wight towards the gray castle at Pevensey (already old in olden days), would not seem strange. What wonder could surprise us coming from the wonderful sea?

 

The little rills winding through the sand have made an islet of a detached rock by the beach; limpets cover it, adhering like rivet-heads. In the stillness here, under the roof of the wind so high above, the sound of the sand draining itself is audible. From the cliff blocks of chalk have fallen, leaving hollows as when a knot drops from a beam. They lie crushed together at the base, and on the point of this jagged ridge a wheatear perches.

 

There are ledges three hundred feet above, and from these now and then a jackdaw glides out and returns again to his place, where, when still and with folded wings, he is but a speck of black. A spire of chalk still higher stands out from the wall, but the rains have got behind it and will cut the crevice deeper and deeper into its foundation. Water, too, has carried the soil from under the turf at the summit over the verge, forming brown streaks.

 

Upon the beach lies a piece of timber, part of a wreck; the wood is torn and the fibres rent where it was battered against the dull edge of the rocks. The heat of the sun burns, thrown back by the dazzling chalk; the river of ocean flows ceaselessly, casting the spray over the stones; the unchanged sky is blue.

 

Let us go back and mount the steps at the Gap, and rest on the sward there. I feel that I want the presence of grass. The sky is a softer blue, and the sun genial now the eye and the mind alike are relieved—the one of the strain of too great solitude (not the solitude of the woods), the other of too brilliant and hard a contrast of colours. Touch but the grass and the harmony returns; it is repose after exaltation.

 

A vessel comes round the promontory; it is not a trireme of old Rome, nor the “fair and stately galley” Count Arnaldus hailed with its seamen singing the mystery of the sea. It is but a brig in ballast, high out of the water, black of hull and dingy of sail: still it is a ship, and there is always an interest about a ship. She is so near, running along but just outside the reef, that the deck is visible. Up rises her stern as the billows come fast and roll under; then her bow lifts, and immediately she rolls, and, loosely swaying with the sea, drives along.

 

The slope of the billow now behind her is white with the bubbles of her passage, rising, too, from her rudder. Steering athwart with a widening angle from the land, she is laid to clear the distant point of Dungeness. Next, a steamer glides forth, unseen till she passed the cliff; and thus each vessel that comes from the westward has the charm of the unexpected. Eastward there is many a sail working slowly into the wind, and as they approach, talking in the language of flags with the watch on the summit of the Head.

 

Once now and then the great Orient pauses on her outward route to Australia, slowing her engines: the immense length of her hull contains every adjunct of modern life; science, skill, and civilisation are there. She starts, and is lost sight of round the cliff, gone straight away for the very ends of the world. The incident is forgotten, when one morning, as you turn over the newspaper, there is the Orient announced to start again. It is like a tale of enchantment; it seems but yesterday that the Head hid her from view; you have scarcely moved, attending to the daily routine of life, and scarce recognise that time has passed at all. In so few hours has the earth been encompassed.

 

The sea-gulls as they settle on the surface ride high out of the water, like the mediæval caravals, with their sterns almost as tall as the masts. Their unconcerned flight, with crooked wings unbent, as if it were no matter to them whether they flew or floated, in its peculiar jerking motion somewhat reminds one of the lapwing—the heron has it, too, a little—as if aquatic or water-side birds had a common and distinct action of the wing.

 

Sometimes a porpoise comes along, but just beyond the reef; looking down on him from the verge of the cliff, his course can be watched. His dark body, wet and oily, appears on the surface for two seconds; and then, throwing up his tail like the fluke of an anchor, down he goes. Now look forward, along the waves, some fifty yards or so, and he will come up, the sunshine gleaming on the water as it runs off his back, to again dive, and reappear after a similar interval. Even when the eye can no longer distinguish the form, the spot where he rises is visible, from the slight change in the surface.

 

The hill receding in hollows leaves a narrow plain between the foot of the sward and the cliff; it is ploughed, and the teams come to the footpath which follows the edge; and thus those who plough the sea and those who plough the land look upon each other. The one sees the vessel change her tack, the other notes the plough turning at the end of the furrow. Bramble bushes project over the dangerous wall of chalk, and grasses fill up the interstices, a hedge suspended in air; but be careful not to reach too far for the blackberries.”

THE SACRED TEMPLE OF LIFE

Simon Coleman

OHC hand in stream

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE UNDAUNTED LAPWINGS

Simon Coleman

lapwing rspb

Source: http://www.rspb.org.uk

 

Rain, cold and deadening gloom: winter days we are all familiar with. There is no colour, no sound of birds – one might feel that life has left the earth altogether. Richard Jefferies, though a worshipper of the sun and the long days of light, always persisted with his winter walks. In this first part of a beautiful essay, ‘Haunts of the Lapwing’, he stumbles across some lapwings braving the dreadful weather and the sight of them instantly lifts his spirits. In that moment he finds them to be ‘the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness’.

 

“HAUNTS OF THE LAPWING, part 1: Winter”

 

“Coming like a white wall the rain reaches me, and in an instant everything is gone from sight that is more than ten yards distant. The narrow upland road is beaten to a darker hue, and two runnels of water rush along at the sides, where, when the chalk-laden streamlets dry, blue splinters of flint will be exposed in the channels. For a moment the air seems driven away by the sudden pressure, and I catch my breath and stand still with one shoulder forward to receive the blow. Hiss, the land shudders under the cold onslaught; hiss, and on the blast goes, and the sound with it, for the very fury of the rain, after the first second, drowns its own noise. There is not a single creature visible, the low and stunted hedgerows, bare of leaf, could conceal nothing; the rain passes straight through to the ground. Crooked and gnarled, the bushes are locked together as if in no other way could they hold themselves against the gales. Such little grass as there is on the mounds is thin and short, and could not hide a mouse. There is no finch, sparrow, thrush, blackbird. As the wave of rain passes over and leaves a hollow between the waters, that which has gone and that to come, the ploughed lands on either side are seen to be equally bare. In furrows full of water, a hare would not sit, nor partridge run; the larks, the patient larks which endure almost everything, even they have gone. Furrow on furrow with flints dotted on their slopes, and chalk lumps, that is all. The cold earth gives no sweet petal of flower, nor can any bud of thought or bloom of imagination start forth in the mind. But step by step, forcing a way through the rain and over the ridge, I find a small and stunted copse down in the next hollow. It is rather a wide hedge than a copse, and stands by the road in the corner of a field. The boughs are bare; still they break the storm, and it is a relief to wait a while there and rest. After a minute or so the eye gets accustomed to the branches and finds a line of sight through the narrow end of the copse. Within twenty yards—just outside the copse—there are a number of lapwings, dispersed about the furrows. One runs a few feet forward and picks something from the ground; another runs in the same manner to one side; a third rushes in still a third direction. Their crests, their green-tinted wings, and white breasts are not disarranged by the torrent. Something in the style of the birds recalls the wagtail, though they are so much larger. Beyond these are half a dozen more, and in a straggling line others extend out into the field. They have found some slight shelter here from the sweeping of the rain and wind, and are not obliged to face it as in the open. Minutely searching every clod they gather their food in imperceptible items from the surface.

 

Sodden leaves lie in the furrows along the side of the copse; broken and decaying burdocks still uphold their jagged stems, but will be soaked away by degrees; dank grasses droop outwards! the red seed of a dock is all that remains of the berries and fruit, the seeds and grain of autumn. Like the hedge, the copse is vacant. Nothing moves within, watch as carefully as I may. The boughs are blackened by wet and would touch cold. From the grasses to the branches there is nothing any one would like to handle, and I stand apart even from the bush that keeps away the rain. The green plovers are the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness. Heavily as the rain may fall, cold as the saturated wind may blow, the plovers remind us of the beauty of shape, colour, and animation. They seem too slender to withstand the blast—they should have gone with the swallows—too delicate for these rude hours; yet they alone face them.

 

Once more the wave of rain has passed, and yonder the hills appear; these are but uplands. The nearest and highest has a green rampart, visible for a moment against the dark sky, and then again wrapped in a toga of misty cloud. So the chilled Roman drew his toga around him in ancient days as from that spot he looked wistfully southwards and thought of Italy. Wee-ah-wee! Some chance movement has been noticed by the nearest bird, and away they go at once as if with the same wings, sweeping overhead, then to the right, then to the left, and then back again, till at last lost in the coming shower. After they have thus vibrated to and fro long enough, like a pendulum coming to rest, they will alight in the open field on the ridge behind. There in drilled ranks, well closed together, all facing the same way, they will stand for hours. Let us go also and let the shower conceal them. Another time my path leads over the hills.

 

It is afternoon, which in winter is evening. The sward of the down is dry under foot, but hard, and does not lift the instep with the springy feel of summer. The sky is gone, it is not clouded, it is swathed in gloom. Upwards the still air thickens, and there is no arch or vault of heaven. Formless and vague, it seems some vast shadow descending. The sun has disappeared, and the light there still is, is left in the atmosphere enclosed by the gloomy mist as pools are left by a receding tide. Through the sand the water slips, and through the mist the light glides away. Nearer comes the formless shadow and the visible earth grows smaller. The path has faded, and there are no means on the open downs of knowing whether the direction pursued is right or wrong, till a boulder (which is a landmark) is perceived. Thence the way is down the slope, the last and limit of the hills there. It is a rough descent, the paths worn by sheep may at any moment cause a stumble. At the foot is a waggon-track beside a low hedge, enclosing the first arable field. The hedge is a guide, but the ruts are deep, and it still needs slow and careful walking. Wee-ah-wee! Up from the dusky surface of the arable field springs a plover, and the notes are immediately repeated by another. They can just be seen as darker bodies against the shadow as they fly overhead. Wee-ah-wee! The sound grows fainter as they fetch a longer circle in the gloom.

 

There is another winter resort of plovers in the valley where a barren waste was ploughed some years ago. A few furze bushes still stand in the hedges about it, and the corners are full of rushes. Not all the grubbing of furze and bushes, the deep ploughing and draining, has succeeded in rendering the place fertile like the adjacent fields. The character of a marsh adheres to it still. So long as there is a crop, the lapwings keep away, but as soon as the ploughs turn up the ground in autumn they return. The place lies low, and level with the waters in the ponds and streamlets. A mist hangs about it in the evening, and even when there is none, there is a distinct difference in the atmosphere while passing it. From their hereditary home the lapwings cannot be entirely driven away. Out of the mist comes their plaintive cry; they are hidden, and their exact locality is not to be discovered. Where winter rules most ruthlessly, where darkness is deepest in daylight, there the slender plovers stay undaunted.”

The Hard Craft of Writing

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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.