The Return of the Swallows

Rebecca Welshman

 barn-swallow

Source: awwproject.org

I was standing on the pavement of a quiet Sussex village and had just stepped outside to catch the last few rays of the evening sun. It had been a busy day, and my head was reeling with all the things I’d had to do. So caught up in the fast pace of life had I been of late, that I had not given a thought to when I might see my first Swallow of the year. It was therefore a wonderful surprise, looking up into the blue sky over the village houses, when the dark, sleek form of a Swallow suddenly swept into view over a chimney top in jubilant and darting flight. The moment of his appearance was very briefly preceded by the familiar happy chattering that I had not heard since last September. Soon there was another, and every moment that I watched the pair skimming the rooftops I felt closer to the idea of summer. Jefferies recalls the arrival of swallows in Sussex, in 1887:

“The eave-swallows have come at last with the midsummer-time, and the hay and white clover and warm winds that breathe hotly, like one that has been running uphill. With the paler hawkweeds, whose edges are so delicately trimmed and cut and balanced, almost as if made by cleft human fingers to human design, whose globes of down are like geometrical circles built up of facets, instead of by one revolution of the compasses. With foxglove, and dragon-fly, and yellowing wheat; with green cones of fir, and boom of distant thunder, and all things that say, ‘It is summer.’ Not many of them even now, sometimes only two in the air together, sometimes three or four, and one day eight, the very greatest number—a mere handful, for these eave-swallows at such times should crowd the sky. The white bars across their backs should be seen gliding beside the dark fir copse a quarter of a mile away. They should be seen everywhere, over the house, and to and fro the eaves, where half last year’s nest remains; over the meadows and high up in the blue ether. White breasts should gleam in the azure height, appearing and disappearing as they climb or sink, and wheel and slide through those long boomerang-like flights that suddenly take them a hundred yards aside. They should crowd the sky together with the ruddy-throated chimney-swallows, and the great swifts; but though it is hay-time and the apples are set, yet eight eave-swallows is the largest number I have counted in one afternoon. They did not come at all in the spring. After the heavy winter cleared away, the delicate willow-wrens soon sang in the tops of the beautiful green larches, the nightingale came, and the cuckoo, the chimney-swallow, the doves softly cooing as the oaks came into leaf, and the black swifts. Up to May 26 there were no eave-swallows at the Sussex hill-side where these notes were taken; that is more than a month later than the date of their usual arrival, which would be about the middle of April. After this they gradually came back. The chimney-swallows were not so late, but even they are not so numerous as usual. The swifts seem to have come more in their accustomed numbers. Now, the swallows are, of all others, the summer birds. As well suppose the trees without leaves as the summer air without swallows. Ever since of old time the Greeks went round from house to house in spring singing the swallow song, these birds have been looked upon as the friends of man, and almost as the very givers of the sunshine.”

I cannot accurately describe how I felt when seeing the Swallows the other day. If it were physically possible for the heart to rise within the chest, lifting the spirit with it, then this would be akin to the feeling. On seeing the bird, I had a sudden sense of its joy, following it as it rose and dipped. I was reminded of its long journey, its endurance, its faithfulness and unswerving dedication to return to the same place each year. Something in the bird’s unfettered freedom awakened a dormant strain of thought of my own that I had been neglecting to nurture. The Swallow, reminding me of all these things, was a messenger of hope. As Jefferies wrote:

“The beautiful swallows, be tender to them, for they symbol all that is best in nature and all that is best in our hearts.”

 

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.

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.”

‘January in the Sussex Woods’ by Richard Jefferies

woodlands co ukSource: woodlands.co.uk

The lost leaves measure our years; they are gone as the days are gone, and the bare branches silently speak of a new year, slowly advancing to its buds, its foliage, and fruit. Deciduous trees associate with human life as this yew never can. Clothed in its yellowish-green needles, its tarnished green, it knows no hope or sorrow; it is indifferent to winter, and does not look forward to summer. With their annual loss of leaves, and renewal, oak and elm and ash and beech seem to stand by us and to share our thoughts. There is no wind at the edge of the wood, and the few flakes of snow that fall from the overcast sky flutter as they drop, now one side higher and then the other, as the leaves did in the still hours of autumn. The delicacy of the outer boughs of the great trees visible against the dark background of cloud is as beautiful in its own way as the massed foliage of summer. Each slender bough is drawn out to a line; line follows line as shade grows under the pencil, but each of these lines is separate. Great boles of beech, heavy timber at the foot, thus end at their summits in the lightest and most elegant pencilling. Where the birches are tall, sometimes the number and closeness of these bare sprays causes a thickening almost as if there were leaves there. The leaves, in fact, when they come, conceal the finish of the trees; they give colour, but they hide the beautiful structure under them. Each tree at a distance is recognisable by its particular lines; the ash, for instance, grows with its own marked curve.

Some flakes of snow have remained on this bough of spruce, pure white on dull green. Sparingly dispersed, the snow can be seen falling far ahead between the trunks; indeed, the white dots appear to increase the distance the eye can penetrate; it sees farther because there is something to catch the glance. Nothing seems left for food in the woods for bird or animal. Some ivy berries and black privet berries remain, a few haws may be found; for the rest, it is gone; the squirrels have had the nuts, the acorns were taken by the jays, rooks, and pheasants. Bushels of acorns, too, were collected by hand as food for the fallow deer in the park. A great fieldfare rises, like a lesser pigeon; fieldfares often haunt the verge of woods, while the redwing thrushes go out into the meadows. It can scarcely be doubted that both these birds come over to escape the keener cold of the winters in Norway, or that the same cause drives the blackbirds hither. In spring we listen to Norwegian songs—the blackbird and the thrush that please us so much, if not themselves of Scandinavian birth, have had a Scandinavian origin. Any one walking about woods like these in January can understand how, where there are large flocks of birds, they must find the pressure of numbers through the insufficiency of food. They go then to seek a warmer climate and more to eat; more particularly probably for sustenance.

The original and simple theory that the majority of birds migrate for food or warmth is not overthrown by modern observations. That appears to be the primary impulse, though others may be traced or reasonably imagined. To suppose, as has been put forward, that birds are endowed with a migratory instinct for the express purpose of keeping down their numbers, in order, that is, that they may perish in crossing the sea, is really too absurd for serious consideration. If that were the end in view, it would be most easily obtained by keeping them at home, where snow would speedily starve them. On the contrary, it will appear to any one who walks about woods and fields that migration is essential to the preservation of these creatures. By migration, in fact, the species is kept in existence, and room is found for life. Apart from the necessity of food, movement and change is one of the most powerful agencies in renewing health. This we see in our own experience; the condition of the air is especially important, and it is well within reasonable supposition that some birds and animals may wish to avoid certain states of atmosphere. There is, too, the question of moulting and change of plumage, and the possibility that this physiological event may influence the removal to a different climate. Birds migrate principally for food and warmth; secondly, on account of the pressure of numbers (for in good seasons they increase very fast); thirdly, for the sake of health; fourthly, for sexual reasons; fifthly, from the operation of a kind of prehistoric memory; sixthly, from choice. One or other of these causes will explain almost every case of migration.

winter_bird_wallpaper_d2411Source: http://gardensupplyco.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/winter_bird_wallpaper_d2411.jpg

Birds are lively and intellectual, imaginative and affectionate creatures, and all their movements are not dictated by mere necessity. They love the hedge and bush where they were born, they return to the same tree, or the same spot under the eave. On the other hand, they like to roam about the fields and woods, and some of them travel long distances during the day. When the pleasurable cares of the nest are concluded, it is possible that they may in some cases cross the sea solely for the solace of change. Variety of food is itself a great pleasure. By prehistoric memory is meant the unconscious influence of ancient habit impressed upon the race in times when the conformation of land and sea and the conditions of life were different. No space is left for a mysterious agency; migration is purely natural, and acts for the general preservation. Try to put yourself in a bird’s place, and you will see that migration is very natural indeed. If at some future period of the world’s history men should acquire the art of flying, there can be no doubt that migration would become the custom, and whole nations would change their localities. Man has, indeed, been always a migratory animal. History is little beyond the record of migrations, how one race moved on and overcame the race in front of it. In ancient days lots were cast as to who should migrate, and those chosen by this conscription left their homes that the rest remaining might have room and food. Checking the attempted migration of the Helvetii was the beginning of Caesar’s exploits. What men do only at intervals birds do frequently, having greater freedom of movement.

Who can doubt that the wild fowl come south because the north is frozen over? The Laplander and the reindeer migrate together; the Tartars migrate all the year through, crossing the steppes in winding and devious but fixed paths, paths settled for each family, and kept without a map, though invisible to strangers. It is only necessary to watch the common sparrow. In spring his merry chirp and his few notes of song are heard on the roof or in the garden; here he spends his time till the broods are reared and the corn is ripe. Immediately he migrates into the fields. By degrees he is joined by those left behind to rear second broods, and at last the stubble is crowded with sparrows, such flocks no one would believe possible unless they had seen them. He has migrated for food, for his food changes with the season, being mainly insects in spring, and grain and seeds in autumn. Something may, I venture to think, in some cases of migration, be fairly attributed to the influence of a desire for change, a desire springing from physiological promptings for the preservation of health. I am personally subject twice a year to the migratory impulse. I feel it in spring and autumn, say about March, when the leaves begin to appear, and again as the corn is carried, and most strongly as the fields are left in stubble. I have felt it every year since boyhood, often so powerfully as to be quite unable to resist it. Go I must, and go I do, somewhere; if I do not I am soon unwell. The general idea of direction is southerly, both spring and autumn; no doubt the reason is because this is a northern country.

Rabbit Warren 1b cpt Bob CoyleSource: http://data.wildlifetrusts.org/sites/default/files/imagecache/reserve_web_large/sites/data.live.wt.precedenthost.co.uk/files/Rabbit%20Warren%201b%20cpt%20Bob%20Coyle.jpg

Some little green stays on the mounds where the rabbits creep and nibble the grasses. Cinquefoil remains green though faded, and wild parsley the freshest looking of all; plantain leaves are found under shelter of brambles, and the dumb nettles, though the old stalks are dead, have living leaves at the ground. Grey-veined ivy trails along, here and there is a frond of hart’s-tongue fern, though withered at the tip, and greenish grey lichen grows on the exposed stumps of trees. These together give a green tint to the mound, which is not so utterly devoid of colour as the season of the year might indicate. Where they fail, brown brake fern fills the spaces between the brambles; and in a moist spot the bunches of rushes are composed half of dry stalks, and half of green. Stems of willow-herb, four feet high, still stand, and tiny long-tailed tits perch sideways on them. Above, on the bank, another species of willow-herb has died down to a short stalk, from which springs a living branch, and at its end is one pink flower. A dandelion is opening on the same sheltered bank; farther on the gorse is sprinkled with golden spots of bloom. A flock of greenfinches starts from the bushes, and their colour shows against the ruddy wands of the osier-bed over which they fly. The path winds round the edge of the wood, where a waggon track goes up the hill; it is deeply grooved at the foot of the hill. These tracks wear deeply into the chalk just where the ascent begins. The chalk adheres to the shoes like mortar, and for some time after one has left it each footstep leaves a white mark on the turf. On the ridge the low trees and bushes have an outline like the flame of a candle in a draught—the wind has blown them till they have grown fixed in that shape. In an oak across the ploughed field a flock of wood-pigeons have settled; on the furrows there are chaffinches, and larks rise and float a few yards farther away. The snow has ceased, and though there is no wind on the surface, the clouds high above have opened somewhat, not sufficient for the sun to shine, but to prolong the already closing afternoon a few minutes. If the sun shines to-morrow morning the lark will soar and sing, though it is January, and the quick note of the chaffinch will be heard as he perches on the little branches projecting from the trunks of trees below the great boughs. Thrushes sing every mild day in December and January, entirely irrespective of the season, also before rain.

Chanctonbury Ring looking east   13 Feb 09   (Richard Reed)   SDS  CNP

View from Chanctonbury Ring, Sussex. Source: http://www.patadventures.com/wp-content/uploads/SOUTH-DOWNS-Chanctonbury-Ring-looking-east-February-2009-Richard-Reed.jpg

A curious instance of a starling having a young brood at this time of the year, recently recorded, seems to suggest that birds are not really deceived by the passing mildness of a few days, but are obliged to prepare nests, finding themselves in a condition to require them. The cause, in short, is physiological, and not the folly of the bird. This starling had had two previous broods, one in October, and now again in December-January. The starling was not, therefore, deceived by the chance of mild weather; her own bodily condition led her to the nest, and had she been a robin or thrush she would have built one instead of resorting to a cranny. It is certain that individuals among birds and animals do occasionally breed at later periods than is usual for the generality of their species. Exceptionally prolific individuals among birds continue to breed into the winter. They are not egregiously deceived any more than we are by a mild interval; the nesting is caused by their individual temperament.

The daylight has lingered on longer than expected, but now the gloom of the short January evening is settling down fast in the wood. The silent and motionless trees rise out of a mysterious shadow, which fills up the spaces between their trunks. Only above, where their delicate outer branches are shown against the dark sky, is there any separation between them. Somewhere in the deep shadow of the underwood a blackbird calls “ching, ching” before he finally settles himself to roost. In the yew the lesser birds are already quiet, sheltered by the evergreen spray; they have also sought the ivy-grown trunks. “Twit, twit,” sounds high overhead as one or two belated little creatures, scarcely visible, pass quickly for the cover of the furze on the hill. The short January evening is of but a few minutes’ duration; just now it was only dusky, and already the interior of the wood is impenetrable to the glance. There rises a loud though distant clamour of rooks and daws, who have restlessly moved in their roost-trees. Darkness is almost on them, yet they cannot quite settle. The cawing and dawing rises to a pitch, and then declines; the wood is silent, and it is suddenly night.

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.”

The Meaning of the Stars

by Rebecca Welshman

starry skySource: http://www.fondosdepantalla.biz/images/wallpapers/cielo-estrellado-wallpaper-703669.jpeg

With the cold spell of weather there have been some remarkably good night skies of late. When staying in rural Devon the other week I saw the constellation Orion, and was reminded of how significant the stars were to Jefferies.

In Bevis: the Story of a Boy, the main character – who is a sketch of Jefferies himself – lies down on the garden path of the farmhouse at Coate, to watch the movements of the heavens. From this quiet little spot, beside the strawberry patch, he allows his mind to wander the depths of the night sky:

“He could not, as he reclined on the garden path by the strawberries, physically reach to and feel the oak; but he could feel the oak in his mind, and so from the oak, stepping beyond it, he felt the stars.”

The night sky was a vast space across which his imagination could roam; a route to somewhere beyond the boundaries of everyday life and thought. In The Amateur Poacher – a book that is primarily about the art of poaching, and engagement with the countryside – Jefferies hints at the subtle, more cosmic relationship he experienced with the natural world. This short sentence conjures the potential of outer space to absorb ordinary, everyday cares, and to nurture new, more experiential forms of thought:

“By night the stars shine, and there is no fathoming the dark spaces between those brilliant points, nor the thoughts that come as it were between the fixed stars and landmarks of the mind.”

In a short essay, written in the late 1870s, which Edward Thomas entitled ‘The Dawn’, Jefferies explores how the ‘pale visitor’ of dawn beckons forth the mind to somewhere beyond the ordinary world:

“The pale visitor hints that the stars are not the outside and rim of the universe, any more than the edge of horizon is the circumference of our globe. Beyond the star-stratum, what? Mere boundless space. Mind says certainly not. What then?”

These unresolved questions spurred Jefferies to imagine and record a new system of thought and feeling, which could encourage a more cosmic awareness of our condition on earth – a system that would awaken and sharpen our minds, and engage us spiritually too. In The Old House at Coate – written about the farmhouse where he was born – the house and garden become a solar observatory. Again, he records seeing the stars from the path by the strawberries, but this time he becomes more deeply aware of his position within the cosmos:

“Here was the centre of the world, the sun swung round us; we rode at night straight away into the space of the stars. On a dry summer night, when there was no dew, I used to lie down on my back at full length (looking to the east), on the grass footpath by the orchard, and gaze up into the sky. This is the only way to get at it and feel the stars: while you stand upright, the eye, and through the eye, the mind, is biased by the usual aspect of things: the house there, the trees yonder; it is difficult to forget the mere appearance of rising and setting. Looking straight up like this, from the path to the stars, it was clear and evident that I was really riding among them; they were not above, nor all round, but I was in the midst of them. There was no underneath, no above: everything was on a level with me; the sense of measurement and distance disappeared.

rj stars

As one walks in a wood, with trees all about, so then by day (when the light only hid them) I walked amongst the stars. I had not got then to leave this world to enter space: I was already there. The vision is indeed contracted, nor can we lift our feet further than the earth; yet we are really among these things to-day.” (The Old House at Coate)

There is a sense of movement – a centralising experience in which there is a perfect balance between the physically earth-bound human being and the boundless potential of the wandering, intelligent mind. Space is not somewhere outside or beyond the human condition, but something that we are ‘in the midst’ of, and actively participating in, all the time. To see the stars, as guiding lights in the darkness, gives Jefferies a broader and deeper sense of home and belonging – not just within the environment of the farmhouse, but in the wider Universe too.

Orion had special meaning for Jefferies. In his essay ‘The Mammoth Hunter’, Jefferies declares Orion to be the ‘greatest and grandest of all the constellations…the mighty hunter, the giant who slew the wild beasts by strength.’ He writes that ‘there is no assemblage of stars so brilliant as those which compose the outline of Orion; the Hunter takes the first place in the heavens.’ In Bevis, just to see Orion fills Jefferies with a sudden sense of strength, and renews his purpose of existence:

“Between these two groups of tall trees—so tall and thick that they were generally visible even on dark nights—the streamers of the Aurora Borealis shot up in winter, and between them in summer the faint reflection of the midnight sun, like the lunar dawn which precedes the rising of the moon always appeared. The real day-dawn—the white foot of Aurora—came through the sky-curtain a little to the right of the second group, and about over a young oak in the hedge across the road, opposite the garden wall.

When the few leaves left on this young oak were brown, and rustled in the frosty night, the massy shoulder of Orion came heaving up through it—first one bright star, then another; then the gleaming girdle, and the less definite scabbard; then the great constellation stretched across the east. At the first sight of Orion’s shoulder Bevis always felt suddenly stronger, as if a breath of the mighty hunter’s had come down and entered into him.

orionstarman

Source: http://www.crystalinks.com/orionstarman.jpg

He stood upright; his frame enlarged; his instep lifted him as he walked, as if he too could swing the vast club and chase the lion from his lair. The sparkle of Orion’s stars brought to him a remnant of the immense vigour of the young world, the frosty air braced his sinews, and power came into his arms.”

In the darkness of these January nights maybe we too can be energised and restored by the sparkle of Orion, and carry this feeling with us into the spring. If the power and guiding light of the stars can be embraced and brought into our lives we might discover new strength and resilience within ourselves.

Pilgrimage to the Sea

by Simon Coleman

August September 2013 Pembrokeshire holiday 119

Photo by Rebecca Welshman

In Chapter 6 of his 1883 autobiography, The Story of My Heart, Jefferies describes a time when he experienced a powerful yearning to be by the sea. In the following passages he describes one of the several ‘pilgrimages’ which are a highlight of the first part of the book. His first sight of the sea in childhood seems to have had a magnetic effect upon him, but all four elements of nature are prominent in his work. Here they appear together, intensifying his ‘inexpressible desire’, or ‘prayer’, for a larger life of body and soul. Jefferies is not merely celebrating the elements; he is finding renewal at the very sources of life. His journey to the Sussex coast is poorly planned and full of frustration…

“But I found the sea at last; I walked beside it in a trance away from the houses out into the wheat. The ripe corn stood up to the beach, the waves on one side of the shingle, and the yellow wheat on the other.

There, alone, I went down to the sea. I stood where the foam came to my feet, and looked out over the sunlit waters. The great earth bearing the richness of the harvest, and its hills golden with corn, was at my back; its strength and firmness under me. The great sun shone above, the wide sea was before me, the wind came sweet and strong from the waves. The life of the earth and the sea, the glow of the sun filled me; I touched the surge with my hand, I lifted my face to the sun, I opened my lips to the wind. I prayed aloud in the roar of the waves—my soul was strong as the sea and prayed with the sea’s might. Give me fulness of life like to the sea and the sun, to the earth and the air; give me fulness of physical life, mind equal and beyond their fulness; give me a greatness and perfection of soul higher than all things; give me my inexpressible desire which swells in me like a tide—give it to me with all the force of the sea.

Then I rested, sitting by the wheat; the bank of beach was between me and the sea, but the waves beat against it; the sea was there, the sea was present and at hand. By the dry wheat I rested, I did not think, I was inhaling the richness of the sea, all the strength and depth of meaning of the sea and earth came to me again. I rubbed out some of the wheat in my hands, I took up a piece of clod and crumbled it in my fingers—it was a joy to touch it—I held my hand so that I could see the sunlight gleam on the slightly moist surface of the skin. The earth and sun were to me like my flesh and blood, and the air of the sea life.

With all the greater existence I drew from them I prayed for a bodily life equal to it, for a soul-life beyond my thought, for my inexpressible desire of more than I could shape even into idea. There was something higher than idea, invisible to thought as air to the eye; give me bodily life equal in fulness to the strength of earth, and sun, and sea; give me the soul-life of my desire. Once more I went down to the sea, touched it, and said farewell. So deep was the inhalation of this life that day, that it seemed to remain in me for years. This was a real pilgrimage.”