IN DEEPEST SUSSEX

 SIMON COLEMAN

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A passage here from Jefferies’ late essay, ‘The Countryside: Sussex’, presenting a fine harvest scene from the High Weald area, probably around Ashdown Forest.  Jefferies was very sensitive to sound and here the hum of the threshing machine links the scenes of the wheat-field and the oast-house (for drying hops).

 

“To-day the sparrows are just as busy as ever of old, chatter, chirp around the old barn, while the threshing machine hums, and every now and then lowers its voice in a long-drawn descending groan of seemingly deep agony. Up it rises again as the sheaves are cast in—hum, hum, hum; the note rises and resounds and fills the yard up to the roof of the barn and the highest tops of the ricks as a flood fills a pool, and overflowing, rushes abroad over the fields, past the red hop-oast, past the copse of yellowing larches, onwards to the hills. An inarticulate music—a chant telling of the sunlit hours that have gone and the shadows that floated under the clouds over the beautiful wheat. No more shall the tall stems wave in the wind or listen to the bees seeking the clover-fields. The lark that sang above the green corn, the partridge that sheltered among the yellow stalks, the list of living things delighting in it—all have departed. The joyous life of the wheat is ended—not in vain, for now the grain becomes the life of man, and in that object yet more glorified. Outwards the chant extending, reaches the hollows of the valley, rolling over the shortened stubble, where the plough already begins the first verse of a new time. A pleasant sound to listen to, the hum of the threshing, the beating of the engine, the rustle of the straw, the shuffle shuffle of the machine, the voices of the men, the occupation and bustle in the autumn afternoon! I listened to it sitting in the hop-oast, whose tower, like a castle turret, overlooks and domineers the yard. In the loft the resounding hum whirled around, beating and rebounding from the walls, and forcing its way out again through the narrow window. The edge, as it were, of a sunbeam lit up the rude chamber crossed with unhewn beams and roofed above with unconcealed tiles, whose fastening pegs were visible. A great heap of golden scales lay in one corner, the hops fresh from the drying. Up to his waist in a pocket let through the floor a huge giant of a man trod the hops down in the sack, turning round and round, and now his wide shoulders and now his red cheeks succeeded. The music twirled him about as a leaf by the wind. Without the rich blue autumn sky; within the fragrant odour of hops, the hum of the threshing circling round like the buzz of an immense bee. As the hum of insects high in the atmosphere of midsummer suits and fits to the roses and the full green meads, so the hum of the threshing suits to the yellowing leaf and drowsy air of autumn. The iteration of hum and monotone soothes, and means so much more in its inarticulation than the adjusted chords and tune of written music. Laughing, the children romped round the ricks; they love the threshing and flock to it, they watch the fly-wheel rotating, they look in at the furnace door when the engine-driver stokes his fire, they gaze wonderingly at the gauge, and long to turn the brass taps; then with a shout they rush to chase the unhappy mice dislodged from the corn.”

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FLOWERS AND FARMLAND

Simon Coleman

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In this purely descriptive passage from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ (1879), Jefferies discusses various flowers found in and around cultivated land.  We can see both his fascination with habitats and understanding of what, today, would be termed ‘ecology’.

 

“On the other side the plough has left a narrow strip of green running along the hedge: the horses, requiring some space in which to turn at the end of each furrow, could not draw the share any nearer, and on this narrow strip the weeds and wild flowers flourish. The light-sulphur-coloured charlock is scattered everywhere—out among the corn, too, for no cleaning seems capable of eradicating this plant; the seeds will linger in the earth and retain their germinating power for a length of time, till the plough brings them near enough to the surface, when they are sure to shoot up unless the pigeons find them. Here also may be found the wild garlic, which sometimes gets among the wheat and lends an onion-like flavour to the bread. It grows, too, on the edge of the low chalky banks overhanging the narrow waggon-track, whose ruts are deep in the rubble—worn so in winter.

 

Such places, close to cultivated land yet undisturbed, are the best in which to look for wild flowers; and on the narrow strip beside the hedge and on the crumbling rubble bank of the rough track may be found a greater variety than by searching the broad acres beyond. In the season the large white bell-like flowers of the convolvulus will climb over the hawthorn, and the lesser striped kind will creep along the ground. The pink pimpernel hides on the very verge of the corn, which presently will be strewn with the beautiful ‘blue-bottle’ flower, than whose exquisite hue there is nothing more lovely in our fields. The great scarlet poppy with the black centre, and ‘eggs and butter’—curious name for a flower—will, of course, be there: the latter often flourishes on a high elevation, on the very ridges, provided only the plough has been near.”

 

 

‘Light and Dark: Richard Jefferies was more than a Nature Writer’

by Rebecca Welshman

While many of Jefferies’ books can be read and enjoyed for their countryside observations, with their hidden depths and breathtaking description, there is another side to his works which is often overlooked. Jefferies celebrated the sun – he sought to bring more light into the world and to illuminate and improve the human condition. In a rare early poem, Jefferies declares his ambition to help alleviate suffering and loosen the grip of superstition that he believed kept the mind locked in place:

“Full of thoughts of past and future
Took I there a solemn vow —
Darkness I will overthrow!
List, my voice like clarion sounding,
Dreading neither priest nor ban,
He alone is abbot — hero,
Who can bless his fellow man” – ‘The Grave of the Last Abbot’ (1869)

Jefferies’ ‘solemn vow’ to ‘overthrow’ the darkness that he perceived to shroud existence eventually took the form of The Story of My Heart – a book charged with images of light, fire and burning. The Story of My Heart is not only a record of spiritual development but a chronology of the struggle between light and dark in the soul. Jefferies refers to ‘dust’, ‘infernal darkness’, the ‘void’ of space, and to personal loneliness and despair. In his account of difficult former years, he recalls the isolation and sense of crisis he experienced:

“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?” – The Story of My Heart

Jefferies did not have any easy life. After falling ill in his late teens he never regained full health. He died aged 38 from Tuberculosis – a particular form that gave him unbearable pain in his spine and stomach, and resulted in partial paralysis. He struggled to make a living as a writer, with most of the proceeds of his successful works going on medical bills. At the time he died, and through no fault of his own, he left his young family almost entirely destitute. And yet, during his illness and in the year of his death – 1887 – he produced some of his most movingly beautiful works.
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Through all, Jefferies’ desire to express beauty endured and grew stronger. In ‘The Pageant of Summer’ the beauty and movement of the season unfolds in his heart. An unseen but deeply felt presence dwells in the summer fields and connects him with everything around:

“Straight go the white petals to the heart; straight the mind’s glance goes back to how many other pageants of summer in old times! When perchance the sunny days were even more sunny; when the stilly oaks were full of mystery, lurking like the Druid’s mistletoe in the midst of their mighty branches. A glamour in the heart came back to it again from every flower; as the sunshine was reflected from them, so the feeling in the heart returned tenfold. To the dreamy summer haze, love gave a deep enchantment, the colours were fairer, the blue more lovely in the lucid sky. Each leaf finer, and the gross earth enamelled beneath the feet. A sweet breath on the air, a soft warm hand in the touch of the sunshine, a glance in the gleam of the rippled waters, a whisper in the dance of the shadows. The ethereal haze lifted the heavy oaks and they were buoyant on the mead, the rugged bark was chastened and no longer rough, each slender flower beneath them again refined. There was a presence everywhere, though unseen, on the open hills, and not shut out under the dark pines. Dear were the June roses then because for another gathered. Yet even dearer now with so many years as it were upon the petals; all the days that have been before, all the heart-throbs, all our hopes lie in this opened bud. Let not the eyes grow dim, look not back but forward; the soul must uphold itself like the sun. Let us labour to make the heart grow larger as we become older, as the spreading oak gives more shelter. That we could but take to the soul some of the greatness and the beauty of the summer!”

Like the flowers of summer that seek the sun, the soul ‘must uphold itself’, even through the darkest times. Hope lies in the open bud of the future. Similar messages can be found in many of Jefferies’ later writings. In ‘Walks in the Wheatfields’, he recalls seeing a fox hunt passing through a field on a winter’s day. The scene is barren and bleak, but for the blades of young wheat which push through the soil. In these tiny shoots Jefferies finds a message of strength and resilience for the future:

“the foxhounds carry a bee-line straight from hedge to hedge, and after them come the hoofs, prospecting deeply into the earth, dashing down fibre and blade, crunching up the tender wheat and battering it to pieces. It will rise again all the fresher and stronger, for there is something human in wheat, and the more it is trampled on the better it grows. Despots grind half the human race, and despots stronger than man–plague, pestilence, and famine–grind the whole; and yet the world increases, and the green wheat of the human heart is not to be trampled out.”

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The Story of the Wheat

by Simon Coleman

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The ripening of the wheat was, for Jefferies, a central element in the story of the spring and summer. In the predominantly agricultural community of his youth, corn was merely a commodity, though a very valuable one. Jefferies, however, could see it with the eye of a poet. With his exceptional sensitivity to colour out of doors, he found joy in observing all the stages of the corn’s development. In Wildlife in a Southern County, he notes how quickly its subtle changes of colour appear and vanish. Each stage has its place in the process; each is recognised as a necessary part in an unfolding whole. And when the wind moves the stalks, a delicate play of hues is introduced.

In the following passages Jefferies moves the familiar process of the ripening wheat outside the usual context of agriculture and gently allows his imagination to enter into it. To him, this transformation has the character of art, and we sense that it is connected to greater, more universal, themes. He readily admits that he can’t find the words to capture the hue of the fully ripened wheat, so elusive is nature’s artistic genius.

“First green and succulent; then, presently, see a modest ear comes forth with promise of the future. By-and-by, when every stalk is tipped like a sceptre, the lower stalk leaves are still green, but the stems have a faint bluish tinge, and the ears are paling into yellow. Next the white pollen—the bloom—shows under the warm sunshine, and then the birds begin to grow busy among it. They perch on the stalk itself—it is at that time strong and stiff enough to uphold their weight, one on a stem—but not now for mischief. You may see the sparrow carry away with him caterpillars for his young upon the housetop hard by; later on, it is true, he will revel on the ripe grains.

Yesterday you came to the wheat and found it pale like this (it seems but twenty-four hours ago—it is really only a little longer); to-day, when you look again, lo! there is a fleeting yellow already on the ears. They have so quickly caught the hue of the bright sunshine pouring on them. Yet another day or two, and the faint fleeting yellow has become fixed and certain, as the colours are deepened by the great artist. Only when the wind blows and the ears bend in those places where the breeze takes most, it looks paler because the under part of the ear is shown and part of the stalk. Finally comes that rich hue for which no exact similitude exists. In it there is somewhat of the red of the orange, somewhat of the tint of bronze, and somewhat of the hue of maize; but these are poor words wherewith to render fixed a colour that plays over the surface of this yellow sea, for if you take one, two, or a dozen ears you shall not find it, but must look abroad, and let your gaze travel to and fro. Nor is every field alike; here are acres and acres more yellow, yonder a space whiter, beyond that a slope richly ruddy, according to the kind of seed that was sown.”

In a later essay titled ‘Wheatfields’ (Nature Near London), Jefferies brings the corn into the heart of summer’s story.

“The coming of the ears of wheat forms an era and a date, a fixed point in the story of the summer. It is then that, soon after dawn, the clear sky assumes the delicate and yet luscious purple which seems to shine through the usual atmosphere, as if its former blue became translucent and an inner and ethereal light of colour was shown. As the sun rises higher the brilliance of his rays overpowers it, and even at midsummer it is but rarely seen.

The morning sky is often, too, charged with saffron, or the blue is clear, but pale, and the sunrise might be watched for many mornings without the appearance of this exquisite hue. Once seen, it will ever be remembered. Upon the Downs in early autumn, as the vapours clear away, the same colour occasionally gleams from the narrow openings of blue sky. But at midsummer, above the opening wheatears, the heaven from the east to the zenith is flushed with it.”

At the end of the essay he also reminds us of the wheat’s individual story within the drama of the summer. And it’s one that ends happily.

“Hares raced about it in the spring, and even in the May sunshine might be seen rambling over the slopes. As it grew higher it hid the leverets and the partridge chicks. Toll has been taken by rook, and sparrow, and pigeon. Enemies, too, have assailed it; the daring couch invaded it, the bindweed climbed up the stalk, the storm rushed along and beat it down. Yet it triumphed, and to-day the full sheaves lean against each other.”