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.

Advertisements

Women in the Fields and Nature’s Beauty

by Rebecca Welshman

the gleaners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bluebells

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

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

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

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

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