As an only child who grew up in the countryside I am used to open spaces and feel at home in the company and beauty of natural things. My favourite books as a child were those which engaged with the outdoors, and which seemed to hint towards an equally rich inner life or territory. As a teenager I found that certain landscapes would test my sense of belonging: the infinite bleakness of a moor, maybe, or the sheer immensity of shale cliffs. I became aware of an inherent and seemingly irreconcilable difference between the human mind and the natural world that brought with it a sense of alienation and despair. The centuries-long human struggle to feel at home on the earth was something that later, as an undergraduate, I wrote about. In my own times of difficulty I found comfort in reading and spending time out of doors, amidst what the Victorian author and naturalist Richard Jefferies termed the ‘concentrated silence of green things’.
Then during the autumn of my Master’s degree a sudden and deep sense of disconnection halted everything; words lost their meaning and the natural world seemed remote and inaccessible. I found myself looking out on the world, without a language to express what was going on within. One weekend during this time there was a study trip to a residential library in North Wales. In the presence of the building’s historic past, and the moss-covered stones in the adjacent churchyard, I felt unusually estranged and inarticulate, and it was difficult to see a way forward. It took a certain reading experience – a book thoughtfully recommended to me by a friend that weekend – to bring me back and begin writing again.
The book was Richard Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart, published in 1883. After finding an old copy amongst the dusty library shelves, I sought out a little unoccupied room in the attic where I sat on the window ledge overlooking the gardens. It was difficult to read at first – I kept glancing up to watch the wind stir leaves into flurries. Little groups would detach from the masses and spiral into the air to drift over the chimney pots, and occasionally a rust coloured maple leaf would find its way up to the window to flatten like a star against the pane.
As I read I almost felt as if the words had been chosen for me. One particular sentence – ‘there is a dust which settles on the heart as well as that which falls on a ledge’ – seemed all the more meaningful from my remote place by the window. I knew that losing yourself in a book could be as unexpected and bewildering as becoming lost in a landscape. When there is no map you only have your inner voice to guide you; your own life experience and self-made coordinates. But this experience was different somehow – more direct and familiar. As the author described walking a path to his favourite hill in Wiltshire I recalled with feeling the landscape at home in Sussex where there had been a hill of my own. He had a spot too, not far from his birthplace at Coate where as a teenager he would go to watch the sunrise. His words recalled my own late teen experiences when I would seek space away from the routine of everyday living to think and feel more deeply into the condition of things – sensing what Jefferies termed a ‘deeper insight, a broader hope’.
It was almost a book he didn’t get to write, he tells us, not least because of the pressure of circumstances and the difficulties he had in finding the right words to express himself. Yet despite the lapse of time between us I found companionship in Jefferies’s brave attempt to articulate the big unanswered questions of human existence. It felt vaguely reassuring to read about the connections he identified between the lone mind and nature in different landscapes – rural, urban, coastal. One of the book’s settings is Liddington Hill, an Iron Age fort on the Wiltshire Downs. From there, comfortably alone with the grass, the sun, the breeze, and singing larks for company, he imagines outwards, questioning the place of the individual mind in the face of history, society, and belief, and in doing so tests the very limits of thought. If he didn’t feel at home in the world he wanted to know why, and the act of inquiry itself – fuelled by his engagement with the beauty of the natural surroundings – promised to move him closer towards a form of answer.
This effort to think oneself out of inarticulacy seemed obvious once I’d read about it, and yet so far in my life it had never seemed possible. I felt a space open in my mind. Depression does not always allow the mind to conceive of transient conditions or imminent solutions – there is a pressing sense that you will wake up in the morning and things will be the same because you believe it to be so. But just as the natural world around us is constantly in flux, a human condition of absolute sameness – at the very least on a chemical level in the body – is essentially impossible. I found later, when I wrote about Jefferies for my thesis, that to embrace this state of flux brings with it a sense of empowerment – ways to express that which seems inexpressible – for each moment withholds new possibilities.
“There were grass-grown tumuli on the hills to which of old I used to walk, sit down at the foot of one of them, and think. Some warrior had been interred there in the ante-historic times. The sun of the summer morning shone on the dome of sward, and the air came softly up from the wheat below, the tips of the grasses swayed as it passed sighing faintly, it ceased, and the bees hummed by to the thyme and heathbells. I became absorbed in the glory of the day, the sunshine, the sweet air, the yellowing corn turning from its sappy green to summer’s noon of gold, the lark’s song like a waterfall in the sky. I felt at that moment that I was like the spirit of the man whose body was interred in the tumulus; I could understand and feel his existence the same as my own. He was as real to me two thousand years after interment as those I had seen in the body. The abstract personality of the dead seemed as existent as thought. As my thought could slip back the twenty centuries in a moment to the forest-days when he hurled the spear, or shot with the bow, hunting the deer, and could return again as swiftly to this moment, so his spirit could endure from then till now, and the time was nothing.”
As I read I thought back to my childhood landscape in Sussex, to a view of the sky through branches of an ancient Chestnut tree I used to climb, and there was a glimmer of an idea that those days were not lost to me but still there. Jefferies perceived that natural activity and processes – the flight of birds along certain routes through the landscape, or the steady yellowing of the corn – spoke a language that could be understood in terms of the mind and soul. In ancient and beautiful landscapes the pressing sense of passing time eases and the spirit is soothed. Yet more than this, in the environment of the hill fort where the same generations of birds fly overhead and the same types of grasses and flowers grow underfoot, all sustained by the same sun as when the warrior once lived, it is possible to imagine how human elements might also endure to transcend time and connect the present to the past. This process of going back in order to move forward – back into one’s own history, and beyond into humanity’s deep past – offers an alternative to the idea of cure or epiphany, and encourages old terrain to be reconsidered and experienced in new ways.
Jefferies wrote that ‘the soul is the mind of the mind. It can build and construct, and look beyond and penetrate space, and create. It is the keenest, the sharpest tool possessed by man.’ Amidst the pressures of university life in the city his writing was a reminder to me that meaningful engagement with the natural world was accessible and really quite close. It might only take a small adjustment to notice the beauty of nature in its myriad perfect forms; the glittering spheres of rain drops on a grass blade, the keenly angled shadow of a branch on the ground. Like the depths of the sky these express something whole, of which they are a part, and can re-energise and refresh the mind. Direct perception of the present – in all its mysterious potential – can absorb personal cares and centre the mind on the moment of being.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that ‘the experience of not belonging to the world … is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man’. The experience of reading helped me to recognise a certain, if not contradictory, freedom in ‘not belonging’. Such freedom, or the sense of the vast space of the mind, however much initially resisted or retreated from, affords perspective to consider ‘belonging’ not as a static condition but an ongoing process of discovery. Meaningful literature can reach us from any age or time, but just as old paths through landscapes can grass over with disuse the paths of the mind need to be kept open. Reading about landscape and nature encouraged me to look beyond the differences between nature and the mind and to identify potential meeting places between them. To notice and absorb our natural surroundings and recognise what Jefferies termed ‘the landmarks of the mind’ can offer a blueprint for the soul; a potentially more holistic understanding of the world and of our selves.
First published in The Reader Magazine.