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Belonging and Landscape – when I first read Richard Jefferies

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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.

g cap view to chesil

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.

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A Summer Day on Truleigh Hill

Rebecca Welshman

The path leading to the summit cut deep into the chalk sides. A collage of horses’ hooves, made during the wet days of spring, had been set firm by the drying rays of sun. We walked between wheel ruts, our heads level with the banks at either edge. Flowers flourished where the green turf allowed. Daises, forget-me-nots, celandines, and campions. The heat deepened as we climbed. A solitary crow flew high overhead, his shadow gliding over the grassy slope. You tried to hold my hand as we walked, but the two ruts were too far apart to do so comfortably, and my palm soon grew damp, so we parted and walked alone. Halfway up we paused for breath by a gate and sought shade beneath a large twisted hawthorn. My dress was damp and my hair clung limply to my face. I tried to think of something to say but couldn’t. Instead I gazed over the gate and into the field where a herd of sheep were resting quietly beneath the lee of a hedge. They had been shorn and their sculpted sides moved quickly in and out. They chewed steadily, watching us with curiosity. You remained quiet and we both leaned over the gate, sharing the view of the plateau that stretched away below.

‘I think the thoughts might be returning,’ I said at last. ‘I’ve felt them, gnawing at the edges of my mind.’ I sighed.

You placed your arm around my shoulders and leant your head on mine. I felt something flow from you, like electricity, something so charged with emotion, so vitally alive, that it seemed to bring me back from the greyness and numbness. We stood and watched the sheep by the hedge, the ground was worn to smooth dust by their continual presence, and beyond, in the full glare of the sun the grass was scorched to brown. The sweet scent of the animals’ breaths flowed past, mixed with the sourness of droppings and the heated lanolin of their wool. Some were standing, their heads low, back legs occasionally stamping against the flies. They breathed heavily, noisily. Up here everything was closer to the sun. We leant on the gate. The worm-eaten top bar was warm where the sun had been on it, less than an hour before.

‘Let us keep going,’ I said, running a finger along the gently undulating wooden surface. It had been home to countless larvae and tiny burrowing mites. Within the dark recesses of its upper reaches hung a chrysalis, a slim brown cylinder, wrapped upon itself like a folded ear of wheat. A slight breeze rustled amongst the leaves of the hawthorn and the chrysalis swung delicately. You reached across and plucked it from its mooring.

‘Will that not be the end of the poor thing?’ I wondered.

You shook your head and lay it on your open palm. ‘It is already gone.’

I looked closer. A tiny hole, no larger than a pinprick, showed the passage of a miner that had long since burrowed through the crisp folds and devoured the occupant. I imagined a poor caterpillar, secretly and treacherously consumed under the cover of its own protection.

Vanessa atalanta – the Red Admiral. There are plenty of them about – don’t look so mortified!’ You laughed and held out your palm to the breeze which took the empty husk and carried it into the long grass. ‘Come on,’ you held out your hand, ‘let’s go to the top.’

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(from ‘Violet and Crimson’, my unpublished novel)

The Magic of Snowdrops

Little white spears are pushing up through the ground. In a week most have opened their lamps to the earth and brighten the bare grass beside the low stone wall.

my-snowdrops

Little white spears are pushing up through the ground. In a week most have opened their lamps to the earth and brighten the bare grass beside the low stone wall. It is a joy to see them – the first sign of spring on the bare northern slopes of the Howgill Fells. Early one day, just after dawn, I stand at the edge of the garden. The snowdrops are luminous in the violet light, their bells soft and trembling, newer than snow itself. From somewhere not too far away the Mistle thrush drops his long notes into the cold morning air. It is a melodic soulful sound, deeper than any human instrument. In his song are the sad sighs of winter and the little lifts of spring. There are boldness and uncertainty in his tremulous sound, as if he expresses the painful cusp between seasons, where winter has not yet become spring and the grip of the old year still clings to the new.

howgill-fells

The last time the sun shone I could feel the essence of spring in its hazy warmth. Birds and animals felt it too – a blackbird sung from one of the trees in the garden, and the dog sat out on the patio for the first time this year. Looking up to the Howgills, where the distant ridges were lost in a haze of cloud, the atmosphere itself seemed to promise the new season. That day the beams of the sun seemed to seek out everything living and fill it with hope and light. In the early part of the year winter carries spring, but only for a time, as spring soon gains strength and leaves it behind. On a day of sunshine, when there is warmth in the rays, it is possible to feel this transition taking place. The landscape is lighter, easier to travel through – the weightiness of winter is temporarily shed, the burden of the dead year has suddenly shifted somewhere else.

Until January there were still apples on the trees at the end of the garden. The fruit did not spoil, in spite of the frost and cold, and once peeled and stewed was edible even at the end of the month. All through the autumn and until midwinter the windfall apples have afforded food for wildlife. A wide area spread out beneath four trees is fought over by a variety of birds and animals. Magpies, blackbirds, red squirrels, pheasants, mice, and a semi-feral black chicken that used to belong to the previous tenants, all seek to lay claim to the bounty. They chase each other away in often surprising combinations. The other day a red squirrel was seen off by an assertive blackbird. The chicken is the most territorial and will run at other birds, and the squirrels, her neck stuck out straight, wings flapping. The windfall apples are full of holes – some pecked by different sized beaks, and other little spherical holes made by a mining grub or insect. Other apples have been gnawed down to their cores by rodents and squirrels.

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A stone wall outside my study window has become an unlikely bird table that is shared by a single robin and a large party of rooks. The robin will visit every day to check what is there, whereas the rooks only come if there is food there already. The rooks assemble in a group of tall sycamore trees several metres away and will fly down in a group to raid the wall. If there is bread there they collect as much as they can in their beaks before flying away with it. They are gregarious and eager, and do not pause to consider what they are doing. The robin by comparison is more tentative in his manner. He hops and pauses, with a jerk of his head and a ruffle of his wing, then takes a mere crumb and hops off the wall with it. He always seems to check the bowl of water too and will sometimes sip from it.

The rooks are part of a vast army that scours the low grazing land of the Lune valley. In the low leaden skies of winter the rooks’ army sweeps the fields and trees, its black blizzard visible for miles. At 4pm one midwinter’s afternoon I went to stand beneath their roost – a long belt of Scots pines and fir trees. I watched them come in from the fields in great swooping parties, flying this way and that, cawing and signalling to one another. The scale of mass organisation as each and every one of the many hundred fluttered down into the trees was difficult to comprehend. Once safely settled in the upper reaches of the tall trees they would patiently wait out the winter’s night, their caws to one another continuing into dusk, only falling silent once darkness descended.

Somehow the snowdrops in the garden embody all of these things. The little flowers have waited out the long winter and their appearance signals a change in the turn of the season. Like the rooks they are impressive in their numbers and stoic in their attitude. They will face snow and frost before they receive the genial rays of the sun, but they remain undaunted. As the first spring flowers to appear they are tender yet strong – little lamps bravely shining their light through the darkness of winter – and even though we know they are on their way it is always a surprise to find them.

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