The Life of the Fields

The Life of the Fields

THE LIFE OF THE FIELDS RICHARD JEFFERIES CONTENTS THE PAGEANT OF SUMMER THE FIELD PLAY: I. UPTILL-A-THORN II. RURAL DYNAMITE BITS OF OAK BARK: I. THE ACORN-GATHERER II. THE LEGEND OF A GATEWAY III. A ROMAN BROOK MEADOW THOUGHTS CLEMATIS LANE NATURE NEAR BRIGHTON SEA SKY AND DOWN JANUARY IN THE SUSSEX WOODS BY THE EXE THE WATER-COLLEY NOTES ON LANDSCAPE PAINTING VILLAGE MINERS MIND UNDER WATER SPORT AND SCIENCE NATURE AND THE GAMEKEEPER THE SACRIFICE TO TROUT THE HOVERING OF THE KESTREL BIRDS CLIMBING THE AIR COUNTRY LITERATURE: I. THE AWAKENING. II. SCARCITY OF BOOKS III. THE VILLAGER'S TASTE IN READING IV. PLAN OF DISTRIBUTION SUNLIGHT IN A LONDON SQUARE VENICE IN THE EAST END. THE PIGEONS AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM THE PLAINEST CITY IN EUROPE THE PAGEANT OF SUMMER I Green rushes long and thick standing up above the edge of the ditch told the hour of the year as distinctly as the shadow on the dial the hour of the day. Green and thick and sappy to the touch they felt like summer soft and elastic as if full of life mere rushes though they were. On the fingers they left a green scent; rushes have a separate scent of green so too have ferns very different to that of grass or leaves. Rising from brown sheaths the tall stems enlarged a little in the middle like classical columns and heavy with their sap and freshness leaned against the hawthorn sprays. From the earth they had drawn its moisture and made the ditch dry; some of the sweetness of the air had entered into their fibres and the rushes--the common rushes--were full of beautiful summer. The white pollen of early grasses growing on the edge was dusted from them each time the hawthorn boughs were shaken by a thrush. These lower sprays came down in among the grass and leaves and grass-blades touched. Smooth round stems of angelica big as a gun-barrel hollow and strong stood on the slope of the mound their tiers of well-balanced branches rising like those of a tree. Such a sturdy growth pushed back the ranks of hedge parsley in full white flower which blocked every avenue and winding bird's-path of the bank. But the "gix" or wild parsnip reached already high above both and would rear its fluted stalk joint on joint till it could face a man. Trees they were to the lesser birds not even bending if perched on; but though so stout the birds did not place their nests on or against them. Something in the odour of these umbelliferous plants perhaps is not quite liked; if brushed or bruised they give out a bitter greenish scent. Under their cover well shaded and hidden birds build but not against or on the stems though they will affix their nests to much less certain supports. With the grasses that overhung the edge with the rushes in the ditch itself and these great plants on the mound the whole hedge was wrapped and thickened. No cunning of glance could see through it; it would have needed a ladder to help any one look over. It was between the may and the June roses. The may-bloom had fallen and among the hawthorn boughs were the little green bunches that would feed the redwings in autumn. High up the briars had climbed straight and towering while there was a thorn or an ash sapling or a yellow-green willow to uphold them and then curving over towards the meadow. The buds were on them but not yet open; it was between the may and the rose. As the wind wandering over the sea takes from each wave an invisible portion and brings to those on shore the ethereal essence of ocean so the air lingering among the woods and hedges--green waves and billows--became full of fine atoms of summer. Swept from notched hawthorn leaves broad-topped oak-leaves narrow ash sprays and oval willows; from vast elm cliffs and sharp-taloned brambles under; brushed from the waving grasses and stiffening corn the dust of the sunshine was borne along and breathed. Steeped in flower and pollen to the music of bees and birds the stream of the atmosphere became a living thing. It was life to breathe it for the air itself was life. The strength of the earth went up through the leaves into the wind. Fed thus on the food of the Immortals the heart opened to the width and depth of the summer--to the broad horizon afar down to the minutest creature in the grass up to the highest swallow. Winter shows us Matter in its dead form like the Primary rocks like granite and basalt--clear but cold and frozen crystal. Summer shows us Matter changing into life sap rising from the earth through a million tubes the alchemic power of light entering the solid oak; and see! it bursts forth in countless leaves. Living things leap in the grass living things drift upon the air living things are coming forth to breathe in every hawthorn bush. No longer does the immense weight of Matter--the dead the crystallised--press ponderously on the thinking mind. The whole office of Matter is to feed life--to feed the green rushes and the roses that are about to be; to feed the swallows above and us that wander beneath them. So much greater is this ween and common rush than all the Alps. Fanning so swiftly the wasp's wings are but just visible as he passes; did he pause the light would he apparent through their texture. On the wings of the dragon-fly as he hovers an instant before he darts there is a prismatic gleam. These wing textures are even more delicate than the minute filaments on a swallow's quill more delicate than the pollen of a flower. They are formed of matter indeed but how exquisitely it is resolved into the means and organs of life! Though not often consciously recognised perhaps this is the great pleasure of summer to watch the earth the dead particles resolving themselves into the living case of life to see the seed-leaf push aside the clod and become by degrees the perfumed flower. From the tiny mottled egg come the wings that by-and-by shall pass the immense sea. It is in this marvellous transformation of clods and cold matter into living things that the joy and the hope of summer reside. Every blade of grass each leaf each separate floret and petal is an inscription speaking of hope. Consider the grasses and the oaks the swallows the sweet blue butterfly--they are one and all a sign and token showing before our eyes earth made into life. So that my hope becomes as broad as the horizon afar reiterated by every leaf sung on every bough reflected in the gleam of every flower. There is so much for us yet to come so much to be gathered and enjoyed. Not for you and me now but for our race who will ultimately use this magical secret for their happiness. Earth holds secrets enough to give them the life of the fabled Immortals. My heart is fixed firm and stable in the belief that ultimately the sunshine and the summer the flowers and the azure sky shall become as it were interwoven into man's existence. He shall take from all their beauty and enjoy their glory. Hence it is that a flower is to me so much more than stalk and petals. When I look in the glass I see that every line in my face means pessimism; but in spite of my face--that is my experience--I remain an optimist. Time with an unsteady hand has etched thin crooked lines and deepening the hollows has cast the original expression into shadow. Pain and sorrow flow over us with little ceasing as the sea-hoofs beat on the beach. Let us not look at ourselves but onwards and take strength from the leaf and the signs of the field. He is indeed despicable who cannot look onwards to the ideal life of man. Not to do so is to deny our birthright of mind. The long grass flowing towards the hedge has reared in a wave against it. Along the hedge it is higher and greener and rustles into the very bushes. There is a mark only now where the footpath was; it passed close to the hedge but its place is traceable only as a groove in the sorrel and seed-tops. Though it has quite filled the path the grass there cannot send its tops so high; it has left a winding crease. By the hedge here stands a moss-grown willow and its slender branches extend over the sward. Beyond it is an oak just apart from the bushes; then the ground gently rises and an ancient pollard ash hollow and black inside guards an open gateway like a low tower. The different tone of green shows that the hedge is there of nut-trees; but one great hawthorn spreads out in a semicircle roofing the grass which is yet more verdant in the still pool (as it were) under it. Next a corner more oaks and a chestnut in bloom. Returning to-this spot an old apple tree stands right out in the meadow like an island. There seemed just now the tiniest twinkle of movement by the rushes but it was lost among the hedge parsley. Among the grey leaves of the willow there is another flit of motion; and visible now against the sky there is a little brown bird not to be distinguished at the moment from the many other little brown birds that are known to be about. He got up into the willow from the hedge parsley somehow without being seen to climb or fly. Suddenly he crosses to the tops of the hawthorn and immediately flings himself up into the air a yard or two his wings and ruffled crest making a ragged outline; jerk jerk jerk as if it were with the utmost difficulty he could keep even at that height. He scolds and twitters and chirps and all at once sinks like a stone into the hedge and out of sight as a stone into a pond. It is a whitethroat; his nest is deep in the parsley and nettles. Presently he will go out to the island apple tree and back again in a minute or two; the pair of them are so fond of each other's affectionate company they cannot remain apart. Watching the line of the hedge about every two minutes either near at hand or yonder a bird darts out just at the level of the grass hovers a second with labouring wings and returns as swiftly to the cover. Sometimes it is a flycatcher sometimes a greenfinch or chaffinch now and then a robin in one place a shrike perhaps another is a redstart. They are fly-fishing all of them seizing insects from the sorrel tips and grass as the kingfisher takes a roach from the water. A blackbird slips up into the oak and a dove descends in the corner by the chestnut tree. But these are not visible together only one at a time and with intervals. The larger part of the life of the hedge is out of sight. All the thrush-fledglings the young blackbirds and finches are hidden most of them on the mound among the ivy and parsley and rough grasses protected too by a roof of brambles. The nests that still have eggs are not like the nests of the early days of April easily found; they are deep down in the tangled herbage by the shore of the ditch or far inside the thorny thickets which then looked mere bushes and are now so broad. Landrails are running in the grass concealed as a man would be in a wood; they have nests and eggs on the ground for which you may search in vain till the mowers come. Up in the corner a fragment of white fur and marks of scratching show where a doe has been preparing for a litter. Some well-trodden runs lead from mound to mound; they are sandy near the hedge where the particles have been carried out adhering to the rabbits' feet and fur. A crow rises lazily from the upper end of the field and perches in the chestnut. His presence too was unsuspected. He is there by far too frequently. At this season the crows are always in the mowing-grass searching about stalking in winding tracks from furrow to furrow picking up an egg here and a foolish fledgling that has wandered from the mound yonder. Very likely there may be a moorhen or two slipping about under cover of the long grass; thus hidden they can leave the shelter of the flags and wander a distance from the brook. So that beneath the surface of the grass and under the screen of the leaves there are ten times more birds than are seen. Besides the singing and calling there is a peculiar sound which is only heard in summer. Waiting quietly to discover what birds are about I become aware of a sound in the very air. It is not the midsummer hum which will soon be heard over the heated hay in the valley and over the cooler hills alike. It is not enough to be called a hum and does but just tremble at the extreme edge of hearing. If the branches wave and rustle they overbear it; the buzz of a passing bee is so much louder it overcomes all of it that is in the whole field. I cannot define it except by calling the hours of winter to mind--they are silent; you hear a branch crack or creak as it rubs another in the wood you hear the hoar-frost crunch on the grass beneath your feet but the air is without sound in itself. The sound of summer is everywhere--in the passing breeze in the hedge in the broad branching trees in the grass as it swings; all the myriad particles that together make the summer are in motion. The sap moves in the trees the pollen is pushed out from grass and flower and yet again these acres and acres of leaves and square miles of grass blades--for they would cover acres and square miles if reckoned edge to edge--are drawing their strength from the atmosphere. Exceedingly minute as these vibrations must be their numbers perhaps may give them a volume almost reaching in the aggregate to the power of the ear. Besides the quivering leaf the swinging grass the fluttering bird's wing and the thousand oval membranes which innumerable insects whirl about a faint resonance seems to come from the very earth itself. The fervour of the sunbeams descending in a tidal flood rings on the strung harp of earth. It is this exquisite undertone heard and yet unheard which brings the mind into sweet accordance with the wonderful instrument of nature. By the apple tree there is a low bank where the grass is less tall and admits the heat direct to the ground; here there are blue flowers--bluer than the wings of my favourite butterflies--with white centres--the lovely bird's-eyes or veronica. The violet and cowslip bluebell and rose are known to thousands; the veronica is overlooked. The ploughboys know it and the wayside children the mower and those who linger in fields but few else. Brightly blue and surrounded by greenest grass imbedded in and all the more blue for the shadow of the grass these growing butterflies' wings draw to themselves the sun. From this island I look down into the depth of the grasses. Red sorrel spires--deep drinkers of reddest sun wine--stand the boldest and in their numbers threaten the buttercups. To these in the distance they give the gipsy-gold tint--the reflection of fire on plates of the precious metal. It will show even on a ring by firelight; blood in the gold they say. Gather the open marguerite daisies and they seem large--so wide a disc such fingers of rays; but in the grass their size is toned by so much green. Clover heads of honey lurk in the bunches and by the hidden footpath. Like clubs from Polynesia the tips of the grasses are varied in shape: some tend to a point--the foxtails--some are hard and cylindrical; others avoiding the club shape put forth the slenderest branches with fruit of seed at the ends which tremble as the air goes by. Their stalks are ripening and becoming of the colour of hay while yet the long blades remain green. Each kind is repeated a hundred times the foxtails are succeeded by foxtails the narrow blades by narrow blades but never become monotonous; sorrel stands by sorrel daisy flowers by daisy. This bed of veronica at the foot of the ancient apple has a whole handful of flowers and yet they do not weary the eye. Oak follows oak and elm ranks with elm but the woodlands are pleasant; however many times reduplicated their beauty only increases. So too the summer days; the sun rises on the same grasses and green hedges there is the same blue sky but did we ever have enough of them? No not in a hundred years! There seems always a depth somewhere unexplored a thicket that has not been seen through a corner full of ferns a quaint old hollow tree which may give us something. Bees go by me as I stand under the apple but they pass on for the most part bound on a long journey across to the clover fields or up to the thyme lands; only a few go down into the mowing-grass. The hive bees are the most impatient of insects; they cannot bear to entangle their wings beating against grasses or boughs. Not one will enter a hedge. They like an open and level surface places cropped by sheep the sward by the roadside fields of clover where the flower is not deep under grass. II It is the patient humble-bee that goes down into the forest of the mowing-grass. If entangled the humble-bee climbs up a sorrel stem and takes wing without any sign of annoyance. His broad back with tawny bar buoyantly glides over the golden buttercups. He hums to himself as he goes so happy is he. He knows no skep no cunning work in glass receives his labour no artificial saccharine aids him when the beams of the sun are cold there is no step to his house that he may alight in comfort; the way is not made clear for him that he may start straight for the flowers nor are any sown for him. He has no shelter if the storm descends suddenly; he has no dome of twisted straw well thatched and tiled to retreat to. The butcher-bird with a beak like a crooked iron nail drives him to the ground and leaves him pierced with a thorn; but no hail of shot revenges his tortures. The grass stiffens at nightfall (in autumn) and he must creep where he may if possibly he may escape the frost. No one cares for the humble-bee. But down to the flowering nettle in the mossy-sided ditch up into the tall elm winding in and out and round the branched buttercups along the banks of the brook far inside the deepest wood away he wanders and despises nothing. His nest is under the rough grasses and the mosses of the mound; a mere tunnel beneath the fibres and matted surface. The hawthorn overhangs it the fern grows by red mice rustle past. It thunders and the great oak trembles; the heavy rain drops through the treble roof of oak and hawthorn and fern. Under the arched branches the lightning plays along swiftly to and fro or seems to like the swish of a whip a yellowish-red against the green; a boom! a crackle as if a tree fell from the sky. The thick grasses are bowed the white florets of the wild parsley are beaten down the rain hurls itself and suddenly a fierce blast tears the green oak leaves and whirls them out into the fields; but the humble-bee's home under moss and matted fibres remains uninjured. His house at the root of the king of trees like a cave in the rock is safe. The storm passes and the sun comes out the air is the sweeter and the richer for the rain like verses with a rhyme; there will be more honey in the flowers. Humble he is but wild; always in the field the wood; always by the banks and thickets; always wild and humming to his flowers. Therefore I like the humble-bee being at heart at least for ever roaming among the woodlands and the hills and by the brooks. In such quick summer storms the lightning gives the impression of being far more dangerous than the zigzag paths traced on the autumn sky. The electric cloud seems almost level with the ground and the livid flame to rush to and fro beneath the boughs as the little bats do in the evening. Caught by such a cloud I have stayed under thick larches at the edge of plantations. They are no shelter but conceal one perfectly. The wood-pigeons come home to their nest trees; in larches they seem to have permanent nests almost like rooks. Kestrels too come home to the wood. Pheasants crow but not from fear--from defiance in fear they scream. The boom startles them and they instantly defy the sky. The rabbits quietly feed on out in the field between the thistles and rushes that so often grow in woodside pastures quietly hopping to their favourite places utterly heedless how heavy the echoes may be in the hollows of the wooded hills. Till the rain comes they take no heed whatever but then make for shelter. Blackbirds often make a good deal of noise; but the soft turtle-doves coo gently let the lightning be as savage as it will. Nothing has the least fear. Man alone more senseless than a pigeon put a god in vapour; and to this day though the printing press has set a foot on every threshold numbers bow the knee when they hear the roar the timid dove does not heed. So trustful are the doves the squirrels the birds of the branches and the creatures of the field. Under their tuition let us rid ourselves of mental terrors and face death itself as calmly as they do the livid lightning; so trustful and so content with their fate resting in themselves and unappalled. If but by reason and will I could reach the godlike calm and courage of what we so thoughtlessly call the timid turtle-dove I should lead a nearly perfect life. The bark of the ancient apple tree under which I have been standing is shrunken like iron which has been heated and let cool round the rim of a wheel. For a hundred years the horses have rubbed against it while feeding in the aftermath. The scales of the bark are gone or smoothed down and level so that insects have no hiding-place. There are no crevices for them the horsehairs that were caught anywhere have been carried away by birds for their nests. The trunk is smooth and columnar hard as iron. A hundred times the mowing-grass has grown up around it the birds have built their nests the butterflies fluttered by and the acorns dropped from the oaks. It is a long long time counted by artificial hours or by the seasons but it is longer still in another way. The greenfinch in the hawthorn yonder has been there since I came out and all the time has been happily talking to his love. He has left the hawthorn indeed but only for a minute or two to fetch a few seeds and comes back each time more full of song-talk than ever. He notes no slow movement of the oak's shadow on the grass; it is nothing to him and his lady dear that the sun as seen from his nest is crossing from one great bough of the oak to another. The dew even in the deepest and most tangled grass has long since been dried and some of the flowers that close at noon will shortly fold their petals. The morning airs which breathe so sweetly come less and less frequently as the heat increases. Vanishing from the sky the last fragments of cloud have left an untarnished azure. Many times the bees have returned to their hives and thus the index of the day advances. It is nothing to the green-finches; all their thoughts are in their song-talk. The sunny moment is to them all in all. So deeply are they rapt in it that they do not know whether it is a moment or a year. There is no clock for feeling for joy for love. And with all their motions and stepping from bough to bough they are not restless; they have so much time you see. So too the whitethroat in the wild parsley; so too the thrush that just now peered out and partly fluttered his wings as he stood to look. A butterfly comes and stays on a leaf--a leaf much warmed by the sun--and shuts his wings. In a minute he opens them shuts them again half wheels round and by-and-by--just when he chooses and not before--floats away. The flowers open and remain open for hours to the sun. Hastelessness is the only word one can make up to describe it; there is much rest but no haste. Each moment as with the greenfinches is so full of life that it seems so long and so sufficient in itself. Not only the days but life itself lengthens in summer. I would spread abroad my arms and gather more of it to me could I do so. All the procession of living and growing things passes. The grass stands ...