In his introduction to the OUP After London (1980) John Fowles wrote ‘…Some of his more starry-eyed later worshippers have forgotten that he enjoyed hunting and killing for much of his life…’
I once had a neighbour who owned a cat and a dog both of whom he obtained from a rescue centre; they were not the first animals he acquired in this way. One day I saw him taking the dog for a walk up the lane and suddenly savagely beating it for not doing as it was told.
Gurdjieff would have said that my neighbour had mental ‘buffers’ between a cat-and-dog- sentimentality and over-zealous-dog-chastisement. Buffers can successfully prevent us from observing the discrepancy between belief and behaviour so as not to disturb our equilibrium. It seems likely that Jefferies had a strong buffer between profound reverence for the natural world and support for organised hunting coupled with personal enjoyment of shooting harmless animals and a zest for describing the horrors of destruction meted out by others.
In Richard Jefferies: his Life & his Ideals, HSSalt, campaigner for social reform in the field of the treatment of animals, anti-vivisectionist, vegetarian, socialist, and pacifist, (as it happens I share the last three labels!) writes:-
It is undeniable that, as things now are, a taste for sport [sic] is in many cases the precursor of a taste for natural history; it is the first and lowest rung of the ladder, up which a man may gradually climb from an insensate love of death-dealing to an exalted reverence for life…; in a really enlightened state of society there would be other and better introductions to a familiarity with the open air. But taking facts as we find them, we must admit that Jefferies, like his fellow-naturalist Thoreau, owed much of his early acquaintance with nature to the practice of sport [sic].
Salt notes that for Thoreau
…the killing-mania soon died away, and did not affect either his character or his writings very noticeably. He gave up shooting, and sold his gun, having come to the conclusion that ‘there is a finer way of studying ornithology than this’, and that ‘no humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does…
Though there’s no lack of evidence in novels and essays that Jefferies recognised the discrepancy between reverence for animal life and what could be called his ‘killing mania’, he seems to have maintained the latter till the end. After various apparent changes of heart he was still yearning for a single barrel gun in an essay in The Open Air (1885):-
I mean some day to buy a single-barrel, and wander with it as of old along the hedges, aware that if I am not skilful enough to bring down with the first shot I shall lose my game. It is surprising how confident of that one shot you may get after a while. On the one hand, it is necessary to be extremely keen; on the other, to be sure of your own self-control, not to fire uselessly. The bramble-bushes on the shore of the ditch ahead might cover a hare. Through the dank and dark-green aftermath a rabbit might suddenly come bounding, disturbed from the furrow where he had been feeding. On the sandy paths which the rabbits have made aslant up the mound, and on their terraces, where they sit and look out from under the boughs, acorns have dropped ripe from the tree. Where there are acorns there may be pheasants; they may crouch in the fern and dry grey grass of the hedge thinking you do not see them, or else rush through and take wing on the opposite side… The most exciting work with the single-barrel was woodcock shooting; woodcock being by virtue of rarity a sort of royal game, and a miss at a woodcock a terrible disappointment…
At least to those who love the fields, the streams, and woods for their own sake, the single-barrel will fill the bag sufficiently, and will permit them to enjoy something of the zest men knew before the invention of weapons not only of precision but of repetition: inventions that rendered them too absolute masters of the situation. A single-barrel will soon make a sportsman the keenest of shots.
…his books are disfigured by many revolting details of the seamy side of sportsmanship, which are intolerable to any reader in whom either the humane or artistic instinct is well developed. Here is a single specimen from the chapter on ‘Ferreting’, in The Amateur Poacher: ‘It was always a sight to see Little John’s keen delight in ‘wristing’ their necks. He affected utter unconsciousness of what he was doing, looked you in the face, and spoke about some indifferent subject. But all the while he was feeling the rabbit’s muscles stretch before the terrible grasp of his hands, and an expression of complacent satisfaction flitted over his features as the neck gave with a sudden looseness, and in a moment what had been a living, straining creature became limp…’
With his background as a reformer, it’s not surprising that Salt adds:-
This is scarcely a worthy theme for the artist. Yet The Gamekeeper at Home and The Amateur Poacher are reported to be favourite volumes in English country houses, perhaps because the ‘Great House’ is throughout treated so respectfully by the writer, who, little foreseeing his future change of opinion as to the blessings of landlordism, extols the faithful keeper as ‘not only a valuable servant, but a protection to all kinds of property…’ Both books are alike steeped in sanguinary descriptions of murderous implements and appliances – from a man-trap to a mole-trap – a very exhibition of all the rusty horrors of the country gentleman’s torture-chamber.
I have a copy of Red Deer (1884) specially reprinted in 1989 for what, proudly listed at the back, look like high class ‘subscribers’ who include a Major, a Rear Admiral, a Sir, a Lady and the Services Branch BDS (British Deer Society). On the BDS Website we learn that Defence Deer Management (DDM) is a voluntary organisation of serving military, Ministry of Defence civil servants and, where necessary, retired personnel, who provide a deer management service on behalf of the MOD. Probably all gun-happy people much like the Wildfowlers who make their shooting sprees sound like an ecological service to the environment. My local Spalding Wildfowlers say: ‘The wild ducks, geese and waders which are the legal quarry [sic] of wildfowlers, are largely migratory and overwinter in the UK, particularly in coastal areas. Through sound conservation [= ‘culling’, as they say separately in their blurb] we can all work to ensure plentiful quarry species while benefiting the wider environment…’
There are profound buffers (in all senses of the word) at work here too.
Perhaps this is how it was for Jefferies:-
I wonder if Jefferies thought that sinking his feelings for wild animals to write regularly about hunting would please the denizens of ‘The Great House’ – sufficiently to earn him much needed cash. That Salt says The Gamekeeper at Home and The Amateur Poacher were reported to be ‘favourite volumes in English country houses’ suggests this might be the case. It would account for a crudely sustained buffer Jefferies seems to have placed between reverence for nature and support for organised ‘sport’.
It’s somewhat baffling that in The Amateur Poacher of 1879 (note the date) Jefferies seems to change his mind about shooting & killing – after he has fulfilled a longing to kill a snipe, he has what sounds like a real moment of truth.
When the smoke has cleared away in the crisp air, there he lies, the yet warm breast on the frozen ground, to be lifted up not without a passing pity and admiration. The brown feathers are exquisitely shaded, and so exactly resemble the hue of the rough dead aquatic grass out of which he sprang that if you cast the bird among it you will have some trouble to find it again.
In similar mode, watching a pheasant with a view to shooting it…
My finger felt the trigger, and the least increase of pressure would have been fatal; but in the act I hesitated, dropped the barrel, and watched the beautiful bird.
That watching so often stayed the shot that at last it grew to be a habit: the mere simple pleasure of seeing birds and animals, when they were quite unconscious that they were observed, being too great to be spoilt by the discharge. After carefully getting a wire over a jack; after waiting in a tree till a hare came along; after sitting in a mound till the partridges began to run together to roost; in the end the wire or gun remained unused. The same feeling has equally checked my hand in legitimate shooting: time after time I have flushed partridges without firing, and have let the hare bound over the furrow free. I have entered many woods just for the pleasure of creeping through the brake and the thickets. Destruction in itself was not the motive; it was an overpowering instinct for woods and fields. Yet woods and fields lose half their interest without a gun – I like the power to shoot, even though I may not use it. The very perfection of our modern guns is to me one of their drawbacks: the use of them is so easy and so certain of effect that it takes away the romance of sport.
It seems that Jefferies is somehow entranced by the old guns themselves so he still needs to use them occasionally.
Some of the antique wheel-lock guns are really beautiful specimens of design. The old powder-horns are often gems of workmanship – hunting scenes cut out in ivory, and the minutest detail of hoof or antler rendered with life-like accuracy. How pleasant these carvings feel to the fingers! It is delightful to handle such weapons and such implements.
However, by the end of The Amateur Poacher it’s just the open air (without gun) that counts.
Let us be always out of doors among trees and grass, and rain and wind and sun. There the breeze comes and strikes the cheek and sets it aglow: the gale increases and the trees creak and roar, but it is only a ruder music. A calm follows, the sun shines in the sky, and it is the time to sit under an oak, leaning against the bark, while the birds sing and the air is soft and sweet. By night the stars shine, and there is no fathoming the dark spaces between those brilliant points, nor the thoughts that come as it were between the fixed stars and landmarks of the mind.
Or it is the morning on the hills, when hope is as wide as the world; or it is the evening on the shore. A red sun sinks, and the foam-tipped waves are crested with crimson; the booming surge breaks, and the spray flies afar, sprinkling the face watching under the pale cliffs. Let us get out of these indoor narrow modern days, whose twelve hours somehow have become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.
I continue pondering… Surely something that partakes of a modicum of ‘divinity’ does not fit with the use of a gun?
Here’s a brief excerpt from ‘The Hedgerow Sportsman’ (St James’ Gazette 1882, not reprinted till Looker collected it in the collection Chronicles of the Hedges). The style of writing (describing a long ago memory?) seems to demonstrate Jefferies’ continuing enthusiasm for those who engage in ‘sport’. Or is he being ironical? Making some sort of case against the ‘Cockney gunner’ by comparison with organised gentlemen shooters who have to obey the rules?
On a Sunday morning you may hear the country for miles round London and other populous towns resounding with an almost constant fusillade from the hedgerow brigade. On ordinary occasions the bag consists of quite small birds; but when the ground is covered with snow or hardened by a black frost, then the chase assumes a new character, and offers irresistible attractions. Then not only may blackbirds and thrushes be shot at twenty yards’ range without the necessity of stalking them or lying in wait, but such more wary quarry as missel-thrushes, jays and wood-pigeons, may often be secured; and a crafty gunner with a good knowledge of his country need not despair of even bringing home such honourable trophies as fieldfares or redwings. In a severe and prolonged frost, such as that of last year, the bird tribe, from wrens and robins up to magpies, lapwings, and even wild ducks, are more or less at the mercy of the hedge-popper. He never knows, when he starts at daybreak, whether he may not with a little good luck bring back quite a pocketful of such large game.
His wife cooked them all for a pie…
While he does lament that the Wild Birds Protection Act doesn’t do enough to prevent a decline in ‘numbers of our song-birds as well as of our rarer ornithological visitors’, Jefferies continues in this light-hearted tone to record that even the hedgehog is subject to disgusting treatment.
Sometimes an unoffending hedgehog will be found by the trusty cur, who betrays his discovery by a series of semi-frantic yelps and leaps. But this creature is seldom treated to a charge of shot for the very good reason that by being saved alive in a bag he may before he dies afford excellent sport to a whole circle of stay-at-home sportsmen and their dogs.
Is Jefferies being darkly ironical? Or merely dispassionately making a report of what goes on in the world in spite of the law? He might also be intimating that it’s unfair to gentlemen shooters who abide by the ‘rules’?
I don’t think I consider myself to be one of those whom John Fowles called ‘starry-eyed worshippers’ but I agree with Salt about the ‘sporty disfigurement’ that suddenly pulls you up short in Jefferies’ writings and I confess to being somewhat dismayed by his apparent zest for killing. I feel therefore impelled to ponder whether the essay A DEFENCE OF SPORT which appeared in The National Review in 1883 (the year of The Story of My Heart, be it noted) is written for The Great House well-to-do or a serious statement of belief. It all sounds a bit strained, contradictory, over the top and out of synch with Jefferies’ abiding reverence for Nature.
I do not think that any one ever walked through a field with a gun, or by water with a rod, without being the better for it. Knowledge is natural history, and can only be acquired in the open. From books images are formed in the mind, but they are very unlike the reality; description is so different to touch.
Here is Jefferies’ usual antipathy to book-learning (eg in Amaryllis at the Fair: ‘I have read a good many books in my time – I would not give sixpence for the whole lot’) wrapped up to justify not simple observation of animal life on river & open fields but the attacking of it with gun & rod. Observation and record of the habits of birds & beasts such as Jefferies has given us abundantly (and paradoxically in books) does not have to be done with hooks & fire-arms. But he persists.
With gun and rod actual facts are reached, touched, and understood. No one can obtain a clear idea of things as they actually are without seeing or touching; reading is not enough. I had studied several books on physiology, and considered I possessed a fair knowledge of organs: yet when one day I chanced to see a large animal opened after its death I was utterly confounded, so little had coloured plates and letter-press prepared me for the reality, that I could not recognize it… Now I claim for the gun that, although of metal, it is a better book than any printed volume.
Gun better than book? I thought the pen was mightier than the sword (or any other death-dealing implement…) All Jefferies’ claims in this essay sound specious, plausible till examined closely, designed maybe simply to please the 19th Century gun lobby. Of course, in general, in the field of education, it’s true that hands-on experience (Piaget’s ‘concrete operational stage’), for which you do not need a gun, is useful as a precursor to reading books; it’s somewhat more appropriate in general to learn things face to face when questions can be asked. But legions of friendly hunters are not necessary to obtain examples of animal innerds and I doubt very much that every killing results in an examination for the benefit of scientific knowledge. So now we shift to a rather obscure claim that the ‘sport’ of hunting is the best way to understand social & political events. ‘…Our fields and woods, moors and rivers, are our playgrounds, from which we emerge, strong and ready, to fight the battles of the world…’
I claim for sport in its general sense that it brings the mind in contact with the facts of life, and imparts the higher education which is independent of, and superior to, mere literary knowledge. A man may be extremely clever with his books, his mathematics, his differential calculus and analysis, and yet be absolutely ignorant of those forces which still control the minds and hearts of men in the nineteenth century as they did in the fifteenth…
A statesman must be a sportsman, or, what comes to the same thing, he must move in contact with the actualities of nature; he must take his thought from the earth as it is, from man as he is, direct, and not from the pale images of books. Then he will lead by virtue of the genius-spring in his heart, and he will be successful because his course will correspond with observed truth…
I doubt very much that ‘sport’ does anything like this but Jefferies says that when people who spend too much time indoors ‘…walk out with gun, or rod, or mount into the saddle and ride in the hunting field, their eyes would be opened to the facts of nature and life…’ It’s not necessary to hunt anything to appreciate Nature.
Jefferies takes another tack: organised hunting is like an Old Boys Club.
Let but a man say he is a sportsman, and he is welcome to everything. Houses are opened, the countryside welcomes him. Those who have spent their lives in the stiff and formal atmosphere of London suburbs can form no idea of the freedom of social intercourse which prevails in sporting counties… One pack of hounds will cause more good feeling among men than fifty pulpits resounding. Give me for a friend a man who rides.
So hunting (‘the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable…’ Oscar Wilde) inspires more friendliness than the Sermon on the Mount… Then there’s the effect of the open air has on promoting patriotism…
You see the river, and the meadow, the sun, and the wind, bring to the mind a sense of reality – a grasp of the fact that this is England. Till a man has in some manner or other gone afield he does not thoroughly comprehend the meaning of his own country. In a word, it is not home to him. After knowledge of the river and the wood, the hill and mead, such knowledge as gun, rod, or saddle alone can give, he realizes that it is his country, that it is his home. I claim for sport that it makes a man feel himself an English man in the full sense of the word, and that it counteracts the narrowing spirit of commerce alone.
Jefferies persists in making these totally specious claims.
A fox is useless in itself, but each fox fairly hunted is worth a thousand pounds: a thousand pounds’ worth of health, courage, manliness, and good-fellowship are purchased by a successful run. These are things of the very highest value, not only to the individual but to the country.
My pondering grinds to a halt when I realise that in this essay Jefferies has been addressing those who hold to my own attitude to what’s called ‘sport’ – which is that hunting is merely an excuse for pompous dressing up and racing round fields on horseback with dogs after a poor fox, and a ‘battue’ is an upper class shooting party arranged for wine & sumptuous banqueting while lower class beaters drive the specially preserved pheasants towards the hunters for their amusement & extermination. Jefferies says there is…
…bitter animosity to sport shown in certain quarters; hence the false cry of cruelty, and the ridiculous reproach of barbarism levelled at sport [sic]… every effort is to be made to put down such barbarous manliness. The idea is to reduce us to a species of effeminate Chinese flying kites; we are never to feel the instinct of sport arise within us: that would be a relic, a survival from the times when we were all still missing links, a sort of scientific original sin… Till we have quite eliminated the last faint traces of our ‘barbarous’ tastes, till we have forgotten the trout sucking in the Mayfly, the grouse whirring over the heather, the pheasant rising above the ash-poles, the fox breaking cover; till we cease to know what a gun, or a rod, or a saddle is like, we shall grovel in imperfection. Our evolution will not be complete till we are afraid to mount a horse, handle a gun, or touch a rod. When that at last comes to pass, we shall be morally perfect and walk the earth as saints…
Those who exercise this ‘bitter animosity’ are apparently working against all Jefferies’ specious claims: they are after ‘the extinction of all generous sentiments and friendship. They are labouring to extinguish the high and lofty spirit which has so often led England on to victory…’ If they got their way England would be overcome by some dictator. ‘They are trying to weaken the very constitution of the race – to obliterate all power of endurance, and to reduce youth to effeminacy. They are paving the way for those vices which history shows to flourish as vigour declines…’
The end of this unfortunate essay defending ‘sport’ goes like this:-
Fortunately the country is so attached to field sports that this last development of fanaticism will spout and howl in vain. But unless the folly of such pretensions be exposed in sufficiently plain language, some mischief may be done, because of that very spirit of fairness which leads the public to always accredit those who set up to teach it with the best of motives until the truth is demonstrated.
Jefferies has used ‘plain language’ to ‘spout and howl’ fanatically against those who think that ‘sport’ is ‘barbarous’ & cruel. He does this, it seems, to counteract the process of democratic engagement lest it contribute to proving the opposite of what he believes.
It seems that it’s OK for the well-to-do to engage in organised ‘sport’ – hunting, shooting & fishing – but what Jefferies is against is disorganised extermination which he seems to need to describe in all its gory detail. In The Open Air, reporting on the sadistic delight taken in the wanton destruction of animals & birds, Jefferies says ‘I am simply describing the realities of rural life behind the scenes…’ as though to distance himself from the wanton killing of otters and the shooting of nightingales & blackbirds and so on.
I suppose there has to be a certain sadistic pleasure that occurs at the moment of pulling the trigger and watching a pheasant cascade down as a dead or dying bundle of feathers. Perhaps the same as I felt as a young boy, the nearest I’ve come to ‘sport’ of the kind Jefferies is talking about, when I bent over an ants’ nest with a magnifying glass and focussed the sun on ants that kicked & shrivelled briefly, probably attracted by the smell of burning, as they came out to see what was happening to their comrades… I gave that up70 years ago.
Jefferies often engages in ‘objective reporting’ – ‘describing the realities of rural life behind the scenes’. In The Open Air (Under the Acorns) he says…
I was talking with a thorough sportsman recently, who told me, to my delight [because of what he goes on to say…], that he never reared birds by hand; yet he had a fair supply, and could always give a good day’s sport, judged as any reasonable [sic] man would judge sport. Nothing must enter the domains of the hand-reared pheasant; even the nightingale is not safe. A naturalist has recorded that in a district he visited, the nightingales were always shot by the keepers and their eggs smashed, because the singing of these birds at night disturbed the repose of the pheasants! They also always stepped on the eggs of the fern-owl, which are laid on the ground, and shot the bird if they saw it, for the same reason, as it makes a jarring sound at dusk. The fern-owl, or goatsucker, is one of the most harmless of birds – a sort of evening swallow – living on moths, chafers, and similar night-flying insects.
Again in The Open Air Jefferies laments the way people had taken to shooting randomly at anything that moves from boats on the Thames. Of course this is not organised ‘sport’ but wilful extermination.
The moorhens are shot, the kingfishers have been nearly exterminated or driven away from some parts, the once common black-headed bunting is comparatively scarce in the more frequented reaches, and if there is nothing else to shoot at, then the swallows are slaughtered. Some have even taken to shooting at the rooks in the trees or fields by the river with small-bore rifles – a most dangerous thing to do. The result is that the osier-beds on the eyots and by the backwaters – the copses of the river – are almost devoid of life. A few moorhens creep under the aquatic grasses and conceal themselves beneath the bushes, water-voles hide among the flags, but the once extensive host of water-fowl and river life has been reduced to the smallest limits. Water fowl cannot breed because they are shot on the nest, or their eggs taken. As for rarer birds, of course they have not the slightest chance.
Once more in The Open Air (The Haunt of the Hare), after the event, Jefferies expresses a degree of genuine sorrow at the shooting of a hare.
From behind one of these tussocks a hare starts, his black-tipped ears erect, his long hinder limbs throwing him almost like a grasshopper over the sward – no creature looks so handsome or startling, and it is always a pleasant surprise to see him… he is the largest animal to be shot in the fields… He leaves the straining spaniel behind, and the distance between them increases as they go. The spaniel’s broad hind paws are thrown wide apart as he runs, striking outwards as well as backwards, and his large ears are lifted by the wind of his progress. Overtaken by the cartridge [= when he’s been shot], still the hare, as he lies in the dewy grass, is handsome; lift him up and his fur is full of colour, there are layers of tint, shadings of brown within it, one under the other, and the surface is exquisitely clean. The colours are not really bright, at least not separately; but they are so clean and so clear that they give an impression of warmth and brightness. Even in the excitement of sport regret cannot but be felt at the sight of those few drops of blood about the mouth which indicate that all this beautiful workmanship must now cease to be. Had he escaped the sportsman would not have been displeased.
A bit late now… But it’s clear that things don’t have to be shot to be seen as objects of beauty – ‘divine’ even.
In Nature Near London (1883) Jefferies describes how he protected a trout, enabling him to observe its movement and preventing fisherpeople from doing their bit – the true Jefferies spirit.
The summer advanced, the hay was carted, and the wheat ripened. Already here and there the reapers had cut portions of the more forward corn. As I sat from time to time under the aspen, within hearing of the murmuring water, the thought did rise occasionally that it was a pity to leave the trout there till some one blundered into the knowledge of his existence.
There were ways and means by which he could be withdrawn without any noise or publicity. But, then, what would be the pleasure of securing him, the fleeting pleasure of an hour, compared to the delight of seeing him almost day by day ? I watched him for many weeks, taking great precautions that no one should observe how continually I looked over into the water there. Sometimes after a glance I stood with my hack to the wall as if regarding an object on the other side. If any one was following me, or appeared likely to peer over the parapet, I carelessly struck the top of the wall with my stick in such a manner that it should project, an action sufficient to send the fish under the arch. Or I raised my hat as if heated, and swung it so that it should alarm him. If the coast was clear when I had looked at him still I never left without sending him under the arch in order to increase his alertness.
Once more in The Open Air (The Modern Thames) Jefferies says that in the Thames ‘…a few otters cannot do much or lasting injury except in particular places… the otter is an ornament to the river, and more worthy of preservation than any other creature. He is the last and largest of the wild creatures who once roamed so freely in the forests which enclosed Londinium, that fort in the woods and marshes…’ Other creatures have disappeared from around the Thames while the otter remains. ‘…The shameless way in which every otter that dares to show itself is shot, trapped, beaten to death, and literally battered out of existence, should rouse the indignation of every sportsman [sic] and every lover of nature…’
Jefferies expresses his indignation at the killing of a porpoise who
…came up to Mortlake… past Gravesend, past Greenwich, past the Tower, under London Bridge, past Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, right up to Mortlake. It is really a wonderful thing that a denizen of the sea, so large and interesting as a porpoise, should come right through the vast City of London. In an aquarium, people, would go to see it and admire it, and take their children to see it. What happened ? Some one hastened out in a boat, armed with a gun or a rifle, and occupied himself with shooting at it. He did not succeed in killing it, but it was wounded…
It’s presumably from such an honest expression of indignation that Jefferies rightly gets his name as a conservationist.
If I may be permitted to express an opinion, I think that there is not a single creature, from the sand-marten and the black-headed bunting to the broad-winged heron, from the water-vole to the otter, from the minnow on one side of the tidal boundary to the porpoise on the other – big and little, beasts and birds (of prey or not) – that should not be encouraged and protected on this beautiful river, morally the property of the greatest city in the world.
And this is the crux of the matter: modern day Wildfowlers say they are conserving nature by culling; Jefferies is saying that ‘…there is a great difference between keeping the number of otters down by otter-hunting within reasonable limits and utterly exterminating them. Hunting the otter in Somerset is one thing, exterminating them in the Thames another, and I cannot but feel a sense of deep regret when I hear of fresh efforts towards this end…’
A typical Jefferies meta-comment in Restless Human Hearts (1875 – predating all the foregoing!) refers to Pierce demonstrating what I would describe as the function of ‘buffers’ – ‘singular inconsistencies [marking] human nature’ just as the same thing applies to his inventor.
Pierce asked [his guests] to join in a pheasant battue. With one of those singular inconsistencies which mark human nature, Pierce, the protector of the timid creatures in his garden – the humane and the gentle – was passionately fond of fieldsports, be it hunting, shooting, or fishing. His shooting parties were acknowledged to be the best in the county, the preserves were so well stocked, and the host was so courteous and so thoroughly en rapport with his friends.
At what I suppose is a humbler level but still involving a living creature there is a very memorable example of a buffer at work in Amaryllis at the Fair. Iden is taking his afternoon nap or thinking time.
Five or six mice were now busy at their dinner. The sleeping man was as still and quiet as if carved. A mouse came to his foot, clad in a great rusty-hued, iron-shod boot – the foot that rested on the fender, for he had crossed his knees. His fagged and dingy trouser, full of March dust, and earth-stained by labour, was drawn up somewhat higher than the boot. It took the mouse several trials to reach the trouser, but he succeeded, and audaciously mounted to Iden’s knee. Another quickly followed, and there the pair of them feasted on the crumbs of bread and cheese caught in the folds
of his trousers…
His thumb-nail – widened by labour with spade and axe – would have covered either of the tiny creatures as his shield covered Ajax. Yet the little things fed in perfect confidence. He was so still, so very still… they feared him no more than they did the wall; they could not hear his breathing. Had they been gifted with human intelligence that very fact would have excited their suspicions… But Iden was so still it was evident he was really wide awake and restraining his breath, and exercising conscious command over his muscles, that this scene might proceed undisturbed.
Now the strangeness of the thing was in this way: Iden set traps for mice in the cellar and the larder, and slew them there without mercy. He picked up the trap, swung it round, opening the door at the same instant, and the wretched captive was dashed to death upon the stone flags of the floor. So he hated them and persecuted them in one place, and fed them in another.
Jefferies says that ‘…a long psychological discussion might be held on this apparent inconsistency, but I shall leave analysis to those who like it, and go on recording facts…’ There’s not much of a discussion needed in my humble opinion. It’s a straightforward example of the way in which all of us are likely, when it suits us, to insert a buffer between two contradictory ways of seeing things so there’s no clash. There was a part of Jefferies’ psyche dedicated to visionary experience and another part which was a ‘death-dealer’. And there were many other ‘I’s in his make-up, for example, Being-a-pagan-I, ‘the heart and soul above crowns’, or, like Iden, a Suffering-I after ‘200 years of unhappiness & discordance…’
As he remarks again: ‘…nothing is consistent that is human. If it was not inconsistent it would have no association with a living person…’ Gurdjieff recommends that we face up properly to the inconsistencies & contradictions in our Being since they are a factor in all human life which is constantly conditioned by the swing of change – night & day, summer & winter, light & dark. The important thing is to go with the swing as on a pendulum (see earlier on too…) and discover a Third Force or synthesis.
From the merest thin slit, as it were, between his eyelids, Iden watched the mice feed and run about his knees till, having eaten every crumb, they descended his leg to the floor.
For me, ‘the starry-eyed’, this is the real Jefferies. His essence, beyond all the crush of life.