What a strange problem now that after so many thousand years
I should still wander to & fro, spiritually unsatisfied…
Notebooks May-June 1887
In the 1987 Symposium booklet entitled Richard Jefferies: a Spirit Illumined, John Pearson wrote an excellent essay called Bevis: A Natural Education in Time and Space in which he traces an ‘educational theme’ which is, as perhaps one might expect, ‘natural’. Bevis & Mark are on a learning spree. He wrote that the pedagogy ‘relies on the beneficial physical and mental effects wrought by a training in rural surroundings…’ and ‘the use of Nature to reassess modem conceptions of time and space…’ with ‘only the minimum of guidance…’ (just as I, ex-teacher with teaching still in my old bones, think ought to be the case in any educational process – people ought to be left to find things out for themselves with a judicious minimum of guidance). Using instinct and imagination, relaxed detailed life observation, Bevis & Mark are educated by their experience away from the idea that ‘time is money’ and from anything purely mechanical. Contrary to the artificiality of clock-time, ‘their time is set to natural rhythms… [they] are thrown back on their senses…’
At the end of the 19th Century speed of travel had shrunk conceptions of space – how much more so now with instant communications across continents? While still acknowledging far distances with the possibility of meeting lions & savages in their adventures, Bevis & Mark skip around from place to place – as in The Old House at Coate, ‘Scandinavia was just beyond the stile…; Africa just beyond the wooded slope; America yonder over the bank. So large and yet so little; so many thousand miles, yet seen at a glance in an instant’.
On the grounds, as Jefferies says, that ‘What we learn in youth influences us through life’, true education should release the mind into imaginative journeys into time & space beyond conventional definitions so that, more widely, children can learn constantly to challenge the status quo.
An overview of research into outdoor education by King’s College London found that children who spend time learning in natural environments ‘perform better in reading, mathematics, science and social studies’. Exploring the natural world ‘makes other school subjects rich and relevant and gets apathetic students excited about learning’…
In 2011, the Tory government published a White Paper proposing ‘action to get more children learning outdoors, removing barriers and increasing schools’ abilities to teach outdoors’. So what happened? Massive cuts. 95 per cent of outdoor education centres have had their entire local authority funding cut. Instead of being encouraged to observe and explore and think and develop, children are being treated like geese in a foie gras farm. Confined to the classroom, stuffed with rules and facts, dragooned into endless tests: there could scarcely be a better formula for ensuring that they become bored and disaffected. (George Monbiot: How Did We Get in This Mess?)
In the suburban state junior school I attended (1942-47) I was privileged to go on many weekly ‘Nature Walks’; one way we used to go was along the road parallel with the Hogsmill that Jefferies strode to Worcester Park. (See The Old House at Coate: ‘The Last of a London Trout’ Chapter 2). I must have caught something from the air, all unknowing…
John Pearson’s memorable essay had me thinking of how the theme of ‘Time’ is fundamental to Jefferies’ vision. What did he wish for? Perhaps, at least, for the soul, ‘in unalloyed sympathy with nature’, to feel eternal… How might one do that? He offers a little guidance in The Hills and the Vale: Nature and Eternity.
Let the memory call up a picture of the desert sands of Egypt – upon the kings with the double crown, upon Rameses, upon Sesostris, upon Assurbanipal the burning beams of this very sun descended, filling their veins with tumultuous life, three thousand years ago. Lifted up in absorbing thought, the mind feels that these three thousand years are in truth no longer past than the last beat of the pulse. It throbbed – the throb is gone; their pulse throbbed, and it seems but a moment since, for to thought, as to the sun, there is no time. This little petty life of seventy years, with its little petty aims and hopes, its despicable fears and contemptible sorrows, is no more the life with which the mind is occupied. This golden disc has risen and set, as the graven marks of man alone record, full eight thousand years. The hieroglyphs of the rocks speak of a fiery sun shining inconceivable ages before that. Yet even this almost immortal sun had a beginning – perhaps emerging as a ball of incandescent gas from chaos: how long ago was that? And onwards, still onwards goes the disc, doubtless for ages and ages to come. It is time that our measures should be extended; these paltry divisions of hours and days and years – aye, of centuries – should be superseded by terms coveying some faint idea at least of the vastness of space.
To set himself to feel eternal in the midst of Nature was exactly what Jefferies did in one of the many places to which he went in order to have special or enhanced experience. When we thoroughly identify with feeling eternal, we become ‘eternalised’, as Jefferies was in the trance-state of the well-known passage in The Story of My Heart.
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…
The whole of life is a trance within which there are trillions of mini-trances – you are in one right now: the Reading Trance. In this moment you come out of that trance and into another (a Pondering Trance, maybe) but go back into the Reading Trance now!
Deeply affected by his surroundings, seeing/hearing/feeling them Jefferies enters into a trance-state. He tells us how it works.
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. Two thousand years being a second to the soul could not cause its extinction. It was no longer to the soul than my thought occupied to me.
Time no more. Yet Jefferies knows full well he will spend what’s called ‘time’ observing and pondering; he is transported back in time so that the centuries will be brought to bear on the most ordinary events depriving them of the passing of time.
The sun shone there for a very long time, and the water rippled and sang, and it always seemed to me that I could feel the rippling and the singing and the sparkling back through the centuries… (Field and Hedgerow: My Old Village)
In his observations he is seemingly inevitably carried back into the past to impose huge cycles of years on ‘the crooked sequence of life’. He teaches us a way of doing it for ourselves:
…the sun glowed on the sward at the foot of the slope where these thoughts burned into me. How many, many years, how many cycles of years, how many bundles of cycles of years, had the sun glowed down thus on that hollow? Since it was formed how long? Since it was worn and shaped, groove-like, in the flanks of the hills by mighty forces which had ebbed. Alone with the sun which glowed on the work when it was done, I saw back through space to the old time of tree-ferns, of the lizard flying through the air, the lizard-dragon wallowing in sea foam, the mountainous creatures, twice elephantine, feeding on land; all the crooked sequence of life… (The Story of My Heart)
I have always been deeply conscious of time passing and devoted to the making (and updating) of a personal almanac similar to that constructed by Melville’s eponymous hero Whitejacket, but written down:-
Still another way of killing time in harbour, is to lean over the bulwarks, and speculate upon where, under the sun, you are going to be that day next year, which is a subject full of interest to every living soul; so much so, that there is a particular day of a particular month of the year, which, from my earliest recollections, I have always kept the run of, so that I can even now tell just where I was on that identical day of every year past since I was twelve years old. And, when I am all alone, to run over this almanac in my mind is almost as entertaining as to read your own diary, and far more interesting than to peruse a table of logarithms on a rainy afternoon. I always keep the anniversary of that day with lamb and peas, and a pint of sherry, for it comes in Spring. But when it came round in the Neversink, I could get neither lamb, peas, nor sherry.
I have often taken it for granted that we are all similarly obsessed by the process of Time, but since I have come across people who claim not to be able to remember anything prior to their teens and are not that interested in recalling things after that, I’m not now at all sure that everybody is inclined to be so enthusiastically time-conscious as I am. I know exactly what I was suffering from on the eve of my third birthday, where I was & what I was doing listening to the 6pm BBC News on 6th August 1945, and what is significant about midday on the 20th August 1955 and so on. Since very early on in my life I have been in the habit of saying to myself, “I shall remember this moment for the rest of my life!” So it’s not surprising that I am entranced by Jefferies’ own many expressions of time-awareness. It’s in essays & The Story of My Heart and fiction too; here he speaks for Andrew Fisher in Greene Ferne Farm.
For ninety seasons, as man and boy – for three generations of thirty years each – had Andrew looked from that window. There he played in his childhood; there he rested from his labours in the time of manhood; there he sat in his old age. The deep gashes he had made with his first boy’s clasp-knife still showed in the edge of the oaken window-seat. They were cut when the First Napoleon was winning his earlier victories… Thence he had noted the changing seasons and the cycle of the years.
Ninety times the snowdrop had hung her white flower under the sheltering wall. For ninety springs the corncrake’s monotonous cry had resounded in the mowing grass. The cuckoo came and went; the swallows sailed for the golden sands of the south; the leaves, brown and orange and crimson, dropped and died…
There follow a series of authorial contemplations interspersed with a chorus linking ‘now’ with ‘then’, which, together with the above, can be attributed to Andrew’s internal considering.
- Ninety times and the scythe was busy in the grass, and the corn would soon turn colour yet once more…
- Ninety times and yet once more the wheat came apace…
- Yet once more the swallows were wheeling in the summer air…
The prose process itself is akin to ‘the massive wheel in [Andrew Fisher’s] mill’ that goes ‘round and round without haste and without rest… ceaseless as the revolving firmament…’
Jefferies locks the process of our ordinary time into naturally recurring events. In The Old House at Coate (Three Centuries at Home), imagining what it would be like if history were obliterated and he were to take on the role of a modern Herodotus, he is guided to old folk who might be able to provide evidence that would enable him to reconstruct history – he has not a lot of success! He met up with one old lady working at a spinning wheel.
She could not tell me the year in which she was born; she calculated her age by the thatch. The house had been new thatched four times since she could remember. She was a great girl when it was done the first time, because father fell from the ladder and broke his arm – that she recollected well. Father thatched it twice. Her own husband thatched it the third time, and the fourth was three years ago. I could see it if I liked – “it were amazing thick!”
Mr. Browne and I measured it roughly; we found it between eight and nine feet in thickness. The farmer said a good coat of straw would last twenty years: four coats represented eighty years; add three years since the last thatching, and say the old lady was seven when her father broke his arm, and that would make her ninety.
And so back to Bevis again.
Bevis lived not only out to the finches and the swallows, to the far-away hills, but he lived out and felt out to the sky. It was living, not thinking. He lived it, never thinking, as the finches live their sunny life in the happy days of June. There was magic in everything, blades of grass and stars, the sun and the stones upon the ground. The green path by the strawberries was the centre of the world, and round it by day and night the sun circled in a magical golden ring.
Under the oak on New Formosa that warm summer night, Bevis looked up as he reclined at the pure white light of Lyra and forgot everything but the consciousness of living, feeling up to and beyond it. The earth and the water, the oak, went away; he himself went away: his mind joined itself, and was linked up through ethereal space to its beauty.
Lost in space-time, he found that his tick-tock watch was water-logged. Both boys therefore contrive to make a sundial…
Bevis knew that his sundial was not correct; for as the sun now each day described a circle slightly less than before, the shadow too would change and the error increase. Still the dial would divide the day for them, and they could work and arrange their plans by it.
Had they had the best chronometer ever made it would have been of no further use. All time is artificial, and their time was correct to them.
On one of his own walks, described in The Life of the Fields (‘Bits of Oak Bark’), Jefferies comes to a place where he knows the Romans had been 1500 years before. Just here where his walk takes him across a brook becomes alive with forget-me-nots and weary Roman legions.
Fifteen centuries before there had been a Roman station at the spot where the lane crossed the brook. There the centurions rested their troops after their weary march across the downs, for the lane, now bramble-grown and full of ruts, was then a Roman road. There were villas, and baths, and fortifications; these things you may read about in books. They are lost now in the hedges, under the flowering grass, in the ash copses, all forgotten in the lane, and along the footpath where the June roses will bloom after the apple blossom has dropped. But just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.
A sudden fatness of pigs has Jefferies marching back in clock-time. He says it’s imagination but it feels much more real than that; he sees, hears & feels what it is to be a knight home from the Crusades.
Snorting as they work with very eagerness of appetite, they are almost wild, approaching in a measure to their ancestors, the savage boars. Under the trees the imagination plays unchecked, and calls up the past as if yew bow and broad arrow were still in the hunter’s hands. So little is changed since then. The deer are here still. Sit down on the root of this oak (thinly covered with moss), and on that very spot it is quite possible a knight fresh home from the Crusades may have rested and feasted his eyes on the lovely green glades of his own unsurpassed England. The oak was there then, young and strong; it is here now, ancient, but sturdy. Rarely do you see an oak fall of itself. It decays to the last stump; it does not fall. The sounds are the same – the tap as a ripe acorn drops, the rustle of a leaf which comes down slowly, the quick rushes of mice playing in the fern. A movement at one side attracts the glance, and there is a squirrel darting about. There is another at the very top of the beech yonder out on the boughs, nibbling the nuts. A brown spot a long distance down the glade suddenly moves, and thereby shows itself to be a rabbit. The bellowing sound that comes now and then is from the stags, which are preparing to fight. The swine snort, and the mast and leaves rustle as they thrust them aside. So little is changed: these are the same sounds and the same movements, just as in the olden time.
The Open Air (‘Forest’)
Summing up, John Pearson suggests that Bevis has an educational sub-text. Research confirms that open air experience improves overall academic performance in schoolchildren. Jefferies, rooted in the passage of time connected with NOW and Nature, offers practical advice on how to become ‘eternalised’. The global Capitalist Austerity drive has inspired Tory cuts which limit the opportunity for open air learning. One has to ask what happens to the human mind when, lacking a feeling for Nature in all its aspects, it ceases to have a feeling for the way the centuries can come into being again with an awareness of Time imbued with Nature? In Greene Ferne Farm we seem to find out.
Having finally made up his mind to ask Andrew Fisher for May’s hand in marriage, on his way Felix passes a group of labourers, lacking Jefferies pedagogy, digging under a sarsen stone having seen the ‘toe’ of a human long-buried under it sticking up through the rain-washed rubble. In his role as vicar he begs them not to disturb the skeleton but, out of total indifference, the skull with brittle bones were ‘chucked’ into a bucket indiscriminately. Felix tries in vain to convince them that a bit of brass with GAUDEAMUS inscribed on it was a piece of a Roman trumpet.
…as he rode away saddened, [Felix] thought to himself: That we should come to this – made in the Divine image, and thrown at last into a stable-bucket! The limbs that bounded over the sward, the nostrils that scented the clover, and the eyes that watched and pondered, perhaps as mine did but now, over the sunset! Ah, the tinker’s ass, browsing on the thistles, is thrusting his nose into the bucket, I see, to sniff contemptuously at it! “Let us rejoice” – what a satire…
2 thoughts on “TIME & JEFFERIES”
As always, I so enjoy the autobiographical snippets you interject throughout your posts, as you did so generously in this one, Colin! And I especially enjoyed the humorous authorial command at the end of this thought-provoking passage: “The whole of life is a trance within which there are trillions of mini-trances – you are in one right now: the Reading Trance. In this moment you come out of that trance and into another (a Pondering Trance, maybe) but go back into the Reading Trance now!” Rest assured that this reader promptly obeyed the author!!
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Thanks, Tom! Since I discovered that my blending of what I hope is precise observation of a literary kind with personal reflections had a label – ‘ficto-criticism’ – I have become bolder in cashing in on the process! Good to know that it works! I think this is probably the final essay of the series on Jefferies, all of which I am preparing to make into a book… Reply-writing-trance over!
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