(With apologies to those who are already devotees of Richard Jefferies!)
Richard Jefferies was a writer and observer of nature, who died at the age of 39 in August, 1887. He produced a number of books, and a larger number of essays which were published in various journals and papers. His early works tended to focus on country life and the countryside, but from the 1880s onwards, his work contained an increasingly mystical element, which is most evident in the astonishing The Story of My Heart, published in 1883.
Often described as the foremost ‘prose-poet of nature’, Jefferies studied the natural world around him with such intensity that he came to formulate a philosophy of life which aroused alarm and hostility from the evangelising Victorian Church. I think that Jefferies ideas have become increasingly more important as time has passed and are critically relevant to life in the 21st Century. For the sake of convenience, and perhaps rather impudently, I am going to refer to Jefferies philosophy as ‘Naturalism’.
The Nature Mysticism of Richard Jefferies.
For several decades, Jefferies undertook an acute study of the plants, animals (and people) of the southern English countryside. His approach was not that of the scientist, but more that of the poet and because of this he became increasingly conscious of an intimate sensory connection with nature. “Light and colour, freedom and delicious air, give exquisite pleasure to the senses; but the heart searches deeper, and draws for the food for itself from sunshine, hills and sea.” (The Hills and the Vale)
In pondering the intensity of this consciousness, he began to explore its meaning and its possible implications for humankind. This exploration and attempt at analysis, forms the body of The Story of My Heart.
In an earlier work Jefferies had written of one of his fictional characters: “He reposed upon the grass under the shadow of a tree, til the warmth of the sun filled his veins with a drowsy, slumberous yet intense vitality, while the leaves dance in slow and intricate measure between him and the sky…He lost all sense of his own separate existence; his soul became merged in the life of the tree, of the grass, of the thousands of insects, finally in the life of the broad earth underneath, till he felt himself as it were a leaf upon the great cedar of existence …Time, thought, feeling, sense, were gone, all lost; nothing remained but the mere grand fact, the exquisite delight, the infinite joy of existence only”. (Restless Human Hearts)
Essentially, Jefferies believed that in nature there is great joy. While acknowledging the inevitability of pain and death in the natural world, his observations led him to the conclusion that birds and animals exhibit signs of a simple joy in their existence, and cited many examples of where this is evident.
This Joy, he believed, came from their total and complete connection and immersion in nature, in the natural elements, environment and most particularly in sunlight, where the connection was at its strongest. He believed that we too could experience this, and described his own immersion in nature as an “intense communion” with the earth, the sun and the sky, such that he “became lost, and absorbed into the being and existence of the universe”. (The Story of My Heart).
Jefferies had noted that he too felt physically and mentally better when wandering in the fields and woods, when his senses were completely open to the wind, rain or sun. He concluded that because humans are themselves essentially a component of nature, an unrestricted immersion in nature would also make us healthier and happier and enable us to share the same joy exhibited by the creatures around us.
The problem was that humankind was now living in a state of disconnection from nature, denying a reltionship with it. Because of this, humankind had adopted a destructive and exploitative position with regard to nature and Jefferies believed that reconnecting with nature was crucial for the future health and happiness of mankind.
“Stoop and touch the earth, and receive its influence; touch the flower, and feel its life; face the wind, and have its meaning; let the sunlight fall on the open hand as if you could hold it. Something may be grasped from them all, invisible yet strong. It is the sense of a wider existence – wider and higher”. (The Hills and the Vale).
The key to this was a development of the sensory – or even sensual - abilities. The touch of water, wind and sunlight; the sound of water, bird song, trees; the colour of leaves and flowers, the sky, sunsets; and the smell of rain, sap, hot cornfields – all could be fine-tuned to provide a more powerful connection with nature. To enable us, like the creatures of the wild, to take our place within it. This idea of the awakening of the senses is also found in the writings of Henry Thoreau. For Jefferies, reconnection with nature required a powerful sensory reconnection - not a state of transcendence
More profoundly, Jefferies suggested that this sense of connection was also a form of cosmic energy which linked us directly to the people of the past. Jefferies illustrated this by recounting his experience while reclining on a bronze-age tumulus – the realisation that the feeling of the wind on his face, the sun on his body, the grass under his fingers, was a sensation he shared with the man now buried beneath him thousands of years earlier.
“It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine ; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come ; it is now. Now is eternity ; now is the immortal life. Here this moment, by this tumulus (ancient burial mound), on earth, now ; I exist in it. The years, the centuries, the cycles are absolutely nothing ; it is only a moment since this tumulus was raised ; in a thousand years more it will still be only a moment …To the soul there is no past and no future ; all is and will be ever, in now.” (The Story of My Heart).
The implication of this, of course, is that if now is eternity, there is no afterlife and no heaven to look forward to. Consciousness can only exist in the present. A fundamental tenet of Christianity is, therefore, challenged. And Jefferies realised that whatever it was he was dealing with, it spread out beyond the confines of ‘manufactured’ religion. The future of humankind lies not with God, but with humankind itself, and its future lies not in heaven, but in nature.
It was at this point that Jefferies thoughts became controversial and earned him the enmity of the Church. Christian mystics would have it that the natural world is the creation of God and was created for man’s use. This, of course, is essentially the viewpoint of Christian orthodoxy, as expressed by Saint Augustine, for whom humans were made in the image of God, and therefore not only has man the God-given right to exploit it for his own benefit, but any worship of nature is in fact an appreciation of God’s works and therefore of God himself. It was what Jefferies described with irony as “The old, old error: I love the earth, therefore the earth loves me – I am her child – I am man, the favoured of all creatures. I am the centre, and all for me was made.” ( Field and Hedgerow)..”
Jefferies, though, argued that man’s connection with the cosmos through nature was ‘beyond divine’. "There is something beyond the philosophies in the light, in the grass-blades, the leaf, the grasshopper, the sparrow on the wall.” ( The Life of the Field)
In other words, nature was greater, more expansive and, ultimately, more mysterious. Read literally, Jefferies could have been interpreted as pointing out that not only was the idea of God irrelevant, but that it was also a hindrance, hampering man from seeing his true place in the natural world and allowing him to avoid facing up to his responsibilities within it. “No deity has anything to do with nature. There is no god in nature, nor in any matter anywhere.” (The Story of my Heart)
The Story of My Heart did not sell well on publication and many of the unsold books were destroyed. Unsurprisingly, Jefferies views were attacked by Christian evangelicals. On his premature death in 1887, an un-provenanced story emerged that he had made a sudden and profound death-bed conversion back to Christianity. The story was repeated after his death, and just before the First World War his works were attacked as ‘pernicious’ and ‘dangerous’ in correspondence in the Pall Mall Gazette. Even more recently, Christian writers have argued that Jefferies ideas were simply the attempt by a poorly educated writer to express views which were really a confused interpretation of Christian teachings.
The importance of Jefferies today.
“Every blade of grass, each leaf, each separate floret and petal, is an inspiration 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 or me, now, but for our race, who will ultimately use this magical secret for their happiness. Earth hold 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…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 Pageant of Summer’ in The Life of the Fields. 1884.)
Sooner or later many of us begin to search for a meaning for our existence, and to find values beyond the artificial and superficial values constructed by modern western society. Some find their answers in religion. However, most religions are self-referencing. Christians are told, for example, that God is inexpressible, unthinkable, invisible, inapprehensible. So much so that they have to have ‘faith’ that he is actually either there at all or has any influence or relevance.
Furthermore most religions offer a future only within themselves. They separate us from our natural environment. They deny us our birth-right of a place in nature, in harmony and at one with the natural world around us. Furthermore, in seeking to self-reference themselves over other religions, they create competition and conflict.
Jefferies believed that if we could see beyond religion, 'beyond Deity', we would see the natural world in all its sublime beauty, and in connecting with this, realise that this is what we have to worship and protect.
After more than sixty years on this earth I, like Jefferies, see too many false paths in Christianity and cannot accept the existence of a God. But I can see the beauty of nature and increasingly I can experience the joy in it that Jefferies described. At the same time I can see how it is threatened, and how it is exploited for the benefit of short-term and false values.
“The air, the sunlight, the night, all that surrounds me seems crowded with inexpressible powers, with the influence of souls, or existences, so that I walk in the midst of immortal things”. (The Story of my Heart).