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Vignettes From Nature Post by :William_J Category :Essays Author :Richard Jefferies Date :September 2011 Read :2760

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Vignettes From Nature

I.--SPRING

The soft sound of water moving among thousands of grass-blades is to the hearing as the sweetness of spring air to the scent. It is so faint and so diffused that the exact spot whence it issues cannot be discerned, yet it is distinct, and my footsteps are slower as I listen. Yonder, in the corners of the mead, the atmosphere is full of some ethereal vapour. The sunshine stays in the air there as if the green hedges held the wind from brushing it away. Low and plaintive comes the notes of a lapwing; the same notes, but tender with love.

On this side by the hedge the ground is a little higher and dry, hung over with the lengthy boughs of an oak which give some shade. I always feel a sense of regret when I see a seedling oak in the grass. The two green leaves--the little stem so upright and confident, and though but a few inches high, already so completely a tree--are in themselves beautiful. Power, endurance, grandeur are there; you can grasp all with your hand and take a ship between the finger and thumb. Time, that sweeps away everything, is for a while repelled: the oak will grow when the time we know is forgotten, and when felled will be mainstay and safety of a generation in a future century. That the plant should start among the grass to be severed by the scythe, or crushed by cattle, is very pitiful; I cannot help wishing that it could be transplanted and protected. O! the countless acorns that drop in autumn not one in a million is permitted to become a tree: a vast waste of strength and beauty. From the bushes by the stile on the left hand (which I have just passed) follows the long whistle of a nightingale. His nest is near; he sings night and day. Had I waited on the stile, in a few minutes, becoming used to my presence, he would have made the hawthorn vibrate, so powerful is his voice when heard close at hand. There is not another nightingale along this path for at least a mile, though it crosses meadows and runs by hedges to all appearance equally suitable. But nightingales will not pass their limits; they seem to have a marked-out range as strictly defined as the line of a geological map. They will not go over to the next hedge, hardly into the field on one side of a favourite spot, nor a yard farther along the mound. Opposite the oak is a low fence of serrated green. Just projecting above the edges of a brook, fast-growing flags have thrust up their bayonet-tips. Beneath, these stalks are so thick in the shallow places that a pike can scarcely push a way between them. Over the brook stand some high maple-trees: to their thick foliage wood-pigeons come. The entrance to a combe--the widening mouth of a valley--is beyond, with copses on the slopes.

Again the plover's notes, this time in the field immediately behind; repeated, too, in the field on the right hand. One comes over, and as he flies he jerks a wing upwards and partly turns on his side in the air, rolling like a vessel in a swell. He seems to beat the air sideways, as if against a wall, not downwards. This habit makes his course appear so uncertain: he may go there, or yonder, or in a third direction, more undecided than a startled snipe. Is there a little vanity in that wanton flight? Is there a little consciousness of the spring-freshened colours of his plumage and pride in the dainty touch of his wings on the sweet wind? His love is watching his wayward course. He prolongs it. He has but a few yards to fly to reach the well-known feeding-ground by the brook where the grass is short; perhaps it has been eaten off by sheep. It is a straight and easy line--as a starling would fly. The plover thinks nothing of a straight line: he winds first with the curve of the hedge, then rises, uttering his cry, aslant, wheels, and returns; now this way, direct at me, as if his object was to display his snowy breast; suddenly rising aslant again, he wheels once more, and goes right away from his object over above the field whence he came. Another moment and he returns, and so to and fro, and round and round, till, with a sidelong, unexpected sweep, he alights by the brook. He stands a minute, then utters his cry, and runs a yard or so forward. In a little while a second plover arrives from the field behind; he, too, dances a maze in the air before he settles. Soon a third joins them. They are visible at that spot because the grass is short; elsewhere they would be hidden. If one of these rises and flies to and fro, almost instantly another follows, and then it is indeed a dance before they alight. The wheeling, maze-tracing, devious windings continue till the eye wearies and rests with pleasure on a passing butterfly. These birds have nests in the meadows adjoining; they meet here as a common feeding-ground. Presently they will disperse, each returning to his mate at the nest. Half an hour afterwards they will meet once more, either here or on the wing.

In this manner they spend their time from dawn, through the flower-growing day, till dusk. When the sun arises over the hill into the sky, already blue, the plovers have been up a long while. All the busy morning they go to and fro: the busy morning when the wood-pigeons cannot rest in the copses on the combe side, but continually fly in and out; when the blackbirds whistle in the oaks; when the bluebells gleam with purplish lustre. At noontide in the dry heat it is pleasant to listen to the sound of water moving among the thousand thousand grass-blades of the mead. The flower-growing day lengthens out beyond the sunset, and till the hedges are dim the lapwings do not cease.

Leaving now the shade of the oak, I follow the path into the meadow on the right, stepping by the way over a streamlet which diffuses its rapid current broadcast over the sward till it collects again and pours into the brook. This next meadow is somewhat more raised, and not watered; the grass is high, and full of buttercups. Before I have gone twenty yards a lapwing rises out in the field, rushes towards me through the air, and circles round my head, making as if to dash at me, and uttering shrill cries. Immediately another comes from the mead behind the oak; then a third from over the hedge, and all those that have been feeding by the bank, till I am encircled with them. They wheel round, dive, rise aslant, cry, and wheel again, always close over me, till I have walked some distance, when one by one they fall off, and, still uttering threats, retire. There is a nest in this meadow, and, although it is, no doubt, a long way from the path, my presence even in the field, large as it is, is resented. The couple who imagine themselves threatened are quickly joined by their friends, and there is no rest till I have left their treasures far behind.


II.--THE GREEN CORN

Pure colour almost always gives the idea of fire, or, rather, it is perhaps as if a light shone through as well as the colour itself. The fresh green blade of corn is like this--so pellucid, so clear and pure in its green as to seem to shine with colour. It is not brilliant--not a surface gleam nor an enamel--it is stained through. Beside the moist clods the slender flags arise, filled with the sweetness of the earth. Out of the darkness under--that darkness which knows no day save when the ploughshare opens its chinks--they have come to the light. To the light they have brought a colour which will attract the sunbeams from now till harvest. They fall more pleasantly on the corn, toned, as if they mingled with it. Seldom do we realize that the world is practically no thicker to us than the print of our footsteps on the path. Upon that surface we walk and act our comedy of life, and what is beneath is nothing to us. But it is out from that underworld, from the dead and the unknown, from the cold, moist ground, that these green blades have sprung. Yonder a steam-plough pants up the hill, groaning with its own strength, yet all that strength and might of wheels, and piston, and chains cannot drag from the earth one single blade like these. Force cannot make it; it must grow--an easy word to speak or write, in fact full of potency.

It is this mystery--of growth and life, of beauty and sweetness and colour, and sun-loved ways starting forth from the clods--that gives the corn its power over me. Somehow I identify myself with it; I live again as I see it. Year by year it is the same, and when I see it I feel that I have once more entered on a new life. And to my fancy, the spring, with its green corn, its violets, and hawthorn leaves, and increasing song, grows yearly dearer and more dear to this our ancient earth. So many centuries have flown. Now it is the manner with all natural things to gather as it were by smallest particles. The merest grain of sand drifts unseen into a crevice, and by-and-by another; after a while there is a heap; a century and it is a mound, and then everyone observes and comments on it. Time itself has gone on like this; the years have accumulated, first in drifts, then in heaps, and now a vast mound, to which the mountains are knolls, rises up and overshadows us. Time lies heavy on the world. The old, old earth is glad to turn from the cark and care of driftless centuries to the first sweet blades of green.

There is sunshine to-day, after rain, and every lark is singing. Across the vale a broad cloud-shadow descends the hillside, is lost in the hollow, and presently, without warning, slips over the edge, crossing swiftly along the green tips. The sunshine follows--the warmer for its momentary absence. Far, far down in a grassy combe stands a solitary corn-rick, conical-roofed, casting a lonely shadow--marked because so solitary--and beyond it, on the rising slope, is a brown copse. The leafless branches take a brown tint in the sunlight; on the summit above there is furze; then more hill-lines drawn against the sky. In the tops of the dark pines at the corner of the copse, could the glance sustain itself to see them, there are finches warming themselves in the sunbeams. The thick needles shelter them from the current of air, and the sky is bluer above the pines. Their hearts are full already of the happy days to come, when the moss yonder by the beech, and the lichen on the fir-trunk, and the loose fibres caught in the fork of an unbending bough, shall furnish forth a sufficient mansion for their young. Another broad cloud-shadow, and another warm embrace of sunlight. All the serried ranks of the green corn bow at the word of command as the wind rushes over them.

There is largeness and freedom here. Broad as the down and free as the wind, the thought can roam high over the narrow roofs in the vale. Nature has affixed no bounds to thought. All the palings, and walls, and crooked fences deep down yonder are artificial. The fetters and traditions, the routine, the dull roundabout, which deadens the spirit like the cold moist earth, are the merest nothing. Here it is easy with the physical eye to look over the highest roof, which must also always be the narrowest. The moment the eye of the mind is filled with the beauty of things natural an equal freedom and width of view comes to it. Step aside from the trodden footpath of personal experience, throwing away the petty cynicism bred of petty hopes disappointed. Step out upon the broad down beside the green corn, and let its freshness become part of life.

The wind passes and it bends--let the wind, too, pass over the spirit. From the cloud-shadow it emerges to the sunshine--let the heart come out from the shadow of roofs to the open glow of the sky. High above, the songs of the larks fall as rain--receive it with open hands. Pure is the colour of the green flags, the slender, pointed blades--let the thought be pure as the light that shines through that colour. Broad are the downs and open the aspect--gather the breadth and largeness of view. Never can that view be wide enough and large enough; there will always be room to aim higher. As the air of the hills enriches the blood, so let the presence of these beautiful things enrich the inner sense.


(The end)
Richard Jefferies's essay: Vignettes From Nature

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