It has been a while since I wrote about the ecological apocalypse novel of Richard Jefferies, After London, or Wild England (1885), in which the author so loathes London that he submerges it in a poisonous swamp. Finally, I have read some more Jefferies, the magazine writing collected in the Penguin collection Landscape with Figures, covering 1872 through 1887, when Jefferies died, not yet forty years old.
The story the anthology tells is that Jefferies began as a writer on agricultural subjects, a country reformer. These pieces, the first third of the book, are largely of historical and sociological interest. As he shifted toward nature writing, though, to descriptions of the country itself, both his subject and style become richer, and stranger.
Richer meaning that he independently seems to me to be ahead of his time in his understanding of ecology, the interconnections between different species – see “Rooks Returning To Roost” (1878) for the effects of deforestation on rooks – and ethology, or animal behavior – actually, see “Rooks” for that, too, although I was thinking of the startling “Mind under Water” (1883), in which Jefferies tries to inhabit the mind of a fish.
Most people will only grant a moderate degree of intelligence to fish, linking coldness of blood to narrowness of intellect, and convinced that there can be but little brain in so small a compass as its head. (162)
Jefferies has written a precursor of Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” (1974), much of it wrong in detail but on a promising track. See also “A Brook – A London Trout” (1880), in which Jefferies falls in love with the title fish, as did I, as might you.
I have never seen him since. I never failed to glance over the parapet into the shadowy water. Somehow it seemed to look colder, darker, less pleasant than it used to do. The spot was empty, and the shrill winds whistled through the poplars. (152)
Near the end of his life, his imaginative power had become quite free. Few of us will be the “you” in this passage:
If you will look at a grain of wheat you will see that it seems folded up: it has crossed its arms and rolled itself up into a cloak, a fold of which forms a groove, and so gone to sleep. If you look at it some time, as people in old enchanted days used to look into a mirror, or the magic ink, until they saw living figures therein, you can almost trace a miniature human being in the oval of the grain… And I do not know really whether I might not say that these little grains of English corn do not hold within them the actual flesh and blood of man. Transubstantiation is a fact there. (“Walks in Wheat-fields,” 1887, 214)
That essay is much recommended to readers of Wendell Berry. Meanwhile, in his pure nature writing, Jefferies is discovering a strange poetic yet precise prose. The last line is the winner:
From their hereditary homes the lapwings cannot be entirely driven away. Out of the mist comes their plaintive cry; they are hidden, and their exact locality is not to be discovered. Where winter rules most ruthlessly, where darkness is deepest in daylight, there the slender plovers stay undaunted. (“Haunts of the Lapwing: Winter”, 1883, 206)
A great little benefit of reading Jefferies is that I found the original of William Boot, the nature writer in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1937). Boot writes “a lyrical but wholly accurate account of the habits of the badger” and begins a column with “Feather-footed through the plashy fens passes the questing vole.” The last line of the novel is “Outside the owls hunted maternal rodents and their furry broods.” I had wondered, who is Waugh imitating? Now I know.