Wednesday, February 16, 2011

They regretted when they emerged from the trees - a Richard Jefferies forest fantasy

Five years before Richard Jefferies published After London, or Wild England, John Ruskin had published his own fantasy of poisonous London, in the form of an essay about how novels are bad for us. The primrose, daisies, and purple thistles of his youth have been destroyed by encroaching London, and replaced by garbage, sewage, and, most noxious of all, printed matter.  I invite my readers to reacquaint themselves with this little masterpiece: “festering and flaunting out their last publicity in the pits of stinking dust and mortal slime.”  Ruskin may well be the finest writer of English prose of his century.

Jefferies, too, wants to recover those thistles.  The heart of his novel is in the subtitle.  Jefferies is going to regrow, or at least conjure up, Wild England.

The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible.  It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.

That is actually the first two lines, the first paragraph, of the novel.  First lines can be made to do a lot.  The next three pages or so are about plants, nothing but plants.  The couch grass invades the arable fields.  The wheat soon shares space with “quantities of docks, thistles, oxeye daisies, and similar plant.  Charlock, too… sorrel, wild carrots, and nettles…”  Nettles and wild parsnips “spread out into the fields from the ditches and choked [the grain crops].”

Brambles, aquatic grass, hawthorn bushes, sapling ashes, horse-chestnuts.  The brambles protect the saplings until they become the new forest.  Ditches fill, streams and rivers recover their freedom, marshes spread.  “By the thirtieth year there was not one single open place, the hills only excepted, where a man could walk, unless he followed the tracks of wild creatures or cut himself a path.”

Jefferies begins his novel with the creation of a forest, in detail, based on his own observations and botanizing.  It’s a bit like Henry David Thoreau’s essay “The Dispersion of Forest Seeds,” but lightly fictionalized.  Jefferies is trying to rebuild the entire ecosystem.  The abundance of unharvested wheat creates an explosion in the mouse population.  Domestic animals adapt to the forest, as do men.

The sylvan fantasy reaches a peak early in the more novel-like part of the novel, when the protagonist and his brother spend a couple of chapters (6 and 7) riding through the forest.  The hero is happy, as is, I suspect, the author – “it was still fresh and sweet among the trees.”  Cuckoos, thorn bushes, wood-pigeons, “furze now bright with golden blossom.”

There were several glades, from one of which they startled a few deer, whose tails only were seen as they bounded into the underwood, but after the glades came the beeches again. Beeches always form the most beautiful forest, beeches and oak; and though nearing the end of their journey, they regretted when they emerged from the trees and saw the castle before them.

The novel’s arguments do not suggest that Jefferies wanted to exchange English civilization for the long-depleted English forest.  But he missed that forest, and did something about it.  His novel is still a way to visit it.

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