Monday, April 20, 2015

There the slender plovers stay undaunted - Richard Jefferies knows what it is like to be a fish

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.


  1. in which Jefferies tries to inhabit the mind of a fish

    Ha ha, as I read this I said to myself, "It's like that guy who wrote about bats," and your next sentence is precisely about Nagel!

    I liked Jefferies here; is his ecological apocalypse novel worth reading?

  2. I thought the novel was worth reading. It begins with 50 pages on ecology and no hint of a conventional story. Instead he tells the story of an ecosystem, what happens when man stops cultivating the fields. Bold.

    And then later, London as a toxic swamp. Poor guy. In an earlier essay, I was surprised to see that he was happy with London, but later his illness and poverty cut him off from nature.

    There is a strange connection with the Calvino book I am reading now, Marcovaldo, a comic novel about urban alienation from nature.

  3. There is a surprisingly large amount of good writing about fish.

  4. Yes, so much good fish writing. The long-lived phenomenon of The Compleat Angler baffles me. Yes, it is a good book, but it is about fish. Yet it is among the most-read books in English literature,