A man for our time, naturally

10 May

Fittingly, this inaugural Festival Richard Jefferies Lecture focused entirely on Richard Jefferies himself, with the presenter, Will Abberley, introducing the talk with a quote from Jefferies in which he appeals to us: “To find health, happiness and wisdom in natural landscapes. Let us always be outdoors.”

This statement perhaps sums up the underlying message of everything that Jefferies left to us: nature is the answer; the colours, the vistas and the sounds, and the hope and joy that they fill us with, helping us to discover hidden depths within ourselves, through an unnameable ‘divine’ something. Will Abberley, photo © Fernando Bagué

We can never really get outside nature; we are always part of it.

It is also fitting that the lecture was delivered by someone from Sussex, a place which Jefferies knew well, likening it to his precious Wiltshire homeland, and where he met his early death at the age of 38, in 1887.

Dr Will Abberley is Senior Lecturer in the School of English at the University of Sussex. He specializes in intersections between literature and science, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and was a BBC New Generation Thinker in 2014.

The talk started with a discussion about exactly what nature writing is, or isn’t, and of Jefferies’ part in its evolution. Abberley suggests that although Jefferies is not as well-known now as he once was, his writings prefigure the ideas of much of the nature writing that is filling our bookshop shelves today.

He cites people like Robert Macfarlane, John Lewis Temple, Richard Mabey, Mellissa Harrison, all of whom refer to Jefferies, and describes the genre of nature writing as a mixture of carefully researched facts plus aesthetic and emotional responses.

For example, Helen MacDonald ‘s H is for Hawk, explores the natural wonders of the Goshawk through the eyes of the author dealing with personal grief, following the death of her father.

Abberley tells us that nature writing is as much about studying ourselves as it is looking at flora and fauna; it marries fact with personal, science with art, and reason with emotion. Our view of nature is just that, a view. A subjective, abstract view trying, in many ways, to simplify or make sense of something unbelievably deep, complex and, ultimately, unknowable. That ‘divine’ which Jefferies described 150 years ago.

Abberley reminds us that Jefferies was writing at a  time when science was the fashion. Jefferies’ rambling, impressionistic style, he argued, captured more of a real version of nature, contrary to the growing scientific ethos of the Victorian age, where prestige was shifting to the study of nature in artificial spaces – dissecting animals and categorising everything based on the findings. To Jefferies, this didn’t tell us anything about how organisms lived.

In Wildlife in a Southern County, he says: “Nature is not cut-and-dried to hand, nor easily classified. Each subject shades gradually into another; for example, the life of the starling cannot be separated from the farmhouse in the thatch of which it often breeds.”

The complex life of anything in nature cannot be discerned from dissection, but only from long observations in the field which give a glimpse, however, tiny, of the broader reality of nature.

In contrast to the scientific approach, Jefferies suggests that no amount of research or clever language can ever depict, for example, the colours of nature: “wheat passes from green and succulent, to a bluish tinge paling into yellow by sensible gradations.” Language is inadequate to describe the final rich hue of nature’s infinite variation; nature writing instead simply mimics nature. Jefferies suggest that the best his own books can do is encourage us to look at nature for ourselves, and have the full, rich experience.

Nowadays there is something of an idea that nature writing has developed, and is new. Richard Mabey, for example, breaks down the spaces between nature and human life, asserting that nature is not a separate thing, rather simply part of a bigger picture in which human kind and every other kind take their small part.  But these are not actually new approaches. Richard Jefferies was an early example of someone grappling with such ideas.

Abberley went on to give a brief history of this Wiltshire writer, and how in 1877 he moved to Surbiton and found his first real success with books like The Gamekeeper at Home, Hodge and His Masters, and Round About a Great Estate. Perhaps success would have grown, had it not been for the untimely contracting of TB and early death.

The talk turned to some of the reasons why Jefferies’ message is still important to us today. Abberley talked about how Jefferies observed the way landscapes can put us in touch with the deep past, giving us a flavour of what has gone before, and maybe of what is to come. This continuity of nature made Jefferies realise that there is only now – this moment. Through sitting on ancient barrows and watching brooks trickle bay, he created his very own version of mindfulness.

To Jefferies, observation is the key; observation with empathy and sympathy. Furthermore, and perhaps appropriately given the climate change conversations taking place now, he was also aware of just how indifferent nature is to the human state. In The Hours of Spring, as he effectively lay dying in his Sussex bed, he mused on the fact that the things of nature meant so much to him, how could he not mean the same to them: “The old, old error: I love the Earth therefore the Earth loves me.”

But as well as understanding the importance of nature to our wellbeing and, indeed, to our survival Jefferies was first and foremost a nature writing pioneer – W. H. Hudson, Edward Thomas, Rachel Carson all refer to his crucial influence in our understanding of the importance of nature and the need to protect it. Jefferies may have had a romantic, human-centred view of the beauty of nature, rather than a more scientific understanding of bio-diversity, but as journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot says, subjective “appeals to our emotion” are crucial in engaging people in environmental politics. “We care because we love.”

As Abberley sums it up, nature’s destiny is our destiny, and if we want to be absorbed in nature’s capacity to fascinate, surprise and bewitch the human mind with its endless beauty, then we should turn to Richard Jefferies.

If, in the audience, you knew all about Jefferies, this was a bright and rich talk about the man, which stimulated knowledgeable questions and lively discussion at the end. If you didn’t know about Jefferies at all, and the incredible impact this Swindon boy had on the world of nature writing, you do now!

Mike Pringle hosts Will Abberley, photo © Fernando Bagué

Mike Pringle (left) plays host to Will

Will Abberley appeared at Swindon Arts Centre as part of Swindon Spring Festival, 9 May 2019.

Words by Mike Pringle, photos © Fernando Bagué.

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