I called my friend, Taylor James, yesterday at Flipside Farm and suggested that there were two things he and I should do later in the day - plow some ground and plant seed. He laughed, I laughed. We were both well aware there was a frozen snow pack of thirty inches covering everything. It was mid-February and after an uneventful and rather mild December and January, well, the weather had turned.
It turned to frigid. It turned to crusty snow. It turned to slick, dangerous ice. So, under the circumstances, I settled myself by my fireplace once again with Hoodee. If the truth be told --and we should be telling the truth here, shouldn’t we? -- I have been reading by my fire since November, with not the ethereal sounds of silence -- but with the somnambulant sighs and snores of my Great White Wolf.
I have five or six cords of firewood stacked under cover -- really much more than I need – so from late September to May we are toasty and insulated. The home fire is always burning. I found a vein of red oak that I had forgotten I had split, so the challenge now is to fish it out of the sea of ash -- our doomed Eastern white ash. Along with hickory, walnut and cherry, red oak to me is the premier wood to burn. It produces a clean aesthetically pleasing fire with a very high level of heat generated. I am aware of various calculations of BTUs per ton, but this just gets so technically beyond a simple warm happy fire. Others may choose to deal with these particulars…
And I am reading by the fire, daily, in the absence of field work and woodland rambles. Each year I don’t consciously choose, but I seem to wander and meander into a subject area or author. Several years ago I read all the fiction of Mary Gaitskill, both novels and collections of short pieces, and I had a fabulous, intimate winter with her. Her books totaled eight or nine but I soon found myself developing a crush on her and suspected that I was getting carried away. Perhaps, I was but it was a memorable winter.
But no crushes this winter, however. I have taken a dive -- a deep dive -- into three English nature writers: William Cobbett, Richard Jefferies, and W.H. Hudson. They variously wrote through the 19th century from the agrarian early 1800s, through Victorian times, and up into the Edwardian age. In chronological order, they would be as introduced above, and each of the three is distinctly different, in subject, in view, language, personality and literary style.
Cobbet is more of an agriculturalist, and he is the boisterous one, implacable -- and an immutable force. Jefferies is the sensitive poet, a gangly wanderer (some say dreamer) through the fields seeing tremendous beauty and heartfelt significance in the simple pleasures of sunlight and shadow, wildflowers and the rhythmic and dependable migrations of birds. W.H. Hudson is the scientist, essentially an ornithologist, but a sharp and penetrating observer of humankind and its place in the natural realm. These British naturalists are immensely important to the history and development of the United Kingdom. They are taught in English schools to this day. William Cobbett involved himself with the socio-political issues of his day -- and there were many, including the incendiary Corn Laws.
Agricultural England was rapidly changing in his years of 1800 -1820 with the industrial revolution looming and forever altering the landscape. Cobbett went forward into this kicking and screaming. And he kicked hard and screamed loudly. He spent some time both as a Member of Parliament and in prison for libel.
Richard Jefferies was the sensitive one and is often referred to as a mystic. He, more than anyone, perhaps, was responsible for the back to the earth movement. I attended the first Earth Day celebration in Philadelphia during the emerging spring of 1970. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine was the keynote speaker at this novel event (all under a pervasive sweet cloud of pot smoke) and this was held at Independence Mall, alongside the Liberty Bell. Earth Art -- Earth Matters -- Earth Celebration -- all seem in my mind to go back to the literary naturalists -- including these.
W.H. Hudson was a gifted, enthusiastic ornithologist but I find his observations on the social stratification of the English agricultural system just so compelling. You soon see that most land in the U.K. was in some way or somehow spoken for: by Royal decree, familial land trusts, ancient deed restrictions etc. -- and many if not most farmers leased their ground. Unlike in America, you would have been hard-pressed to simply go out and buy and start a productive farm. We can easily do it here and we do daily.
The canon of these natural history writers is simply not taught here in America. But we are familiar with our own: Thoreau, John Burroughs, John Muir (a Scot), Aldo Leopold and Annie Dillard. I am particularly familiar with these and I would add Walt Whitman to this group, imagining him hovering overhead, if only to prod us all along for us to “Awake and Sing”. What is so clear to me of the American writers is the great sense of individualism they exude – and propound -- essential and treasured personal freedom, which fundamentally informs our agriculture, livestock, our woodlands, and land ownership with its consequent determination of social relationships.
And what strikes me about these three Englishmen is their sheer prolificacy. Each of these authors published twenty-some books, even with Jefferies sentenced to an early death from tuberculosis at thirty-eight. No one loved the fields, crops and livestock more than these three and all lyrically express, in their own way, an overwhelming joy to simply be here, to be alive, to be aware, to be a witness to the wonderland of God’s creation. And I am blessed to have gotten to know them.
I grow crops and raise livestock for personal engagement. I’ve thoroughly known the ovines for half of my lifetime; I‘ve become deeply acquainted with the grasses, the grains, alfalfa, corn, tobacco and pumpkins over the past few decades and this has been a profound privilege. I know and understand the emerging plants; I know the seed; I know germination; I know the soils, nutrients and the water sources and I study the varied and wonderful wildlife that surrounds us all. I watch everything and I pay attention. And I find there is a singular sense of sanctity in the participation -- conscious, direct participation in life’s seasons and cycles.
So, we go through life finding things, things which we love. And sometimes you really don’t find or choose -- things just seem to find you and you become attached. I certainly found these three writers and the dozen or so of their books I’ve read this winter (I told you that my dive was deep). Yes, and all pleasantly fireside with Hoodee. And I simply cannot now drive along looking out over fields and landscapes -- our stunning fields and landscapes here in the Somerset Hills -- without thinking about Cobbett, Jefferies and Hudson. What a gift! The treasured and essential things that we carry along with us should be special -- so special that they stay with us to the end. You carry the consequential along; you discard the superficial. They become a good part of who we are, and I have added these writers to the lengthy rolling roster in my mind.
And who we are, I’m thinking, in some basic measure, is really an amalgam of all the impassioned and meaningful art and literature and faith and insight we’ve managed to blessedly absorb over so many years -- and truly taken to heart. And I’m finding that I’m more open for business now than I’ve ever been.
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