Weblog since 2004 on books, films, art and travel.
Subscribe to the RSS feed.


In 'The Story of My Heart' (1883) Richard Jefferies coined the term ultra-humanity to describe how

...a great part, perhaps the whole, of nature and of the universe is distinctly anti-human. The term inhuman does not express my meaning, anti-human is better; outre-human, in the sense of beyond, outside, almost grotesque in its attitude towards, would nearly convey it.

John Fowles paid homage to it in 'The Tree' to explain human uneasiness with wilderness, and our impulse to domesticate or destroy it. "It may sound paradoxical," he wrote, "but we shall not cease to be alienated - by our knowledge, by our greed, by our vanity - from nature until we grant it its unconscious alienation from us."

'The Story of My Heart' is a strange book. It could be called a spiritual autobiography, part nature mysticism, part homegrown philosophy - or what Jefferies himself calls "soul-thought". The beginning especially reads like an English 'Walden', but by a writer whose illness made him obsessed with vigor (he even attempts to reason mankind to immortality). The youthful exuberance of novels like 'Bevis' has here become a defiant vitalism, like a tragic character in D.H. Lawrence or Knut Hamsun.

The book contains reminiscences of his experiences in the country and the human "vortex" of London, as well as several chapters of metaphysical speculation. Though these are less surefooted, it's fascinating to follow his struggle with putting the ineffable into words.

For Jefferies the idea of ultra-humanity is connected with the lack of design he perceives in nature, in a universe ruled by chance. Hence it also implies the absence of a god. From this atheist position, however, he looks for some controlling instance that is

...not force in the sense of electricity, nor a deity as god, nor a spirit, not even an intelligence, but a power quite different to anything yet imagined.

Here he clearly runs into the limit of expressibility. (This happens several times in the book, until the claim that what he means is "quite different to anything yet imagined" starts sounding a bit childish.) But it's almost as if he wants to deify the physical laws of the universe. Again, he imagines

...a force without a mind. I wish to indicate something more subtle than electricity, but absolutely devoid of consciousness, and with no more feeling than the force which lifts the tides.

His attempt to find a new balance of abstract divinity ultimately fails, simply because the moment he gives his idea any attributes it topples over to one of either sides, physical or divine. For instance when he describes it as "something better than a god. There is something superior, higher, more good" - without realizing this would threaten an infinite regress of "deities all the way up", instead of "turtles all the way down".

'The Story of My Heart' confirmed Jefferies' reputation as both an atheist and a mystic - no doubt equally scandalous in Victorian England. Evelyn Underhill, in her work on mysticism, later reproved him for what he "apprehended in these moments of insight, yet somehow contrived to miss". But his attempt to express his intuitions in his own terms, completely outside the Christian mystical vocabulary, anno 1883, is still heroic.

The Story of My Heart
The earth and sun were to me like my flesh and blood, and the air of the sea life.
With all the greater existence I drew from them I prayed for a bodily life equal to it, for a soul-life beyond my thought, for my inexpressible desire of more than I could shape even into idea. There was something higher than idea, invisible to thought as air to the eye...

Woodcut illustration by Gertrude Hermes (from an aging Penguin).

the midsummer hum

They started. Mark lifted his spear, Bevis his bow. A deep, low, and slow sound, like thunder, toned from its many mutterings to a mighty sob, filled their ears for a moment. It might have been very distant thunder, or a cannon in the forts far away. It was one of those mysterious sounds that are heard in summer when the sky is clear and the wind soft, and the midsummer hum is loud. They listened, but it did not come again.
"What was that?" said Mark at last.
"I don't know; of course it was something magic."

Richard Jefferies' novel 'Bevis' (1882) has long been a childhood classic, though its unique depiction of the world of boyhood is more about than for children. It also contains some of Jefferies' most lyrical descriptions of nature.

A large part of the book's charm lies in the way Jefferies inhabits the imagination of its heroes, Bevis (named after the medieval hero Sir Bevis of Hampton) and his friend Mark. As they explore the English countryside in a great voyage of exploration that takes them to the New Nile and New Formosa (a little islet in a pond) where savages, tigers and water monsters roam, as well as kangaroos (rabbits), Jefferies faithfully follows the boys' naming and fantasizing of their world.

The only other book to carry this through with such realism and conviction might be the Dutch 'Kees de jongen' (1923) by Theo Thijssen, which is also set in the late 19th century. Though that takes place in an urban environment (Amsterdam's Jordaan) while 'Bevis' is quintessentially about the natural world (Coate, Swindon).

This immersion in the world of children also means the boys often behave amorally (in the sense of premoral, not immoral), and their treatment of animals and children is at times callous to the point of cruelty. In fact, for modern readers the book's Victorian social strictures as well as the boys' hunting sprees, which has them basically shooting at anything that moves, may make for some cringing reading.

But Jefferies, who in other works revealed himself an eccentric nature mystic, clearly loves the rural scenery and wildlife he describes. (It's just that he is from the age when observing and shooting were seemingly synonymous. As he wrote elsewhere, "woods and fields lose half their interest without a gun".)

And while he stays with the boys' perspective throughout, the adult author now and then takes over to wax lyrical on matters of the cosmos.

They listened: the wood was still; so still, they could hear a moth or a chafer entangled in the leaves of the oak overhead, and trying to get out. Looking up there, the sky was blue and clear, and the sunlight fell brightly on the open space by the streamlet. There was nothing but the hum. The long, long summer days seem gradually to dispose the mind to expect something unusual. Out of such an expanse of light, when the earth is tangibly in the midst of a vast illumined space, what may not come? - perhaps something more than is common to the senses. The mind opens with the enlarging day.

The hum is "the loud midsummer hum in the sky" - not the modern hum of distant highways or overhead jets, but perhaps something like the insect ambiance of Yeats' "bee-loud glade". It recurs throughout the book, most of which takes place over the course of a summer, and often signals moments of heightened awareness. Moments when the boys pause in their activities to look and listen, and the midsummer, midday sun seems to suspend time in a motionless now where only sound continues.

Though there was not a breath of wind under the boughs, yet the sound of the fall now rose, and now declined, as the water ran swifter or with less speed. Sometimes it was like a tinkling; sometimes it laughed; sometimes it was like voices far away. It ran out from the woods with a message, and hastening to tell it, became confused.
The forget-me-nots and the hart's-tongue, the beeches and the firs, listened to the singing. Something that had gone by, and something that was to come, came out of the music and made this moment sweeter. This moment of the singing held a thousand years that had gone by, and the thousand years that are to come. For the woods and the waters are very old, that is the past; if you look up into the sky you know that a thousand years hence will be nothing to it, that is the future. But the forget-me-nots, the hart's-tongue, and the beeches, did not think of the ages gone, or the azure to come. They were there now, the sunshine and the wind above, the shadow and the water and the spray beneath, that was all in all. Bevis and Mark were there now, listening to the singing, that was all in all.

sonian forest

Sonian Forest - 1

Sonian Forest - 2

Sonian Forest - 3

Sonian Forest - 4

Sonian Forest - 5

Sonian Forest - 6

The Sonian Forest (Zoniënwoud, Forêt de Soignes) stretches south of Brussels in vast tracts of cathedral-like beechwood, not unlike the Klever Reichswald, except the city's proximity is felt in some rudely dissecting highways.

Part of the Sonian Forest is the old forest-arboretum of Groenendaal, which contains some impressive trees from all corners of the world. This is also the site of the ancient Groenendael Priory, once home to Jan van Ruysbroeck.

A walking-paced documentary / promo film about the forest is 'Forêt en Ville' (in French/Dutch).