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Nature Near London

Nature Near London

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Nature Near London

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7 июн. 2012 г.


The Collins Nature Library is a new series of classic British nature writing – reissues of long-lost seminal works. The titles have been chosen by one of Britain’s best known and highly acclaimed nature writers, Robert Macfarlane, who has also written new introductions that put these classics into a modern context.

Nature Near London is a collection of observational pieces from locations near London at the end of the 19th Century. The depth of knowledge and of familiarity with particular places and particular species gives the impression that each small piece is the product of many years of observation.

His style of observation is a work in miniature – cataloguing the most minute details; the dancing of a flower in the wind or the darting of a cautious trout. The chapters centre on a special place, a certain species, geographical feature or habitat – everything from orchards and copses to rivers and streams.

Jefferies always explains the typical behaviour of whatever he is describing, and often contrasts what he sees with what one would expect to see in another part of the country, or in a different season. His knowledge of flowers is wide-ranging, and his ability to describe one particular patch of a field in such a specific way brings tremendous variety to the chapters that make up the book.

The final chapters are a departure – both from the character of the rest of the book, and from London itself, as Jefferies boards the train to Brighton. Suddenly he is describing people and their relationship to nature, as much as nature itself. The scope widens, less a work in miniature, more surging towards a triumphant end as Jefferies becomes ever more philosophical.

100 years on, the book becomes even more relevant than when it was published – as a reminder of the dangers of unrelenting urbanisation, but also the context of the trend that aims to recreate nature where we need it most – around our cities. Nature near London is a portrait of what we’ve lost, and a reminder of nature’s positive and calming influence. Going along with Jefferies is like taking an afternoon stroll out of the city, without having to leave your armchair.

7 июн. 2012 г.

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Nature Near London - Richard Jefferies

Collins Nature Library

Nature Near London


Richard Jefferies

With an Introduction by

Robert Macfarlane


Title Page





Flocks of Birds

Nightingale Road

A Brook

A London Trout

A Barn


The Crows


The River

Nutty Autumn

Round a London Copse

Magpie Fields


Trees about Town

To Brighton

The Southdown Shepherd

The Breeze on Beachy Head

Searchable Terms

Collins Nature Library

Other Books by Richard Jefferies


About the Publisher

Nature Near London is a collection of observational pieces from locations near London at the end of the nineteenth century. The depth of Jefferies’ knowledge and his familiarity with particular places and particular species give the impression that each small piece is the product of many years of observation.

Jefferies catalogues the most minute details of near-city wildlife, from the dancing of a flower in the wind to the darting of a cautious trout. Each chapter centres on a special place, a certain species, geographical feature or habitat – everything from orchards and copses to rivers and streams.

One hundred years on, the book is even more relevant than when it was published. It acts as a reminder of the dangers of unrelenting urbanisation and was one of the earliest calls to recreate nature where we need it most – around our cities. Nature Near London is a portrait of what we have lost, and a reminder of nature’s positive and calming influence. Going along with Jefferies is like taking an afternoon stroll out of the city, without having to leave your armchair.


It is usually supposed to be necessary to go far into the country to find wild birds and animals in sufficient numbers to be pleasantly studied. Such was certainly my own impression till circumstances led me, for the convenience of access to London, to reside for awhile about twelve miles from town. There my preconceived views on the subject were quite overthrown by the presence of as much bird-life as I had been accustomed to in distant fields and woods.

First, as the spring began, came crowds of chiffchaffs and willow-wrens, filling the furze with ceaseless flutterings. Presently a nightingale sang in a hawthorn bush only just on the other side of the road. One morning, on looking out of window, there was a hen pheasant in the furze almost underneath. Rabbits often came out into the spaces of sward between the bushes.

The furze itself became a broad surface of gold, beautiful to look down upon, with islands of tenderest birch green interspersed, and willows in which the sedge-reedling chattered. They used to say in the country that cuckoos were getting scarce, but here the notes of the cuckoo echoed all day long, and the birds often flew over the house. Doves cooed, blackbirds whistled, thrushes sang, jays called, wood-pigeons uttered the old familiar notes in the little copse hard by. Even a heron went over now and then, and in the evening from the window I could hear partridges calling each other to roost.

Along the roads and lanes the quantity and variety of life in the hedges was really astonishing. Magpies, jays, woodpeckers – both green and pied – kestrels hovering overhead, sparrow-hawks darting over gateways, hares by the clover, weasels on the mounds, stoats at the edge of the corn. I missed but two birds, the corncrake and the grasshopper lark, and found these another season. Two squirrels one day ran along the palings and up into a guelder-rose tree in the garden. As for the finches and sparrows their number was past calculation. There was material for many years’ observation, and finding myself so unexpectedly in the midst of these things, I was led to make the following sketches, which were published in The Standard, and are now reprinted by permission.

The question may be asked: Why have you not indicated in every case the precise locality where you were so pleased? Why not mention the exact hedge, the particular meadow? Because no two persons look at the same thing with the same eyes. To me this spot may be attractive, to you another; a third thinks yonder gnarled oak the most artistic. Nor could I guarantee that everyone should see the same things under the same conditions of season, time, or weather. How could I arrange for you next autumn to see the sprays of the horse-chestnut, scarlet from frost, reflected in the dark water of the brook? There might not be any frost till all the leaves had dropped. How could I contrive that the cuckoos should circle round the copse, the sunlight glint upon the stream, the warm sweet wind come breathing over the young corn just when I should wish you to feel it? Everyone must find their own locality. I find a favourite wild-flower here, and the spot is dear to me; you find yours yonder. Neither painter nor writer can show the spectator their originals. It would be very easy, too, to pass any of these places and see nothing, or but little. Birds are wayward, wild creatures uncertain. The tree crowded with wood-pigeons one minute is empty the next. To traverse the paths day by day, and week by week; to keep an eye ever on the fields from year’s end to year’s end, is the one only method of knowing what really is in or comes to them. That the sitting gambler sweeps the board is true of these matters. The richest locality may be apparently devoid of interest just at the juncture of a chance visit.

Though my preconceived ideas were overthrown by the presence of so much that was beautiful and interesting close to London, yet in course of time I came to understand what was at first a dim sense of something wanting. In the shadiest lane, in the still pinewoods, on the hills of purple heath, after brief contemplation there arose a restlessness, a feeling that it was essential to be moving. In no grassy mead was there a nook where I could stretch myself in slumberous ease and watch the swallows ever wheeling, wheeling in the sky. This was the unseen influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetised me, and I felt it under the calm oaks. The something wanting in the fields was the absolute quiet, peace, and rest which dwells in the meadows and under the trees and on the hilltops in the country. Under its power the mind gradually yields itself to the green earth, the wind among the trees, the song of birds, and comes to have an understanding with them all. For this it is still necessary to seek the far-away glades and hollow coombes, or to sit alone beside the sea. That such a sense of quiet might not be lacking, I have added a chapter or so on those lovely downs that overlook the south coast.




The zone goes by different names, few of them complimentary. The landscape theorist Alan Berger calls it ‘drosscape’. The environmentalist Marion Shoard calls it ‘edgeland’. The artist Philip Guston called it ‘crapola’. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo lovingly christened it ‘bastard countryside’ or ‘terrain vague’, by which he meant the debatable realm, ‘somewhat ugly but bizarre, made up of two different natures, which surrounds certain great cities’:

To observe the city edge is to observe an amphibian. End of trees, beginning of roofs, end of grass, beginning of paving stones, end of ploughed fields, beginning of shops, the end of the beaten track, the beginning of the passions, the end of the murmur of things divine, the beginning of the noise of humankind.

This ‘amphibian’ and hotchpotch terrain is the subject of Richard Jefferies’ neglected classic, Nature Near London, first published in 1883. It is a book fascinated by the strange braidings of the human and the natural that occur where city frays into country and country into city, out at what Jefferies called the ‘frontier line to civilisation’.

Jefferies was far ahead of his time in his exploration of edgelands. The decades since the Second World War have seen a surging literary and artistic interest in the subject. In 1949 Kenneth Allsop published an experimental work of nature writing, Adventure Lit Their Star, which described the attempts of the little ringed plover (a rare species of wader) to breed by a gravel pit near Staines, Middlesex – in what Allsop called ‘the messy limbo which is neither town nor country’, a ‘scrappy bit of outer-Outer London’. A quarter-century later came Richard Mabey’s fine and prescient book The Unofficial Countryside (1973), in which Mabey documented the nature that existed opportunistically and exuberantly in scrubby bombsites, crumbling docks and litter-strewn canal banks. A quarter-century after Mabey, Iain Sinclair set off to walk the ‘asphalt … noose’ of the M25, recording the extruded exurbia that he found out there on the capital’s rim, and publishing an account of his penitential circuit as London Orbital (2002).

Sinclair and Mabey’s brilliant examples inspired hundreds of other chroniclers to take to Britain’s edgelands: urb-exers, psycho-geographers, biopsychogeographers, autobiopsychogeographers, deep topographers and other theoretically constituted lovers of the detrital and neglected, cramming their Moleskine notebooks with sketches of brown-field sites and crypto-cartographies of pylon lines, sewage outfalls and culverted rivers. The edgelands have sprawled all over late-twentieth-century English painting, photography, film (there in the work of Patrick Keiller, for instance, or Chris Petit or Andrew Kötting) and children’s literature (Stig of the Dump, The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler). So modish are the edgelands at present that in 2011 a short-film festival was held in London dedicated to Britain’s ‘urban outskirts’, and a book of essays appeared called Edgeland: Journeys into England’s Last True Wilderness, which was animated – in a curious cathexis of Romanticism – by the conjoined beauty and banality to be discovered amid the pallet-yards, car parks and industrial estates of the city’s fringes.

Long before all of this, however, came Richard Jefferies: attracted to London by what he called the city’s ‘magnetism’, but repelled by its voracity and greed, and wishing – by means of his writing – to alert the city’s inhabitants to the wildlife that existed alongside their own. ‘Why, we must have been blind,’ declared Walter Besant in 1888 about the experience of reading Jefferies. ‘[H]ere were the most wonderful things possible going on under our very noses, but we saw them not!’

In 1877 Jefferies moved from Swindon in Wiltshire to Surbiton in Surrey. Surbiton was then at the limit-line of London’s growth: a high-Victorian edgeland. Jefferies had been born and brought up in the countryside at Coate, a village near Swindon. His father was a farmer, and from a young age Jefferies was free to explore the landscape around his home. He hunted with snare and gun, he fished, swam, built boats and rafts, birds’-nested, hedge-haunted and became something of a minor local figure, readily identifiable by his long hair, his quick stride and his slightly hunched posture. In 1866 he started as a reporter for local Wiltshire and Gloucestershire papers, but he had higher writerly ambitions – both literary and political – and it was in the hope of securing work as an essayist and novelist that he, his wife Jessie and their young son Harold moved to Surbiton.

London’s edgelands today comprise jittery, jumbled ground: utilities infrastructure and haulage depots, crackling substations and allotments, scrub forests and sluggish canals, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerrilla ecologies. The Surbiton to which Jefferies moved was less disrupted, and therefore sharper in its main contrasts: fields began where suburban streets ran to their end, footpaths led quickly into copses and woodlands, streams and rivers ran under stone bridges and between houses. Nevertheless, it was still recognizably a marginal zone, cut through by roads and railways, and travelled through both by Londoners escaping the city and by itinerant workers seeking it out.

London was, when Jefferies reached it, the world’s maximum city. By 1870, someone died every eight minutes in London, and someone was born every five minutes. London had a population of one million in 1800, five million a century later, and would have seven million by 1911. In the course of the nineteenth century, Britain was the country that ‘broke most radically with all previous ages of human history’, in Eric Hobsbawm’s memorable phrase, and its industrialization was so drastic that in 1850 it became the first nation in the world with more urban than rural inhabitants (a tipping point that the planet is thought to have reached only in 2010). A vast migration of people was underway from fields and villages into towns and cities – and the towns and cities were themselves sprawling out into the fields and villages. In a charismatic reversal of terms, London came itself to be figured as a wild place: chaotic, riotous and ‘be-wildering’ in its fierce seethe of humanity. ‘Wilderness!’, cries a poor and elderly Londoner in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby (1839), ‘Yes it is, it is. It is a wilderness. It was a wilderness to me once. I came here barefoot. I have never forgotten it.’ ‘London looks so large,’ thinks an awed Little Dorrit, ‘so barren and so wild.’

Jefferies, too, was also awed by the ‘wilderness’ of London, and he sensed its ‘unseen influence’ upon him even when he was outside its perimeter. The ‘strong life of the vast city magnetised me,’ he writes, ‘and I felt it under the calm oaks.’ One of the distinctive tensions of Nature Near London is between the centripetal pull that Jefferies experiences towards the city’s centre, and the centrifugal efforts he makes to escape it. The decisive motion of Nature Near London is outwards and away: nearly every chapter starts with Jefferies ‘quitting the suburb’, in his phrase, by following field-path or stream-side on foot.

For Jefferies came to know Surrey, as he came to know all his landscapes, chiefly by walking. He became, through his wanderings, a connoisseur of marginalia – alert to the unexpected ecologies of the edgelands: how ‘rubbish … heaps’ were the ‘haunts of the London crow’, say, or how ‘thrushes … build their nests’ in suburban shrubberies, or how London honey tastes different to country honey because of the flavours imparted to it by ‘the immense quantity of garden flowers about the metropolis’. Railway cuttings caught his eye – as they had caught the eye of Henry David Thoreau (who writes about them in the ‘thawing sandbank’ section of Walden), and as they would catch the eye of Edward Thomas, Jefferies’ disciple and biographer – because on their tangled banks grew weeds and ‘coloured’ wildflowers, ‘seen for a moment in swiftly passing’, brightly ‘border[ing] the line like a continuous garden’. Repeatedly, Jefferies finds London not to have suppressed nature, but rather to have provoked it to strange improvisations. One winter, he watches a ‘very large cinder and dust heap’ that has been dumped ‘upon a piece of waste land’, comprising refuse ‘from the neighbouring suburb’, and delightedly records how it has become ‘the resort of almost every species of bird – sparrows, starlings, greenfinches, and rooks searching for any stray morsels of food’.

The published text of Nature Near London draws on journal entries and field notes gathered over years of walking and looking. Indeed the simplest way to read the book is as an almanac or diary, as intimate and accidental as Gilbert White’s accounts of Selborne or Roger Deakin’s notes from Walnut Tree Farm. Jefferies was a writer of scrupulous phenological attention, alert to the nuances of both climate and season, and detail after detail of the book bring old weather back to life. In October 1880, Jefferies records that a ‘great snow’ fell (a snow that recurs in Jefferies’ other writings of the 1880s, as the long bitter winter of 1962–63 exerts a keen climatic influence on J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine [1967]). We learn that the haw-berry harvest in the autumn of 1881 was profuse, and that it was a ‘berry year’ more generally, with blackberries ‘thick’ in the hedges, and ‘prickly-coated nuts hang[ing] up in bunches’ on the horse-chestnuts, ‘as many as eight in a stalk’. On 14 February 1882, a yellow-hammer sings, brambles have ‘put forth green buds’, ‘two wasps [go] by in the sunshine’, and Jefferies listens to a songbird’s mellifluously unpredictable notes coming ‘like wild flowers not sown in order’. On 1 January 1882 he sees ‘fully two thousand’ lapwings settled on a field, and then watched amazed as they took flight in a vast flock – a sudden upwards snowfall of ‘a vast body of white-breasted birds uprising as one from the dark ploughed earth’ (how much more aerial and lofting that ‘uprising’ is than ‘rising’ would be), before turning and then descending, ‘all so regular that their very wings seem to flap together’.

Another way to understand Nature Near London is as a prospectus for seeing. For Jefferies – like many of the other edge-lander artists who came after him – was interested in what lay hidden in plain sight. ‘It would be very easy,’ he notes of his favoured Surrey haunts, ‘to pass any of these places and see nothing, or but little.’ His engagement with the landscape was not prescriptive but exemplary, offering what he called – with an epistemological flourish – a ‘method of knowing’. ‘Everyone must find their own locality. I find a favourite wild-flower here, and the spot is dear to me; you find yours yonder.’ Jefferies’ method was based on long-term and patient acquaintance, and on careful observation. It involved ‘keep[ing] an eye’ on one’s locale ‘from year’s end to year’s end’, and in this manner coming ‘to see the land as it really is’: glimpsing through into what Baker once called ‘the beyond-world’ of hedge, copse and field, seeing the nature that weaves and mingles with human life at the city’s edge. ‘Unseen’ is a word that recurs discreetly in the book: the ‘bluebells in th[e] hedge’ that are ‘unseen, except by the rabbits’; the plump trout that fibrillates gently in the current, holding its place in the shadow under the bridge, ‘unseen’ save by Jefferies. His use of the word anticipates that of the artist Paul Nash, who in 1938 wrote of the ‘unseen landscapes’ of England. ‘The landscapes I have in mind’, said Nash:

are not part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived; only in that way can they be regarded as invisible.

Unseen people preoccupied Jefferies, as well as unseen landscapes. Throughout his writing he was drawn to those who worked the land as well as those who watched it. Out in the Surrey edgelands, he found and wrote about hedgers and ditchers, hay-tyers, mouchers, drovers, shepherds with ‘pastoral crooks’, Irish harvesters, tinkers, tramps, gravel-dredgers toiling with ‘a hand-scoop’, carters, reapers and others. These people never speak to Jefferies, and seem hardly to notice him (Jefferies himself being another of the ‘unseen’ presences in the book), but he observes them sympathetically rather than voyeuristically, recording the ‘hard hand-play’ and ‘ceaseless toil’ of their labour. ‘The few [workers] that wear bright colours are seen,’ he remarks, ‘the many who do not are unnoticed.’

Jefferies was fascinated by optics and perception, and Nature Near London – like his late essay collection The Life of the Fields (1884) – contains some premonitory investigations not just into what we see but how we see. As Richard Mabey has pointed out, Jefferies was decades ahead of his time as an ethologist, intuiting his way to an understanding of animal instinct that far pre-dated the mid-twentieth-century breakthroughs of Frank Fraser Darling and Konrad Lorenz. He was also ahead of his time as a philosopher of vision; his work foresaw the discoveries of phenomenology in the twentieth century concerning inter-subjectivity. Thus it is that landscape, in Jefferies, often refuses to act as a frieze, or a static diorama that yields its content to the viewer. Rather, it is volatile and unruly, dynamically disobedient to the eye. In several key scenes, Jefferies wobbles our sense of reliable vision, showing the impossibility of achieving a privileged position of perception: ‘Even trees which have some semblance of balance in form are not really so, and as you walk round them so their outline changes.’ If you ‘walk all round [a] meadow … still no vantage point can be found where the herbage groups itself, whence a scheme of colour is perceivable’. The cumulative result of these seemingly idle adventures into optics is radical: we are shown a de-centred eye and a centreless nature. Walking becomes a means to a certain kind of knowledge, one of the constituents of which is an awareness of ignorance. Repeatedly, phenomena refuse to resolve into order: a wind blowing across water makes ‘wavelets’ that ‘form no design; watch the sheeny maze as long as one will, the eye cannot get at the clue, and so unwind the pattern.’ Reading these passages, I was put in mind of Nan Shepherd’s acute observations about observation in her masterpiece The Living Mountain (1945/1977):

This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality. Then static things may be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear … Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.

Jefferies, too, aspires to catch things ‘in the very act of becoming’ – thus the gerunds that gang and roister in his prose: ‘the leaves are enlarging, and the sap rising, and the hard trunks of the trees swelling

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