‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ by Richard Mabey.

More literally, hedges were the ‘highways’ of Jefferies’ wild neighbours. Birds and animals passed up and down them between the copses and the farm. One major ‘caravan route… abuts on the orchard [and] the finches, after spending a little time in the apple and damson trees, fly over the wall and road to [a] second hedge, and follow it down for nearly half a mile to a little enclosed meadow, which, like the orchard, is a specially favourite resort’. It isn’t hard to imagine ‘our Dick’ himself dogging the waves of tits and blossom-haunting goldfinches (‘a flood of sunshine falling through a roof of rosy pink’)  building up a map of their movements and ‘resorts’, and in the process conjuring the outlines of what sometimes seemed to him the skeleton or ghostly relics of the Wiltshire wildwood.

'Magpies Roosting', Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe, oil on card.

‘Magpies Roosting’, Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe, oil on card.

Jefferies attention to what he saw is rapt, exact, almost painterly. The look of nature seemed to him as good a guide as any to its meaning and order. He notices the sparkle of ice on the high branches of beech trees in winter, and suggests that this ‘proves that water is often present in the atmosphere in large quantities’.  His vivid description of a magpie’s movements perfectly catches the bird’s character, but also begins to explain what it may be up to in its seemingly erratic foragings: ‘he walks now to the right, a couple of yards, now to the left in a quick zigzag, so working across the field towards you; then with a long rush he makes a lengthy traverse at the top of his speed, turns and darts away again at right angles, and presently up goes his tail and he throws his head down with a jerk of the whole body as if he would thrust his beak deep into the earth’. He devotes almost two pages to the ripening colours of wheat, noting a moment when it briefly pales during a breeze, ‘because the under part of the ear is shown and part of the stalk’. He listens to the heavy buzz of hornets, and peers at them intently enough to know they are the most inoffensive of insects. And he watches a thrush smashing a snail on a sarsen-stone: ‘about two such blows break the shell, and he then coolly chips the fragments off as you might from an egg’.

There is a kind of hedge-scientist at work behind these observations, thinking by analogy, forging explanations by the application of reason (or at least a particular kind of reason) to acute observation. Jefferies rarely attempts to test his theories methodically, and never quotes the opinions or experiences of any other naturalists. He is an intellectual hermit. This occasionally leads him towards conclusions that today would be regarded as fanciful. He observes the large clutch size and sociable behaviour of long-tailed tits (cousins and unpaired birds often help with the feeding of the young), and concludes that several female birds lay their eggs in one communal nest. A cuckoo lingering close to the nest where she’s laid her egg makes him ‘doubt the cuckoo’s alleged total indifference to her young’. He is also sceptical about cuckoos’ host species failing to recognise that the monstrous chick growing in their nest is not one of their own. ‘The robin is far too intelligent. Why, then, does he feed the intruder? There is something here approaching to the sentiment of humanity, as we should call it, towards the fellow-creature.’

'British Birds: Brambling; Tree Creeper; Sand Martins; Goldfinch; a Pair of House Sparrows; a Pair of Sedge Warblers; and a Wagtail' Charles Collins, oil on canvas, 1736.

‘British Birds: Brambling; Tree Creeper; Sand Martins; Goldfinch; a Pair of House Sparrows; a Pair of Sedge Warblers; and a Wagtail’ Charles Collins, oil on canvas, 1736.

What lies behind these convictions is Jefferies’ unusual attitude towards the idea of ‘instinct’. He regards this as an inadequate explanation of the behaviour of wild creatures because they so often make mistakes. He tells the story of a party of sand-martins attempting to quarry their nest-holes in the mortar of a thick stone wall at Coate Farm. It was a fruitless task, and ‘At last, convinced of the impossibility of penetrating the mortar, which was much harder beneath the surface, they went away in a body. . . Instinct, infallible instinct, certainly would not direct these birds to such an unsuitable spot. . . The incident was clearly an experiment, and when they found it unsuccessful, they desisted.’ A more conventional scientific explanation would be that it was precisely the martins’ instinct for exploring soft stone that led them to the wall. But Jefferies’ beguiling and sympathetic interpretation was correct, and far-sighted; he had simply adopted an over-deterministic view of the nature of instinct, seeing it as infallible, or ‘blind’. Intelligent experimentation and exploration are now regarded as entirely compatible with broad instinctual drives.

Jefferies belief in the free-will of other beings, in the maternal cuckoo and the compassionate robin, extended to an insistence that animals felt joy in their lives: “

‘You may see it in every motion: in the lissom bound of the hare, the playful leap of the rabbit, the song that the lark and the finch must sing’.  But, inside Wild Life at least, his sympathy with other creatures is patchy and inconsistent. There is a detachment in his prose, which displays plenty of intense curiosity, but little revelation about his own feelings. After a spellbinding and affectionate account of the of the family life of kingfishers, for instance, he gives, quite casually, as if he had forgotten what he said about joy, instructions about the best way to shoot the birds, especially the youngsters.

The fact is that, at this stage in his life, Jefferies had not yet worked out which side of that ‘frontier line’ he was on – anchored with civilisation, or on the wing with unrestrained nature. Wildlife in a Southern County, his second non-fiction book, is a transitional work, marking the beginnings of a shift away from such simplistic separations of the world. Contrary to the popular image of him as a deep-rooted countryman, Jefferies was a displaced person almost from birth.  Aged four, he was despatched from his family’s declining farm to live with an aunt in Sydenham. When he was nine he returned home, only to be shunted off to a succession of private schools in Swindon. No wonder he developed into a moody and solitary adolescent. He began reading Rabelais, and spent long days roaming the hill country round Marlborough. When he was sixteen he ran away from home with his cousin, first to France, and then to Liverpool, where he was found by the police and shipped  back to Wiltshire. When the smallholding was badly hit by cattle plague in 1865, he left school for good, and started work in Swindon on a new Conservative paper, The North Wilts Herald, where he was a jack-of-all-trades reporter and resident short-story writer. At the end of the 1860s he became vaguely ill, left the paper and took a long recuperative holiday in Brussels. He was extravagantly delighted by the women, the fashions, the sophisticated manners, and from letters to his aunt it is clear what he was beginning to think of the philistinism of Wiltshire society.

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