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English Nature Writers: Richard Jefferies

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"Why, we must have been blind all our lives; here were the most wonderful things possible going on under our very noses, but we saw them not." —Walther Besant.

Richard Jefferies (1848-1887), though a novelist, is more known as a nature writer. His childhood was spent on a farm in Wiltshire (now a museum), during which he began his observation and awareness of nature and people within it. At the age of 9, he was already an adept at tracking and hunting, and perhaps not surprisingly, left school at the age of 15 to continue his habits of solitary wandering. After some years as a struggling novelist, he wrote a series of essays based on his own life and a friendship with the keeper of a local estate, The Gamekeeper at Home, (1878 — thank you Hathi Trust for the storage — NYPL's copy, by the way) and The Amateur Poacher (1879). Both are extremely clear expressions and explorations of the habits of animals, from badgers and wrens to hares and foxes, to any plant growing near him, his neighbors, how the seasons affect the meadows, the enemies of the natural world, the cruelties of 'bad' (i.e., unfair) hunting. He's much more practical and detailed than White (earlier blog), but just as good and fluid a writer. Below is a sample from Poacher and the table of contents from Gamekeeper.

By old farmhouses, mostly in exposed places (for which there is a reason), one or more huge walnut trees may be found. The provident folk of those days planted them with the purpose of having their own gunstocks cut out of the wood when the tree was thrown. They could then be sure it was really walnut, and a choice piece of timber thoroughly well seasoned. I like to think of those times, when men settled themselves down, and planted and planned and laid out their gardens and orchards and woods, as if they and their sons and sons’ sons, to the twentieth generation, were sure to enjoy the fruit of their labour.

The reason why the walnuts are put in exposed places, on the slope of a rise, with open aspect to the east and north, is because the walnut is a foolish tree that will not learn by experience. If it feels the warmth of a few genial days in early spring, it immediately protrudes its buds; and the next morning a bitter frost cuts down every hope of fruit for that year, leaving the leaf as black as may be. Wherefore the east wind is desirable to keep it as backward as possible.

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