Life and Work Richard Jefferies was born in 1848 near Swindon, England, and died in 1887. If the term 'Nature Mysticism' was invented for one man then it was Jefferies. His unique autobiography The Story of My Heart describes a relationship with Nature that is unparalleled, but has had only a select following since its first publication in 1883. In Elizabeth Jennings' introduction to the 1968 edition she suggests that to find an equivalent one must seek out Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditation or Teresa of Avila's Life.
The Story of My Heart is more often out of print than not, but to find a second-hand copy or to ask a library to obtain it is well worth while, and a study of it over time is a spiritually rewarding. Only a few short sections can be quoted here, and these do not do justice to the range of his thought or the full power of his ability to conjure the transcendent from the ordinary English countryside. In the following passage he is lying on the grass by a tumulus, the burial-place of a warrior of some two thousand years previous:
Realising that spirit, recognising my own inner consciousness, the psyche, so clearly, I cannot understand time. It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is the immortal life. Here this moment, by this tumulus, on earth, now; I exist in it. The years, the centuries, the cycles are absolutely nothing; it is only a moment since this tumulus was raised; in a thousand years more it will still be only a moment. To the soul there is no past and no future; all is and will be ever, in now. For artificial purposes time is mutually agreed on, but there is really no such thing. The shadow goes on upon the dial, the index moves round upon the clock, and what is the difference? None whatever. If the clock had never been set going, what would have been the difference? There may be time for the clock, the clock may make time for itself; there is none for me.
I dip my hand in the brook and feel the stream; in an instant the particles of water which first touched me have floated yards down the current, my hand remains there. I take my hand away, and the flow — the time — of the brook does not exist for me. The great clock of the firmament, the sun and the stars, the crescent moon, the earth circling two thousand times, is no more to me than the flow of the brook when my hand is withdrawn; my soul has never been, and never can be, dipped in time. (The Story of My Heart, p. 30) In this fragment alone Jefferies should have commended himself to anyone pursuing the depth of the spiritual life, because he has found the eternal in the present. What more did the Buddha find? (We will look in the section 'jnani and the West' at how we can see Jefferies amongst the 'lost Buddhas of the West'.) The above passage also shows Jefferies to be a jnani, an impression that may be confirmed in this next extract:
Burning in the sky, the sun shines as it shone on me in the solitary valley, as it burned on when the earliest cave of India was carved. Above the indistinguishable roar of the many feet I feel the presence of the sun, of the immense forces of the universe, and beyond these the sense of the eternal now of the immortal. Full well aware that all has failed, yet, side by side with the sadness of that knowledge, there lives on in me an unquenchable belief, thought burning like the sun, that there is yet something to be found, something real, something to give each separate personality sunshine and flowers in its own existence now. Something to shape this million-handed labour to an end and outcome, leaving accumulated sunshine and flowers to those who shall succeed. It must be dragged forth by might of thought from the immense forces of the universe.
To prepare for such an effort, first the mind must be cleared of the conceit that, because we live to-day, we are wiser than the ages gone. The mind must acknowledge its ignorance; all the learning and lore of so may eras must be erased from it as an encumbrance. It is not from past or present knowledge, science or faith, that it is to be drawn. Erase these altogether as they are erased under the fierce heat of the focus before me. Begin wholly afresh. Go straight to the sun, the immense forces of the universe, to the Entity unknown; go higher than a god, deeper than prayer; and open a new day. (The Story of My Heart, p. 73-74)
Jefferies goes on to tell us that from his home near London he almost daily made a mile and quarter walk to an aspen by a brook 'to walk off the concentration of mind necessary for work [as a journalist]'. In the above passage he comes close to presenting us with a teaching or practice, one that a Zen Buddhist would call 'beginners mind'. For an educated Westerner of the Victorian period to understand that the spiritual life begins with the jettisoning of all prior knowledge or views, yet operate independently from the bhakti context of Christian tradition, is remarkable. Jefferies' emphasis on Nature would also sit very well with Zen. Jefferies has not of course come across the Zen concept of 'no-mind' so he uses the word 'thought' in a way that would be odd in a Buddhist or Hindu context. He means by it something more like consciousness or awareness than discursive reasoning, as is suggested when he says that the goal of the spiritual life is 'dragged forth by might of thought'. We also find in this a typical jnani trait, that of the use of the will to attain. Yet surrender is also part of his Nature Mysticism, in the sense of spending many hours in Nature making himself available for that moment when his soul 'should be transported'. This is not so different to a Rumi or Kabir waiting with longing for the 'lover' (God) to descend into them, but in this case it is not a devotional waiting but a jnani longing of the soul. Jefferies walked for hours, especially in his native Wiltshire, a characteristic we also find in the spiritual life or Henry Thoreau.
We will see that the Nature Mysticism of Whitman and Traherne is less active, while Jefferies shared a certain restlessness with his contemporary Henry Thoreau, who would stride for hours through the woods and fields of Concord, Massachusetts, which happened to be owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Reginald Lansing Cook in his interesting analysis of Thoreau as Nature mystic says this of him:
He realised that it was wise to be outdoors early and late, travelling far and earnestly in order to recreate the whole body and to perceive the phenomena of the day. There was no way of knowing when something might turn up. He had noticed that when he thought his walk was profitless or a failure, it was then usually on the point of success, "for then," he surmised, "you are that subdued and knocking mood to which Nature never fails to open." One late August day, in 1851, when it appeared to him that he had walked all day in vain and the world, including field and wood as highway, had seemed trivial, then, with the dropping of sun and wind, he caught the reflex of the day, the dews purifying the day and making it transparent, the lakes and rivers acquiring "a glassy stillness, reflecting the skies." His attitude changed, and he took what Keats called "the journey homeward to habitual self." He exulted in the fact that he was at the top of his condition for perceiving beauty. ('The Nature Mysticism of Thoreau' in The Concord Saunterer, p.9) This reminds us of an interesting fact about Jefferies' life and work, that the Transcendentalists had at the same time but quite independently arisen in the United States, often engaged with similar issues (to be discussed in the section 19th C USA. As we saw with Whitman however, the emphasis today is on understanding their movement more in literary terms than spiritual ones. The resonance between Jefferies' work and that of Thoreau and Whitman is remarkable. Jefferies makes no mention of Thoreau's Walden though it was published in 1847, and could have had no inkling of Whitman's Leaves of Grass as it was published at the same time as The Story of My Heart. One only has to think of the remarkable coincidence of the Buddha's work and that of Heraclitus for example to realise that similar spiritual insights have often arisen independently. Jefferies, like all spiritual geniuses, makes a unique contribution however, and is prone to his own inner contradictions. Like the Buddha or Krishnamurti he pays no attention to the spiritual insights of the past, presenting his own vision entirely in his own terms. Above all he is at odds with the prevailing Victorian ethos both in its work ethic and its prudery. Nature for Jefferies finds its ultimate expression in the human body:
There came to me a delicate, but at the same time a deep, strong and sensuous enjoyment of the beautiful green earth, the beautiful sky and sun; I felt them, they gave me inexpressible delight, as if they embraced and poured out their love upon me. It was I who loved them, for my heart was broader than the earth; it is broader now than even then, more thirsty and desirous. After the sensuous enjoyment always come the thought, the desire: That I might be like this; that I might have the inner meaning of the sun, the light, the earth, the trees and grass, translated into some growth of excellence in myself, both of the body and of mind; greater perfection of physique, greater perfection of mind and soul; that I might be higher in myself. (The Story of My Heart, p. 56) This is amplified in another passage:
Not only in grass fields with green leaf and running brook did this constant desire find renewal. More deeply still with living human beauty; the perfection of form, the simple fact of forms, ravished and always will ravish me away. In this lies the outcome and end of all the loveliness of sunshine and green leaf, of flowers, pure water and sweet air. This is embodiment and highest expression; the scattered, uncertain, and designless loveliness of tree and sunshine brought to shape. Through this beauty I prayed deepest and longest, and down to this hour. The shape — the divine idea of that shape — the swelling muscle or the dreamy limb, strong sinew or curve of bust, Aphrodite or Hercules, it is the same. That I may have the soul-life, the soul-nature, let the divine beauty bring to me divine soul. Swart Nubian, white Greek, delicate Italian, massive Scandinavian, in all the exquisite pleasure the form gave, and gives, to me immediately becomes intense prayer. (The Story of My Heart, p. 17) Jefferies takes sunshine, leaf, air and water as his starting point, but it is the perfection of human form that 'ravishes him away'. That the 'simple fact of forms' can transport him is one of the clearest statements of the via positiva one can find, and contrasts directly with the Buddha's distaste for the body and the manifest world, characterised by him as 'conditioned co-origination'. But Jefferies love of Nature has its limits, for example he tells us that the form of a dog is alien to him, and above all he draws the line when it comes to Nature expressing itself through the social intercourse of men and women. In short there is nothing convivial about Jefferies. His spiritual life is 'solitary and elect' as Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas. But, as Jesus promises, there is no doubt that Jefferies found eternal life.
One question remains: was Jefferies a spiritual Master, in the sense of having disciples? Elizabeth Jennings in her 1968 introduction says 'there are few solid facts to pin upon this strange writer,' and certainly in Story of My Heart Jefferies makes no hint as to a life of spiritual teacher. It is quite possible that Jefferies' mysticism was so inward and private, that apart from the grandeur of it that we can perceive in his prose, he touched no-one of his acquaintance or not enough to leave a trace. In Buddhist terminology we might suggest that he remained an arhant rather than a bhodisattva, an enlightened one (or nearly so), but not a Master. Whitman is different because apart from the hints in Leaves of Grass as to his stature of Master, one quickly finds in the biographies of the time first-hand accounts of the kind of presence and influence that is the touchstone of the Masters presented here.