Monday, August 07, 2006

AUGUST NATURE NOTES

are taken from 'A Summer Evening'. First published in 1881 in the Pall Mall Gazette, later in Chronicles of the Hedges

The sunlight falling on the tree trunks pales as it comes from the westward, having lost the glare of the south. At noon the trunks were in shadow with the sun straight over, and the appearance of the beams upon the stems as he declines marks the coming of the evening. The shrill note Pied wagtail echoes from the building, and it is noticed because the other birds are silent while the sun is going down. Long hours of heat seem to have burned the blue out of the sky; it pales as the light goes, and the faintest white haze mingles with it as if an invisible gossamer mist were spread over. In the deep shadow of the elms—a double shade from a double row—the horses are a little happier at last; but for hours yet their heads will nod, nod ceaselessly up and down, shaking off the torment of flies. At horse-hoe in the morning there seemed to be a green bush moving across the field between the rows of roots, for a bough was thrust into every crevice of the harness, and others were hung over or tied on, so that the horse was caparisoned with drooping branches. They withered and became a listless green in the sun before an acre was finished, but, swinging at every step, drove away the insects. With the first sunbeam the insects began, and will continue long after the last ray has departed. No files of rooks stream across the country as they would do in winter—they are late to return to their trees, and do so in scattered parties. The wood-pigeons, too, have not finished yet, and the sparrows are still in the corn; you can see where they have cleared out every ear in a corner by the white and chaffy appearance, while elsewhere the wheat is golden. The house-martins are still busy bringing mortar from the shore of the pond, where they drag their white legs over the moist earth, floundering and flutter­ing as they lose their balance. The swifts are screeching round the houses, or the church, so that the sky seems vacant, till, perhaps, a heron comes over, high up and slow as a cloud. If you put your hand on the top bar of a gate it is still warm, the mirage has disappeared, and does not quiver; but in walking through the fields now and then, a heated section of air is entered, much warmer than the rest of the atmosphere. Where the earth lies fallow the dry clods take a browner tint. A sudden movement in the wheat close by shows where a hare has already left his form well concealed by the tall stalks, but a pheasant in the barley may crouch and lie still. You may step right in among a covey of partridge chicks, if you come quickly and noiselessly over the gate without a dog. They are in the long grass between the wheat and the hedge, where there are ant hills; their first instinct is to 'quat' and before they can run you are in the middle of them. The strongest perhaps fly and drop twenty yards out in the wheat, the others ' cheep ' and run in among the stalks, tumbling in their eagerness over the clods. If you wished you might put a broad-brimmed hat over and cap­ture one as children do butterflies. They are the prettiest little things, and he must be hard-hearted who would not handle a partridge chick tenderly. Any little stream greatly puzzles them if they cannot fly. A burdock leaf would hide the whole covey.

By now every tall bunch of grass casts a shadow, and a softer hue steals forth over the dry corn. What is the name of the colour of the barley? For in and among the rest there is a flicker of red fire which cannot be fixed, disappearing if looked for steadily. But as you first glance at it there seems sparks of redness here and there, as if the colour at those places came to a point. In reality there is no such redness, nor could you find it in a whole field ; the barley is broadly yellow, faintly green, dashed a little with orange, the most difficult of hues to give an idea of, and only seen in perfection when long weeks of fierce sunshine (as this season) have left an essence of the sunlight on it. The oats before they whiten have a delicate green of their own, less pronounced than eau de Nil, pearly yet not pearl grey. Out from the hedges the shadow comes, and far in front of the shadow a penumbra of lesser light; soft still hues settle on the surface. The disc of the sun goes down yellow, and not so bright but that it can be looked at; the sky at the horizon is a faint yellow — a pale glow that seems weary and worn out with heat. Some might say so pale a sunset meant rain. But look to the east. There the atmosphere thickens to a dull red, like a heated tile; and so long as that dull red glow comes evening after evening the wheat will stand in earth as hard as a kiln could make it. If the hills seem near and clearly defined it is because the air has been burned with sunlight, and because the slopes are distinct with squares of yellow corn. Overhead the faint whitish mist disappears and leaves a purple sky; beneath, over the broad fields, the shadows have gone. Instead of bright light and dark contrast, there is a light everywhere, soft and quiet, as if it came through the dome of purple. Grasshoppers still sing on the short turf where the worn ground shows white and dry through the thin blades. The ants have not yet finished, nor the bees; as they go home the moths come forth. On a bare bough a shrike is still intent on every passing insect, and calls ceaselessly to her young perched in the bushes. From the fern a nightjar rises and starts upon his uncertain course like a larger swallow of the night. There are thrushes in the aftermath, and the brownish spots farther away which move now and then are rabbits. Flocks of rooks are stationary on the ground by the corn, but outside it; at the brook the water-rats feed, and the moorhens, birds both of day and night; and the yellow-hammer sings till the first beetle hums over the hedge.

The yellow glow in the west sinks away, leaving only a whiter light there to distinguish the place of sun-setting. Distant corners of fields grow dusky, and in the copse under the trees there are passages which look dark a short way off, though not so when actually beneath the boughs. The little green that is yet left in any of the later corn or found along the edges among the weeds and wild flowers comes up, as it were, to the surface. So, too, with the white tints, the whiteness of the oats, of the driest and ripest of the wheat-stalks, of the white flowers and dusty sward, of the earth itself whitened by heat. White and green tone everything, and the gold is deadened, but the purple overhead is still clearer and seems higher. The hares are happy now, and may be seen wherever the second crop of clover is not too tall to hide them, or met with stealing along the quiet lanes where the nuts are already enlarging upon the hazel. A bat appears and flies to and fro at a great height; the bats do not seem to hawk so much in the summer as in spring, or perhaps not till late—at least, they are not so conspicuous. The swallows are still on the wing, and even yet it is some time before the first star. Not much effort is made by the birds to find a roosting-place. The barn and the bushes by it, an old fir tree grown about with ivy, from which long straws depending betray a nest—these suffice the sparrows. Almost the first bough answers, as they are all clothed with foliage. Those birds that have a second brood choose a branch adjacent to the nest: if not, wherever the deepening dusk finds them, there is sure to be a bush or tree. Now and again, as the beetles hum more often, a faint air comes over the corn—cool, but not chilly—scarce enough breeze to rustle the wheat-ears. Stand still while it lasts; it is too delicious to miss the least portion of, and it will only blow a minute. A star parts the purple veil at last.

The purple is less now and the blue more; and after the first the stars come forth, each with a shorter interval between. There is no haze, and southwards where the horizon is darkest the stars shine low down as it were to the surface of the wheat. A white owl passes under the trees, and the chirruping of the crickets on the mounds sounds in the still­ness across the fields. A rook, or perhaps a night-wandering crow, flits by, just clearing the hedge towards the copse. The nightjar floats again, rising to the top of the oak yonder. All the breadth of the white corn is visible, the hedge on the other side, the elms farther still, a rolling slope of corn beyond that, and the distant hills. But yet, though it seems so light and clear, if the eye endeavours to single out an object it fails to define it. Whether there may or may not be someone behind the elm yonder, whether someone may or may not be stealthily moving along the hedge, is not certain, and the longer the gaze is fixed the more shadowy the object looks. It is a shadow: it is not a shadow: a horse perhaps? No, nothing; merely a spot where a projecting bush deepens the dusk. All things are visible, and yet invisible; they have no outline, no definition. The stars thicken, and with them comes a sense of intense rest. The light is not gone, but only enough left to incline the thoughts to quiet; there is no darkness, but that shadow which soothes and inclines to dream. The heated earth cools, and there is a freshness in the atmosphere. The hot trees, loaded with heavy foliage hi the noontide sun, seem to lift themselves again. Rest everywhere, rest and stillness; the calmest silence, but not Weariness or slumber—the reverse. The windows of the mind, the eyes open wider, the pupils enlarging; the mind, no more oppressed, ranges afar. The blood which was heated like the earth, flows stronger, and the hot hands are cool, and the feverish fingers no longer repel each other as they touch. The surface of the skin acts again, and the faint relaxed feeling departs. There is new life, new vigour, and the power to enjoy. How easy it is now to understand how to the nomad tribes of old, burned with Eastern suns, the light was to them as darkness is to us, the symbol of evil; how they looked on the sun as an enemy, and welcomed, lauded, and adored the night as their greatest good! The beautiful night with it; mystery and glory, and the thoughts that cannot be written down any more than you can write down what a star is— the beautiful life-renewing Night! Let us remain without doors.