The deadly naturalist

The Victorian nature writer, Richard Jefferies (1848 – 1887) is up there with Gilbert White (1720 – 1793) and the poet John Clare (1793 – 1864) as a leading influence on contemporary nature writers, such as Richard Mabey and Robert MacFarlane. And for good reason.

Some of the writing in Wild Life in a Southern County (1879), for example, is minutely observed and evocative, albeit both romantic and anthropomorphic:

“Up the blade of grass here a tiny white-shelled snail has crawled, feeling in its dull, dim way that evening is approaching. The coils of the little shell are exquisitely turned – the workmanship is perfect; the creature within, there can be no question, is equally perfect in its way and finds a joy in the plants on which it feeds. On the ground below, hidden among the fibres near the roots of the grass, lies another tiny shell; but it is empty, the life that once animated it has fled – whither? Presently the falling dew will condense upon it, and at the opening one round drop will stand…”

I can remember, as a young child, perhaps 7 years old, lying on the chalk slopes by the woods near to our house and looking at the little snails, the ants, the blades of grass, the butterflies, and entering their world, with the same kind of close-up vision. Jefferies has not only preserved this faculty, which most children share but leave behind as they become adults, but he is also able to put it into words.

Yet Jefferies also dispassionately describes shooting almost any creature that he is curious about, especially birds – jackdaws, rooks, even a heron. And this trigger-happy form of natural science he shares with Gilbert White. I don’t remember contemporary writers inspired by Jefferies and White, like Richard Mabey and Robert MacFarlane, dwelling on this, yet it is something that separates the generations, and, presumably, makes it impossible for those more likely to be armed with a magnifying glass and binoculars, to get “into the head” of these bygone naturalists. Perhaps that’s where Clare has the edge.