The Renewal of Self
THE panes of glass in the windows of my writing room are old and discolored. Some are curved, flawed with bubbles and twists in the glass which distort the trees outside. The view from the window is enclosed, for the cottage stands in a combe, or valley, descending from fields on the southern slope of Exmoor. It has, like most of the North Devon combes, sides that are steep, and what I usually see through the gray panes of my upstairs writing room is a fringe of thatch and a blur of trees, most of them leafless, some grown with ivy, others tall and like bedraggled green feathers — these are the spruces that I have seen so many times swaying slowly to and fro in the southwest gales which sweep up the valley and puff the smoke of the open hearth into the room. Day after day the same view of the same trees, with sometimes the hoarse craking of a disturbed pheasant, smoke drifting from the chimneys of cottages at the end of the lane, the sight of the farmer’s wife walking along the narrow strip of grass between the lower edge of the wood and the little stream or runner which divides the farm and the swamp at the bottom of my garden.
A dull and melancholy existence, you may say. Does n’t anything ever happen out your way? Sometimes I see two pink sows trotting down the field, uttering cries of complaint and grumbling; and shortly they return the same way, following the farmer’s wife and sniffing the bucket she carries. Occasionally something really exciting happens, as it did this morning. Such a barking and shouting and bellowing at the corner of the field near the lane, and there was Varmer waving his stick at three cows which had somehow got into the enclosure round the haystack. Then a couple of hundred yards up the lane, which goes through the wood, there is a quarry, where they dislodge the rock with gelignite. I don’t know which is the louder — Varmer and his dog driving cows away from his stack or five tons of stone tumbling down the face of the quarry.
But Varmer is a good farmer, and his cows seldom stray, so it is not often that his voice gives me the excuse to push aside the three-legged writing table and go to the window. Sometimes the foxhounds go past; but the covert on the hill behind my cottage is dense with plantations of larch and spruce, thick with bracken, and many foxes live there, and are too cunning to leave the dense undergrowth. So after a while the clip-clop of stray passing hoofs in the lane is less interesting than the writing on the table; and waiting is about the dullest job on earth after the first ten years — except perhaps mining, which takes a man completely out of the sunlight.
The waiter knows every grain and crack and mark on the surface of the table which bears the little world he creates by ‘chipping every word out of his breastbone,’ to use the words of V. M. Yeates, who wrote that magnificent story of flying in the Great War, called Winged Victory. Day after day and night after night the writer hears the same lesser sounds about the house: the crack, crack, crack of the floor when the hot water is turned on and the iron pipe underneath expands and pushes up the boards; the rustling gallop of one solitary rat down the thick cob wall just after half-past eight every night; the voices of very small children crying ‘appull’ or ‘bikky’ or other words which polite grown-ups pretend not to notice; the chirping of sparrows at the thatch; the dry flitter of a red-admiral butterfly, awakened from winter sleep behind the bookcase, at the window; the varying notes of the car engines of newspaper man, baker, butcher, and fishmonger; the distant cawing of rooks; the merry shouts of children home from school; the tottle-tonk of the African bullock bell which calls the members of the household to meals at the long oak table in the room immediately below — the table which takes five strong men to lift, and which is only just big enough for all to sit down at.
And the writer sees the same walls and rows of books day after day, and the flawed gray windowpanes with the dull and distorted trees fifty yards away on the combe side. He sees these things as insubstantial surfaces. They are not of the real world, which for him is in his mind. He writes, he sees and lives, in ancient sunlight, which arises before and around him with an integrity he trusts and uses. The writer must trust that other self, that scarcely known visionary ghost which lives independently, and often with torment, within his being, if his work is to have its authentic life.
But that being needs nourishment; it needs the sun in the sky if its own inner sun is to shine truly. With what relief does the body and its outer mind leave the confined space of house sounds and gray windowpanes, and go forth under the wide sky, and become a natural man again! The sunlight lays the little visionary ghost; bird song becomes real, part of the springtime, of the earth; the larches, as one climbs higher up the rough track through the plantations on the hillside, are gemmed with living green; the buzzard soaring between white cloud edge and blue glowing sky shows smoky-brown markings as it turns in its orbit; the nostrils draw deeply of the scent of tree trunk and earth and sun. The dull, complaining creature that sat in the room under the thatch below is changing with every step; every moment the sunlight is removing the creases of winter, as it warmed and reglowed the color spots and bars on the wings of the red-admiral butterfly which escaped with him.
On the top of the hill the natural man is fully in accord with the sun and all the life around him. He is I. I am alive and joyous in the English countryside, seeing valley after valley lying away into the mists of the south and the noonday sun. And I had thought, only this morning, the twenty-first of March, that the first day of spring meant nothing to me, that a primrose at the river’s brim was not even a primrose to me nowadays — it was just something that the children were discouraged to pick, with a vague irritation when a little hand was held out with a bunch of flowers and a shy, hesitating smile, by the timidly opened door of the writing room. Why, these primroses growing beside the runnel of spring water still have the soft, pure, sulphur color of youth; and the leaves, not yet fully unfolded — was there ever such a pristine green? And the ringing cry of the great titmouse, — that perky bird over there on the ash tree, with the white cheeks and black cap, — its cry is like a little hand bell for spring. How has he got so clean and new-looking? He is so spruce and his colors so new that he might just have flown out of a box. That’s a stupid simile, — ‘just flown out of a box,’— bringing the idea of shops and houses to this Devon hill; but that’s how I thought of it. Fifteen years ago my younger self would have sought for a precise and harmonious simile, all in accord with the natural scene. All taint of civilization would then have been obliterated with scorn.
‘Just flown out of a box’ — now that phrase actually has a significance, but very different from the one which occurred to me when first I saw the titmouse. A short while ago I was staying in a house where one of the boys kept a small aviary of caged birds. I happened to come down to breakfast first one morning, and, looking at the letters by my plate, noticed a small cardboard box on the table beside me. It was about eight inches long, six inches wide, and about an inch and a half to two inches deep. While I was opening a letter I heard a slight fluttering quite near me, and stopped to listen, but, hearing nothing more, went on reading my letter. The noise came again, with a faint scraping sound, and then a tapping, followed by a very feeble but unmistakable cry. I picked up the little box, and noticed that there was a row of holes, scarcely bigger than pinpoints, in two of the sides.
When the boy came down he picked up the box eagerly, and his eyes shone. Do you know what was in that box, which had come over a hundred miles in the post? A wild English linnet, price one shilling. Does that mean anything to you? I don’t mean the shilling, because that, after all, is the price of a good square meal to many of us; but the linnet in the box?
The bird had been trapped by a thing called a clapnet, after being decoyed by another linnet, tied by a foot with string to a stick pushed into the ground of some bit of wasteland outside a town somewhere. The trapper had pulled a string when it had flown down, in answer to the distress cries of the decoy linnet, and the net had sprung over and held it down until it was picked up and thrust into a cage with other birds taken in like manner. It is quite usual to see such birds, if one comes suddenly upon a clapnet in operation, with blooded beaks thrust frenziedly through the bars of the cages, while the trapper lies there, waiting for other birds to fly down. They take skylarks that way, and goldfinches, and other singing birds. It is against the law; but the law is easily evaded. There is a demand for wild singing birds, and the trapper is a man like anyone else, who needs a shilling for a good square meal.
Should the trapper be put in a cage called a prison? Is it not better to bring up little children to know how wildly happy singing birds are when free, and how they beat themselves almost to death when first captured, and what it must feel like to be shut in a cardboard box, to be shaken and battered in prolonged terror of darkness, gaping with thirst and sickness, for a day and a night and a morning?
Well, the small boy with whose parents I was staying was very fond of his birds, they told me, and the linnet was put into the large cage with a score of other birds, so that it might grow tame and add to the pride of its owner. I don’t know if the bird got used to its new life, or whether its feathers, so disheveled and broken, and its eyes, so distraught and distended, grew more like those of a wild and happy linnet’s. It would be good to think that the boy released it into its native sunshine, so that it could wander the world of trees and hedges and heath land, and seek a mate with feathers almost as auburn as its own, and choose a furze bush somewhere, for its nest, hollowed smooth inside by the mother bird turning round and round as she pressed her breast against the lining of grasslets and horsehairs.
Have you heard a linnet singing in early spring? The bird has one note that is like a glowing stroke of color released into the wind. When I came to the heather of the high moor this afternoon I heard that lovely note coming from a solitary thorn tree. The thorn was shaggy with gray lichens, and bent over to the northeast, away from the gales which blow from the sea. The bent-over shape of trees is common on exposed ground of the west, near the Atlantic. I say ‘bent-over shape’ because that gives a picture of them; but actually they are not bent. What happens is that the branches of the tree toward the southwest are slowly killed by the periodical blasts of moist salt air, but while they are dying, or trying to live, they give shelter to the branches on the northeast side of the tree.
Sometimes you will see a stark and stripped branch growing upright, the ruin of the main trunk, or what would have been the main trunk if the thorn had grown in a combe under the wind. For perhaps a century that trunk had fought the salt and the wind. Every spring it had put forth ruddy new shoots and green leaves; and every spring the gales had burned those leaves, shriveling them brown at the edges. A tree breathes by its leaves, and grows by them, taking part of its life from the air, as we do. Later in summer the thorn tried again, with a second growth of leaves; and again they were shriveled. So it tried for a hundred or more springs; until at last it was beaten, and the trunk died, and rotted, and fell, and only the northeast portion of the tree remained huddled away from the harrying elements.
The stray thorns on the moor are all sown by birds, dropping the hip or seed as they fly over. I love those writhen trees; they symbolize man’s struggle for spiritual growth, for a fuller life. They are tormented, but they go on striving. Is this why, long ago, the wild men of the hills used to worship solitary thorn trees? Certainly the wild linnets worship in them, sitting side by side on the twisted branches in early spring, talking in soft twitter among themselves; and sometimes a cockbird uttering that ravishing stroke of color, of purest joy, as though in one note all its life were being released into the sky, because it is spring again.