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Original Issue

The new nature books cause one reader to turn admiringly to an old master

Nature writing is a kind of industry these days, with numberless authors following birds and beasts in the hope of trapping them into a bestseller. The boom comes just about a century too late to do any good for Richard Jefferies. It is a pity for he could have used the money, and he was a writer of such skill and integrity as to deserve the best in reputation and fortune. He may be in for a revival, for—though he is not widely read—there is a flourishing Richard Jefferies Society, whose members live in places as far apart as Paris, France and Houston, Texas. Jefferies was born in 1848, the son of a small farmer who owned 40 acres (called Coate Farm) in Wiltshire, England. He grew up on the farm, and as a boy often sneaked away from his chores to walk with his gun to the bare uncultivated downland that lay beyond a nearby hill. Sometimes he would come back hours later with no shot fired for, in the act of raising his gun to his shoulder, he would observe a new peculiarity of the flight of the pigeon, or watch, for the hundredth time, a rabbit, thumping its hind legs on the ground as a signal of danger; and his long sensitive forefinger would slowly stray away from the unpulled trigger.

In 1865 a journalist who had lost his way floundered through a thunderstorm to the thatched farmhouse, and there Jefferies met for the first time the world of letters. Through this meeting he took a poorly paid job as a reporter on the North Wiltshire Herald. In his spare time he still roamed the fields.

Until his painful death from tuberculosis at the age of 38, Jefferies poured out a stream of intensely accurate observations on his life at Coate, eagerly snapped up by the leading magazines and newspapers of the day. Self-taught as a writer, he never fell into rustic whimsies. "Style," Jefferies jotted in a notebook. "The proper choice of a word. A polished style, yet simple Saxon words. What I see, that only."

Sitting beside a tree trunk, his gun safely leaning in the crook of a branch, or lying in a punt with his face near the water while the line trailed uselessly behind, he recorded in his mind's immense notebook more data in half an hour than would be accumulated in a week by an ordinary man.

His parents could not understand the dreamer they had begotten, and their bafflement led to his great unhappiness at home—he once tried to run away, to walk to Moscow at the age of 16, but got no farther than France. He starts his best book, The Amateur Poacher, with an account of an act of great stupidity on the part of his father:

"They burned the old gun that used to stand in the dark corner up in the garret, close to the stuffed box that always grinned so fiercely."

He never forgot it, but softened slightly a few years later when "they" gave him a weapon of his own, a 70-year-old single-barrel muzzle-loader adapted from a flintlock. "The lock was a trifle dull at first, simply from lack of use. A small screwdriver soon had it to pieces, and it speedily clicked again sweet as a flute." Later, when he met a man named Haylock, the gamekeeper on the neighboring estate at Hodson Bottom, he learned the perfect lubricant, which never congeals in cold weather, for any such mechanism—gin.

His many hours spent with Haylock taught him not only the art of shooting and the elements of fieldcraft, but also gave him an insight into the various devices used by Haylock's enemies, the poachers. The new invention of the breechloader meant that gentlemen of position wanted to shoot birds in the hundreds, even in the thousands; and the science of large-scale pheasant-raising was studied by keepers all over the country. When the birds thus reached a many-fold surplus over the ordinary production of nature, few countrymen were averse to taking an occasional one for a quick sale. Haylock told Jefferies what the poachers did: Jefferies practiced some of the tricks with delight, and a decade later he wrote about them, when he was living closer to the hub of the editorial world.

Even when he moved to Surbiton, near London, he was able to point out to Londoners that wildlife still existed there. On his long walks, his lanky figure stooping and his soft brown beard curling in the wind, he cataloged 60 wild flowers growing in one London street, and saw a trout—perhaps the last London trout—being speared in one of the many streams that now run underground.

In his 38 years of life, Jefferies turned out a great number of essays, most of which were republished in book form, such as his Gamekeeper at Home. He never knew any kind of affluence and nearly always sold the copyright of his works.

Jefferies was, perhaps, a product of his age. As the center of British life shifted for the first time from the open country to the grime, smoke and congestion of the city, people increasingly wished to be reminded of that nine-tenths of the land which they could never know more intimately than through an occasional weekend visit. Certainly, many have followed him in his trade, and England now has 500 new books a year on agriculture, natural history and related subjects. But there will seldom be another who, like Thoreau, could write a whole compelling page about a single leaf, an essay on the living things around a particular ditch or an entire book by sitting observantly in one field.