The Beauties of Nature and the World We Live In, Part V of X

Rural life, says Cicero, “is not delightful by reason of cornfields only and meadows, and vineyards and groves, but also for its gardens and orchards, for the feeding of cattle, the swarms of bees, and the variety of all kinds of flowers.” Bacon considered that a garden is “the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man, without which buildings and palaces are but gross handyworks, and a man shall ever see, that when ages grow to civility and elegancy men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely, as if gardening were the greater perfection.”

No doubt the pleasure which we take in a garden is one of the most innocent delights in human life.” Elsewhere there may be scattered flowers, or sheets of colour due to one or two species, but in gardens one glory follows another. Here are brought together all the

quaint enamelled eyes,
That on the green turf sucked the honeyed showers,
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink and the pansy freaked with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk rose, and the well attired woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears.

We cannot, happily we need not try to, contrast or compare the beauty of gardens with that of woods and fields.

And yet to the true lover of Nature wild flowers have a charm which no garden can equal. Cultivated plants are but a living herbarium. They surpass, no doubt, the dried specimens of a museum, but, lovely as they are, they can be no more compared with the natural vegetation of our woods and fields than the captives in the Zoological Gardens with the same wild species in their native forests and mountains.

Often indeed, our woods and fields rival gardens even in the richness of colour. We have all seen meadows white with Narcissus, glowing with Buttercups, Cowslips, early purple Orchis, or Cuckoo Flowers; cornfields blazing with Poppies; woods carpeted with Bluebells, Anemones, Primroses, and Forget-me-nots; commons with the yellow Lady’s Bedstraw, Harebells, and the sweet Thyme; marshy places with the yellow stars of the Bog Asphodel, the Sun-dew sparkling with diamonds, Ragged Robin, the beautifully fringed petals of the Buckbean, the lovely little Bog Pimpernel, or the feathery tufts of Cotton Grass; hedgerows with Hawthorn and Traveller’s Joy, Wild Rose and Honeysuckle, while underneath are the curious leaves and orange fruit of the Lords and Ladies, the snowy stars of the Stitchwort, Succory, Yarrow, and several kinds of Violets; while all along the banks of streams are the tall red spikes of the Loosestrife, the Hemp Agrimony, Water Groundsel, Sedges, Bulrushes, Flowering Rush, Sweet Flag, etc.

Many other sweet names will also at once occur to us Snowdrops, Daffodils and Hearts-ease, Lady’s Mantles and Lady’s Tresses, Eyebright, Milkwort, Foxgloves, Herb Roberts, Geraniums, and among rarer species, at least in England, Columbines and Lilies.

But Nature does not provide delights for the eye only. The other senses are not forgotten. A thousand sounds many delightful in themselves, and all by association songs of birds, hum of insects, rustle of leaves, ripple of water, seem to fill the air.

Flowers again are sweet, as well as lovely. The scent of pine woods, which is said to be very healthy, is certainly delicious, and the effect of Woodland scenery is good for the mind as well as for the body.

“Resting quietly under an ash tree, with the scent of flowers, and the odour of green buds and leaves, a ray of sunlight yonder lighting up the lichen and the moss on the oak trunk, a gentle air stirring in the branches above, giving glimpses of fleecy clouds sailing in the ether, there comes into the mind a feeling of intense joy in the simple fact of living.”

The wonderful phenomenon of phosphorescence is not a special gift to the animal kingdom. Henry O. Forbes describes a forest in Sumatra: “The stem of every tree blinked with a pale greenish-white light which undulated also across the surface of the ground like moonlight coming and going behind the clouds, from a minute thread-like fungus invisible in the day-time to the unassisted eye; and here and there thick dumpy mushrooms displayed a sharp, clear dome of light, whose intensity never varied or changed till the break of day; long phosphorescent caterpillars and centipedes crawled out of every corner, leaving a trail of light behind them, while fire-flies darted about above like a lower firmament.”

Woods and Forests were to our ancestors the special scenes of enchantment.

The great Ash tree Yggdrasil bound together Heaven, Earth, and Hell. Its top reached to Heaven, its branches covered the Earth, and the roots penetrated into Hell. The three Normas or Fates sat under it, spinning the thread of life.

Of all the gods and goddesses of classical mythology or our own folk-lore, none were more fascinating than the Nature Spirits Elves and Fairies, Neckans and Kelpies, Pixies and Ouphes, Mermaids, Undines, Water Spirits, and all the Elfin world

Which have their haunts in dale and piny mountain,
Or forests, by slow stream or tingling brook.

They come out, as we are told, especially on moonlight nights. But while evening thus clothes many a scene with poetry, forests are fairy land all day long.

Almost any wood contains many and many a spot well suited for Fairy feasts; where one might most expect to find Titania, resting, as once we are told,

She lay upon a bank, the favourite haunt
Of the Spring wind in its first sunshine hour,
For the luxuriant strawberry blossoms spread
Like a snow shower then, and violets
Bowed down their purple vases of perfume
About her pillow, linked in a gay band
Floated fantastic shapes; these were her guards,
Her lithe and rainbow elves.

The fairies have disappeared, and, so far as England is concerned, the larger forest animals have vanished almost as completely. The Elk and Bear, the Boar and Wolf have gone, the Stag has nearly disappeared, and but a scanty remnant of the original wild Cattle linger on at Chillingham. Still the woods teem with life; the Fox and Badger, Stoat and Weasel, Hare and Rabbit, and Hedgehog,

The tawny squirrel vaulting through the boughs,
Hawk, buzzard, jay, the mavis and the merle,

the Owls and Nightjar, the Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Magpie, Doves, and a hundred more.

In early spring the woods are bright with the feathery catkins of the Willow, followed by the soft green of the Beech, the white or pink flowers of the Thorn, the pyramids of the Horse-chestnut, festoons of the Laburnum and Acacia, and the Oak slowly wakes from its winter sleep, while the Ash leaves long linger in their black buds.

Under foot is a carpet of flowers Anemones, Cowslips, Primroses, Bluebells, and the golden blossoms of the Broom, which, however, while Gorse and Heather continue in bloom for months, blazes for a week or two, and is then completely extinguished, like a fire that has burnt itself out.”

In summer the tints grow darker, the birds are more numerous and full of life; the air teems with insects, with the busy murmur of bees and the idle hum of flies, while the cool of morning and evening, and the heat of the day, are all alike delicious.

As the year advances and the flowers wane, we have many beautiful fruits and berries, the red hips and haws of the wild roses, scarlet holly berries, crimson yew cups, the translucent berries of the Guelder Rose, hanging coral beads of the Black Bryony, feathery festoons of the Traveller’s Joy, and others less conspicuous, but still exquisite in themselves acorns, beech nuts, ash keys, and many more. It is really difficult to say which are most beautiful, the tender greens of spring or the rich tints of autumn, which glow so brightly in the sunshine.

Tropical fruits are even more striking. No one who has seen it can ever forget a grove of orange trees in full fruit; while the more we examine the more we find to admire; all perfectly and exquisitely finished “usque ad ungues,” perfect inside and outside, for Nature

Does in the Pomegranate close
Jewels more rare than Ormus shows.

In winter the woods are comparatively bare and lifeless, even the Brambles and Woodbine, which straggle over the tangle of underwood being almost leafless.

Still even then they have a beauty and interest of their own; the mossy boles of the trees; the delicate tracery of the branches which can hardly be appreciated when they are covered with leaves; and under foot the beds of fallen leaves; while the evergreens seem brighter than in summer; the ruddy stems and rich green foliage of the Scotch Pines, and the dark spires of the Firs, seeming to acquire fresh beauty.

Again in winter, though no doubt the living tenants of the woods are much less numerous, many of our birds being then far away in the dense African forests, on the other hand those which remain are much more easily visible. We can follow the birds from tree to tree, and the Squirrel from bough to bough.

It requires little imagination to regard trees as conscious beings, indeed it is almost an effort not to do so.

“The various action of trees rooting themselves in inhospitable rocks, stooping to look into ravines, hiding from the search of glacier winds, reaching forth to the rays of rare sunshine, crowding down together to drink at sweetest streams, climbing hand in hand among the difficult slopes, opening in sudden dances among the mossy knolls, gathering into companies at rest among the fragrant fields, gliding in grave procession over the heavenward ridges nothing of this can be conceived among the unvexed and unvaried felicities of the lowland forest; while to all these direct sources of greater beauty are added, first the power of redundance, the mere quantity of foliage visible in the folds and on the promontories of a single Alp being greater than that of an entire lowland landscape (unless a view from some Cathedral tower); and to this charm of redundance, that of clearer visibility tree after tree being constantly shown in successive height, one behind another, instead of the mere tops and flanks of masses as in the plains; and the forms of multitudes of them continually defined against the clear sky, near and above, or against white clouds entangled among their branches, instead of being confused in dimness of distance.”

There is much that is interesting in the relations of one species to another. Many plants are parasitic upon others. The foliage of the Beech is so thick that scarcely anything will grow under it, except those spring plants, such as the Anemone and the Wood Buttercup or Goldilocks, which flower early before the Beech is in leaf.

There are other cases in which the reason for the association of species is less evident. The Larch and the Arolla (Pinus Cembra) are close companions. They grow together in Siberia; they do not occur in Scandinavia or Russia, but both reappear in certain Swiss valleys, especially in the cantons of Lucerne and Valais and the Engadine.

Another very remarkable case which has recently been observed is the relation existing between some of our forest trees and certain Fungi, the species of which have not yet been clearly ascertained. The root tips of the trees are as it were enclosed in a thin sheet of closely woven mycelium. It was at first supposed that the fungus was attacking the roots of the tree, but it is now considered that the tree and the fungus mutually benefit one another. The fungus collects nutriment from the soil, which passes into the tree and up to the leaves, where it is elaborated into sap, the greater part being utilized by the tree, but a portion reabsorbed by the fungus. There is reason to think that, in some cases at any rate, the mycelium is that of the Truffle.

The great tropical forests have a totally different character from ours. I reproduce here the plate from Kingsley’s At Last. The trees strike all travellers by their magnificence, the luxuriance of their vegetation, and their great variety. Our forests contain comparatively few species, whereas in the tropics we are assured that it is far from common to see two of the same species near one another. But while in our forests the species are few, each tree has an independence and individuality of its own. In the tropics, on the contrary, they are interlaced and interwoven, so as to form one mass of vegetation; many of the trunks are almost concealed by an undergrowth of verdure, and intertwined by spiral stems of parasitic plants; from tree to tree hang an inextricable network of lianas, and it is often difficult to tell to which tree the fruits, flowers, and leaves really belong. The trunks run straight up to a great height without a branch, and then form a thick leafy canopy far overhead; a canopy so dense that even the blaze of the cloudless blue sky is subdued, one might almost say into a weird gloom, the effect of which is enhanced by the solemn silence. At first such a forest gives the impression of being more open than an English wood, but a few steps are sufficient to correct this error. There is a thick undergrowth matted together by wiry creepers, and the intermediate space is traversed in all directions by lines and cords.

The English traveller misses sadly the sweet songs of our birds, which are replaced by the hoarse chatter of parrots. Now and then a succession of cries even harsher and more discordant tell of a troop of monkeys passing across from tree to tree among the higher branches, or lower sounds indicate to a practised ear the neighbourhood of an ape, a sloth, or some other of the few mammals which inhabit the great forests. Occasionally a large blue bee hums past, a brilliant butterfly flashes across the path, or a humming-bird hangs in the air over a flower like, as St. Pierre says, an emerald set in coral, but “how weak it is to say that that exquisite little being, whirring and fluttering in the air, has a head of ruby, a throat of emerald, and wings of sapphire, as if any triumph of the jeweller’s art could ever vie with that sparkling epitome of life and light.”

Sir Wyville Thomson graphically describes a morning in a Brazilian forest:

“The night was almost absolutely silent, only now and then a peculiarly shrill cry of some night bird reached us from the woods. As we got into the skirt of the forest the morning broke, but the reveil in a Brazilian forest is wonderfully different from the slow creeping on of the dawn of a summer morning at home, to the music of the thrushes answering one another’s full rich notes from neighbouring thorn-trees. Suddenly a yellow light spreads upwards in the east, the stars quickly fade, and the dark fringes of the forest and the tall palms show out black against the yellow sky, and almost before one has time to observe the change the sun has risen straight and fierce, and the whole landscape is bathed in the full light of day. But the morning is yet for another hour cool and fresh, and the scene is indescribably beautiful. The woods, so absolutely silent and still before, break at once into noise and movement. Flocks of toucans flutter and scream on the tops of the highest forest trees hopelessly out of shot, the ear is pierced by the strange wild screeches of a little band of macaws which fly past you like the wrapped-up ghosts of the birds on some gaudy old brocade.”

Mr. Darwin tells us that nothing can be better than the description of tropical forests given by Bates.

“The leafy crowns of the trees, scarcely two of which could be seen together of the same kind, were now far away above us, in another world as it were. We could only see at times, where there was a break above, the tracery of the foliage against the clear blue sky. Sometimes the leaves were palmate, or of the shape of large outstretched hands; at others finely cut or feathery like the leaves of Mimosae. Below, the tree trunks were everywhere linked together by sipos; the woody flexible stems of climbing and creeping trees, whose foliage is far away above, mingled with that of the taller independent trees. Some were twisted in strands like cables, others had thick stems contorted in every variety of shape, entwining snake-like round the tree trunks or forming gigantic loops and coils among the larger branches; others, again, were of zigzag shape, or indented like the steps of a staircase, sweeping from the ground to a giddy height.”

The reckless and wanton destruction of forests has ruined some of the richest countries on earth. Syria and Asia Minor, Palestine and the north of Africa were once far more populous than they are at present. They were once lands “flowing with milk and honey,” according to the picturesque language of the Bible, but are now in many places reduced to dust and ashes. Why is there this melancholy change? Why have deserts replaced cities? It is mainly owing to the ruthless destruction of the trees, which has involved that of nations. Even nearer home a similar process may be witnessed. Two French departments the Hautes- and Basses-Alpes are being gradually reduced to ruin by the destruction of the forests. Cultivation is diminishing, vineyards are being washed away, the towns are threatened, the population is dwindling, and unless something is done the country will be reduced to a desert; until, when it has been released from the destructive presence of man, Nature reproduces a covering of vegetable soil, restores the vegetation, creates the forests anew, and once again fits these regions for the habitation of man.

In another part of France we have an illustration of the opposite process.

The region of the Landes, which fifty years ago was one of the poorest and most miserable in France, has now been made one of the most prosperous owing to the planting of Pines. The increased value is estimated at no less than 1,000,000,000 francs. Where there were fifty years ago only a few thousand poor and unhealthy shepherds whose flocks pastured on the scanty herbage, there are now sawmills, charcoal kilns, and turpentine works, interspersed with thriving villages and fertile agricultural lands.

In our own country, though woodlands are perhaps on the increase, true forest scenery is gradually disappearing. This is, I suppose, unavoidable, but it is a matter of regret. Forests have so many charms of their own. They give a delightful impression of space and of abundance.

The extravagance is sublime. Trees, as Jefferies says, “throw away handfuls of flower; and in the meadows the careless, spendthrift ways of grass and flower and all things are not to be expressed. Seeds by the hundred million float with absolute indifference on the air. The oak has a hundred thousand more leaves than necessary, and never hides a single acorn. Nothing utilitarian everything on a scale of splendid waste. Such noble, broadcast, open-armed waste is delicious to behold. Never was there such a lying proverb as ‘Enough is as good as a feast.’ Give me the feast; give me squandered millions of seeds, luxurious carpets of petals, green mountains of oak-leaves. The greater the waste the greater the enjoyment the nearer the approach to real life.”

It is of course impossible here to give any idea of the complexity of structure of our forest trees. A slice across the stem of a tree shows many different tissues with more or less technical names, bark and cambium, medullary rays, pith, and more or less specialised tissue; air-vessels, punctate vessels, woody fibres, liber fibres, scalariform vessels, and other more or less specialised tissues.

Let us take a single leaf. The name is synonymous with anything very thin, so that we might well fancy that a leaf would consist of only one or two layers of cells. Far from it, the leaf is a highly complex structure. On the upper surface are a certain number of scattered hairs, while in the bud these are often numerous, long, silky, and serve to protect the young leaf, but the greater number fall off soon after the leaf expands. The hairs are seated on a layer of flattened cells the skin or epidermis. Below this are one or more layers of “palisade cells,” the function of which seems to be to regulate the quantity of light entering the leaf. Under these again is the “parenchyme,” several layers of more or less rounded cells, leaving air spaces and passages between them. From place to place in the parenchyme run “fibro-vascular bundles,” forming a sort of skeleton to the leaf, and comprising air-vessels on the upper side, rayed or dotted vessels with woody fibre below, and vessels of various kinds. The under surface of the leaf is formed by another layer of flattened cells, supporting generally more or less hairs, and some of them specially modified so as to leave minute openings or “stomata” leading into the air passages. These stomata are so small that there are millions on a single leaf, and on plants growing in dry countries, such as the Evergreen Oak, Oleander, etc., they are sunk in pits, and further protected by tufts of hair.

The cells of the leaf again are themselves complex. They consist of a cell wall perforated by extremely minute orifices, of protoplasm, cell fluid, and numerous granules of “Chlorophyll,” which give the leaf its green colour.

While these are, stated very briefly, the essential parts of a leaf, the details differ in every species, while in the same species and even in the same plant, the leaves present minor differences according to the situation in which they grow.

Since, then, there is so much complex structure in a single leaf, what must it be in a whole plant? There is a giant sea-weed (Macrocystis), which has been known to reach a length of 1000 feet, as also do some of the lianas of tropical forests. These, however, attain no great bulk, and the most gigantic specimens of the vegetable kingdom yet known are the Wellingtonia (Sequoia) gigantea, which grows to a height of 450 feet, and the Blue Gum (Eucalyptus) even to 480.

One is apt to look on animal structure as more delicate, and of a higher order, than that of plants. And so no doubt it is. Yet an animal, even man himself, will recover from a wound or an operation more rapidly and more perfectly than a tree.

Trees again derive a special interest from the venerable age they attain. In some cases, no doubt, the age is more or less mythical, as, for instance, the Olive of Minerva at Athens, the Oaks mentioned by Pliny, “which were thought coeval with the world itself,” the Fig tree, “under which the wolf suckled the founder of Rome and his brother, lasting (as Tacitus calculated) 840 years, putting out new shoots, and presaging the translation of that empire from the Caesarian line, happening in Nero’s reign.” But in other cases the estimates rest on a surer foundation, and it cannot be doubted that there are trees still living which were already of considerable size at the time of the Conquest. The Soma Cypress of Lombardy, which is 120 feet high and 23 in circumference, is calculated to go back to forty years before the birth of Christ. Francis the First is said to have driven his sword into it in despair after the battle of Padua, and Napoleon altered his road over the Simplon so as to spare it.

Ferdinand and Isabella in 1476 swore to maintain the privileges of the Biscayans under the old Oak of Guernica. In the Ardennes an Oak cut down in 1824 contained a funeral urn and some Samnite coins. A writer at the time drew the conclusion that it must have been already a large tree when Rome was founded, and though the facts do not warrant this conclusion, the tree did, no doubt, go back to Pagan times. The great Yew of Fountains Abbey is said to have sheltered the monks when the abbey was rebuilt in 1133, and is estimated at an age of 1300 years; that at Brabourne in Kent at 3000. De Candolle gives the following as the ages attainable:

The Ivy 450 years
Larch 570 ”
Plane 750 ”
Cedar of Lebanon 800 ”
Lime 1100 ”
Oak 1500 ”
Taxodium distichum 4000 to 6000
Baobab 6000 years
Nowhere is woodland scenery more beautiful than where it passes gradually into the open country. The separate trees, having more room both for their roots and branches, are finer, and can be better seen, while, when they are close together, “one cannot see the wood for the trees.” The vistas which open out are full of mystery and of promise, and tempt us gradually out into the green fields.

What pleasant memories these very words recall, games in the hay as children, and sunny summer days throughout life.

Consider, says Ruskin, “what we owe to the meadow grass, to the covering of the dark ground by that glorious enamel, by the companies of those soft countless and peaceful spears. The fields! Follow but forth for a little time the thought of all that we ought to recognise in those words. All spring and summer is in them the walks by silent scented paths, the rests in noonday heat, the joy of herds and flocks, the power of all shepherd life and meditation, the life of sunlight upon the world, falling in emerald streaks, and soft blue shadows, where else it would have struck on the dark mould or scorching dust, pastures beside the pacing brooks, soft banks and knolls of lowly hills, thymy slopes of down overlooked by the blue line of lifted sea, crisp lawns all dim with early dew, or smooth in evening warmth of barred sunshine, dinted by happy feet, and softening in their fall the sound of loving voices.

“Go out, in the spring time, among the meadows that slope from the shores of the Swiss lakes to the roots of their lower mountains. There, mingled with the taller gentians and the white narcissus, the grass grows deep and free, and as you follow the winding mountain paths, beneath arching boughs all veiled and dim with blossom, paths, that for ever droop and rise over the green banks and mounds sweeping down in scented undulation, steep to the blue water, studded here and there with new mown heaps, filling all the air with fainter sweetness, look up towards the higher hills, where the waves of everlasting green roll silently into their long inlets among the shadows of the pines; and we may, perhaps, at last know the meaning of those quiet words of the 147th Psalm, ‘He maketh the grass to grow upon the mountains.’”

“On fine days,” he tells us again in his Autobiography, “when the grass was dry, I used to lie down on it, and draw the blades as they grew, with the ground herbage of buttercup or hawkweed mixed among them, until every square foot of meadow, or mossy bank, became an infinite picture and possession to me, and the grace and adjustment to each other of growing leaves, a subject of more curious interest to me than the composition of any painter’s masterpieces.”

In the passage above quoted, Ruskin alludes especially to Swiss meadows. They are especially remarkable in the beauty and variety of flowers. In our fields the herbage is mainly grass, and if it often happens that they glow with Buttercups or are white with Ox-eye-daisies, these are but unwelcome intruders and add nothing to the value of the hay. Swiss meadows, on the contrary, are sweet and lovely with wild Geraniums, Harebells, Bluebells, Pink Restharrow, Yellow Lady’s Bedstraw, Chervil, Eyebright, Red and White Silenes, Geraniums, Gentians, and many other flowers which have no familiar English names; all adding not only to the beauty and sweetness of the meadows, but forming a valuable part of the crop itself. On the other hand “turf” is peculiarly English, and no turf is more delightful than that of our Downs delightful to ride on, to sit on, or to walk on. The turf indeed feels so springy under our feet that walking on it seems scarcely an exertion: one could almost fancy that the Downs themselves were still rising, even higher, into the air.

The herbage of the Downs is close rather than short, hillocks of sweet thyme, tufts of golden Potentilla, of Milkwort blue, pink, and white of sweet grass and Harebells: here and there pink with Heather, or golden with Furze or Broom, while over all are the fresh air and sunshine, sweet scents, and the hum of bees. And if the Downs seem full of life and sunshine, their broad shoulders are types of kindly strength, they give also an impression of power and antiquity, while every now and then we come across a tumulus, or a group of great grey stones, the burial place of some ancient hero, or a sacred temple of our pagan forefathers.

On the Downs indeed things change slowly, and in parts of Sussex the strong slow oxen still draw the waggons laden with warm hay or golden wheat sheaves, or drag the wooden plough along the slopes of the Downs, just as they did a thousand years ago.

I love the open Down most, but without hedges England would not be England. Hedges are everywhere full of beauty and interest, and nowhere more so than at the foot of the Downs, when they are in great part composed of wild Guelder Roses and rich dark Yews, decked with festoons of Traveller’s Joy, the wild Bryonies, and garlands of Wild Roses covered with thousands of white or delicate pink flowers, each with a centre of gold.

At the foot of the Downs spring clear sparkling streams; rain from heaven purified still further by being filtered through a thousand feet of chalk; fringed with purple Loosestrife and Willowherb, starred with white Water Ranunculuses, or rich Watercress, while every now and then a brown water rat rustles in the grasses at the edge, and splashes into the water, or a pink speckled trout glides out of sight.

In many of our midland and northern counties most of the meadows lie in parallel undulations or “rigs.” These are generally about a furlong (220 yards) in length, and either one or two poles (5-1/2 or 11 yards) in breadth. They seldom run straight, but tend to curve towards the left. At each end of the field a high bank, locally called a balk, often 3 or 4 feet high, runs at right angles to the rigs. In small fields there are generally eight, but sometimes ten, of these rigs, which make in the one case 4, in the other 5 acres. These curious characters carry us back to the old tenures, and archaic cultivation of land, and to a period when the fields were not in pasture, but were arable.

They also explain our curious system of land measurement. The “acre” is the amount which a team of oxen were supposed to plough in a day. It corresponds to the German “morgen” and the French “journee.” The furlong or long “furrow” is the distance which a team of oxen can plough conveniently without stopping to rest. Oxen, as we know, were driven not with a whip, but with a goad or pole, the most convenient length for which was 16-1/2 feet, and the ancient ploughman used his “pole” or “perch” by placing it at right angles to his first furrow, thus measuring the amount he had to plough. Hence our “pole” or “perch” of 16-1/2 feet, which at first sight seems a very singular unit to have selected. This width is also convenient both for turning the plough, and also for sowing. Hence the most convenient unit of land for arable purposes was a furlong in length and a perch or pole in width.

The team generally consisted of eight oxen. Few peasants, however, possessed a whole team, several generally joining together, and dividing the produce. Hence the number of “rigs,” one for each ox. We often, however, find ten instead of eight; one being for the parson’s tithe, the other tenth going to the ploughman.

When eight oxen were employed the goad would not of course reach the leaders, which were guided by a man who walked on the near side. On arriving at the end of each furrow he turned them round, and as it was easier to pull than to push them, this gradually gave the furrow a turn towards the left, thus accounting for the slight curvature. Lastly, while the oxen rested on arriving at the end of the furrow, the ploughmen scraped off the earth which had accumulated on the coulter and ploughshare, and the accumulation of these scrapings gradually formed the balk.

It is fascinating thus to trace indications of old customs and modes of life, but it would carry us away from the present subject.

Even though the Swiss meadows may offer a greater variety, our English fields are yet rich in flowers: yellow with Cowslips and Primroses, pink with Cuckoo flowers and purple with Orchis, while, however, unwelcome to the eye of the farmer,

the rich Buttercup
Its tiny polished urn holds up,
Filled with ripe summer to the edge,

turning many a meadow into a veritable field of the cloth of gold, and there are few prettier sights in nature than an English hay field on a summer evening, with a copse perhaps at one side and a brook on the other; men with forks tossing the hay in the air to dry; women with wooden rakes arranging it in swathes ready for the great four-horse waggon, or collecting it in cocks for the night; while some way off the mowers are still at work, and we hear from time to time the pleasant sound of the whetting of the scythe. All are working with a will lest rain should come and their labour be thrown away. This too often happens. But though we often complain of our English climate, it is yet, take it all in all, one of the best in the world, being comparatively free from extremes either of heat or cold, drought or deluge. To the happy mixture of sunshine and of rain we owe the greenness of our fields,

sparkling with dewdrops
Indwelt with little angels of the Sun,
lit and warmed by golden sunshine
And fed by silver rain,
which now and again sprinkles the whole earth with diamonds.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


  • Amazon: Buy our Kindle Books

  • Search Amazon

    Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

  • Brainy Fridays Recommends:

  • Search: