Thursday, 6 November 2014

November 5th 2014 - Jefferies' Mulberry Tree

The writer, commentator and inspirational thinker Richard Jefferies is a bedrock for anyone who is attuned to 'Spirit of Place' nature writing and environmentalism. So it was that yesterday as a Trustee of the recently formed Richard Jefferies Museum Trust, I attended a Sustainability Self-Assessment Framework meeting. Distilling down the jargon, this process allowed the Trustees and Management team to realistically assess where the Museum has come in the first 12 months of its phoenix like rebirth, assess our structure and process thus allowing a recognised and agreed benchmark to work towards in the future.

Expertly chaired by Liz (a Museums Development Officer for the South West Museums Sustainability Programme) this was the second meeting and as a Trustee I found this thoroughly insightful and stimulating. It is hard to think that only a couple of years ago the Museum was threatened with closure, the property would likely have been sold off and that would have been the end of road for Jefferies' birthplace. Two days of discussion really has put down the seeds of sustainable development which following peer to peer review can provide a solid foundation as the Museum moves forward.

I'd taken 2 days annual leave to attend this meeting and although we pushed ourselves hard, we allowed ourselves half an hour for lunch. As the Museum is currently closed for the winter, I wandered into the garden and sat by The Mulberry Tree, now shedding its leaves rapidly as the November chill gathers around its fissured trunk.

This is not just any mulberry tree, but a mulberry tree thought to be close to 180 years old and planted by Richard Jefferies father, James Luckett Jefferies. James inherited the 40 acre farm in 1825 and my imagination as I sat there wandered through the thought that maybe the tree could have been planted as a 10th anniversary of their time here; possibly a celebration to a successful few years as farmers. But that is pure speculation on my part. What is known is that by the time Richard Jefferies himself was a child, the tree would have been around 20 to 30 years old and presumably bearing fruit, something it still does today.

I sat quietly having lunch, watching the odd leaf listlessly fall onto the lawn as only leaves can do in November. It then struck me that although I am seeing a part of the landscape Jefferies himself saw and intimately knew, in reality I am not seeing what he saw, but a relic of that image. Jefferies the child would have seen a young tree, full of vigour, life, energy maturing slowly as he too matured as a young man forming and gathering his ideas on nature and the countryside. Today I looked upon Jefferies’ tree, its remaining heart shaped leaves citrus shimmering in a weak November sun, but it is a tree in its more mature phase. It is beautiful yes, but battered and bruised by its endurance over a long life. Yet for me it provides a direct link to that ‘Spirit of Place’ Jefferies' writing encapsulates.

Mulberry trees are prone to fall over or lose limbs as they grow to maturity. And Jefferies’ mulberry is no exception. In the morning of September 23rd 2007, gales blew across Central England and the tree split in two, losing a main branch. Whilst sad aesthetically, this is natural in many species of tree as they mature and will not affect their lifespan. Indeed mulberry trees often fall over onto the ground and sucker. That fallen branch lying across the lawn in 2007, had it not been cleared away but left in situ, would undoubtedly have suckered from where it touched the earth, thereby rejuvenating and strengthening its presence by 'walking' youthful like across a garden landscape. Many trees do this, the common lime especially.

What is known is that Jefferies regularly sat under this tree during his time here, and unusually (as he was not known to be a prolific poet) composed a poem entitled The Tree Of Life, which when it was published on November 8th 1890 (three years after his death) went under the title of The Mulberry Tree.

Image courtesy of Rebecca Welshman - @Jefferiesauthor
I gazed upon the tree before me, like Jefferies undoubtedly did, lost in thought that like Jefferies writing, like the concept of Spirit of Place, through time, as the years go by, ghosts of those who trod lightly echo within the imagination. Their presence seeps into our very body and soul to create a moment, a moment that in the blink of an eye, is gone. Rising, I trod lightly myself around the tree gathering leaves for no other reason than it felt the right thing to do, to gather a part of Jefferies' to take away with me and to gaze upon over time. As I write, I have those leaves beside me; a physical reminder of a moment in thought.

Oh, mulberry tree, oh mulberry tree
Dear are thy spreading boughs to me.
Beneath their cool and friendly shade
My earliest childhood laughed and played.
Or, lips all stained with rich red fruit
Slept in the long grass at thy root.

Oh mulberry tree, oh mulberry tree !
The yellow moonlight shone on thee.
A few low words - a gentle sigh,
A tear within the upturned eye.
“I love—my fate to thee resign"—
A nameless thrill, and she was mine.

The mid-day sun in splendour blazed,
And all who stood around me praised.
The deed was done, the fame went round,
My brows with laurel leaves were crowned
My first—my proudest victory
Beneath thy boughs, oh mulberry tree.

The tears of Heaven were falling fast,
Mourning the memory of the past.
I knelt beneath the broken limb
In rain and night, and wept for him.
I saw the tomb - the planks laid there,
To slide the coffin to its lair,
"Ashes to ashes", this the end,
My first, my last - my only friend!

The morning stars grew pale and few,
In chilly draughts the east wind blew,
Lifting the black and frost-strewn leaves
In rustling eddies to the eaves.
Deceived no more with life's vain lies,
And all things equal in mine eyes,
I wait still near the mulberry tree
The dawning of eternity.

Whoe'er shall pluck the mulberry tree,
Bitter and sweet its fruit shall be;
Such - joy and misery still at strife -
The berries of the Tree of Life


  1. A beautiful and interesting post Andrew - lovely to see the images of the Museum and The Mulberry Tree and to read the poem. I am sure you have seen the feature on Richard Jefferies in the latest issue of British Wildlife Magazine - hopefully it will encourage many more people to discover his superb writing.

  2. What a lovely old tree. Lovely poem as well.

  3. Thank you Caroline and Oldcrow - it is an amazing and ispiring place and the ghost of Jefferies does walk by. And Caroline I haven't seen the latest edition of Brisith Wildlife so will dig it out.