This Blasted World by Robert Lynd

Story type: Essay

Everything has begun to have a blasted look till the sun shines. The ferns have been beaten down by the wind and the rain, and lie withered and broken-backed among the brambles, waiting till some poor man thinks it worth his while to go off with a load of them on his back for bedding. The brambles, too, all hoops and arches, have the air of dying things, though white blossoms still continue to appear, and the fruit is not yet all ripened and many of the leaves are as red and bright as flowers. The edges of most of the leaves have began to crumple: they are victims of a creeping sickness that eats into them and dirties them, and makes bramble and fern together an inextricable wilderness of refuse.

This, however, is only if one looks too closely. The hill that loses itself among the rocks on the sea-shore is capped and patched with just such refuse as this, but how happily the rust-colour of dying things is broken by the grey of the loose stone walls–“hedges,” they call them in Cornwall–that seem to totter up the hill like old men! The mist of rain that leaves each individual plant bedraggled seems to make the red and green and grey pattern of the patched hill only more beautiful and mysterious. The truth is, winter speaks with two voices even in these early days. She has one voice that sends cold shivers down our backs. She has another voice that is refreshment like water from a spring. She speaks with the first voice in the crooked trees. In the summer they were cloaked and glorious. Now, when their cloaks seem so much more necessary, they are left naked, poor creatures, their backs to the sea-wind, with the air of runaways unable to escape. They seem bent and poised for flight, but when a blast of wind comes and tugs at them they are as the stump of a tooth that will not move, and the leaves (such of them as are left), which in summer made a music as pleasant as that of windbells, rattle in their branches like the laughter of a skeleton. The oak and the thorn-bush could scarcely writhe more if they were crippled by rheumatism. Every leaf on the sycamore is spotted as if with some foul black acid.

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Here, too, however, as soon as the leaves have fallen, the world is restored to cheerfulness. The withering tree seems a sufferer. The fallen leaf is an imp, an adventurer. As the wind sweeps round a bend in the road, leaf after leaf is up and performing cart-wheels down the road as if Christmas Day had come. Thousands of them, borne along in a dance of this kind, advance with the beflustered, orderly air of a procession of starlings. The world ceases to be a universal grave. It is at the very least a dance and a dust-storm.

There are some days, no doubt, on which the chill damp in the air seems to terrify almost every living thing into hiding, and the stillness of the dead world is not disturbed by any bird or insect. Even the jackdaws have mysteriously disappeared like melted snow. But no sooner does the storm in the sky break up into floating islands of cloud and the sun shine than all the world begins to glitter again, bramble and ivy and stone, and a host of tiny and coloured creatures resume their game of an infinite general post in the bright air. The ivy especially is a little continent of life where-ever it grows. Clambering over a wall or climbing up among the sloes in a blackthorn it attracts bee and wasp and fly, blue fly and grey fly and green fly, to graze on the pollen of its late flowers. The ivy is the last of the plants to flower, and insects come to it as from the ends of the earth in rejoicing myriads. Among the berries in the hedges the birds, too, rejoice. The robin, though for the most part, I believe, a meat-eater, becomes unambiguously happy at this time of year. He has usurped the morning, and, while one is lying in bed, he is boasting in the trees outside where the thrush and the blackbird will in a few months be boasting with their scarcely more beautiful voices. I am half persuaded that his song becomes different at this season. As he sits and sways on the top of a cypress and looks down on a rich and eatable world, he seems to have cast every note of pensive sadness out of his being and to sing aloud the rapture of a happy stomach. He is no longer the singer of elegy but of ecstasy. He is as unlike his old simple, friendly, appealing, pathetic self as a beggar who has come into a fortune. He actually swaggers, and, as he does so, he can fill a garden or a wood at the end of October with the pleasure of spring.

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The large titmouse in its dark cap, and the blue-tit, almost too pretty for an English winter in its blue and yellow coat, also hasten to the feast of the berries. I do not know whether, under the iron reign of high prices, people have ceased to hang out coco-nuts in their gardens for the blue-tits; at present, fortunately, the berries are abundant, and it is pleasant to see a tit venture to the edge of the road in quest of one and then fly off into hiding, like a thief, with a red ball in his beak. A scarcely less pretty bird that one sees flying across the road now and then with cries of alarm is the grey wagtail. The grey wagtail, you probably know, is the wagtail that is not grey. As it struggles and shrills through the sunny air, it seems a delight mainly of yellow. Both its cries and its flight make one think that it lives in constant terror of falling. It proceeds through the air in a series of efforts and ups-and-downs, and its long tail seems perpetually to threaten to misguide it into collapse. Down among the rocks and in the fields near them, the real grey wagtails abound–the pied wagtails, as they are called–with their white cheeks and their less hysterical voices that greet one in passing with a pleasant little “Cheerio!” As they alight from the air beside a puddle, they indulge in a little prance as though they were trying to cut a figure of eight on nothing or were essaying in some manner to sweep their tails out of way. Their whole existence, however, is a dance. Whether they pick their food from the rocks or in a field of cows, the alert head and jerking tail are never still, but are nervously ready for flight almost before the hint of danger. And they have usually with them as nervous companions the rock-pipits, charming little tight-skinned, low-crowned birds that hurry off wavily through the air, reiterating their solitary note of fear as they fly. The starlings, which seemed to disappear for a time, have now returned to the fields near the sea. They have left their wonderful sheen somewhere behind them, and are mottled and plebeian. Still, to see a cloud of them alighting in a field at the end of a swift circle of flight is a pretty enough spectacle.

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The evolutions of cavalry and still more of aeroplanes are elementary compared to this. Close-packed as they are, a thousand of them will wheel in order without an accident and alight each on his own patch of ground with the easy grace of acrobats. It is only when they have found their feet that the disorder begins. Whether it is worms or insects or verdure they seek among the grazing cows, there is evidently little enough to go round, and starling fights starling with peck and protest all over the field. It is a scene of civil war, save that the birds do not form themselves into sides but each wrestles with its neighbour at random. But, after all, they are very hungry. They cluster ravenously on the green patches, even on the sides of the old stone walls. They have evidently not had the economic question settled for them as the cows have.

Luckily, other birds are either less desperate or more pacific by nature. The stone-chat as he flits from bramble to bramble in his black cap, white collar, and red bib is a bird of charming behaviour as well as of charming colour. There is nothing in him at discord with these rainbow days. For stormy as they are, the days are rainbow days to an astonishing extent. Seldom have I seen such a violence of rainbows. The colours almost startle one, like a courting ape’s. Every passing shower builds an arch of the seven colours like a palace on the sea. Then it draws near till the foot of the rainbow stands a few yards below over the breaking waves. Sea-birds sail through it, and, if a pot of gold is really to be found at the end of it, I must often lately have been within touching distance of a fortune…. At night, Jupiter–it is Jupiter, is it not? that hangs in the V of Aldebaran about eight or nine in the evening just now–stills the world to wonder as the rainbow does by day. He is so splendid a fire as to seem almost solitary, even when the moon is shining. A few evenings ago, he shed a path of light over the sea as the moon does, and seemed to light up the sands on the far side of the bay…. It is undoubtedly a blasted world, but what a beautiful blasted world! It is a pity that we and the starlings are so belly-driven that we cannot settle down to enjoy it. Peck, peck. My worm, I think. Peck, peck, peck.

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