“My sister Emily loved the moors . . . They were more to her than a mere spectacle; they were what she lived in and by, as much as the wild birds; their tenants, or the heather, their produce . . . She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights . . .”
On Heptonstall Moor in the afternoon, a chill wind hummed across my ears. Wet swaths of bog cotton wagged. The mats of heather were in purple flower. The sun came quickly, and sweat burned my eyes on a reach of trail; but just as quickly as the sun came, it was gone, and I shivered, my sweat chilling in the wind. In Jane Urquhart’s Changing Heaven, the ghost of Emily Brontë rides fast years of fluctuating wind and sun, cold and rain, but it is the wind her ghost becomes. I had read Changing Heaven not long before my walk to Top Withens in a September a few years ago. In Changing Heaven, the ghost of Emily Brontë acts as rapporteur, watching the travails of a literary critic who weathers romantic turmoil while living in a cottage amid Yorkshire’s moors while she writes about weather in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I picked-up Changing Heaven to reread but sat distracted in my rocking chair as I thought about the way a person can become a place. We expect Emily Brontë in the elements at Top Withens. Em—a dash of wind on the moor. Emily idles in the ruin on Top Withens. Emily Brontë in the crisp leaves fallen in the parsonage cemetery in Haworth.
We expect—not so much to find the actual Emily on the Heights—the place, Withens Moor and the stones of a ruined house at Top Withens, to breathe Emily’s breath. I bought my copy of Wuthering Heights in London and stowed it in my backpack to read as I walked her place. Expectant travellers, lured by the sense of Emily, were arriving already by the 1880s, barely 30 years after Wuthering Heights had been published. Among those looking for the Emily of the place was the then young, unknown painter Walter Sickert, who had Wuthering Heights in his bag. Later, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes came. I like to think about the two young poets, together on Top Withens, not huddling together, but each hunkered against a cold wind, each sequestering senses of the place.
If I pay the roots of the heather Too close attention, they will invite me To whiten my bones among them.
Sylvia Plath, from “Wuthering Heights”
There is also Ted Hughes’s poem “Emily Brontë:”
The wind on Crow Hill was her darling. His fierce, high tide in her ear was her secret. But his kiss was fatal.
Through her dark Paradise ran The stream she loved too well That bit her breast.
The shaggy sodden king of that kingdom Followed through the wall And lay on her love-sick bed.
The curlew trod her womb.
The stone swelled under her heart.
Her death is a baby-cry on the moor.
Plath, again from “Wuthering Heights:”
. . . the wind Pours by like destiny, bending Everything in one direction. I can feel it trying To funnel my heat away.
Plath had the sense of the place, but you sense that Hughes, on the moor with Sylvia, was dreaming of Emily; he, a curlew at her womb, was biting her breasts.
I worried about darkness. My feet and hips hurt, and my legs had tired by the time I had crossed from Heptonstall Moor, crossed the low stream between the hills, and begun to climb the slope to Withens Moor. It was 5.00 p.m. Cloud had descended. I stopped in the heather for chocolate and a drink of water. I would need, I knew, a good pace to avoid the catch of darkness at Top Withens. Lockwood, the narrator of Wuthering Heights, was caught early in the book by night and spent that night in the house on the Heights. In the room he was given for night, there was a pile of books. Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff, Catherine Linton, the various books were inscribed; it was a curious swirl of Catherines for Lockwood, who slept restlessly, caught in the cold house high on the moor. He was put-off sleep from the start when he woke quickly after first closing his eyes to “a glare of white letters started from the dark, as vivid as spectres—the air swarmed with Catherines. . .” It was only his lit candle illuminating one of the books. He slept until wakened again by a branch scraping the window, which he opened, intending to break the branch as a relief for his sleep. The branch he grabbed was a hand—“an ice-cold hand”—and a voice pleaded to be let in: “I’m come home, I’d lost my way on the moor!” I wanted to avoid crossing Withens Moor in darkness.
A rustle riffled the heather and my breath was taken. The air was grainy white cloud. The color of a crayoned ghost. The heather moved. A dirty white spot in the grainy green rift. A sheep. Every sheep became a vivified ghost on Top Withens because of Emily Brontë.
I sat in the dusk in the ruin on Top Withens. The gloom of Wuthering Heights was Catherine’s bad choice. She had a choice of places, one idyllic and the other rough and weathering. By making Catherine choose the idyllic, Emily became the wuthering place. Choice. I suspect one becomes a place only by choosing to weather, allowing the nature of a place to shape one’s prose.
The slopes of the moor were dark and the wind had roughened. A gloom was rising, partly from the low cloud, but more from the deep foliage, umber stems, and purple flowers of the heather as the light slipped away. I drank water and ate a piece of chocolate. I walked on.
* * * * Notes
The Charlotte Brontë quote at the beginning of this post is from The Brontës by Phyllis Bentley, 1969, Thames and Hudson.
Sylvia Plath’s poem “Wuthering Heights” was taken from her Collected Poems (1981, Harper and Row).
Ted Hughes’s poem “Emily Bronte” was taken form Elmet (1979, Faber and Faber).
I have used Margaret Drabble’s A Writer’s Britain (1979, Thames and Hudson) to add to my understanding of Wuthering Heights.
Quotations from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights are from a Penguin Classics edition published in 1995. I bought it in the National Portrait Gallery in London in September 1999.
The first photograph is the graveyard that lies outside of the parsonage in Haworth where Brontë family lived. The second is my ghost at high pace in the crossing of Top Withens.
The Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Ann, and Emily, and their brother Branwell from childhood wrote at a small wooden table. I cannot imagine how this table, which was hardly three feet to a side, could contain the creative and competitive energies of the four. While that confined space may have urged their communal invention of alternative worlds, the independent passions of the four, especially for the three sisters, must have heated the environment. It’s difficult to imagine how any one of the sisters could focus on the sound of her own sentences or the pace of her own words amid the scratch of three others’ pens. Quiet Emily may have been skeptical about the competition; when young, to hold her place, Emily carved her E, the same used to sign poems in her notebook, on the table’s surface.
Via Via Negativa the other day, I found a link to an essay at Simply Wait about blog rolls and what it means to link, the compromises, implications, feelings involved, and such. Why wait?--I thought, and simply linked today to Simply Wait.
The rain began last night. This was the first rain in two and a half months. I heard tentative drops as I lay in bed and woke in the night to its steady fall.
My thin, uninsulated roof acts as a tympanum to the rain. My bedroom becomes the interior of a wooden drum. These gentle night rains—they stretch across the early light of morning—are reminiscent of the music of Kevin Volans.
This evening I drove in the rain to Idaho to listen to chamber music in a darkly stained auditorium. In Mozart, there is the lightness of Northwest rain.
The darkness closes on these rainy nights. I don’t like to drive when there is so little light, but there was the comfort of Bach on the radio. At home, now, I welcome blackness and drink a cup of dark Chinese tea. Large drops fall, unmelodic, on the roof, tentative again.
It’s only the beginning of the fourth week of classes, but I had scheduled an exam for today. My advanced undergraduate/graduate plant diversity course consists mostly this year of undergraduates rather than graduate students, and this led me to change the course considerably. One of those changes was to add an exam near the beginning of the course. I begin this course with a set of lectures on a few basic concepts (phylogeny reconstruction, homology, novelty, inferences of evolutionary time, and historical biogeography [because I am running behind in my lectures as usual the latter topic will need to wait until the next, post-exam, lecture]) that we will use throughout the semester to comprehend the diversity of plants. The first exam was scheduled to coincide with the end of the basic concepts lectures and to serve as a punctuation point before we begin to explore various lineages of plants.
I began to write the exam last Friday and finished it yesterday afternoon. There were exams, especially for introductory biology courses that I taught earlier in my career, that I might have spent four days writing—those were the challenging multiple-choice exams in which students would need to work to select among the alternatives. My first exam for this fall’s plant diversity course took a few hours to write; it’s not too long—only six questions. I had intended to have only five questions but a couple of them seemed too simple. And, I suppose, the questions aren’t really questions. I have been using for this course statements from the botanical literature—snatched from context—and have been asking the students to evaluate them using what they’ve learned in the course. The quotations I use come sometimes from quirky or esoteric pieces that have been published in recent years but most are from older literature published in the first half of the 20th century, when our knowledge of biological diversity was much skimpier than now. I enjoy reading through old botanical texts and monographs to find the snippets to use for exams—they are oddly contemporary in the dilemmas the authors present.
As a test I ask the students to evaluate and interpret the quoted statements on the exam in a thoughtful and cogent fashion using the materials from my lectures. I ask them to compose well-written answers and emphasize that clarity and sense are important aspects of grading. I always look forward to reading the students’ responses on these exams to see how each thought about the issues posed by the snippets I’ve extracted from the literature as well as to see how each has understood the lectures and reconstructed them to respond to the issues of the test.
I distributed the exam in class this morning. A student suggested that a week would be a reasonable amount of time to complete it, and the other students seemed to agree. I encouraged them to discuss with each other the quotations on the exam, their meaning and interpretation, and how they related to the content of course; in those discussions, I hope, will be the next phase of learning. There is learning also, I hope, when the individual students begin to structure and formalize responses for the exam.
As it washed over a stone, the necklace broke. The pieces slid round the stone. The ends of the braided chain swept outward around the curve of the rock and over the next cobble. I reached for it, and, breaking the surface of the water, other necklaces broke, the delicate strands scattered.
They were only shadows. I sat back on a boulder at the side the Lochsa River. In this reach, the channel expanded, and the water fanned outward from a smooth surfaced central vein toward broader margins. The water moving over shallow cobbles was braided into surface rivulets. These textured braids made shadows of round baubles on chains against the stones. As the water fanned, the baubled chains curved and, where the water eddied as the flow twisted and reflected near shore, the chains made rings, necklaces.
The strings broke over a near white stone. I watched the pieces scatter and circle around then reform new necklaces, ends joined, black shadow baubles small and large in place. A back clasp closed just as I stood, thinking that I might reach again, while the black jewel string washed away.
The moon last night, a full forearm into the sky, sitting above the treetops, was orange. This was not a harvest moon. It was too high and only half. Full harvest moons rise from the horizon bright orange, the size of an orange at arm’s length.
The moon was the color of bittersweet. I thought about the fruits of bittersweet—how the fruit wall splits into three valves, making a tricorne cap, that reflex from the orange-covered seeds. That orange covering on the seeds—an aril—calls attention to the fruits. I recall the aril’s sharp accent as the eye catcher in the woods in Iowa at midwinter when all else was brown bark or white snow. I would walk the forested hollows when I returned to visit my mother at Christmas. By midwinter, the bittersweet arils had shrunken and puckered; their color had deepened to dark, burnt orange.
The moon last night looked like bittersweet in the dark sky. The moon’s craters like the puckers of a bittersweet aril. This bittersweet moon was a burnt orange. It sat in the smoke of forest fires that has again enveloped us.