Tree

 

‘A strong emotion is like a storm. If you look at a tree in a storm, the top of the tree seems fragile, like it might break at any moment. You are afraid the storm might uproot the tree. But if you turn your attention to the trunk of the tree, you realise that its roots are deeply anchored in the ground, and you see that the tree will be able to hold. You too are a tree. During a storm of emotion, you should not stay at the level of the head or the heart, which are like the top of the tree. You have to leave the heart, the eye of the storm, and come back to the trunk of the tree…’

(Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Master)

THE TREE stood on its own in a shallow dip, holding on, quietly. We passed it twice as we tramped the well-trodden path from the Brontes’ family home in Haworth, towards the ruined farmhouse of Top Withens – supposed inspiration for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The day was unusually still and bright – for this early in April; for this high up on the Yorkshire Moors.

“I wonder if Emily knew that tree?” said my companion. “I am sure she must have – it looks more than 150 years old.”

It was a strange and thrilling thing: to be here, looking at this shabby, crumpled tree, covered in lichen, bent over at the hip, as if crippled with arthritis, but still standing, weathering all its storms – and to stare into the face of history.

I have written about the Brontes before, here. The world is still obsessed with them: their gothic excesses, their prodigious, precocious talents. And Emily, wild child of the moors -dead at just 30 years old, in 1848 – was the most extravagant and untrammelled of them all.

The Japanese seem particularly enamoured: old wooden way posts to the Bronte Waterfalls and Top Withens are marked both in English and Japanese. It seems incongruous – too exotic by far – for such a quintessential Yorkshire scene: bleak and bare, even in the happy sunshine of our April visit.

The heather was still dry and dead – the path still waterlogged from winter storms and rain. There were  certainly plenty of walkers about. Much happy chatter – dogs running, children shouting. But beneath it all: a well of silence. A quiet expanse of emptiness. And the blunt and beautiful Yorkshire moorland caught me, as it always does, and made me stop in my tracks, hold my breath.

In the middle of it all – unassuming, hanging back from the crowd, just as Emily herself  did, according to sister Charlotte – was this solitary tree. A little anchor between past and present. Between the living and the dead.

I think Emily DID know and love this tree, as she loved everything that moved and grew on the moorlands where she lived and roamed. I am sure it gave her solace, in the middle of her wild wanderings – her desperate escapes from the difficult and suffocating life she lived, as an unmarried woman, in a Victorian time, in a buttoned-up country Parsonage. And if she didn’t, it doesn’t matter. Because I love this tree now. For the moment of  sweet anchor it offered: on an ordinary day, in a perfectly ordinary life.

Up on the moors with Emily Bronte

“Emily loved the solemn moors, she loved all wild, free creatures and things.” (Literary News, 1883)

THE BRONTE SISTERS are much on my mind this autumn. This year, 2016, marks the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth: and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I teach a creative writing session every Wednesday, is celebrating with an eclectic season of readings and re-imaginings of her work. My writers, meanwhile, are setting free their imaginations, to invent poems and prose, inspired by the mighty and evergreen themes that Charlotte and Emily in particular examined, with such forensic intensity. Freedom and incarceration. Love and loyalty. Solitude and surveillance. The passions and confinements of women. Life: and the very-present shadow of death.

Last week I ventured over to Haworth, former home of the Brontes,to tread the ground which gave rise to such a powerful and enduring literary canon. Leeds, in West Yorkshire, where I live, is only a hop and a skip away from the high stone village, where the Brontes spent their childhoods – and which forms a bold, symbolic backdrop to all their writing. I took the train from Leeds to Keighley, on the Skipton line. Then a glorious steam train from Keighley to Haworth(ignoring the beer festival which took over most of the carriages en route). A steep old walk from the station, through the well-kept park, and up the narrow cobble road of the village, took me to the Parsonage itself: once the Bronte family house, now a museum and proud keeper of the Bronte flame.

Inevitably, the Brontes have become a heritage industry of great value. Tourists flock from all over the world, to catch a glimpse of the buildings and landscape immmortalised in ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. But it is October. The weather is closing in, and the visitors are melting away. And on a clear autumnal day such as this was, the beauty and the elemental starkness of Haworth shone through with compelling force, unclouded by crowds and cameras and chatter.

So there was the Parsonage – grey and sturdy. Across the courtyard garden – the cemetery. Down a small slope – the church, where all the Brontes, save Anne, are buried. And, just a short walk up through the churchyard – a meadow, walled with blunt Yorkshire stone. Beyond that – the crags, the wild bare expanses of the Moors themselves. (See the photo above). This was what Emily would have seen, looking out of her Parsonage window. These indeed were the “heights”, the bleak and “wuthering”,”blustery and turbulent”, hills. And it stirred me, to see them.

Of the two writing sisters – Emily and Charlotte – Charlotte Bronte is, to me, the most sophisticated and subtle, by far; and of the two women, Emily – who died so young, so troubled – is by far the wildest. It is Charlotte I would read, for insight into the human condition. But it is Emily I would invoke, if I found myself fearful, spirit flagging, heart weak. She was a girl devastated by losses and grief (as her poem “Remembrance” so powerfully reveals); she was unable, it seems, to overcome her pain, and to function fully, in the way that Charlotte somehow managed to. And yet, when she travelled to Brussels with Charlotte, the head of the school where they enrolled and taught, Monsieur Heger, described her – with remorseless sexism, but telling psychological insight – thus: “She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty…”

Emily died in 1848, one year after ‘Wuthering Heights’ was published. She never knew the extraordinary effect it had on generations of readers to come. It is a deeply imperfect piece of writing. But it is a clenched fist to the heart and the stomach. It has real power. Full of contradictions, Emily herself – profoundly shy and yet physically courageous, chained to her moors and yet flying high and free in her imagination – was tender to the last. She died just three months after brother Branwell. The housemaid said, “Miss Emily died of a broken heart, for the love of her brother.” She was so small and thin, her coffin was only sixteen inches wide.

The last words must be hers, channelled though Catherine Earnshaw, in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and I like to think of her, running hell for leather, like her alter ego Catherine, across the boundless heather she invokes so passionately.

“Oh, I’m burning! I wish I were out of doors – I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free… I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills…Open the window again wide, fasten it open!”

Wild Wednesdays 1: Rocks

IT’S BEEN such a long time since I’ve been out of the city: properly out into the wildness of the Yorkshire countryside. The dark wet winter has driven me further and further into small rooms, by warm radiators, under the bed covers, reading, reading; dreaming, dreaming. But enough is enough. I  recently decided, whatever the weather, to get OUT every Wednesday. Not into the beautiful local woodland and park that I visit every Thursday – with the dog I look after for the day, the miraculous and cheerful Badger – but properly away from it all. Sea. Rocks. Moors. Wildness, after all, is what Yorkshire does best. So that’s what I did last Wednesday. I drove out to Brimham Rocks, a fabulous cluster of  stones – flung from the heavens by some ancient angry god  – that cling to the hillsides of North Yorkshire, beyond Harrogate, through villages with suitably horrifying names, such as Bedlam: out in the high,winding, blowy, abandoned beyond.   Problem was, it was lashing with rain. The sky was leaden grey. The winds were whipping. The ever narrower roads leading up to the rocks were awash with puddles, which in places were deepening into pools and sloshing from kerb to kerb with unnerving speed and treacherous, indeterminate depth. I have a small car. It’s old. I was the only person (not in a land  rover) crazy enough to keep driving up those snaky little lanes – in a downpour that showed no signs at all of abating, and indeed was getting worse, second by second. Still, I made it to the top. Parked the car. Slid around a bit, from rock to rock, astonished by the freezing cut of the rain against my skin, and the sharpness of the winds, that seemed to take my breath and hurl it to the ground, smashing it to pieces, just for sport. I was soaked  within minutes. Ran back to the car. Ate a consoling sandwich. And drove back home. One hour there, one hour back. Time on the rocks? Ten minutes tops. But it was worth it. Really it was. Just to remember that other world, the one away from  computers and bank accounts and bills and the washing up. The world that will not be mastered. The one the Brontes knew, only too well. The wild world out there. Terrifying. Beautiful. Essential.