I often think about the Bronte sisters at this time of the year, as they loved wild weather and their haunted literature summons the elements in a primal way that deeply inspires me. The word “wuthering” means a strong wind or place where there is a strong wind, coming from old Norse, the word is picked up in Yorkshire dialect. It sounds a blustery, feral word and Emily Bronte chose it to name the hostile place at the heart of her only novel. At the beginning of the story, it is a gale that traps Lockwood for the night at Wuthering Heights, where he witnesses the extraordinary visitation of Catherine Linton:
As it (the ghost of Catherine) spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window-Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes: still it wailed, “Let me in!” and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear.Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights (18)
Emily was a child of nature, her whole being responding to the world around her, intimate with the natural cycles. Her characters are, likewise embedded in the narrow, harsh environment that she knew. She is best known for her novel but she also wrote poetry, her sharp-eyed observations reminding us that life is followed by death and the falling leaves in autumn are an metaphor of this:
Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;Emily Bronte
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths or snow
Blossoms where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
What is different, strange, is that Emily Bronte celebrates decay and death, as if it is the element she thrives in.
As we walk through the Sayer’s Croft Nature Reserve, the wind whistling through the highest branches of the oaks and beech trees I understand what Emily’s sister Anne experienced when she wrote:
In a wood on a windy dayAnne Bronte
My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
Literature summons sensibilities from across time to share their world with us; it is consoling to know that we can identify with emotions felt by three withdrawn, lonely sisters living in an isolated parsonage in mid-nineteenth century Yorkshire.
The feeling in the wood is wild and exciting, the trees are alive and the exhilaration runs in our blood too. The day we walk is bright and sunny, following heavy rain on previous days, and the trees are clinging onto their leaves: the oranges, reds and yellows against blue sky are like impressionist paintings, influenced by Japanese landscape art, by artists like Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, who capture a particular quality of light which is present in autumn.
Coneyhurst Gill, a stream that is fed from rain falling on the hills, is now racing through the wood and the fast-flowing water has formed rapids where it passes over rocks and plunges down the steeper reaches. The valley this stream has cut is quite steep sided in places and a number of ferns grow on the banks, where few other plants are able to get a foothold. The Lady Fern is an attractive plant, which thrives in this habitat and stands out at this time of year, when other vegetation has died down.
One of the joys of autumn is seeing the paths covered in several inches of fallen leaves and wading through these in wellies. The beech leaves are very beautiful, having turned a coppery bronze and seem to shine like rich, precious metal in the sunlight. Mixed in with these are the darker, tougher oak and paler silver birch and hazel, with the bigger splash of colour that the large sycamore leaves add. Out of the wood a flock of crows break, disturbed by something and the wood pigeons join them, spooked by the clamour of noise.
This typical woodland landscape finds an evocative resonance in Horatio Clare’s wonderful account of his walk in J S Bach’s footsteps two years ago. Bach made a pilgrimage from Arnstadt to Lubeck in 1705, to meet Dietrich Buxtehude, the celebrated organist and composer. It was some walk, over 250 miles and crossing varied terrain in northern Germany. It was worth it, for Buxtehude was to remain a life-long inspiration for Bach. Here is Clare’s description of autumn in the Oderwald Forest:
The soil is brown-grey clay, ideal for beech trees, and aromatic, the air filled with the sweet-rich smell of beech, which seems both green and brown. All over the land the light is lovely, a pearly glow of veiled sun which attaches light to surfaces, rather than bouncing it off them. Misty air rises from the ground as high cloud above us disperses. The path narrows to a boot’s width, the beeches lined silver like elephant’s legs. In the upper canopy their leaves are sprays of gold and russet.Horatio Clare
A description acknowledging the importance of the sense of smell. The breaking down of leaves, abundant fungi and lower temperatures all contribute to that indefinable, musty smell that lingers in woodlands.
Another smell filling people with nostalgia is that of wood-smoke; if the air is still and misty the smoke will linger. A bonfire is burning in the field by Cobbler’s Brook; skeins of smoke drift in the dampness and the fire makes a cheerful sight in an otherwise dreary day as we walk down the path into the woodland. There has been a lot of rain and gales, so the brook is very full and there are many fallen branches laying under the trees. On days like this woods can seem dismal places, with only grey light penetrating the branches. A few squirrels are busy in the canopy tops, and two young ones chase each other. As we cross the bridge walking to Yard Farm I see a flock of Herring Gulls gathering on the field. These birds must have found a good food source in the soil, as it is unusual in this area to see them congregating. In the past gulls would follow the plough, where arable crops were sown, making a yearly spectacle. Today, inland birds are more likely to seek out landfill sites and rubbish tips.
Climbing up the Hilly field to the copse bordering it you can look back towards Pitch and Holmbury Hills. Both are shrouded in low mist and only the shadowed forms of the hills can be made out. There is a loneliness cast upon the scene, leading me, again, to reflect on the different world of the Bronte sisters. Although rural depopulation was well under-way in their lives, the countryside still provided plenty of employment; farming was a labour-intensive occupation and remained so until the inter-war period of the twentieth century. The sisters would have been familiar with the sight of people working the land, as would anybody living in the countryside. Heathcliff, before he runs away from the Heights, is employed as a farm hand and is treated miserably; when Catherine moves to Thrushcross Grange in the lowland dales, the Linton’s acres are worked by tenant farmers. In short, there is a sense of busyness. Today, and this is something I have been acutely aware of in the months I’ve been walking around Ewhurst, things are very different. Most of the people that a rambler sees are in the countryside for recreational purposes, they walk, ride (both horses and bikes), they run, go shooting or exercise dogs. Vast acres of farmland and woodland encircle the village but it is rare to see a human being working the land. In July the hay was cut, hedges are sometimes cut and stable workers can be seen mucking out and so on but in general people are not bound to the land. There are many reasons for this, the most important is mechanisation, which allows one person to do the work of many with great efficiency. Many would argue that this is a good thing and it would certainly be foolish to sentimentalise the sons of the soil: how at this time of year the peasants must have been filled with dread anticipating toiling for hours on end, exposed to bleak winter weather for months. And yet, there is an existential hole in the contemporary countryside, we moderns have become passive onlookers who do not really understand the natural cycles our forebears took for granted.
This dislocation lies at the heart of the Welsh curate/ poet R S Thomas’s pessimism. Man bereft in a landscape that has become alien seems to be a central theme in his poem October on the Land:
A man, a field, silence-what is there to say?R S Thomas
He lives, he moves, and the October day
Burns slowly down.
History is made
Elsewhere; the hours forfeit to time’s blade
Don’t matter here. The leaves large and small,
Shed by the branches, unlamented fall
About his shoulders. You may look in vain
Through the eye’s window; on his meagre hearth
The thin, shy soul has not begun its reign
Over the darkness. Beauty, love and mirth
And joy are strangers there.
You must revise
Your bland philosophy of nature, earth
Has of itself no power to make men wise.
Thomas’s anti-romantic vision, in which the man simply exists in the here and now, a figure in the landscape, warns us against idealising nature. The peasant’s life does not change and he has nothing to look forward to, born into a world where the boundaries are set from the beginning of life and drudgery is his inheritance. This stark expression of autumn points to the Janus-faced character of October; it can be warm and consoling or harsh and forbidding.