Category Archives: Nature

Wuthering Heights revisited

View from Top Withens - by Graham Hogg

View from Top Withins by Graham Hogg

Wild, windswept solitude; a place where the spirit runs free. That, for me, was the original attraction of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I was a young teenager when I first read the book and was gripped from the start. My English teacher had asked that we read just a few chapters at a time so that we could discuss it as we went along. However, I finished the book within a couple of days, apparently no more capable of restraint than some of the characters I was reading about.

Earlier this year, when I was too ill to do much else, I decided to read it again. I could remember almost nothing of it: A vague impression of wild and windy moorland and a ghostly Catherine crying through the window at night was all that I could recall, so I wanted to remind myself of the story and find out whether it still held the same magic as it did nearly forty years ago.

It began well. Emily was a great storyteller, of that there is no doubt. However, the more I read of the story, the more I began to lose sympathy with its characters, continuing to read only out of a somewhat morbid fascination as to how it would all turn out. Whilst I had been dimly aware that there was a darker side to the lives of Catherine and Heathcliff, I was completely unprepared for the depth of ugliness into which the tale descends. For me, it began to read like a nineteenth century version of Twilight in which Edward is rejected by Bella and spends the following years taking long, slow and painful revenge on everyone with whom she is connected.

Perhaps because of this, I found the end a little disappointing at first. Having painted such a remarkable portrait of her anti-hero, it felt almost as if Emily was disposing of him simply in order to set the young people free and hence bring the story to a satisfying close. That such an apparently strong and focused individual should end as he did, didn’t feel entirely believable. As Nellie puts it in the penultimate chapter:

He was neither in danger of losing his senses, nor dying, according to my judgement: he was quite strong and healthy; and, as to his reason, from childhood he had a delight in dwelling on dark things, and entertaining odd fancies. He might have had a monomania on the subject of his departed idol; but on every other point his wits were as sound as mine.

On further reflection, however, it occurred to me that this is exactly how depressive illness can look from the outside. Those looking in often have no idea what is going on in the mind of the person who is ill until the depression overwhelms them.

The book was written at a time when mental illness and suicide were very poorly understood. It wasn’t until 1823, for example, when Emily was five, that those who had taken their own life could be buried in consecrated ground. Even then, it was far from generally accepted that they would ‘rest in peace’ and they were frequently buried, without ceremony, in an out-of-the-way corner of the churchyard where there was little risk of anyone encountering their unquiet souls.

It’s against this kind of background that Emily is using her characters to explore the tensions between true love and the restraints of early Victorian society; between suicidal ideation and popular belief, taboo and superstition. Catherine, for example, does not marry below her station and Heathcliff – an orphan – is shunned. Similarly, Catherine is buried, ‘to the surprise of the villagers’, in a neglected corner of the churchyard. Of Hindley, it is said that, by rights, his body ‘should be buried at a crossroads without ceremony of any kind’ and of Heathcliff that his burial was ‘without ceremony’.

In the light of this, the words of Lockwood in the closing paragraph of the book are worthy of note:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

Ultimately, perhaps, Emily uses Heathcliff’s demise not so much to bring about the redemption of the young people as to provide for the possibility of his own redemption and that of Catherine, Hindley and (by extension) all those who are tempted by suicide? If so, it’s a more powerful book than I ever realised.

‘The soft wind breathing through the grass.’

As I have said, it was the wild, moorland beauty that originally captured my imagination in Wuthering Heights. Some years later, I was to end up living for a short time in the village where Emily Brontë wrote the book. This was not by design. I had no idea that Haworth was the home of the Brontë family before moving there. Nor did I know anything about the area. Yet of all the places I have lived, it remains my favourite. My love for the moors has never died.

Ruins of Forks House - Haworth Moor - by Graham Hogg

Ruins of Forks House by Graham Hogg

A week ago, my youngest daughter graduated from York University. This is a good few hours away from Somerset by car and the unforgiving nature of the ME/CFS meant that there was no way I was going to make it to the graduation without some careful planning. So we elected to spend a week in the Yorkshire Dales – Nidderdale to be precise – and to break the journey both there and back with an overnight stay half way. This worked well. So, after more years than I care to count, we found ourselves back in the Yorkshire Dales. (Some may have noticed my absence from the blogs).

Nidderdale was beautiful, though not as wild and bleak as Haworth Moor:

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Not quite Wuthering Heights revisited, then 😉 However, on the way home, I just couldn’t resist a visit to the village we once called home:

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The sage awakes

Here it is:

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‘The sage awakes to light in the night of all creatures,’ says the Bhagavad Gita. I think it’s talking about a different kind of sage, but I like it all the same. ‘The sage awakes to light…’

I planted this over a year ago. It started as a tiny seed and had grown into a small bush by the end of the summer. Over the winter, it slept. And now this! (The photo was taken last week, when the sun was shining).

I had no idea it would do this. I mean, I knew that sage had flowers and I knew that the bees liked them, but I had never seen them. I just thought ‘some herbs would be nice’ and put in the seeds. What a wonderful surprise! I love it!

Very sun. Many purple. Well excite 🙂

The bees love it too:

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Interestingly, despite the fact that both awake with the light, the words ‘sage’ and ‘sage’ have different roots. According to the Oxford dictionary of etymology:

  • Sage, as in the plant, comes from the French suage, which comes from the Latin salvia meaning ‘healing’.
  • Sage, as in the wise person, comes from the Latin sapere meaning wise.
  • Sagacious comes from the Latin sagire meaning discern acutely.

 

But perhaps this doesn’t matter, since it seems that sage awakes the brain anyway, which is going to make anyone more discerning. Maybe I should try it?

 

Colours of day

Among my Christmas presents this year were two colouring books. As a result, I have been rediscovering just how relaxing a hobby this is. Headaches have become a real problem in recent weeks – often triggered by even the smallest amount of ‘input’. Colouring, however, seems to be one of the few activities that does not exacerbate them.

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A picture from the Dazzling Patterns colouring book by Beverley Lawson

There is also something very therapeutic about filling a page with colour when the outside world seems to be filled with mostly grey and muddy brown.

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Octopus from Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom

I am using a lot of orange in this one, which is odd because I’m not very keen on orange. But it’s an octopus sort of colour and it most certainly makes a change from the relentless grey we’ve seen through October, November and December.

And now, even the world outside seems to have become bored with grey. In the last few days, the weather here in Somerset has turned cold and clear. Where other parts of the country have seen rain, sleet or snow, we have had almost unbroken sunshine. I took this photo yesterday afternoon, out on the Levels:

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No ice, no snow, no rain, no floods. Just the late afternoon sun, a bitter wind and a beautiful blue sky 🙂

‘We’ll never see it again, I shouldn’t wonder. You may have blotted it out and turned it dark like this, for all I know. Nothing more likely. But I know I was there once. I’ve seen the sky full of stars. I’ve seen the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And I’ve seen him up in the midday sky when I couldn’t look at him for brightness.’ (Puddleglum, in response to the Queen of the Underland, in The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis)

A new visitor

Whilst enjoying the late sunshine in the garden this afternoon, I noticed a visitor I’d not seen before:

Gatekeeper butterfly

Gatekeeper butterfly

Rather than just fluttering by, she stayed for quite some time. Her attention had been caught by my flowering oregano. I’ve not grown this before. Thyme, yes. Oregano, no. However, it is also proving to be a favourite with the bees:

Honey bee on oregano

Honey bee on oregano

I had anticipated a certain amount of interest from the bees. However, I hadn’t expected it to be quite such a favourite. Clearly, oregano nectar is something a bit special. Food of the gods – or so it would seem. So now I have a little corner of heaven in my garden 🙂

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (3)

Some of you may remember Ollie and Jack – the two baby snails that I adopted when I found them in the kitchen after bringing a cyclamen plant in from the patio? I gave them a box in which to make their home and they thrived on a diet of (mostly) lettuce before spending the winter hibernating in our shed. Well, I can now tell you that both survived the winter, though Jack refused to wake up until I doused him with some water. Perhaps snails are not so vastly different from humans after all?

At Christmas we found yet another baby snail – Oliver III – in the downstairs bathroom. Who knows how he got there? As he was just a teeny weeny snail, my daughter decided that he, too, should be kept in a box indoors, where he grew… and grew… and grew… until he was bigger than both Ollie and Jack. So it was three snails that I recently took out into the countryside to be released. I took them to the edge of a small coppice, well away from any gardens or roads, and watched them set out to explore their new surroundings:

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I love the alert look on their ‘faces’ when they are exploring!

After their release, with the vegetable patch in mind, I decided to have a good hunt round the garden to see how many more snails I could find. With the weather being so dry, I found over 40 aestivating behind a plank of wood that was propped horizontally against the front wall of the house. I found several others here and there when I was gardening and a few have unfortunately fallen foul of either beer traps or slug pellets. (I’ve tried to keep the latter to the absolute minimum).

On Saturday night, when it finally got round to raining, I went out just before midnight to see what else had come out of hiding. (I knew that there were more snails hibernating/aestivating under a concrete path, where I couldn’t get at them). Well, you wouldn’t believe what a hive of activity a wet garden is at midnight! There were worms – gazillions of them – having a wonderful time rain bathing. Then there were woodlice scurrying about doing whatever it is that woodlice find it necessary to do in the middle of the night. There were two largish yellow slugs sampling the beer in the vegetable patch… and there were 17 snails out and about looking for something to munch. One had already found the beans. Another had found the French marigolds. Thankfully neither had quite started their dinner yet.

All the snails I have found alive (getting on for 90 in total) have been relocated to a spot somewhat nearer to home than where I released the Olivers and Jack, though still a place where they will have a job to make it to anyone’s garden (unless they can swim). I admit that hunting them down in this way is a little time consuming, but it does seem to be an effective way of dealing with them in a small garden. It’s certainly cheaper than nematodes. It’s also less gruesome, more environmentally friendly and more thorough than using slug pellets. And it has enabled me to carry out a few experiments. Like this one:

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The conclusion? 2.5 cm of copper tape is not sufficient to deter a hungry snail. However, 5 cm appears to be much more effective. So this is definitely worth a try when it comes to planting out lettuces.

I’ve found very few slugs, except for the two on Saturday night and a few baby ones in the beer traps. Either it’s been too dry for them, or the birds have been doing a good job of polishing them off. We do have a fair few starlings in the garden over the autumn, winter and early spring and they definitely eat them because I’ve seen them do it. So maybe that’s it? Meanwhile, most of my plants are still intact, though I did lose two French marigolds in the first few days of planting out, both cut off at the base.

So what have I learnt from all this snail watching?

  • It is possible to hear the sound of a wild snail eating 🙂
  • Even if they do nothing else quickly, Garden Snails (Helix aspersa) can certainly grow quickly! Oliver III grew close to adult size in just 3 months, though it would probably have taken him longer in the wild.
  • Garden Snails do eat weeds – dandelions being one example. They just prefer to eat lettuce and carrots (and who can blame them).
  • It takes a good sized lettuce leaf to make a few millimetres of snail shell.
  • Snails have a keen sense of smell.
  • Snails sit out cold and/or dry weather by sealing their shells and shutting down their metabolism – aestivating or hibernating until more favourable conditions return.
  • They like to do this in company.
  • Assuming the weather is warm enough, dousing a snail with water is a sure fire way to wake them up.
  • Baby snails are extremely fragile.
  • It’s okay to break a snail. Adult Garden Snails lay an average of 86 eggs at a sitting and (assuming conditions are favourable) do so 4 or 5 times a year. They don’t expect all their children to survive – and it’s probably best not to think too hard about how things would be if they did!
  • Worms can move faster than snails.
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Baby snail

So where’s the rain?

England: That place where it always rains. April: The month famous for its showery weather. So where is it? The rain, I mean. Not that I’m complaining. Not one bit. But I’ve hardly seen a drop of the stuff this past three weeks and it’s starting to feel a bit strange. That feeling where going outside without a coat feels strangely naked… and not going outside feels like a terrible waste of good weather. #Britishproblems.

Three weeks ago, things were somewhat different. I spent a few days on the coast as March turned into April and the weather was extremely wild and windy. Not a good time to be on a beach unless you want a face full of sand! The ferocious March lion was showing no inclination towards curling up into a soft woolly ball or frolicking over the meadows with joyful tranquility. Rather, it roared across Somerset, tipping my mini greenhouse over for the second time in as many weeks.

The greenhouse – about 6ft tall by 3ft wide by 18 inches deep – is weighted at the bottom with a large bag of compost. However, the lion was feeling particularly wild that night and made short work of turning the thing on its front, despite the fact that he was supposed to be roaring through in the opposite direction. He goes where he will. Fortunately, I didn’t have much in the greenhouse at the time, but I’d started some bean and courgette plants and these were unceremoniously tipped out of their pots. The beans seemed to treat this as all in a day’s work. Not in the mood to be pushed around by some measly lion, they bravely turned their faces back up towards the light and awaited our return. This made them look decidedly peculiar when repotted right way up again! Three of the four courgette plants also survived the ordeal, although one is still looking rather small and pathetic. They are still in the greenhouse.

The beans have now been planted out in the garden, where five out of six seem to be thriving. (The sixth took rather more of a battering from the lion). Of course, they shouldn’t be thriving. By rights, the frost should have finished off what the wild winds started. But here in sunny, lowland Somerset, I seem to have got away with the early start so far. Despite the clear nights, the temperatures have stayed above freezing. As for the tomato plants, they looked singularly unimpressed when we got home. They weren’t in the greenhouse. They were on the kitchen window sill. However, we’d turned the heating down while we were away and it seems this wasn’t popular. The pepper plants had soldiered on bravely and were even heard to encourage the tomato plants to “just chill like us!” However, the tomato plants replied that chilling was precisely the problem and the pepper plants really ought to show a little more sympathy. They said they would be submitting a complaint to the management forthwith. Said complaint is now on file. I’ll be planting the tomatoes a little later next year. Ditto beans and French marigolds. Apparently, it doesn’t do to be too keen. The pepper plants have continued to grow quite nicely, even if they do believe in slow motion:

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Bell pepper plant

I don’t have a picture of the surviving tomato plants. But two are now looking good at about 8″ high and another two look like they aren’t going to be far behind. I’ve planted a few more seeds to make up for the losses and will wait to see what I end up with. Meanwhile, the past three weeks have seen a burst of new life in both countryside and garden. We came home to find the hedgerows tinted with green and the roadsides carpeted with celandines:

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Celandines

Three weeks later, the hedgerows have burst into life and the celandines in my garden have given way to forget-me-nots, daisies and bluebells:

Forget-me-nots

Forget-me-nots

Daisy

Daisy

The primroses have almost finished and the apple blossom is appearing on our little tree:

Apple blossom

Apple blossom

Spring is here 🙂 And, in case you’re wondering, the rain will be back at the weekend…