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I first read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I was eighteen, more than two decades ago. And, until recently, I’ve never wanted to repeat the experience. My recollection of that initial reading is not pleasant: a winter-dark moor; a disappointed, malevolent lover; a lot of death.
However, when my two eldest children were assigned the novel for school, I began to wonder if a second reading might change my opinion. As a fiction writer, I figured Bronte had plenty to teach me, whether I enjoyed her book or not. Also, I wanted to know why it’s considered such a great work of literature. So I read it again, and began to find the answers to my questions within the first few paragraphs.
From the hearty enthusiasm of the narrator to Heathcliff’s glum countenance and his aged servant’s cranky piety, the characters immediately engaged my emotions. As a reader, I was, in turn, curious, amused, wary, and repulsed, all within just a few pages. Character after character was introduced, each as distinctive as the last, and I heartily despised most of them, yet still found myself interested in the resolution of their stories. In fact, my interest held–no matter how I felt about each character–long after the final word was read.
As a reader, I was in turn curious, amused, wary, and repulsed, all within just a few pages.
Yet, Bronte was more than just a clever portraitist. Nearly every principle character suffers and reacts accordingly, changing in appearance, attitudes, and actions. She has wrung from them any contribution they could make to the themes and progression of her story. Yes, there is a background character or two that serve little more than to nudge the plot forward, but considering the depth of more than a half-dozen characters, the insipidity of an occasional minor role is hardly worth mentioning.
As a writer, I found myself wondering if the characters in my current work are as vivid. Would they grip a reader’s attention like Bronte’s cast? Are they really changing as the story progresses, like Heathcliff, Cathy, and Hindley, or are they just propping up the plot? I recalled equally potent characters from other works and made a note to examine them as well: evil Cathy Ames from East of Eden; despicable Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; the virtuous and stalwart heroine of Jane Eyre, by Emily Bronte’s sister, Charlotte.
Bronte’s use of setting is just as skillful as her characterization. Throughout the entire novel, the two divergent homes, and the moor with its similarly contrasting seasons, consistently mirror the struggles of the characters and communicate themes of suffering, hope, and redemption. As a reader, I enjoyed the sensuous details because they did more than supply helpful images. They complemented the complex characterization, unifying the whole story.
As a writer, I marveled that Bronte endowed her setting with as much emotional heft as her characters. I realized that I too often use setting as a frame for my narrative–a pretty but simple bit of orientation for the reader.
Throughout the entire novel, the two divergent homes, and the moor with its similarly contrasting seasons, consistently mirror the struggles of the characters and communicate themes of suffering, hope, and redemption.
I’ll risk the accusation of hubris to venture one criticism. Bronte’s narrative technique was sometimes distracting. She uses a first-person narrator to relate the story, but he reports most of the narrative as it is told to him (in first-person) by another character, who at times relates to him what has been told to her by several other characters, both in person and by letter. (Yes, it was rather confusing.) More than once I had to look back a page or two in order to remember which character had taken over the first-person voice. As I writer, I think I would look for an alternative way to overcome the limits of first-person narration or choose a different perspective altogether.
In the end, Bronte won me over completely. Her settings are masterful and communicate nearly as much to the reader as the characters. That is significant indeed because even the most disinterested of readers will not remain impassive when encountering her characters. A reader may groan, laugh, despair, exult, or throw down the book in disgust, but they will respond. As a writer, I couldn’t ask for more.
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Maybe you’ve shoveled compost into your garden beds, mixing the dark organic matter that some gardeners call “black gold” into your native soil. Or, maybe you’ve walked into the woods and inhaled the moist, verdant fragrance of humus, that soft, springy top layer of the forest floor. What does that fresh, earthy fragrance have in common with compost, or aged animal droppings?
They’re both the product of death and rot. “Homemade” compost is an amalgam of discarded organic material—grass clippings, food waste, manure—that has rotted for months, aided by sun, moisture, insects, micro-organisms, and humans. The result is a dark, rich soil component that smells like the forest floor. We add this compost to our gardens for the same reason humus is vital for the forest soil–decomposing matter is rich with the nutrients plants need to thrive. And just as death is no respecter of persons, decay eventually touches every living thing.
Everything that is vibrant with life dies and decomposes, both things that are beautiful, useful, and loved, and things that are poisonous, rotten, and unwanted. Richly-hued autumn leaves; fallen, unpicked fruit; the maggot-infested carcass of a baby bird fallen from its nest; tattered dragonfly wings; and fragrant pine needles all become a part of the nourishing forest floor.
Everything that is vibrant with life dies and decomposes, both things that are beautiful, useful, and loved, and things that are poisonous, rotten, and unwanted.
As one season gives way to the next we might grieve the loss of beauty, or recoil at signs of decay, but these are necessary for new life. A wise gardener knows the same truth shouted by a thriving forest. Death is not the end.
We drove past the Reservoir on the way home. The day is grim winter gray punctuated by bare trees and piles of wet lifeless leaves. It is sprinkling. The temperature is cool enough for light layers and warm enough to feel muggy. This is not a day to delight in nature.
This is a day to huddle inside some man-made structure, to insulate oneself with bricks and mortar, with snacks and favorite libations, and ignore nature until she gets her act together and launches spring.
But we drove past the reservoir. We drove past a small spread of water ringed by dull, denuded woods, and today, unexpectedly, caressed by a thick, undulating silver mist. A shifting, swirling fog covered the lapping water and transformed a country recreation spot into a setting fit for fairies and nymphs and other odd folk who act out truth in children’s stories.
Man made that lake, they say, but anyone who sees it today will know that is not true. On this lukewarm day, nature graced a common, man-formed stretch of water with a subtle, uncommon beauty. And it was good.
A few weeks ago, I sat with my youngest daughter in a doctor’s waiting room. She had forgotten to bring a book and was bored. Very bored, and very restless. I pulled a pen and notebook from my purse and suggested we write a story together. We made it through the opening scene before we were called back for our appointment. Later, I finished off the story for her Christmas present, an homage to our favorite make-believe land, Narnia.
In a soft blanket of new-fallen snow, two sets of footprints coursed side-by-side over a meadow and disappeared into the shadows of a forest. One set of prints was larger than the other. They were broad, deep, and tipped with the tell-tale marks of a bear walking upright on its hind legs. The second set of prints was much smaller. They were made by snow boots weighed down by no more than a young girl.
The bear and the girl walked hand-in-paw, deeper into the forest, which was not as dark as it seemed when one looked at it from the meadow. The trees were bare. Cold, white sunlight picked its way through empty limbs and lit the forest like a lace-curtained room at midday.
“Jacksie,” the little girl, whose name was Zelda, stopped suddenly, “are you sure you know the way?”
The bear turned his great shaggy head down toward the girl. His eyes were as dark and shiny as his glossy fur. When he spoke, his voice rumbled up from so deep within him the girl thought it must start in his massive, fur-covered belly.
“I know the way.” Then, having compassion for her eagerness and her fear of disappointment, he added, “It is all true. I have seen it many times, and I can find it in any season.”
Still, she did not move. Her freckled face was tilted toward him, though she kept her eyes on the way ahead.
“Are you the only one who knows the way?”
He was silent for a moment.
“Some others do. But not every bear that walks on his back legs and speaks in a friendly manner does know. Some would willingly take your hand and lead you a different way, one they think is better.”
“Do the foxes know? The squirrel we just saw?”
His laugh rumbled up like his voice. “Some. Some do.”
“What about the trees? Do they know?”
“Yes,” he said, solemn. “But they’re not allowed to tell you.”
“Why not?” She looked at the trees as if she pitied them, stripped clean of their summer beauty and not allowed to share what she was sure must be their greatest secret.
“Well, we each have our part, and telling is not for the trees.”
He continued walking, and she grasped his paw tighter, scurrying to catch up to his lumbering strides.
“What about you?” Her long dark curls bounced into her face as she looked up at him. “What’s your part?”
“I simply show the way to anyone who asks.”
“But what about the trees? What part can they have if they know, but are kept silent?”
“Little one!” This time his laugh was nearly a roar, and bits of snow fell in little clumps from the trees. “These are questions too great for such a little mind, surely.”
He looked down at her and noted the set mouth, her eyes fixed on his face.
“Ahem. Well, it’s a fair, honest question, and it deserves a fair, honest answer.” Pausing briefly to sniff the air, he then gestured to the right to indicate a change in direction. “It’s true the trees know and don’t speak. Their charge is to stand.”
He did not have to see her face to know that she was disappointed.
“Yes, little one. That is exactly it. They stand, and because they do, we can always find what we’re looking for.”
They walked in silence after that, the girl stepping twice as many times to keep pace with her guide. Their feet shushed through the snow. Every now and then, the girl looked hard into the distance, looking for the forest to open again, hoping for a hint of what she longed to see.
“Here now, this way.” The bear turned sharply left then immediately began ascending a small hill.
When they reached the top, they both stilled and looked down. Jacksie stayed quiet, his breath blowing gentle clouds about his head. Zelda squeezed his paw with both small hands.
“I knew it was here,” she whispered.
Below them, a clearing in the trees lay still and quiet beneath a pure white covering. On the opposite side of the clearing, against a backdrop of fragrant evergreens, stood a lamp post as bare and black as the winter trees behind Zelda. The lamp cast a pool of warm golden light upon the snow. And away from the lamp post marched two sets of footprints made by a young girl’s sturdy shoes and the delicate hoof prints of a woodland faun.
Anyone can see
those pale curves were molded by a master.
No amount of dust, no darkened corner
can hide the same truth told by the sun
as it sinks into lavender mountains–
rustling, fragrant trees hug glinting streams,
uncurling ferns, a dragonfly wing–
the creation reveals its creator
with a silent shout.
When the air chills and the light dims, Autumn flames, then falls– All that glory ground into the winter wet earth With other dead things– Because in winter Life lies beneath, devouring death, Transforming all the rot and worthless things To cradle life, holding it in trust Until warmth and light return And the earth breaks open, greens and flowers. A shout of triumph, An anthem of joy.