Whatever our souls are made of, nature’s and ours are the same.
By Laura Jacklin
‘Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’ So says Catherine Earnshaw about herself and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the infamous Gothic tale of the tempestuous and transcendent relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine, set against a backdrop of the wild Yorkshire moors described by Brontë in all their untamed glory. The many themes woven into this now cult-classic have been dissected, debated and relished from every perspective imaginable by generations of readers. One of these major themes is the conflict between nature and civilisation - with the civilised manor house of Thrushcross Grange and its residents on one side, and the windswept and unkempt farmhouse of Wuthering Heights and its residents on the other.
But what has Wuthering Heights - a novel written over 170 years ago - got to do with the climate crisis? The conflict between nature and civilisation at the story’s heart is in some ways analogous to that of the ongoing conflict between nature and humanity. Like Heathcliff and Catherine, humanity and nature may be separate entities, but are one and the same in reality. In the Western world, the repositioning of humanity as being outside of nature has occurred over generations of exploitation of the natural world, and Western philosophy has argued our superiority over other animals for hundreds of years. This separation has become evermore chasmic as we retreat to our well-lit and warm houses, sit behind computers and carve out dedicated time for movement and exercise, rather than it being a by-product of our everyday existence. Yet as the pandemic has served to remind us, that while shielding ourselves from and controlling nature is possible to a point, this separation from and mastery of nature is merely a façade.
Applying the famed quote to nature and humanity yields the same result: whatever our souls are made of, nature’s and ours are the same. In the Anthropocene, it is essential that this worldview is what drives our relationship with nature going forward - for both humanity and the planet’s sake.
Superiority over nature
In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff and his domain of Wuthering Heights can be read as representing all that is natural - they are powerful, wild, and ultimately uncontrollable. Heathcliff is found on the streets as a child and brought to live with the Earnshaw family at Wuthering Heights, where he and his adoptive sister Catherine become inseparable and are at one with nature, spending their days roaming the rugged moorland, ‘it was one of their chief amusements to run away to the moors in the morning and remain there all day’. But Heathcliff, a rugged outsider who only ever becomes ‘half-civilised’ is treated as an inferior by civilisation, experiencing violence, embarrassment and torment at the hand of his adoptive brother Hindley. Even Catherine displays an air of superiority towards Heathcliff, remarking ‘If you wash your face, and brush your hair, it will be all right. But you are so dirty!’.
When Heathcliff is seen as symbolising nature, it is not a stretch to see his treatment in the novel as a reflection of our treatment of nature. Global economic systems that prioritise making money over the wellbeing of people and the planet have wreaked havoc and damage on the natural world. The pandemic has shown the consequences of when humanity develops a superiority complex, and what happens when we disturb the finely-tuned balances of ecosystems.
COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease - meaning it spread from animals to humans. Over 70% of emerging infections are zoonotic, and neglected zoonotic diseases kill at least two million people every year, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. Yet rather than being able to pin the blame on a particular animal species, it is only humanity’s actions that have led to the current situation we find ourselves in, and leave us exposed to the threat of future pandemics. Zoonotic diseases spread when humans are brought into direct contact and conflict with the animals that carry these pathogens through activities such as deforestation, intensive farming and the wildlife trade. The UN has proposed that we should unite human, animal and environmental health in order to prevent future pandemics, as they are all intricately connected.
During an iconic and powerful speech in Wuthering Heights, Catherine declares ‘If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty strange: I should not seem a part of it...I am Heathcliff!’. Heathcliff and Catherine begin to accept that they are inseparable from and cannot survive without each other, and we must accept that we are inseparable from and cannot survive without nature. Facing the reality that we are inextricably connected to nature and at its mercy appears to be a terrifying prospect in some ways - a tiny microorganism or extreme weather event has the power to cause catastrophic damage to human life, and it is our behaviour that is driving the climate crisis and making these events more frequent. But really, we should see this absolute entanglement as a beautiful thing. As conscious beings, it is the act of recognising that we are nature that will begin the process of saving it - and ourselves.
Solace in nature
As Wuthering Heights progresses, Catherine’s separation from nature and Heathcliff grows. Catherine is welcomed into the civilised abode of Thrushcross Grange ‘carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold’. As Catherine is socialised in this new world, ‘her fingers wonderfully whitened with doing nothing and staying indoors’, her relationship with both nature and Heathcliff becomes strained. She descends into what we might now term a nervous breakdown and declares ‘I am sure I should be myself again were I amongst the heather on those hills’. She longs to be back in nature, to feel herself once again.
While the pandemic has shown us that we are at nature’s mercy, it has equally shown us just how much we need to be close to nature. Solace has been found in daily walks, awe-inspiring views of landscapes (even as images on a screen) have served as beacons of hope and comfort, and the subtle changing of the seasons and rising of the sun each day have been constants we can rely on. Like Catherine, in times of crisis we turn to nature: ‘I wish I was out of doors! I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free’.
A bond and a closeness with nature is essential for people - studies have found that just two hours a week in nature can benefit our health and wellbeing. Yet as well as being beneficial for us, spending time in nature can also have benefits for the environment. As David Attenborough says, ‘No one will protect what they don't care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced’. Spending time in nature can restore and renew us with the energy needed to tackle the climate crisis, and feeling and seeing our connection to nature can help promote a sense of stewardship and care of the natural world.
Hope for the future
In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff and Catherine’s separation ultimately leads to their untimely deaths - they cannot live without one another. This is where we currently stand with nature. The natural world cannot survive without our help and changed behaviour, and we definitely cannot survive without the natural world.
Towards the end of the novel, we see the next generation come together (young Catherine, Catherine’s daughter and resident of Thrushcross Grange, marries Hareton, resident of Wuthering Heights) to begin the healing of the past and providing hope for the future for the reader. Today, in relation to the climate crisis, this is what we are seeing. We younger generations are rising up to try and begin the healing of the planet, and the healing of humanity, with waves of intersectional environmentalism sweeping the globe.
Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847, and was written against a backdrop of the Industrial Revolution in the Western world - a time of huge social change and arguably the main catalyst in driving the systems that have led to the current state of the planet. Emily Brontë didn’t have a crystal ball, but when reading the novel from an ecocritical perspective the foreshadowing of the destruction of nature is palpable. The resulting destruction and chaos from both the mistreatment of Heathcliff and the separation of nature and civilisation can be read as a warning of things to come.
But if this is the case, the crucial question is - does Wuthering Heights have a happy ending? It is a poignant ending, but ultimately, a hopeful one. Heathcliff and Catherine are reunited in death, and there is hope for the future through the union of the younger generations. The balance between nature and civilisation is struck, and we see the civilisation of Thrushcross Grange and wilderness of Wuthering Heights unite as one. Young Catherine has been brought up within the civilisation of Thrushcross Grange, but delights in the vitality and diversity of the natural world being ‘awake and wild with joy’, describing her perfect day as:
‘...rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing and bright, white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy...I wanted all to sparkle, and dance in a glorious jubilee’.
Like the balance restored between nature and civilisation at the end of Wuthering Heights, the climate crisis can only be solved when we strike the balance between humanity and nature and allow both to thrive. Restoring this balance, creating a just society and viewing ourselves as part of nature is essential to creating a better world, and allowing ‘all to sparkle, and dance in a glorious jubilee’. I can’t think of a happier ending than that.
● Emily Brontë. Wuthering Heights (Penguin Group, 1995)
● Crispin Sartwell. Humans Are Animals. Let’s Get Over It. The New York Times (2021)
● United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Preventing the next pandemic - Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission. (2020)
● Natural History Museum. Scientists say we will face worse pandemics than COVID-19 unless we protect nature. Natural History Museum (2020)
● Settele, J., Díaz, S., Brondizio, E. COVID-19 Stimulus Measures Must Save Lives, Protect Livelihoods, and Safeguard Nature to Reduce the Risk of Future Pandemics. IPBES (2020)
● White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019)
● Gladwell, V.F., Brown, D.K., Wood, C. et al. The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extrem Physiol Med 2, 3 (2013)