Moors: Love or Hate? Discuss.


Helen: Ann, we’re here because you said you hate moors. I am currently having a love affair with moors, so I want to know: Why? Also, we’re here because I suspect this will give us an opportunity to talk about how much we hate Wuthering Heights. Unless you like Wuthering Heights. Do you like Wuthering Heights?

Ann:  Damn.  It’s been so long since I read it.  I remember LOVING it, so much beautifully neurasthenic suffering out there on the moors.  As if you could do anything else on the moors.  I’ll go have a look at the book again. Meanwhile, tell me how you feel about Wuthering Heights, please.  Give me details.

Helen: Partial list of thoughts about Wuthering Heights:

  • Why are all of these people so terrible?
  • These people need to get over their feelings and go build a wall or herd some sheep or something.
  • Is this supposed to be romantic? This is not how romance works.
  • Why do people like this book?

After watching a movie version of it last month, I actually looked up why people like it, and I still don’t know, but I did learn that it’s not romantic, as in “oh that Heathcliff he’s so dreamy,” but Romantic, as in “let us now be true citizens of the 19th century and consider the human condition.” I’m not willing to reread it to find out if this makes me like it.

So that’s me and Wuthering Heights.

Ann:  I put some work into this question of Wuthering Heights.  I re-read almost a third of the book and have never run into such a bunch of unpleasant people so hell-bent on misery all around.  They’re terrible people; even the multitudinous unreliable narrators are terrible people.  I didn’t want to read any more of it so I asked my neighbor the lit teacher — whose copy of the book I had borrowed — and though he couldn’t say he actually liked it, he does respect it. He says what you said about the Romantic Era (not to be confused with anyone’s definition of what’s romantic) and he also said that the book was well-structured.  Which because I didn’t read enough of it to have an opinion, I’ll take his word for.  I did read his margin notes and I could do a whole post on them:  “Is she dying just to spite him?”  “HATRED between everyone.”  “Dog attacks again!”  “Jesus!”  And after a paragraph that included the sentence, “By Hell, no! I’ll crush his ribs in like a rotten hazelnut, before I cross the threshold!”, the lit teacher wrote, “He’s a fucking animal.”

He said the book takes place in hell and is a vivid, compelling story about how characters in hell behave.  

And now we’re back to the moors again.  What is a moor anyway?  Is it always peat?  My understanding of peat is that it’s dead plants that have been dying on top of each other for eons, death upon death.

Helen: First of all, I’m super impressed you gave Wuthering Heights another shot in the last two days.

Secondly, yes, let’s define moors. A moor is “a tract of unenclosed waste ground; now usually, uncultivated ground covered with heather; a heath. Also, a tract of ground strictly preserved for shooting,” says my Oxford English Dictionary, and they should know. Of course, this being the OED, that’s only the first of five definitions, and that’s not even counting the other senses of moor, like the Othello one.

Conclusion: peat is not required, but heather is often a factor. I recently spent most of a week walking on the moors in North York Moors National Park, in Yorkshire, England, not far from where the Brontes lived. My friends and I planned this trip to coincide with the heather being in bloom. As we walked, we could see miles and miles of rolling purple hillsides. The bumblebees were out. The heather was so pink and purply and lovely.

So why do you hate the moors, Ann? Because, the last I checked–about two weeks ago–the moors looked like this:

Ann:  That’s only because the heather was blooming.  I did see it blooming on the moors of the Isle of Arran (the Scottish one, not the Irish Aran) and you’re right, it is beautiful — the soft purple matches the softness of the hills. Arran has a particular moor called Machrie Moor that’s green and hilly and apparently the Neolithics loved it.  They put stone circles all over the place.  The circles are visited mostly by cows, maybe sheep, and you can go sit in the sun, lean against a stone, and wonder whether your own death might just be part of some larger, longer life.  

I wonder if some moors, like Machrie Moor, are more alive than others. And when the peat is solidish, it’s fun to walk on — it bounces deeply like it goes down a long ways.  So here I am, agreeing with you.  But you had paths, right? So did Machrie Moor.  Walking on the moors without paths isn’t fun because the heather and coarse ferny bracken trip you up, and you’re not so much walking as prolongedly staggering.

You loved everything about the moors?  You found nothing to criticize?

Helen: Well, goodness, Ann, if you’re going to try to smash through the undergrowth without a trail, almost any form of nature can be annoying. I walked on trails, yes–old roads and railroads and whatnot. This one was apparently a road for driving cattle south from Scotland to market:

road through heather

Did I find anything to criticize about the moors. …No bathrooms? They’re quite remote and empty, which is odd in England, but which I consider to be a plus. The moors I was walking on were empty of human buildings other than the occasional standing stone or line of grouse butts. “Grouse butts” gave me much amusement when I saw them on the maps but turn out to be just a wall to hide behind so you can shoot at grouse.

This leads me to a strange fact about moors, or at least the moors I was hiking on: While there aren’t many buildings, human influence is actually all over. The North York Moors are covered in heather because managers burn them periodically so they’ll be good habitat for grouse, so people can come along and shoot the grouse.

I’m still waiting, though: Why do you hate moors?

Ann:  The archetypical moor is Rannoch Moor; that’s a photo of it, looking its best.  It sits in a bowl loomed over by mountains that are mean, dark, and inhospitable.  Rannoch Moor itself looks like the moon only wet.  The heather is usually dead.  The peat is unholy — it’s brown and sits in lumps or slumps into black muck. Little black streams cut through it and form pots of black scummy water; I would be surprised if Blackscummy weren’t a Scottish place name.  Rannoch Moor is what despair looks like.  It looks like the deep brown knowledge that life holds nothing but loss and slow decay.  Even if it had a walking path through it, you’d just fall into some muck pot and die alone.  

Are you convinced now?  If not, why not? What I mean is, why do you like moors? Only because you’ve seen them in sunlight, in bloom, and with bouncy paths through them?

Helen:   Sunlight! Blooming heather! Paths! Boing! Boing! Actually, we had cloud a lot of the time, which was fine with me because full sunlight gets a bit tiresome when you’re walking, and when you happen to be wearing a stupid hat that flips up and stays up whenever there’s the slightest breath of wind. 

Ann:  I’ve got another anti-moors argument: they’re so bad that they’re literary metaphors.  Can you think of one humane story that takes place on the moors?  “The Hound of the Baskervilles” maybe?  Open Wuthering Heights at random and somebody’s saying, “I have no pity!  I have no pity!  The more worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails!” If you’re living on a moor, it seems a reasonable response.

But that’s fiction and for real, I wonder what you’d have to do to your character to live there.  Even on the lovely Arran, the locals drank more than I’d have considered possible.  And while they didn’t reach Wuthering Heights-levels of conversation, they didn’t hold back either.

  • A Scots waitress:  “It’s all right with me if you eat haggis.  But I wouldn’t have it.”
  • A Scots bartender served me single malt along with water from a spring.  “Pour it in?” he says.  “No, alongside,” I say.  “I knew a man who had milk alongside his porridge,” he says.
  • A Scots clerk helping my husband choose a rain jacket:  “It’s your jacket and if you want to buy it too small, I’m only here to serve the public but if you asked, I’d say, get a large.”   

Helen: I don’t understand the one about the whiskey and the porridge. I do understand the one about the jacket. That’s the kind of customer service I can get on board with. Accurate, but not servile.

Ann:  I took the porridge comment to mean, the kind of idiot who wouldn’t put milk on the porridge but would have it alongside is the same kind of idiot who wouldn’t put spring water in single malt.  I’m not sure what kind of idiot that is, but I’m apparently it.  It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but I’m with you — not servile, just accurate.

Helen:  I did think, while walking on the moors, that this would be a pretty boring landscape if it weren’t for all the purple. Mile and mile of rolling brown. I haven’t seen it, though. And the sheep sure seemed to dig it.

I think what it comes down to is: my experience of moors has an n of 1, and yours has an n of 2, so the only way to solve this is more observation. If I ever go to the moors again, we can check in and see if my opinion changes.


Photos:  Wuthering Heights book cover by Tom Simpson; Rannoch Moor by Commander Holmes, both via Flickr. Contemporary moor photos by Helen.

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8 thoughts on “Moors: Love or Hate? Discuss.

  1. There’s pretty much nothing about this exchange that I did not enjoy …
    That said, I have loved the times I’ve spent walking in the moors, perhaps because when it’s dreary and brown there’s no one out there and I love the solitude… and also because I’ve seen it when gloriously in bloom, and I can envision that in my mind’s eye as I wander.

  2. Definitely Team Moor!
    Two of my favorite books from childhood (that actually hold up quite well) are set there: The Secret Garden and All Creatures Great and Small. In the first, Mistress Mary is quite contrary until she gets out in the moors and gardens, breathing the fresh air and meeting Dickon – a boy who talks to the animals and pretty much lives in the heather.
    And the James Herriott books!! Those are pretty much the definition of humane. He describes the fells with such wonder and joy, and has nothing but admiration for the hard-working farmers that live there. Plus baby sheep.
    Basically – moors are awesome. 12-year-old Kate desperately wanted to go. Adult Kate was not disappointed 🙂

  3. YES! Someone official(ish) who expresses extreme disdain for Romantic lit. Oh my god!

    And why is it that Lit / English teachers seem to *love* to assign this crap to students to read? As if teens don’t have enough on their plates with puberty and all. I was only able to avoid reading piles of this drivel back in school by requesting to read Shakespeare instead. There’s something about ole Shakey that Lit teachers can’t resist. It would always come with a proviso though – and the same proviso regardless of the teacher – original language only. Psh. No sweat. So while my peers were slogging through a billion pages of hatred, angst, and slow-motion train wreck, I got to read a comedy.

  4. A caveat: nothing is “officialish” about Helen and me expressing ourselves about Romantic lit. I have a BA in English but that was a loooong time ago; and I think Helen’s degree(s) are in science and science writing. So though I agree with you 100% here, my agreement means nothing.

  5. That’s right, my degrees are in biology and science writing. In college, I briefly considered a double-major with English, but then I realized I would have to read something other than 19th century novels and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. I have no argument with the Romantics on the whole. I just hate Wuthering Heights.

  6. I had to read Wuthering Heights in high school. I think I remember not liking it much, much to the disdain of my teacher. I did poorly in that class. As for the moors themselves, I’ll reserve judgement until I visit them, if I ever will, but I’m sure they are as fine a place as any other I’ve visited.

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