‘The blood-red brilliance, mystery and melancholy of the hawthorn’

He writes beautifully about the nature he observes on Wenlock Edge: Paul Evans is a nature writer, radio broadcaster, university lecturer and self-styled ‘wanderer of woods’. His pieces appear occasionally in the Country Diary column of the Guardian.  Today, his seasonal observation is entitled ‘The blood-red brilliance, mystery and melancholy of the hawthorn':

Full of berry, the hawthorn’s splash of red is the brightest thing on Windmill Hill. Why it’s so loaded with berries, why they’re so brightly red and why they haven’t all been stripped by birds yet is a mystery. What is even more mysterious is that the tree appears to be singing. From inside its wind-twisted tangle come little chaffinchy songs, subdued chimings like side-of-the-mouth gossip. Blackbirds and redwings come for the berries but they only take a few and there’s no all-out plunder yet. Maybe they’re waiting for another spike of frost to perfect the fruit or maybe the tree has a kind of power over the birds and is not ready to deliver its promise.

Inside each pillar-box-red haw are seeds in which the last year is folded like a bus ticket to the next. How many years this tree has been doing this is hard to tell. It has aluminium-grey- and brass-coloured lichens, green tufts of moss and old riven bark. It seems small to be of any great age but it struggles out of limestone with no soil to speak of and its character has been shaped by adversity and exposure.

This tree certainly has presence, and blue tits, wrens and dunnocks hide in it, out of the way of winds and the vast, uncompromising world that could crush them with its gaze. They make their own secret sounds which play into the tree’s plainsong. On a day of cold sunshine, which has opened up the hill and the knapweed seedheads, the hawthorn is brilliant but there’s a kind of melancholy about it. It’s as if the tree’s fecundity is a last-ditch attempt to throw itself out of its nailed-down place to pitch its future into the world through the innards of the birds. The hawthorn’s blood red is also an omen, a signal for the 12th day of the 12th month of the 12th year.

Hawthorn and sheep

Paul Evans mentions the possibility that his stunted hawthorn may be of a great age.  Apparently, a hawthorn can live to 400 years.  Superstition surrounds the hawthorn: when I was a child my mum would literally scream if I brought a branch of hawthorn into the house.  It’s a rural fear that goes back a long way: in Roman times, the hawthorn goddess Cardea presided over births and mourned deaths, and Ovid said taking hawthorn inside would drive Cardea to kill children.  The poem below, ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’ by Eavan Boland, mentions the same fear, but also evokes the heart-warming sight of May blossom in the spring.  Something to hold on to in the present cold spell, and reflecting the other side of hawthorn tradition – as a symbol of fertility.  Hymen, Greek goddess of marriage, carried a torch of hawthorn, and hawthorn-decorated May ceremonies were once scenes of ‘lascivious revelry and sexual merriment’.  Chaucer wrote:

Mark the fair blooming of the Hawthorn Tree,
Who, finely clothed in a robe of white,
Fills full the wanton eye with May’s delight’.

White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland

I drove West
in the season between seasons.
I left behind suburban gardens.
Lawnmowers.  Small talk.

Under low skies, past splashes of coltsfoot,
I assumed
the hard shyness of Atlantic light
and the superstitious aura of hawthorn.

All I wanted then was to fill my arms with
sharp flowers,
to seem from a distance, to be part of
that ivory, downhill rush.  But I knew,

I had always known,
the custom was
not to touch hawthorn.
Not to bring it indoors for the sake of

the luck
such constraint would forfeit–
a child might die, perhaps, or an unexplained
fever speckle heifers.  So I left it

stirring on those hills
with a fluency
only water has.  And, like water, able
to redefine land.  And free to seem to be–

for anglers,
and for travellers astray in
the unmarked lights of a May dusk–
the only language spoken in those parts.

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7 thoughts on “‘The blood-red brilliance, mystery and melancholy of the hawthorn’

  1. That’s lovely. My chilhood home (one of them anyway, and certainly the home I think of when I think of that era) was called Hawthorn Cottage. The far bank of the brook held many a hawthorn tree, and it is to those brookside specimens my mind always turns when these fantastic trees are mentioned.

  2. This year, sloes and blackberries were scarce, so I made a spiced hawthorn apple jelly. It is light, clear and beautifully balanced between tart and sweet. There are so many berries on the hawthorns in cornwall, I know the birds won’t miss a few.

  3. Gerry, this was lovely–and it suited my mood perfectly, as I’m currently reading Macfarlane’s Wild Places, and am yearning for more bits of wildness and mystery and even melancholy….

  4. As a child, Hawthorn bushes filled the lane behind our home in Sussex. We climbed into the gaps of the hedge and got covered in scratches that stung later in the bath. But some how it was part of summer to be torn by its thorns. Nests were abundant, and I will never forget the wonder of peering into the beautiful molded interior of a Song Thrushes nest, utterly secure in the thickest parts.
    We often bring Hawthorn into the house now, though the blossom drops quickly. Three years ago we took two cuttings, one pink , one white,from a lane near home and now they both stand two feet high in the back garden!!
    Wonderful writing, thanks for sharing this, Andy.

    • Cheers, Andy. Your childhood recollections stirred a memory of mine, too. Growing up in the Cheshire countryside, I recall that the hawthorn was known as ‘bread and cheese’. Before I wrote this reply I wondered why, and googled the question. Here’s the answer: ‘The Hawthorn bush used to be called ‘the bread and cheese tree’ because the buds and leaves can be eaten straight from the tree, as they have often been in times of famine, or used in salads or sandwiches, to add variety in better times.’ (http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2008/08/tea-bread-cheese_18.html)

  5. Very interesting read! Thanks so much for sharing. In Asia, especially China, the hawthorn fruit is a delicious food. And when people think of it, they never thought about other things but its sweet and acidic taste. Growing up eating hawthorn fruits each fall and winter, I’ve never seen a hawthorn tree until I read this post. It’s always wonderful and eye-opening to read how people think of particular plants and animals in different parts of the world. :)

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