Crataegus Oxyacantha and Me (written in stages over past couple of years)
It is a beautiful day, the Spring Equinox, pagan Ostara, in fact; that welcome balancing of day and night. The sun is shining with real warmth after a long winter of ice and snow that has leeched energy from my very bones. Now, uplifted by the gentle sunlight I’m planting a young hawthorn tree in my back garden. As I dig its hole, adding homemade compost to help it establish, I realise that hawthorn, my birth tree in the Celtic calendar, seems to play a recurring role in my life, albeit often without my understanding why at the time. I wonder at its significance as I touch the tiny, brilliant green young leaves just sprouting from the two foot high tree-ling.
Hawthorn is the tree corresponding to the sign of Gemini, those born of the twins. How appropriate to have this tree overseeing we mercurial people with our split personalities. In bloom and leaf it’s a tree of exquisite pastoral beauty exuding a sense of tranquillity, though structurally it’s often rugged and twisted, with its dark side of sharp vicious thorns. It’s a tree full of important Pagan symbolism and Christian mythology; truly a tree of paradox, said to mend and strengthen broken hearts.
My connection to this enigmatic tree began in my childhood, that mystical time when we are still open to the universal wonders that cynical adulthood, and the drive to conform, later undermines. I lived with my family on a new-build, slum clearance, council house estate, the daughter of a manual dock labourer. But my dad, for all his mundane working-class traits, made sure that his eldest daughter was introduced to the mysteries of nature as well as prepared for urban, post-war, survival. He knew little more about nature than my nine year old self did, having grown up in those now demolished slums. It was, perhaps, because of his origins that he wanted to encourage me with a nature-study project that involved finding ‘signs of Autumn’ for the classroom nature table.
Close by our estate wove the remnants of an ancient country lane, a relic of the rural past surrounding our city, even then being swallowed up by the need for baby-boom housing. It was the nearest thing we had to real countryside with wonderful old trees and hedgerows lining its meandering process. A few fields remained, nestled precariously between encroaching building sites where, in Spring, you could watch frisky lambs and rabbits play. It’s all gone now in the twenty-first century, eaten up by progress, and ever-hungry property developers.
This is where Dad took me that autumnal Sunday morning to address my homework challenge. We collected shiny auburn conkers, teasing them out of their prickly velvet-lined overcoats. We played with sycamore seed propellers revelling in their crazy spirals, me twirling around in imitation; we collected tall thistles and thorny branches full of bright red berries – haws. Straightaway I loved their cheerful carnival colouring and fun-filled name, like Santa laughing:
“Listen,” Dad would say, “can you hear them going haw-haw-haw,” (he was just making up stories of course; the haws were conspicuously indifferent in their silence, despite their jovial name). We, on the other hand, laughed till our bellies ached.
Once home, our finds were carefully mounted and labelled, on card cut from cornflake packets. Dad and I sat around our formica-topped kitchen table whilst mum baked. I remember her, cotton-pinnied, peering over our shoulders.
“I don’t know which one of you is having more fun?” she declared, kissing the top of my dad’s head fondly as she ruffled my plaited hair. The finds were carefully taken to school the following day, and produced triumphantly like the treasures they surely were.
Subsequent walks throughout my childhood years would reveal our special trees bowing beneath frothy cream-coloured blossom dotted with feathery reddish-green buds that slowly unfolded into lush toothed leaves to welcome the awakening Spring sunshine. Later we’d watch blackbirds flying in and out of secret hiding places, fulfilling the constant and thankless task of feeding their families, the babies protected by those long thorns. Then, all too soon, amidst yellowing leaves, we would spy tiny swelling orbs of green forming, gradually blushing to crimson before ripening to those deep purplish-red festive berries by bonfire night; the circle turned.
I loved those old trees, so gnarled they had to be at least a century or more old, but still to be relied upon, for a few more years yet, to mark the turning seasons in my little corner of paradise on earth. Grandma, who was a fount of half-forgotten folk-lore, declared:
“Never cast a clout till May is out” which most people assumed meant not to change into lighter clothes until after the fifth month. City dwellers had forgotten their ancestral rural wisdom. The saying had nothing to do with calendar months, of course, and everything to do with weather though the two factors sometimes converged. Gran and I always understood that we could shed our winter clothes once the hawthorn blossomed. It is the undeniable indication that winter frosts have retreated, and the sun returned: Hawthorn – the May tree.
Those childhood nature rambles set the scene for my lifetime’s love of nature, especially trees, despite being eternally a townie. They also awoke within me sensitivity to the pattern of seasonal cycles. I could never have avoided my shamanic leanings with such a spiritual tree guarding my soul, imbuing me with the wisdom to understand the mysteries of birth, life and death, how nothing ever completely dies.
Consistently, hawthorns have made uncanny appearances at crucial times, usually times of change. Without any conscious deliberation I planted a hedge of hawthorn during a period when my sense of self was threatened by my deteriorating marriage, and my children growing up, no longer needing me. It was as if I was building a hedge of protection, like those hiding long gone blackbird’s nests, or the hedge around Sleeping Beauty with whom I sympathised – I felt like I was sleeping my life away. By planting my hawthorn hedge I was protecting my soul perhaps, tapping into that genetic natural wisdom awakened in my blood during my childhood, and stirring up suppressed desires.
Later, when I was preparing to leave my marriage, I visited the island of Jersey and the L’Etacq tree nursery and museum, dedicated to teaching people about ‘the spirit of trees’. Here I first learnt of the spiritual and homeopathic significance of hawthorn, and it was here that I was given a piece of hawthorn to keep with me as a touchwood. I have kept this small gift, meant to strengthen me, in my purse ever since, using it to meditate when I need to make important decisions.
“Hawthorn,” the guide told me seriously, “prevents negative energy from attacking the spirit, it also contains enormous fiery energy (indeed it burns very hotly) and opens doors. It encourages innovation and new ideas, and was used to enhance ancient druidic arts.” This enlightening philosophy suggests to me that hawthorn might have given me the strength and passion to leave a disempowering relationship to follow my dreams.
Coming to terms with being alone for the first time in my life, I was drawn ever more strongly to Glastonbury, synchronously home of the Holy Thorn planted, legend asserts, by Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ uncle. I had briefly visited the town when returning from Jersey. Were connections already being made then between my hawthorn touchwood and its ancient ancestor the Holy Thorn in order to draw me back later for more doses of healing magic? Glastonbury, with its dual mythical connections to Christianity and Paganism tightly entwined like the fighting dragons that purportedly live under the Tor, red and white, like the two healing springs flowing from it (one iron, one calcium rich); its powerful ley lines; and, of course, its hawthorns. One evening, at the bar of a Glastonbury public house where I was having dinner, I met an elderly man, gnarled like those old thorn trees but with twinkling blue eyes peeping out of deeply etched skin. He must have sensed the uncertainty draped about me like a wraith, or perhaps he’d just had bad news and was passing on his own epiphany, because, unsolicited, he warned me ominously:
“Live life to the full gal, ‘cause no matter how long you live, its allus too short”; good advice that I needed to hear and have heeded ever since.
There is another strange piece of Hawthorn magic to consider. For many years I disliked my birth family name (Mayhew) because it was complicated and hard to say. I hated saying it out loud, the M clashing with the Ns in Lynne, then the awkward vowelly combination of ay-hew. One day it occurred to me that May, being the common name for hawthorn, might imply that my surname had an occupational connection – the Hewer of May – maybe an ancestor was a hawthorn hedger perhaps? As I researched this aspect of Hawthorn symbolism, more shocks were to come. The ancient Celtic name for Hawthorn is Huathe – pronounced ‘hew’ – May-hew – the may-time tree! Either of these explanations may or may not be the truth but they do add another quirky dimension to my synchronicitous relationship with the hawthorn tree, a very personal and romantic dimension that changed my opinion of my family name.
Since my divorce I’ve planted hawthorn in each garden I’ve owned. In my first house (where there was only a yard) in a pot; the sapling a gift from good friends, for my fiftieth birthday. Now I’m planting another one, keeping the connection and protection going, honouring the gifts that Hawthorn has given me over my lifetime. The hawthorn’s ability to open doors has benefited me so many times and here I am, at a crossroads yet again, semi-retired and attempting to harness my creativity in new ways through writing. There is that previously planted tub of hawthorn under the bay window, near my front door, and now a younger one ready to guard my back, how can I fail? What more perfect tree could there be, guiding me down new pathways whilst offering me protection; instilling my writing, as it did the ancient druids, with passion, magic and a sense of celebration.
Placing my tree in the hole I’ve dug, I stamp the earth firmly around its roots. Then, as I offer its first libation of fresh water, thinking of dad and those long past nature walks, I recite my version of an ancient Celtic prayer:
“Bright blessings young tree, grow strong at the breast of Mother Earth, let your roots drink deeply from Sister Rain, enjoy the light of Father Sun on your leaves, and the freshness of Brother Wind in your branches. Welcome”.
The circle of life turns and the years fly away like Autumn leaves scattered to the four winds. Hawthorn still guards and guides my life. Sadly my potted hawthorn, the one that guarded my previous house and still sits in front of the bay window of my present one, has never flowered in the ten years of our horticultural partnership. I wonder, sometimes, is that a reflection of the emptiness that sometimes floods through me at dark moon times, though I have no regrets at following the paths I chose.
The other evening I was telling my friends Ann and John (who gave me my fiftieth birthday hawthorn when it was just a young sapling) this story of how Hawthorn has been present at a variety of important crossroads in my life. I concluded the story by admitting my disappointment that their present has never produced flowers. I’d let these long term friends drift out of my life but had recently reconnected with them on my sixtieth birthday and, avid wildlife gardeners, they were going to help me redesign my garden to be more useful to me and easier to manage in my retirement and decreasing mobility, as well as more attractive for wildlife.
As they were leaving we gathered around the potted hawthorn, it still on sentry duty, when Ann suddenly exclaimed and drew my attention to a branch tip she was gently holding. There amongst the new spring-green leaves was a cluster of tiny flower buds. Delighted, I searched the rest of the small tree and found dozens of these delicate little floral constellations getting ready to burst forth like miniature horticultural galaxies.
It seems that Hawthorn is marking yet another one of my life’s transitions, giving me its approval – whether for my reconnecting with old friends, the new garden plans, my retirement or all three, I don’t know. Hawthorn remains a loyal friend and continues to be an important part of my life signposting important milestones, and giving me its protection and its blessings. Now I’m looking forward to seeing the creamy white-pink blossoms opening in May; and hopefully there will be red haws adding a cheery splash of colour to my winter window view, and complementing the rosehips in my vases, during those flower scarce months between Samhein and Imbolc.
Bright Blessings, dear tree.