Sunday, March 19, 2006

A gnarled hawthorn

click photo to enlarge
"And every shepherd tells his tale, under the hawthorn in the dale", John Milton (1608-1674), English poet

My Yorkshire Dales childhood was full of hawthorn trees, and even today my Fylde garden and the fields behind my house are fringed with them. This pleases me enormously because this hardy tree offers visual delights at every season. In spring its fresh green leaves open early, and are a welcome sign of the warmer, brighter days to come. May sees white hawthorn blossom (appropriately called May blossom) covering the trees like late fallen snow. The red berries and yellowing leaves of autumn lighten the greyest days, and fieldfares and redwings chatter among the hawthorns' branches as they feast on the trees' bounty. But, it is when winter reveals it, that we see the true character of this craggy, knotted tree.

The hawthorn is the commonest small tree in Britain, and is found on hills and mountains and throughout the lowlands. Its use in hedging is partly responsible for its ubiquity. However, the hawthorn figures in much folklore, so it must always have been widespread. Christ's crown of thorns was reputedly made from hawthorn, and it is said that lightning will not strike a hawthorn, or a house near one, because of this sacred association. The trunks and branches of the hawthorn (they can live up to 700 years) are frequently fantastically twisted and gnarled, and have led people to see images and spirits in the trees.

My photograph shows a convoluted hawthorn tree - in fact one of a short row of such trees, near Glasson, Lancashire. The way it seems to have thrown out arms and legs is very Daliesque, and gives the tree the sort of anthropmorphic strangeness that inspired our ancestors' stories. In fact, this tree's deformity is probably due to it having been "layed", that is to say, cut and bent when young, to form part of a hedge. I took this photograph one morning in early spring light which emphasizes the tree's contorted shape. The conversion to black and white was done to highlight these features further.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen