Back in Wales after summer travels, I was seized with an obsession to pick berries. Rather than staying inside to catch up with the mountains of email that demanded attention, I found myself, basket in hand, tramping through the lanes and coastal cliff paths, determined to fill them up with as many ripe blackberries, elderberries, sloes, wild damsons, hips, haws, and rowan berries as I could. The overt reason was to make jams and jellies, but since I don’t even eat the sugary stuff, (I leave that to David) I was merely obeying the irresistible atavistic impulse to gather as much free food as possible before the glistening hedgerows turn into the khaki ranks of autumn’s army.
The spirit of the elder is an old woman, the Elder-Mother, who lives in the trunk of this bushy tree. In Ireland elder was regarded as highly sacred, and it was forbidden to break even one twig. But in Lincolnshire you could barter for wood from the “Old Lady” or “Old Girl” by saying: “Old Woman, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree.” If you bathe your eyes in the green juice of the wood, you will gain the second sight. And if you stand under an elder-tree at Samhain in Scotland, you can see the faery host riding by. Elderberries plucked on Midsummer’s Eve confer magical powers, but since they generally don’t ripen until August, it’s a safe bet that doesn’t happen very often.
Within the blackthorn tree lives the lunantishee, a thin, wiry old man with pointed ears, long teeth, arms and fingers – a personification of the sharp thorn itself. He will not allow a stick to be cut either on the 11th of May or November (the old Beltaine and Samhain dates.) To do so is bound to bring misfortune. The thorns also protect the white flowers in the spring, which ripen into the black sour sloes, an ancestor of our orchard plums. Blackthorn’s sister is the hawthorn, whom the Irish have always recognised as a faery tree. Hawthorns were often referred to as “gentle bushes” after the custom of not naming faeries directly out of respect. Solitary thorns were known as the faeries’ trysting trees, as they frequently grow on barrows and tumps, or at crossroads – typical “thin” places in the landscape. To sit beneath the hawthorn tree on Beltaine Eve pretty much guarantees a sight of the fairy cavalcade riding out into our world at this liminal time.
We don’t hear much about the bramble faery who scatters her gleaming jewels throughout our hedgerows with such profligacy, but mothers used to warn their children not to eat any blackberries after Michelmas as the faeries had blighted them – which no doubt served to safeguard their offspring from the ills of eating mouldy berries. But rowan berries are said to be the food of the high faery race known as the Tuatha De Danaan in Ireland. In olden times anyone who ate one of these magical berries remained free of sickness. An old person who ate them became young again, and they bestowed unsurpassed beauty on any maiden. Despite its virtues, the rowan-tree faery is an unprepossessing fellow: thick-boned, large-nosed, crooked in the teeth, and with one red eye in a black face. It is said that the Welsh used to brew an excellent ale from the berries, the secret of which is sadly now lost. Herbalist John Evelyn seems to confirm this in his Sylva: or, A Discourse of Forest-Trees:”Ale and beer brewed with these berries, being ripe, is an incomparable drink, familiar in Wales, where this tree is reputed so sacred, that there is not a churchyard without one of them planted in it…”
I ended up making pots and pots of jellies, both blackberry-apple and wild damson, sieved through muslin and hung over the bath for two days; hedgerow jam – a brilliant tangy concoction made from crab-apples, rose-hips, a few rowan berries, sloes, blackberries and raspberries from the garden; and froze the rest for future crumbles and pies.
I also left some outside on the doorstep for the faeries, as wise old Jill did in Walter de la Mare’s poem:
There was an old woman went blackberry picking
Along the hedges from Weep to Wicking. –
Half a pottle- no more she had got,
When out steps a Fairy from her green grot;
And says, ‘Well, Jill, Would ‘ee pick mo?’
And Jill, she curtseys, and looks just so.
‘Be off,’ says the Fairy, ‘As quick as you can,
Over the meadows to the little green lane
That dips to the hayfields of Farmer Grimes:
I’ve berried those hedges a score of times;
Bushel on bushel I’ll promise ‘ee, Jill,
This side of supper if ‘ee pick with a will.’
She glints very bright, and speaks her fair;
Then lo and behold! She had faded in air.
Be sure Old Goodie she trots betimes
Over the meadows to Farmer Grimes.
And never was queen with jewelry rich
As those same hedges from twig to ditch;
Like Dutchmen’s coffers, fruit, thorn, and flower –
They shone like William and Mary’s bower.
And be sure Old Goodie went back to Weep,
So tired with her basket she scarce could creep.
When she comes in the dusk to her cottage door,
There’s Towser wagging as never before,
To see his Missus so glad to be
Come from her fruit-picking back to he.
As soon as next morning dawn was grey,
The pot on the hob was simmering away;
And all in a stew and a hugger-mugger
Towser and Jill a-boiling of sugar,
And the dark clear fruit that from Faerie came,
For syrup and jelly and blackberry jam.
Twelve jolly gallipots Jill put by;
And one little teeny one, one inch high;
And that she’s hidden a good thumb deep,
Half way over from Wicking to Weep.