(Things to do with hawthorn: on death, time, funny light, and change)
Paying attention to the seasons and to what I eat is a way of connecting to the cycles of life. The more connections there are in meaning, the richer life feels: there’s a history, a weight, a gravity that only deepens with each layer. These layers can be different things— they can come from your garden, or from the wild; they can be something you connect to your childhood, or maybe your ancestry. In the case of my obsession with hawthorn in the autumn, the layers of connection aren’t local or from my garden or even from the mountains where I gather the majority of my herbs; the connections stretch across a different sort of plane— one of dreams and magic and rings in the grass and mists that sweep in from far away in a matter of seconds, obscuring the path, making things look… different.
There was a partial eclipse yesterday and the air took on an underwater quality for an hour. I stared at the shadows, transfixed, and thought about how fitting this eclipse was to the fall light. And I remembered a time when the light changing caused me great discomfort. The gloaming, now my favourite time of day, at one time made me feel rudderless and cast out to sea. Fall light used to do the same. Maybe because it exemplifies change. You can’t catch it or keep up with it. Fall is a transition time, where that which was reaching its zenith is now curling into itself, conserving, settling down. Its the turning time, the movement of time, the passing of moments so fleeting that we can’t even touch them let along grab on indefinitely. And isn’t that what we generally try to do? Grab on indefinitely, pretend its not changing, pretend that the flicker just outside our field of vision didn’t happen— that the world is as we see it and we don’t age and nothing changes and things (especially us) certainly don’t… die.
Yes, I said it. The big D. How can one not, in the face of all this downward momentum, change, transformation, with the bare bones of tree skeletons emerging with every falling leaf that turns to rot on the ground. How can we not think of dying? And how can it not scare the crap out of us at the same time?
I notice in places where there’s a rich and old cultural history, people tend to have more of an understanding that we aren’t the centre of the universe. All souls day, dia de los muertos, Samhain, these aren’t just times to get dressed up like slutty nurses and drink ourselves into a stupor, but times when the connections are strongest. The height of that falling time, the middle-point, where the light is oddest and we feel the most unsettled. In other cultures you deal with this by diving into it— honouring the ancestors, getting a deep sense of your place in history as one in a long line of humans that stretches out behind you like a series of stream beds panning out over the desert, and in front of you like a gossamer path that shape-shifts with each action we choose. Time. Age. Change. There is something beautiful about being rooted in history. Walking around old cities, sometimes you get a feel for the age of it and it provides a sense of gravity, of rootedness. Where old gnarled trees and old stone meet and your timescale is suddenly switched from the immediate to the archaological. Earth time. Slow time. Old time.
Hawthorn is an archetypal plant for this: otherworldly, connecting the rational world with the dreaming— the gateway plant. It does this because its stable and comfortable on this journey. It too lives between two worlds, and straddles them. It is the plant to face change with, a strong hand behind your upper back between your shoulder blades saying ‘its cool, we’ve got this’*.
Its 11am. The light outside is orange. There are birds in the tree outside and a breeze coming in through the window. The birdsong and the breeze act as a hypnotic, pulling me into the light until its just a series of pixels, orange and dancing on the green of the tree out front. All of a sudden, I am simultaneously in my living room and in the branch of the tree, dappled light hitting my eyelids as I turn my face to the sun. And then in a heartbeat I am in my childhood garden, with the fall light reaching through the oak trees, moving over my face and then, as now, I am transfixed by it all. Time is loose like that. Simultaneous, happening everywhere at once. Unsettling, but now is the time to dive in. Grab your hawthorn and turn towards that changing light and see it in its place— as a part of a huge cycle, of birth, and growth, and withering, and death, and how we fit into that huge cycle with our brief lives.
Its not scary to me anymore, the gloaming. It is beautiful in its honesty, in the flickers of things I see and hear in the shadows, in that which it shows and doesn’t show. In the connection to that which is bigger, uncontrollable, unfathomable, sometimes its reassuring to just be a tiny speck of light in a vast moving sea, not of something important or special, but of something that simply is.
I received a big box of hawthorn berries in the mail last week, and after tincturing and elixir-ing most of them, I was left with enough to play around with. This is a recipe for hawthorn ketchup, adapted from the River Cottage preserve book. Its delicious on roasted meats, like a combination between brown sauce (HP Sauce!) and something fruitier. Definitely worth a try.
*My favourite hawthorn formula for all of this is hawthorn, rose and devil’s club, to work with these connections to the past, to ancestry and diving into that which is unseen.
Hawthorn ketchup Adapted from The River Cottage Preserves book
1/2 onion 1 tsp grated ginger 2 cloves 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon 2 allspice berries 1/2 tsp ground mustard 1/4 tsp black pepper 1/2 tsp salt 1 3/4 cups apple cider vinegar 3/4 cup brown sugar
If using fresh hawthorn berries: 2 pounds fresh hawthorn berries 1 3/4 cups water
If using dried hawthorn berries: 1 lb dried hawthorn berries 3 cups water
1. Put everything in a big pot, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for approximately an hour. It'll take slightly less time with fresh berries, and with dried you may need to simmer for up to 2 hours. They're ready when the berries have gone light in colour and everything has turned to mush.
2. Run it all through a food mill or sieve. The hawthorn pits will get stuck and you'll curse ever starting this recipe but persevere because its worth it. The resulting mush should be the consistency of ketchup. If its too liquidy, simmer it down to a ketchup consistency, if too thick, add a bit of water.
3. Allow to cool, then spoon into jars. It'll keep in the fridge for 6 months.