Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Fruit and Folklore

A little late in the season, but this fruity blog was recently published in Leaf! newspaper...

Autumn is a fruitful season. A rummaging ramble along woodland edge or roadside hedge at this time of year reveals a ripe harvest of both tasty treats and rich folklore...

Scrambling brambles that suckled a host of nectar-sipping insects throughout summer now glisten temptingly with succulent blackberries, ready to stain fingers and tongues. Early in autumn they offer a pick-and-mix of sweet and sour, maturing from the tip of the shoot backwards as the season proceeds. But don’t delay too long as time-honoured tradition states that blackberries should never be eaten after Old Michaelmas Day (10 October) when the Devil spits on them – an act of petulant despoiling resulting from Old Scratch having landed in a patch of brambles when he was expelled from Heaven.

Elderberries, mercifully un-bedevilled throughout October, hang in dangling clusters of petite purple globules - light and refreshing when eaten straight from the branch, becoming deep and intense when turned into cordial and wine and packing a punch of vitamins to stave off winter’s ills and chills. According to legend witches can magically turn themselves into elder trees, so it’s considered pertinent to ask permission from the Old Lady before you help yourself from her branches. Thickets of blackthorn bushes also harbour gluts of hidden fruit. Sloes, secretly ripened amongst protective spines, have become the colour of bruises –tart to the taste but ready to be picked and pricked and transformed into intoxicating tipples.

Autumnal yields of hazelnuts have nourished humans since we first walked this land, but each year, as soon as they turn from insipid green to alluring gold, there’s a ruthless rush of beak and claw amongst the turning leaves to grab the nutritious feast. Once gathered the nuts can be safely squirreled away for later leisurely consumption, roasted on the fire as the wild weather blows outside. In some parts of the country 31 October was known as Nut Crack Night, where hazelnuts had amorous applications in foretelling future lovers. The Anglo-Saxon word ‘haesel’ translates as hat or bonnet and refers to the frilly fringe of leaves neatly fitted around the base of the hardening husks.

Even when ripe crab-apples, as their name suggests, are generally hard and sour to the taste (as in ‘crabby’ – also referring to persons of bitter disposition). They were once widely harvested and used in fermented form as ‘verjuice’: a home-grown, hedgerow alternative to lemon juice, and are still sometimes roasted as an accompaniment for cooked meat as well as a key component of mid-winter Wassailing drinks. Alongside native crab-apple trees, assorted ‘wildings’ from discarded domestic apples serendipitously sprout along the hedgerows and in neglected pockets of countryside, their branches brimming with profuse fruit. It’s easy to understand how the apple tree has become such a striking symbol of abundance and generosity in folklore. Furthermore apples are perhaps the most ‘storied’ of all our autumn fruits: featuring heavily in a crop of tales from magical myths to local legends; especially in the West Country where apple growing has a deep-rooted tradition. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

A nod to the dead...

A wee piece of poetry in praise of the delicious darkness of All Hallows' Eve...

A nod to the dead
That trod before us

A toast to the ghosts
That pass through our lives

A dance with the devil
That tempts us to tango

A wink at the witches
That bewitch us with spells

A howl with the hounds
That serenade the moon

A scamper with skeletons
That rattle our bones

A dalliance with demons
That wrestle our souls

A fling with the foul things
That darken our doors

A jest with the djinns
That conjure up dreams

A fooling with ghouls
That play on our fears

A sport with the spooks
That dare us and scare us

A romp with the monsters
That stomp through our stories...

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Heralds of Spring

Spring is the season of signs. From the first twitchings of new life on the forest floor after winter’s solstice, there’s a successional spring-tide of awakenings to be sensed and savoured.
Perhaps, first amongst the many floral harbingers of spring is the primrose – literally ‘first flower’ – which graces woodlands and edge-lands any time from New Year to early summer. In January a walk through the woods is often punctuated by pleasure the tantalising peep of primrose petals – lemon-sherbet yellow amongst the leaf litter – their pale purity a vivid contrast against the dark brown of the dead year. Primroses were once one of the most commonly picked wildflowers, and rural custom dictated that offering someone a posy with less than thirteen blossoms was a thinly veiled insult. Nowadays, it feels wrong to do anything other than admire their vernal exuberance in the places where they unexpectedly appear leading us deeper into the woods; like florescent Will-o’-the-Wisps.

On willow trees and hazel coppices catkins, which formed the year before and were held tightly inconspicuous through winter, now unfasten and fluff-up to join the spring presage. Dangling down like lambs’ tails (another of their evocative vernacular names), they dance animatedly at the slightest stirring in the spring air. Infused with associations of fertility, folklore holds that a profusion catkins portends an abundance of babies; ‘plenty of catkins; plenty of prams’.

A little later than the first flowers, a walk in the woods is imbued by audio anticipation; ears straining in hope to hear the first returning chiffchaff of the year. Its distinctive call – like squeaking sneakers – is a springtime serenade that emotionally translates as: ‘all’s well with the world once more’. If we’re lucky we might also catch sight of a brimstone butterfly, fluttering slowly through the open spaces of the trees like a fragment of sunshine; its buttery yellow colour allegedly giving rise to the word butterfly itself. According to Tove Jansson’s literary creature, Moomintroll, to see a yellow butterfly as your first of the year foretells a fine year ahead. Amongst so many numinous seasonal auguries, who could argue?

As spring unfurls and uncurls the leaves of beech trees become luminous lime-green in the sunlight; like the stained glass windows of a great green cathedral. The warmer air is suffused with the sweet and savoury smell of wild garlic, also known as Ramsons, emerging in huge swathes under the trees and adding a welcome tasty tang to the sensation of spring.
In other leafy places, but rarely amongst wild garlic, bluebells punctuate the palette of spring greens with their haze of intoxicating blue hues. Bluebell flowers were once worn on lapels to celebrate the feast day of England’s patron saint – St George – and they generally still chime in time for the 23rd April. Older folklore associates bluebells with the faerie folk, and it’s claimed that if you ever actually hear them ringing in the woods then you’ve inadvertently walked out of this world and into the ‘otherworld’…

Originally published in Leaf! - a newsletter produced by The Woodland Trust and Common Ground: