The hawthorn place

hawthorn 1

Do children still have secret places? When I was a kid, growing up here on the mountain with my two brothers as my only playmates, I had a lot of time to myself, and came to like my own company pretty well as a consequence. Being an inveterate day-dreamer, the mountain I wandered probably bore little resemblance to what the others saw. I especially enjoyed finding secret places, which often featured clearings in the woods. During the long hours of confinement in school, I remember sketching the imaginary rooflines of lonely mountain huts, suggested to me by my reading of medieval Irish and classical Chinese poems and stories. I was — it must be said — a pretty weird kid.

The best places were those I only ever saw once, and was never able to find again, so that they remained secret even from me. I won’t say any more about those. But most of the others I revisited fairly often, and I ended up sharing some of them with my younger brother, too. These refindable places had the drawback of never remaining static: I remember how devastated I was when my favorite large tree on the mountain died, and a few years later fell over. I hardly ever go back to that ravine now.

hawthorn spring

One place that’s remained more or less the same is the one pictured here. In my mother’s nature writing, she often mentions the Far Field thicket, a place right on our property line at the south end of a small meadow — the Far Field — a mile down-ridge from the houses. The thickety part is dominated by fox grape and the strange thorny trees called Hercules’ club or devil’s walkingstick, which flower in profusion in midsummer and sport heavy masses of purple berries in the fall — a wildlife bonanza. She always enters this area from above, I think, and enjoys the way the thicket acts like a blind at the same time that it attracts birds, especially in the winter.

I always preferred the area downhill from the thicket, ever since I discovered a secret entrance through the woods on the other side. I was in my mid-teens, I guess. One summer day I followed an animal trail over a dry watercourse and through dense green jungles of grape vines and emerged into a clearing right next to a gnarled hawthorn tree. It was an old charcoal hearth from the early 19th century, one of many on the mountain, immediately recognizable because of its size — roughly 40 feet in diameter — and the fact that it was perfectly level. An old galvanized steel bucket with a couple bullet holes in it lay on its side in the middle of the clearing, and I turned it over to make a seat and sat there for a long time.

hawthorn trunk

Another hawthorn grew immediately below the old hearth, and as I continued to follow the animal trail through a small, wet meadow, and then backtracked toward the thicket, I found more — maybe ten in all. The area had been clear-cut repeatedly over the last 200 years, but I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. To me, it was a wild orchard.

I had always mourned the loss of the Plummer’s Hollow orchard, which the old timers told us about when we moved in: forty acres of apples, pears and peaches. The previous owners had bulldozed out all but a handful of the trees back in the 1950s, we were told — ten years before my birth. When I was a kid, an ancient Yellow Delicious apple tree grew below the back porch among Concord grape trellises, and a Stamen Winesap below that. But both trees died in the late 80s, around the time a burgeoning deer population was decimating the grapes. So I suppose it was inevitable that one of my favorite places on the mountain should be an ersatz orchard whose trees were well armed against the deer.

hawthorn drupes

Which is not to say that hawthorn sprouts don’t still have a pretty rough time of it. Two springs ago I planted 50 hawthorn seedlings around the yard and adjacent meadow, hoping that at least a handful would escape detection by the deer, but I haven’t seen any sign of them since.

It would be easy to rationalize my irrational love of hawthorns. I could cite the attraction of their flowers to insects, their leaves to the larvae of many moths and butterflies, and of course their fruit to a huge number of birds and mammals, humans included. I could talk about hawthorn jelly — which I’ve never actually made — and hawthorn salad from the fresh, new leaves, which I’ve never remembered to sample. I could talk about the European folklore, which generally casts the tree as a symbol of hope, and includes the belief that Jesus’ crown of thorns came from a species of hawthorn. “In Serbian folklore, a stake made of hawthorn wood was used to impale the corpses of suspected vampires,” says the Wikipedia article on the genus Crataegus, while “in Celtic lore, the hawthorn plant was used commonly for rune inscriptions along with Yew and Apple. It was once said to heal the broken heart.”

The hawthorn place has grown a bit more open over the decades, thanks to the deer keeping wild grape sprouts and blackberry brambles in check, but otherwise it hasn’t changed all that radically. The biggest change is in spring, when the hawthorns bloom: what used to be a small patch of mayflowers has grown almost to an acre in size, completely covering the charcoal hearth and its environs with a forest of green umbrellas. The rusty old bucket is still hiding in the weeds, and it still makes a serviceable seat.

mayapples with hawthorn blossoms
Hawthorn blossoms on mayapples (photo taken in 2005 with my old 1-megapixel camera)
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Written for the special Festival of the Trees edition on fruit trees and orchards, set for March 1 at Orchards Forever.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

18 Comments


  1. I wonder what that develops in us, the discovery of a secret place we see only once and can’t find again.

    Sometimes I’m guilt-ridden about our raising our son in today’s version of suburbia.

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  2. Are there any vacant lots or woods nearby? Do you let him go off by himself? If so, how far?

    There’s a lot to be said for growing up in a neighborhood and having playmates one’s own age, I think.

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  3. I didn’t really have secret places when I was young, my parents were scarily ahead of their times in being overprotective of me, I wasn’t allowed to wander by myself. Luckily we had a nice garden.

    I love hawthorns, there is something undefinably wonderful about them

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  4. Ooooh how lovely. You really must try young hawthorn leaves in spring, they’re absolutely delicious. I roamed as a child too and had secret camps, but long ago and far away. I so love that you can still sit on your bucket.

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  5. Lovely – have had many similar places. Hawthorns and rowans are among my favorites, and both have all sorts of Scottish superstition about protection attached to them.

    From my trusty Dictionary of Superstitions (Moira Tatem and Iona Opie, OUP, ’92):

    Some recent-ish ones (1800’s and 1900’s) – the flowers of a white or red hawthorn are fine and lucky to bring into the house, but of the blackthorn, it’s said bringing the blossom inside is to invite death to the head of the family. There’s also some association between the smell of the hawthorn and the Plague. A globe of hawthorn (‘the burning bush’) was weaved and hung in the kitchen for the year, then burned on New Year’s – or, a plaited crown of hawthorn was baked on New Year’s morning then the ashes were scattered over the field (for good crop – that one’s early Christian, obviously, since the crown of thorns was said to be hawthorn, but the associations with the tree existed prior to JC).

    The older ones are about protection (getting it and keeping it): a bough of hawthorn in front of the house brings protection (especially on Mayday). Pliny (77AD), random-but-fun as ever, said never attempt to graft a hawthorn, for as many times as you try, that’s how many times the spot will be struck by lightning. He also said there is no more auspicious torch for a wedding than a hawthorn bundle. The tree itself – un-interfered with – is supposed to offer protection from lightning.

    There are many variations on: any harm done to the tree will result in harm to the brazen thug who cut it – thorns in their bed, vengeance of fairies, cows/chicken/women will stop laying/milking/bearing children (love how we’re always lumped together) etc.. They are said to be fairy or elfin trees, and cherished and protected by them. It’s also said that to cut the hawthorn – even a branch – will destroy the apple crop (and this, apparently, is still said – 1985 in Cheshire is the most recent quote of this one Tatem and Opie found.)

    It’s also said that to carry a sick person around a hawthorn tree three times, bumping them into it, will make them well. Unfortunately, the book includes this report: “The Goodies of the village obtained the Doctor’s and sick man’s consent to restore him to health, and having carried him around the tree bumped the dying man and had the mortification of carrying him back a corpse.” (1938/9)

    And now I will stop with the flood of mythic trivia.

    Product of my own weird-kid-ness, still devoutly practiced.

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  6. Dave– this is great! I think our memories of being a kid in the woods are always worth exploring, more important than ever these days. I’d like to do a post over at Romantic Naturalist with links to this kind of story. Do you mind if I put up a link to this post?

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  7. Mine’s up, dug out and dusted off… over at Foothills Fancies.

    “Weird-kid-ness” indeed! Theriomorph, how about sharing yours?

    Thanks again, Dave.

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  8. this is an incredibly imaginative piece, dave, about very real places. i’m working on a poem about my name for a writing prompt and something that came out was my secret worlds. i don’t know if they belong in my name poem, but you’ve inspired me to give them a space of their own!

    i also grew up in the country. we could see our neighbors and some were right across the street but it wasn’t a “neighborhood.” we were separated by a 2-lane 55 mph highway with heavy log-truck traffic. and there weren’t a lot of kids. when handfuls of us would get together, it was frequently at secret places in the woods.

    my kids asked me what i did growing up without all the things they have now (and i’m not even that old). i tell them, “we picked rocks.” and it was true. we spent hours fondling little stones and drawing lines with sticks and rearranging pine bows.

    thanks for this little jaunt!

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  9. CGP – Good to hear from another hawthorn fancier. Sorry to hear that your parents didn’t let you wander, but I hope you’re making up for that now. (Me, I’m a homebody.)

    rr – Was it really that much longer ago for you than for me? I’d didn’t think you had more than five years on me at the most. In any case, since you recommend it, I will have to try hawthorn leaves this spring.

    Theriomorph – Damn, that’s the kind of comment that really adds value to a post! Thanks. I’ve looked at that book in the bookstore, but said to myself, “Do I really want a book that labels other peoples’ beliefs ‘superstitions’?” But I do love this kind of folklore, and feel that there might be grains of truth in it. A lot of people used to harm the trees, I gather: it was considered a great wood for tool handles of all kinds. I guess the elves didn’t make the trans-Atlantic voyage. Frazier mentions the May-time use of hawthorn boughs as a relic of European tree-worship.

    Sally – Feel free; links are always welcome (except from those darn splogs that ruin my Google PageRank!).

    I do hope folks will follow your second link and check out your dusted-off essay about your own childhood ramblings — terrific, as I said over there. Thanks for sharing that.

    carolee – I’m glad you connected with this, and found it helpful. I hope you’ll come back and leave a link if you do end up posting a poem (or prose) about your secret childhood places.

    I’m quite sure that if/when the global economy goes down the tubes and kids no longer have high-tech gizmos to mesmerize them, they’ll figure out how to play in the woods again fairly quickly. The only question at this point is whether there will still be any woods.

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  10. Dave, my mother Marja-Leena sent me a link to this post and I was instantly captivated and inspired, thank you so much for sharing it! I wrote about the associations it inspired on my blog, Poplar Road (at my mom’s insistence, I admit), if you’d like to take a look. Hopefully my readers head your way, I’m sure they’ll love your post and the Festivals of Trees. Thanks again.

    [The direct link to anita’s post, “Hawthorn Magic,” is here. –Dave]

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  11. “we picked rocks.�

    Me too. And we painted rocks with stream-dipped devil’s/angel’s paintbrushes. For hours. And hours. We opened rocks looking for geodes (with a highly advanced set of tools called ‘a smasher rock’ and ‘a table rock’).

    It’s a great book, Dave. Nothing judgmental in it at all, either – they’re folklorists, reporting the facts of folklore. It lacks origins/historical context, but that’s fair, since if it included such it would be longer than the OED.

    I’m quite sure that if/when the global economy goes down the tubes and kids no longer have high-tech gizmos to mesmerize them, they’ll figure out how to play in the woods again fairly quickly. The only question at this point is whether there will still be any woods.

    Truer words never said.

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  12. I’ve looked at that book in the bookstore, but said to myself, “Do I really want a book that labels other peoples’ beliefs ‘superstitions’?â€?

    Damn. One less buyer for my forthcoming “Guide To The New Testament.”

    Lovely post, Dave. I miss hawthorns.

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  13. For my taste, this was an especially good post, Dave. Sucked me right in to walking with you as a boy and seeing everything lucidly and three dimensionally, even the angle of the hillside and the slant of the light on the thicket. The bulldozing of the orchard and decay of the old trees. When I got to the bucket with you, I could even smell the metallic and ashen smell. When is the novel coming? I could travel with you on a little longer written wander, by other rocks and trees and fruiting thickets.
    Now I am wondering, if I saw one of your actual places, how closely your verbal painting of it would match my created reality. Or would it be lost, like a “mis-remembered” secret place?…
    anyway, thanks for the total mental journey in this read, I needed to get away from the holler a bit.

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  14. Well, this post really seems to have struck a nerve!

    anita – Thanks for stopping by! Glad your mom twisted your arm. i enjoyed your post.

    Theriomorph – No, I’m sure it sin’t judgemental… except, as Chris’s comment implies, in where they draw the line between superstition and religion. To me, the useful distinction is between folk/popular belief and official doctrine — and I’m always much more interested in the former (with the possible exception of Daoism: popular Daoism leaves me cold). So it seems to me that they could’ve called it “Dictionary of Folk Beliefs.” A minor point, I suppose.

    Chris – Thanks for stopping by. It figures that a desert rat like you would like hawthorns – they’re a little like cacti, aren’t they?

    CadyMay – I was wondering when you’d pop in again! I’m glad this resonated with you. I’m reasonably certain that if I showed someone one of my favorite places, they’d probably be a bit underwhelmed — unless they’re under the age of ten and easily impressed. I had a good success rate with my niece Eva a couple years ago.

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  15. You’ve got me wondering how universal the delight in secret places is. Seems like it should be, if it isn’t.

    And thinking of Roethke’s The Far Field:

    All finite things reveal infinitude:
    The mountain with its singular bright shade
    Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
    The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
    Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
    A scent beloved of bees;
    Silence of water above a sunken tree :
    The pure serene of memory in one man, —
    A ripple widening from a single stone
    Winding around the waters of the world.

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  16. Thanks for that terrific quote, MB. I thought about trying to work in a Roethke reference yet, but was afraid it would make the post too long. My parents named the field before they knew about the book, but becasue Roethke used to teach (briefly) at Penn State, found a copy of The Far Field in a local bookstore soon thereafter. I actually prefer the name our hunters give it, the Back Field, as I mentioned in the caption to this photo.

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  17. That’s a striking shot of frost-rimmed (rimed?) branches. Has the feel of another secret place.

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  18. What a beautifully written post! I grew up with woods, but no Hawthorns, so I was intrigued. Now I want to plant some in the hedgerow of Larrapin Garden. Thanks for writing and sharing such a vivid remembering.

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