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