Thursday, 22 September 2011

Faeries and Berries


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.

Standing at the garden table up to my elbows in purple juice, beating off the wasps who have their own agenda when it comes to berries, I thought about the faery-lore of my bountiful hoard.

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:

BERRIES

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.





7 comments:

  1. Im surrounded by berries here in Nova Scotia but not sure which ones make for good jammin??

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  2. If you click on the photo of the basket you can see which berries I've used!

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  3. Beautiful post, and a reminder of the incredible abundance of berries we had in in Co. Sligo last autumn. This year there seems to be barely enough to make a single pot of jam, though the yield of blackcurrant and redcurrants in early summer was incredibly abundant.

    Last year, after an abundant berry crop we went into the severest winter for over 50 years. There's a lot of local gloom and doom talk about a severe winter coming and earlier, especially as the whooper swans have arrived very early, but something in my heart feels we are in for a mild one after this cool summer. There's just not the foraging going on by the local animals like last year. I also have some cowslips popped into flower in the labyrinth and snowdrop leaves are popping through.

    Somehow, I do not think the faeries are going to hibernate this winter, at least not in NW Erin.

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  4. Thanks, John - I just heard we might get snow as early as October in Wales, so hope you may be right, as over here we tend to partake in Irish weather ... But I'm surprised you had so few berries this year in Sligo! If I remember, I'll bring you a jar of me best damson jelly next June! :-)

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  5. I've made a ton of blackberry jelly this year, plus I have red currants and salmon berries (local wild fruit related to raspberries) frozen for more jelly. The grape vines are heavy with fruit and for some reason no birds this year to eat them.

    Already the wind and wet are molding the blackberries on the vine and the quince have fallen all over the ground.

    Didn't know you could eat rowan berries --my young tree is producing for the first time this year and my two hawthorns (planted in the West) are not yet bearing though one had flowers.
    The stars and the stones...some of my best friends...

    The faeries who live by my "well" (a well ring full of water) close to the vesica piscus shaped mirror wanted milk earlier but they seem very happy with the stones I brought them.
    Years ago during my introduction to shamanism I associated with the Elder Mother. Now living on a wild west coast island I am surrounded by elders and huge red cedars each with its own tutelary spirit.

    Blessings upon each wild place and blessings upon the hearts that love them....

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  6. Hi Laurel,
    It sounds as if you live in a very beautiful place. I remember salmonberries from my travels in the Pacific northwest. Rowan berries are very tart and only usually preserved as a jelly that's traditionally eaten with cold meats in Britain, rather than on toast, but a few added to mixed autumn fuits jam or jelly lends a goodly tang. It's hard to grow hawthorns on the west coast - not many further south where I used to live - - they seem to need rough winds and biting frosts to thrive. Hawthorn faeries are a tough lot!

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  7. Brilliant blog, I had no idea one could make jam with rose-hips, crabapple, berry etc...something I seem to have plenty of!

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