May is the month of hawthorn, the eponymous mayflower, whose small, white and pink buds erupt along country hedgerows and abandoned railway lines, in corners of allotments, in city and suburban parks and gardens. When multiplied by the thousand, its unpretentious, five-petalled flowers become foaming clouds and banks of blossom, bringing “a quickening hope, a freshening glee”, as William Wordsworth writes in ‘Ode Composed on a May Morning’.
Hawthorn is a shapeshifter; a shrub, a tree, a hedge, the marker of a boundary or enclosure giving form and pattern to fields and landscape. There’s a hawthorn in Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury and it is one of the three commonest trees in Manchester.
Tough and ubiquitous, hawthorn also has its queerer, more subversive aspects. It fascinated Marcel Proust, who celebrates the hawthorn in its “parure de fête”, or party finery, in À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Even if the 3,000-plus pages of the work are a literary challenge too far, the hawthorn section in the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann, is a poetic tour de force worth reading on its own. You may never again walk past a hawthorn in bloom without stopping to examine, to listen, and to smell.
Although Proust remembers seeing hawthorn laid on the altar of the Virgin Mary “au mois de Marie” (in the month of Mary)in the church in Combray, his worship of hawthorn had pagan roots. Its flowers are linked to virgins and brides – it was carried by young women and embroidered on wedding trains and veils. In France, young men might declare their desire by leaving a branch of hawthorn on the windowsill, or by the door, of the houses of unmarried girls.
Hawthorn is also linked with death, as Proust knew. The smell is the clue. He describes it as the “odeur amère et douce d’amandes” (“the bittersweet odour of almonds”), rather like frangipane. This unmistakeable and powerful scent (think of Copydex glue) is due to the presence of trimethylamine, a chemical which is produced by corpses and is present in sexual fluids.
The young Marcel is entranced by the “suite de chapelles” (series of chapels) formed by the hawthorns that line the path by Swann’s estate. Stopping to examine the blossom, he becomes aware of the “bourdonnement” or buzzing of the hedges, which are charged with sexual activity and electricity, vibrating with throbbing bees collecting pollen from the flowers’ obvious stamens. The hedges are alive with sex, something Hockney (a lifelong reader of Proust) captures in the huge paintings of hawthorn hedges in Yorkshire he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2012 with their almost indecent phallic wavings. It is no coincidence that Marcel encounters hawthorn at the moment he is becoming aware of his sexual desires; it is in this setting that he meets Gilberte for the first time, the fillette or young girl who captures his heart.
À la recherche is a paean to many kinds of flowers and blossom. But only the hawthorn can stir so much Proustian passion and embody the two primary subjects of his masterpiece: sex and death.
Jane Brocket is the author of books on a variety of creative and cultural subjects. She has an MA in Victorian Art and Culture from Royal Holloway, University of London, and her most recent book is How to Look at Stained Glass (2017). More recently she has been writing the weekly yarnstorm newsletter on Substack which allows her to consider a wide range of favourite subjects including rag rugs, smocking, tulips, bookbinding, Proust, allotments, and domesticity. Her photos can be found on her Instagram account.
I had been walking for several hours on the high moor with my collie Moss when I found the mare. She was alone, and very heavily in foal. I recognised her immediately – it was Pear, one of more than 70 pedigree Exmoor ponies that graze the open acres of Dunkery hill above Porlock.
I often walk more than 20 miles a day to check the ponies, observing quietly from a distance.
Over the years I have got to know their characters well – and they have become used to my presence. Usually, I watch for a while and then move on, but this day was different. I sat down to rest in the heather with my dog a little way off and Pear grazed her way towards me. It was a peaceful spring day and the loudest sound was the gentle, soporific munch as she cropped young shoots of whortleberry.
When she was about 20 feet away, Pear sighed, laid down, and went to sleep. It’s an immense privilege and honour to be trusted in this way by a free-living, unhandled pony. By allowing me to keep watch, she showed she accepted my presence.
While she slept, I kept vigil, my thoughts vanishing in a sense of connection with her and my surroundings.
After about a quarter of an hour, Pear stood up, looked directly at me, sighed heavily once again and turned her rear towards me. I expected her to wander off as she’d had her nap and there would be more things she wanted to nibble. But then she lifted her tail – and revealed a tiny, protruding hoof.
Pear seemed content for me to keep watch over her, a role that usually falls to another mare during foaling. The timing was unusual, these mares generally give birth in the hours of darkness and not in bright sunlight. I kept very still as she laid down once again on her side.
I could see the immense yet silent effort going into the birth. Mares in labour make no sound because that could draw a predator’s attention when they are most vulnerable.
I sat in silence with her, following her every breath. Within three minutes the foal was born, shrouded in the cloudy membrane of her foetal sac.
Seven minutes later the foal’s head and shoulders were free of the caul. Pear stood up, tumbling the foal out of the remainder of the sac and severing the umbilical cord in the process.
It was quite a while before the foal started to attempt to stand. With no control of her spindly legs, she kept falling flat. It was heart-in-mouth time for me watching.
I glimpsed the soft “feathers” covering her sharp hooves; these protect the mother and ensure the sac isn’t breached too early. They shrivel and disappear almost immediately a foal is born.
What I hadn’t expected was the terror the filly showed when her mother approached and started to lick her. Her instinctive reaction was to move away backwards in crab-fashion, crumpling onto the ground. Pear kept nuzzling and licking, absorbing her scent and cleaning her. As the foal’s coat dried, the fur began to show its lovely rich, warm brown colours.
About an hour and a half later, Pear lay down to rest, and the little foal put her nose to her mother’s nostrils, absorbing her mother’s scent, and breathing in her breath: all was well. When I eventually walked away, the little filly was beginning to suckle, and Pear was on her feet grazing. That year’s foals all had plant names beginning with C, so we called her Ceanothus.
I was given a great gift that day. I’ve seen other foals born since, but never in such proximity. Ceanothus is an adult now – here she is with her own filly foal, Gentian (below).
On my pony-checking walks I make full records of which ones I see where, who they are with, when the foals are born and which sex they are. Come the autumn inspection when the ponies are gathered from the moor and taken to the farm, my role is to say which foal belongs to which mare, which is easy when I’ve watched them growing up through the spring and summer.
It’s physically hard work walking the moor, especially in harsh weather, with my rucksack packed with camera, water and flapjacks to keep me fuelled. I used to wear a pair of tightly-laced walking boots, but have recently discovered fell runners’ hybrid boots, which are much lighter and grippier. Walking fast between groups of ponies keeps me warm and fit on the rugged moorland ground. And once I’m among the ponies, I’m oblivious to all else.
Tricia Gibson is retired and lives on Exmoor. She spends much time walking and taking photographs. Over a decade ago she entered the world of Exmoor ponies when a young mare and new-born foal came close to her. That day led to her owning and showing Exmoor ponies in-hand (led not ridden). The picture shows Tricia with her then yearling colt Westwilmer Euphorbia when he won the youngstock cup at Hawkridge Revels in 2019. He is now a mature stallion – that’s him on the moor in the last photo above.
Stories and myths have the power to bestow or reveal meaning. The heroine sets out on a journey from the known and ordinary into the unknown and extraordinary, meeting a cast of characters along the way who hasten or hinder her quest. There is peril in this – our heroine may encounter enemy or ally – but the trail is well-trodden and the narrative finds resolution.
Standing on the precipice of environmental oblivion, it is not so easy for us to navigate our future path. The ordinary world is the extraordinary world. There is no map and no destination. The wild woods are long gone, along with the wolves and bears. Our threats are existential. And we need all the help we can get. Instead of waiting for a guardian to guide us on our way, we need to set off well-equipped for the horrors that might lie ahead.
Body armour has been worn for thousands of years by fighters and enforcers, from chainmail and lamellar, to iron and steel plate, to modern ceramic plate and Kevlar. Part bulletproof vest, part apotropaic object, my psychic flak jacket brings together an assemblage of universal archetypes, internal helpers and childhood imaginary friends to protect me on this perilous journey.
The Bear panel from the front of the jacket.
The front panel includes the huge and reassuring Bear, with his ferocious teeth and claws, and the bold and inquisitive Monkey, scampering on ahead and urging me forwards; the Fairy Godmother, kind-hearted and supportive, and her counterpart, the formidable and unruly Witch. From my coterie of imaginary friends, there is the soft and comforting Pookie and the wild and disobedient Deedor. From own my life, there is a primary school teacher and a wise friend who both saw me, praised me, emboldened me.
The back panel features just one character: Medusa. Medusa was raped by Poseidon in a temple dedicated to Athena, and then punished by the goddess for this violation. Forever cursed with living snakes for hair and a stony stare, she is later beheaded by Perseus. Truly, the stuff of nightmares. Medusa’s decapitated head features on the Gorgoneion, both as a protective icon to avert evil and a symbol of female fury. Medusa literally has my back, terrifying adversaries with her petrifying gaze.
The back of the jacket with the Medusa panels.
Despite mimicking the steel plates of brigandine armour, my embossed air-dried clay tiles are intrinsically fragile. The potency of the work does not reside in its physicality, but in its manifestation as ritual object, in making the invisible visible, the inner outer. As such, it is a performance piece, although I am no performance artist. The prospect of wearing it in public is mortifying because of how exposing it would be: ‘Why are you wearing that?’
And, yet, here I am trying to answer the question, ‘Why are you not wearing that?’ The compromise would be to conceal it under my clothes as a hidden talisman. This would be to defeat the primary purpose of an artwork – to be seen – which is not to imply that unseen art is not art. But, as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott observed: ‘It is a joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.’
Like a Möbius strip twisting endlessly inside and out, writhing like Medusa’s snakes, it seems impossible to unpick these contradictions. By exposing our vulnerabilities, do we invite injury or empathy? By revealing our strengths, do we elicit attack or admiration?
There is no easy road back from the ordeals of the extraordinary world we have so destroyed and depleted, and there are plenty of villains en route. We will need more than a good luck charm.
Emma Tuck is an editor and artist. Her work is informed by the natural world, inevitably refracted through the psychological and the political. She grew up in, and has since returned to, the West Country after spending many years living and working on an organic smallholding/nature reserve in the west of Wales.
This is an edited version of a talk that Sara gave at a seminar day convened by The Arborealists at Fyne Court on the Quantocks in September 2022. The Arborealists are a group of nearly 50 artists who depict trees and forests.
The photograph above by Hartley Woolf shows the Great Oak at Alfoxden Park, the house on the Quantocks where Dorothy and William Wordsworth lived in 1797-8.
Ideally, we would be outdoors now, sitting together under the trees. I would say “listen” and for 15 minutes we would feel the wet from the grass soaking into our clothes and smell the deep, fungal woodland autumn.
Perhaps there would be a beetle visible, a jay might screech among the oaks, and a slug inch cautiously along a fallen leaf. The light would shift and we would notice a spray of late blackberries – and a fly, probing.
After about five minutes of this, I expect your thoughts would have drifted. You would be thinking about the dampness of your trousers and hearing your stomach gurgle. Inevitably, a phone would ping somewhere nearby, and that call would be answered not only by the person the phone owns, but also in the minds of the two of us, who would then be thinking about our own devices and what they might be saying that we needed to respond to. By this point, we would be time travelling, thinking about the things we need to do next, or things we did earlier. We would have forgotten the beetle, the slug and the jay.
The living world speaks continuously, but do we listen? Really listen? And what would that listening entail?
This is not a new question. Here’s William Wordsworth wrestling with it at the beginning of the 19th century:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; –
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
A radical practice
I wanted us to hear Wordsworth because, of course, he lived on the Quantocks for a while with his sister Dorothy. That marvellous year at Alfoxden, with their friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge nearby, birthed some revolutionary ideas. The three of them walked the hills and combes, by day and night, in all weathers, seeking a way to remake the compact between themselves and the living world. For them, the bodily sensation of being physically present, outdoors, in the rain, under the moon, beneath the trees, was essential. They believed that imagination could only be fully ignited through physical experience.
This was a radical idea to put into practice, and especially challenging for a woman. It seems to me that Dorothy enacted much of her creative work though physical movement; by walking, getting wet, lying down in ditches to look at the sky; all acts that defied the social conventions of her time. Women of the gentry, which she was, were not supposed to get muddy. I am reminded of the scene in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice where the heroine Elizabeth Bennet walks – walks! – three miles so she can be at the bedside of her sick sister Jane.
When Elizabeth arrives, the ladies of the house make snide comments about the unfitness of walking. They carp about the mud on her skirt, reminding us that women who walked had to do it wearing ridiculously unsuitable outfits; long skirts, tight bodices, stockings. Let us remember that Dorothy’s walking was always physically less comfortable than it was for the men. For her especially, the physicality of now, was inescapable.
But what of us? Acknowledging our cultural ancestry does not mean we should live like the past. In that sonnet, William speaks of “Nature” as an entity or a place separate from us, something outside of us that we observe, or go walking in. He comes up hard against the cosmology of his time, which saw Man – and I do mean Man – and Nature as divisible categories under a father god. And there he gets stuck, and despairs.
On not being a “nature writer”
It seems to me that we need to remake our relationship with all the other beings in this world. For writers, this is about remaking the language we use, rather than accepting the old terms and the relationships they confer. For example, I don’t call myself a “nature writer”, because it’s an “us and them”, or more accurately an “us and it” term that comes with a history of patriarchal colonialism. Not everyone agrees – which is fine with me so long as they have considered the issue. Earlier this year, I was talking to the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage about how we use the term “nature writing” and he said he had never heard of the debate before, which I found astonishing. It was a reminder of how radical this approach can be.
This great remaking seems to me to be the most urgent task facing all creative people, whatever our practice. We need to end our extractive relationship with other beings and recognise that what we used to call “nature”, is not there to be conquered, or to entertain us, or to make us rich or powerful, or indeed to heal us. Indeed, part of our problem is that I am even able to express those concepts to you, that we can conceptualise those kinds of ideas in the first place.
So often I hear about “nature” having a “value” and being a “resource”, often defined as “currency”. Framing the living world this way by using the language of economics only continues this extractive relationship. It might seem benign to assign value to woodland for the health-giving benefits of wandering among the trees, rather than cutting them down and selling them to make chipboard, but the attitude is the same. Either way, we see the wood as a thing we can use and exploit for our benefit with no thought about how the wood might feel. What might the trees think about it? What might they want us to give them? Could that be something beyond water, light and nutrients? I’m talking here of a connection, a communication, something very deep, that it seems to me we, as a species, have always used art to achieve.
Sing it back
There is a theory that human language began when we listened to the forest and then sang back in response to what we heard. Words were born from that communication, as was music, as was art and dance – not all language is word-based. It seems to me that the universe wants that communication, is indeed communicating all the time, but we have stopped listening, let alone responding. Too often our technology has become a kind of evil shield that protects us by deflecting our attention. We are left under a kind of enchantment, absent, talking to ghosts. Flitting about in cyberspace we neither hear nor see. We forget that in this zombie state we are still, as Wordsworth wrote in a poem composed on the Quantocks:
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
Where does this leave us? My title, ‘Be Here Now’, is intended as a gentle nod to Ram Dass and his 1970s’ countercultural bible, Be Here Now, a beacon for young people seeking enlightenment during the darkness of the Vietnam war. Half a century on and war is still with us, but we also face a greater darkness: the possible extinguishment of all life on Earth.
This is an emergency – how shall we each respond?
We must find our own answers. But I would like to make a plea for going outdoors and attempting to listen, really listen, without intermediaries or distractions as far as we can. To be here now. Might we then attempt to sing back what we heard, according to the methods and materials of our own creative practice? Over time perhaps, we could enter the great dialogue that is happening all the time, which we have so neglected and forgotten. To do this wholeheartedly seems to me to be a truly radical creative act.
William Wordsworth: ‘The World is Too Much With Us’ was probably written 1802. It was published in 1807 in Wordsworth’s Poems, in Two Volumes. ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ was written in 1798 and published in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads.
Knight, Chris & Lewis, Jerome. (2017). Wild Voices: Mimicry, Reversal, Metaphor, and the Emergence of Language. Current Anthropology. 58. 000-000. 10.1086/692905.