An excerpt from Hawthorn.
By Bill Vaughn, Yale University Press, May 2015.
[read from the beginning]
Reflexively, I turned my head and stepped away. A stab of pain shot through my foot. When I lifted it I also lifted a dead branch. Yanking it from my tennis shoe I saw that I’d driven a two-inch thorn into my heel. The wound was already beginning to ache. And then I saw the blood on my hand. Another spike had ripped a gash across the palm, neatly following the curve of my heart line.
Wincing in pain, I limped from the tree and sat down in the grass, for the moment defeated. A magpie landed in the maze of weedy branches halfway up the most vertical of the trunks on an enormous, sloppy nest of piled twigs. When the bird looked down and saw me it cocked its head, laughed in that vulgar corvine way, and flew off in contempt. A sudden gust, cool against my skin and then warm, tossed the limbs of the tree around. I had the strong sense that the tree was celebrating, high-fiving itself, gloating about its triumph over the hapless monkey squatting on the ground. A shower of small, delicate white blossoms rained down on me. I picked a few off my shirt and raised them to my nose, expecting perfume. But they didn’t smell sweet at all. They smelled putrid, with strong notes of sex. I realized then that the tree was fairly vibrating with swarms of something. But these swarms weren’t the bees and hummingbirds mobbing the old flowering apple tree back at the house.
These were flies.
What the hell was this thing? Some sort of mutant, like the berserk outer space plants in that ludicrous science fiction movie I’d loved as a kid called Day of the Triffids? (1) Or could it be some other kind of botanical carnivore whose seeds escaped a greenhouse and had been blown here?
Well, whatever you are, enjoy yourself while you can, I thought, plotting revenge. I will burn you out. I will poison you. I’ll loop a chain around your body and yank you from the ground with my pickup. Well, probably not—this tree was such a fortress that trying to pull it out by its roots would only separate my truck from its bumper. I could feel my heart racing, my anger growing, and my blood pressure rising. My ears had begun to ring.
When my hand finally stopped bleeding the cut began to burn. I wondered if the tree had poisoned me. I stood up and hobbled around it in a wide circle. It wasn’t graceful like the weeping willow in our back yard, or majestic like the hundred-foot ponderosas in our forest. Blotched with crusts of blue lichen, the gnarled and twisted limbs arched down from the tree like the fingers of witches. Its bark seemed to be flaking away. This seemed to be a tree only its mother could love.
The tenacious manner in which the tree had adhered to the fence made me think of how ivy climbs the bricks around Wrigley Field, exploiting the brick walls for support and for the heat they absorb. Maybe the tree figured the fence would give it some extra protection. But with all its bristling thorns, needle-sharp and indifferent to the pain of others, I couldn’t imagine why the tree felt it needed more armor. How much security is enough?
The flowers were overtly erotic—shallow bowls a half-inch across made up of five white oval petals tinged with pink, arranged around a dozen reddish stamens. The leaves, the size of quarters and shaped like snowshoes, were shiny, serrated, veiny and tough. Maybe a goat would find a meal here, but no one else. Yet when I plucked a leaf and nibbled it I was surprised to discover a mild, earthy flavor reminiscent of a green tea like oolong, except that it left a tang on the tip of my tongue. I spit it out. Then spit again. What was it I’d just put in my mouth? (I would later learn that the young leaves are used in salads; during World War I across the British Isles they became a substitute for tea and tobacco and the seeds were ground up and used instead of coffee.)
Calming down about the assault, I saw that this tree was a fortress not just in the sense of its adamant mass, but also in the way other denizens of Dark Acres were using its protective cover and its merry kiss-off attitude as a refuge. Besides the magpies, there was a wild rose bush thriving among the trunks, some snowberries, a colony of wild raspberries, a stand of nettles, a chokecherry, some kind of red-barked bush, and at least two varieties of vines. In the deepest recesses of this briar patch came a rustling that made me wonder about what animals were using this complex cover to escape predators such as the bald eagles, foxes, bobcats and coyotes that made their home in these loops of river.
Waging war on the natives wasn’t what my wife and I had in mind when we bought Dark Acres. Kitty and I had fallen in love with these forests, beaches and swampy sloughs, and we’d been appalled at how some people on the river abused their land. The worst of these yahoos, a sullen mill worker from North Dakota, had stripped away the brush, cut down the trees, and torched everything else that wasn’t grass, leaving eight acres of antiseptic lawn without a wildflower or a single place for a pheasant or a rabbit to hide. He must have missed the featureless prairies of his native state.
But my run-in with the tree had humbled me, and not just because of my injuries. Although I knew some odds and ends about the flora at Dark Acres because I grew up in a similar sort of river jungle along the Missouri River, on the other side of the Rockies, I didn’t have a clue about this formidable living being. My ignorance embarrassed me. Well, we’ve been busy moving in, I told myself, trying to make the place safe for our horses, figuring out how to live in the country again, with its isolation and the constant temptation offered people who work at home to play all day instead.
I lugged my chain saw back to the shop. Then I grabbed a couple field guides and a natural history from the library in my office, and headed back to the pasture. Know your enemy, I thought.
However, after sitting in the grass for an hour, my books spread around me, I began to see the tree not as a monster or an adversary but as something more like a famous relative my family forgot to mention. A month later, after immersing myself in the vast lore of this tree, I felt like I’d walked into my garden and discovered the world. Here was the Crown of Thorns and the Burning Bush. Here was the most famous tree in Britain, and the dearest tree in Christianity. Here was the fuel my Iron Age ancestors burned to forge the spears and swords that conquered Rome. Here was the tree the English used as a weapon to drive my great-grandfather from Ireland to America. And here was the tree whose essence is used to treat people with cardio-vascular problems all over the world, and which may soon become a heart medication prescribed for Americans, as well—as beneficial as a glass of wine or a daily aspirin.
I’m talking about the hawthorn.
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