Summer Hawthorn

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Summer. Not my best season.

While most people are thrilled with sunshine and heat and energetic Outdoor Activities, I just want to find my cave where I can sit by lamplight with a pot of tea and a good book. And a nice plate of pastries. And—a concept I came upon recently—an emotional support dragon.

Summer makes me vaguely uneasy for many reasons, not least of which is that I don’t really know when it begins. I try to follow the seasons through the year the way they are in the Celtic calendar. So, for instance, the spring season, called Imbolc, begins around February 1, not exactly what we call spring in central New York. But there are signs of spring, even then—the light is different, thaws feel stronger, the dark of the year loosens its hold. There are any number of festivals and observances in the first week in February: Brigit’s Day, Candlemas, Groundhog Day. (Don’t overlook that last one. It is a relic of the ancient practice of animal divination that supplied essential information for the planting season.)

Summer, though, feels more elusive. The cultural calendar says it doesn’t begin until June 21, which is Solstice and a different kind of observance altogether. The Celtic calendar says summer, the season called Beltane, begins in early May. That was when the cattle were moved from their winter shelter in barns up into the summer pastures in the hills, a movement called transhumance (wonderful word) and signaled by the blooming of the hawthorn.

My hawthorn waits until early June to bloom and it always seems to correspond to the end of the academic year. We are a college town so when all the graduations are over and the fireworks have (mercifully) fallen silent, and we can drive through campus without worrying about students on their phones walking right out in front of us, it does feel as though the season has shifted. I bring out the “summer things” and set about leaning into the aspects summer I do enjoy.

For many years I tried to make my summer season match “White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland,” by the Irish poet Eavan Boland. Here, she says, the hawthorn blooms in May so, on account of that, I felt like in some small and yet defining way, the poem belonged to someone else.

I drove West
in the season between seasons.
I left behind suburban gardens.
Lawnmowers.  Small talk.

Under low skies, past splashes of coltsfoot,
I assumed
the hard shyness of Atlantic light
and the superstitious aura of hawthorn.

All I wanted then was to fill my arms with
sharp flowers,
to seem from a distance, to be part of
that ivory, downhill rush.  But I knew,

I had always known,
the custom was
not to touch hawthorn.
Not to bring it indoors for the sake of

the luck
such constraint would forfeit–
a child might die, perhaps, or an unexplained
fever speckle heifers.  So I left it

stirring on those hills
with a fluency
only water has.  And, like water, able
to redefine land.  And free to seem to be–

for anglers,
and for travellers astray in
the unmarked lights of a May dusk–
the only language spoken in those parts.

Reading with Video

I kept returning to that poem, nevertheless, haunted by its imagery and rhythm. I had no such physical journey as the one she took from Dublin into the west available to me. Her metaphorical journey, though, mysterious, strange, is everywhere. The poem is not so much about Dublin, or the west of Ireland, or even hawthorn, but about the movement between states of being, ways of seeing. This kind of transition, its own kind of transhumance, is a liminal space, a “season between seasons.”

Summer opens up for me. I can leave my dragon in the cave. She will be there when I need her. Meanwhile, here, where I live, I am a “traveller astray.” Now, in this place, I seek to learn “the only language spoken on those parts.”

One Response

  1. Wonderful Susan. Beautifully written and LOVE this Boland poem. I will now seek out (not touch) the Hawthorns. Summer is elusive in so many ways-beginning, ending, too short, too long. I just live for the warmth and the light.


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