It’s late May, and the dunes belong to the hawthorn. The scent of the creamy flowers, those clots and curds, intoxicating, lifts the sand on the breeze and draws the sun closer to the ground. I stagger and nod at strangers who, like me, have strayed from the footpath; our boots untied again and again by the rambling hooks and scratches of burnet rose and dewberry. Sweat on our brows, we pass each other many times. A woman with silver eyes pats at the pollen on her skirt, wondering how it got there. Clouds of sapphire damselflies hover in the heat haze like needles and disappear. A taxidermist’s hare basks in its form beside a dry dune slack; ignores me as I pull off my shirt. “May, season of flame and sun” I sing, misquoting Fionn Mac Cumhail, legendary Irish poet and guerilla leader, ‘gone are the wild gusts of winter.’
Or perhaps it wasn’t Fionn’s poem, but Oisin’s, his boy, the child of the deer-woman, Sadbh. A poet more famous than his father, Oisin was seduced by apple-eyed Niamh, a fairy woman more beautiful than reality, and he went with her on a May evening, despite all warnings, into the otherworld islands of the west. And there he lived, lucky lad, outside of time, in continual carousal, perpetual summer, laughing and loving in the blissful company of his fairy bride, among the people of the sidhe, the undying Tuatha de Danaan. Until of course, inevitably, one day he began to hear again the music of time, the sounds of our world. The call of the gull on the wave, perhaps, woke him one morning, or a distant memory of the laughter of children. Returning to Ireland, he found a thousand years had passed, his people were mostly forgotten, cities had been built, forests felled. A new religion had come and the wild creatures, boar, salmon, otter, wolf, hawk, and nightingale were gone. The world was changed beyond recognition, and as soon as he stepped down from his horse, he fell to dust and bones and was swept away.
The hawthorn is a fairy tree of course, and that’s why I remember Fionn and Sadbh and Oisin and Niamh now, as I walk with my dog through the dunes at Kenfig. Everywhere it’s in bloom. Swallows have returned, scissoring the waterfalls of light, and the cuckoo is calling from the north shore of the great pool. That heady hawthorn perfume is like a weird melody coming and going as I lace my boots and wonder where my shirt is. I strike a match to smoke a cigarette, but I don’t smoke it. And I have no matches. Such smoke rings! A fawn leaping through them. The dog is barking at horses from a dazzling hill as it curls beside me and dozes. The heat is too much. Stay away from the shade of the trees.
Why the hawthorn should be associated with fairies is a mystery to me. The berries carry the five pointed star of Venus, who writes her name in the sky, Goddess of madness and love, fine fairy attributes. But apples carry it too. Perhaps it’s that scent, a component of which is trimethylamine, a compound found in decaying flesh and which smells, apparently, very similar to the notorious dimethyltryptamine, a powerful hallucinogen, found throughout the natural world, in grasses, leaves… and the human brain. Hawthorn is also often found in association with wells and springs. From where I stand on the sun-struck dune I can see a well and two springs, in Ton Kenfig, and all three are presided over by thorns. Even today, people tie charms, ribbons and rags, to the branches of such trees. Maybe like Tibetan flags, the charms speak prayers when the breeze shakes them.
The ballad of Thomas the Rhymer begins:
True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank,
A ferlie he spied wi’ his ee,
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding doon by the Eildon tree.
A ‘ferlie’ is a Scots word for a wonder, an apparition. The lady bright was the Queen of Elfland – Niamh again perhaps – and the Eildon tree she was riding doon was surely a hawthorn. Thomas was about to go on a journey similar to Oisin’s.
O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded through rivers aboon the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea…
A young couple burst laughing out of the bushes and run away together, holding hands, their shadows dancing like foxes around their feet as they melt away into the insect whispered silence of the dunes. Then a startled lapwing swoops overhead, it’s call like a digital alarm clock, or an uillean pipe playing the theme tune to Space Invaders. A thousand mayflies knit an invisible shawl among a willow trees. When Thomas returned from the otherworld, seven years later, the kisses of the Fairy Queen still warm on his lips, he discovered that he could not lie. A fairy blessing, typically mixed. Don't we all need to lie sometimes? Even if only to ourselves? But Thomas could not lie and entered into British folklore as a prophet second only to Myrddin.
Once upon a time, ‘in a somer sesun, whon softe was the sunne,’ maybe the whole country ran like those young lovers under the lapwing, and knew the delirium, the may fever, that distills the wild wine of the hawthorn’s perfume. And who knows, maybe some did get carried away, only to return years later, changed utterly, like Thomas and Oisin. I confess that the romantic in me likes to think of it now and then: everywhere the people at play, a grasshopper festival of abandon and spontaneity, the spirit of May like a green fuse in the veins. Today that spirit is mostly confined to nature reserves I suppose and waste places on the edges of abandoned industrial estates, where truant schoolkids teach themselves what they really need to know. And such knowledge; a fugitive, bootleg poitín.
The world has indeed changed beyond recognition in a few generations. Maybe it is fading away. Oisin I’m sure would turn to dust if he could see us now. On the brink of the sixth great extinction event. Indifference staring out at us from the realm of the glowing screens like a ghost. But surely the good stuff still exists, here and there, if we’re feeling reckless. If we find a touch of courage. If we’re willing to take a few risks. Catch it if you can, before it’s too late.