Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Sloes and haws


This Sunday, The Girl helped me pick haws and sloes from the trees that line the canal by our home. Haws are easy – hawthorn trees are as plentiful as willows or birches here, all the more so this time of year, when a single tree can sag toward the earth laden with tens of thousands of berries. Sloes – the fruit of the blackthorn, which we value for making sloe gin – presents more of a challenge.

The trees themselves appear all over the hedges here – I counted several dozen within a few hundred metres of our house – but have no distinctive features, and the bluish-black sloes blend in well with the shadows. For such a plentiful fruit, they are difficult to find, and once found are difficult to gather from the thorny tangle.

The secret, I realised, was to mark the trees in spring, when most trees stand bare and the blackthorn bursts into an eruption of flowers. With this in mind, I could simply set out with The Girl from our house to the nearest landmark and then count the steps …

“What are you doing, Daddy?”

 … counting the steps, I said, to the sloe trees. You keep an eye out for mushrooms, I told her – you’re better at it than I am.

“Look at all those haws!” she said. “They are haws, aren’t they? Other berries are also red, and I wouldn’t want us to be poisoned.”

Check the leaves of the tree they’re on, I said. Yes, most berries are red because they’re meant to be eaten by birds. Birds’ eyes were developed over time to see the berries, and the berries to be seen by the birds.

“But sloes are dark blue.”

And blackberries are black, I said – and there are a few that are yellow or white, but even these stand out against the greenery. Unripe fruit will be green and taste terrible; it’s only when the seeds are ready to stand up to an animal’s gut that the fruit around them develops. Speaking of, I said, these blackberries are ready for our services – would you like one?

“No thank you,” she said. “I never thought I’d say this, but they’re too sweet for me now.”

You’re growing up, I said, and you will find your tastes changing – and not just your literal taste.

"I know, a lot of things about me are changing," she said, and then, "how much of me will change as I get older?"

If we do this rightly, I said -- and so far I think we are -- the child you won't go anywhere. She'll be something you'll be able to build a life on, not something you'll leave behind.


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