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As I mentioned in my last blog entry, autumn is here now and I have been out collecting the Sloe berries from the Blackthorn bushes and making this Yules Sloe Gin.

As I wandered the hedgerow picking the berries, I thought about how special the Blackthorn is to me personally and to our family and then I heard the familiar, harsh yet reassuring voice;

“Seen you through more than usual this year and here you are, back again!”

I carried on picking and said” Yes, I’m back for more – berries this time to see us through the winter”

“Well I’ve certainly got a lot to offer this year; going to be a bad winter, so you’d best take plenty.  You’ll have enough time this winter to enjoy my fruit; hope you use it wisely and take stock of this year’s lessons.”

“Ahhh, taking stock; I seem to be doing nothing but and in everything my mind turns to, there YOU are.  Always there, winding this crooked path with me and for that I’m grateful.”

“So you should be!  Always coming and gathering something, whether it be wood, leaves, berries or knowledge but you appear to learn and take on board and as long as you continue to do so with the level of respect I demand, then our relationship will no doubt continue.”

The voice stopped, the presence withdrew back into the shadows and I knew that I was to continue thinking, weighing and “stock taking” in silence while I picked.  One of the lessons I’d received from the Blackthorn a long time ago was to know when to speak and when to keep quiet; this was a time to shut up and sieve through the year so far.

This is why She is my Beloved Blackthorn; She is a constant companion in my magical and mundane life and I cannot imagine it any other way.  We are nearly at the end of this year’s journey, which began last Samhain and a lot has happened.

It started with me harvesting the wood from the Blackthorn last Samhain and drying it out ready to work with throughout the year but keeping some fine pieces back to work into this year’s Blackthorn wands, which I have now almost finished.  As time progressed towards Yule, I watched Her become the Crone, the black, twisted, harsh teacher of the winter as I walked our much loved black Labrador, Archie, through Her fields and along Her hedgerows.  Many a talking to She gave me about getting myself together and turning pipe-dreams into reality, rather than wasting time on thinking too much; “Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is useless and pointless! Put it to use or bugger off!”   I made the decision there and then that I was going to follow my dreams, no matter how small and take the consequences for good or bad.

Yule arrived and at our Yule feast and carousing, we drank plenty of the Sloe gin that had been prepared last autumn.  During all of this, we talked about what we wanted from life for the coming year and made our decisions and promises to do our best to achieve our goals, generously lubricating our voices with the most magical of elixirs, sloe gin, as we talked and laughed.  As befitting the occasion, we made our libations to our beloved Blackthorn and gave thanks to Her for Her gifts (especially the gin).

The year rolled over into 2011 and it was a very long, bitterly cold winter but still I walked through the Blackthorn fields and along Her hedgerows with Archie, constantly wishing for milder weather now.  She would laugh in Her sarcastic, scathing fashion and taunt me for being soft and say things like “ No pain, no gain!  The price is high but the rewards are immeasurable… I don’t just give them away!  And anyway, all good sorcerers need to learn to take the rough with the smooth and know what Straif is – if you can’t operate equally well in both light and dark, what good are you?”

Then finally the day came when I saw the first white blossoms appearing on Her stark and twisted limbs.  Spring was near at hand at last!  When the bitter cold and grey skies have driven you almost to distraction, suddenly She gives you the gift of the first blossoms of the year, long before Her leaves appear and it lifts your spirits to know the end of the coldest part is close now.

Even Archie, who by now was suffering some health problems, sensed that spring wasn’t far off and gained a little spring in his step and we reveled in our walks.  By now, I was also beginning to see early results from taking the advice of the Hedgerow Hag and was pleased with the way things were going.

Archie and I carried on our daily walks and watched the leaves appearing on our beloved Blackthorn and on all the other trees.  We watched the Hawthorn leaves opening and all became clothed in it’s summer finery.  But Archie was not getting better, if anything his health was deteriorating no matter how hard I, the Toadsman or the vet tried to help.  As we were nearing Mid-Summer, I was walking in the field of the Blackthorn but without Archie as he was feeling too ill to come out and the familiar voice spoke to me again; “You’d best get used to this, walking alone; the time for him to leave is not far off now.”  But I went deaf to Her and chose not to listen or acknowledge the situation.  I was back out in Her hedgerow the next day collecting Her leaves for the magical oil and again She told me that I had better accept the situation and deal with it, for Archie’s sake but I was still convinced that I could effect a miracle and change the course of events.  “You want my lessons and advice yet you chose not to listen to my harsher words.  I wont let you get away from this one, you have to learn to operate in both dark and light – I’ve told you this before.  This lesson, you will not abdicate from.”  I was shocked but still I had faith that something miraculous would happen.

The week of Midsummer arrived and three times that week I dreamed of me and Archie in a wood of Blackthorn.  the Mother of the Woods kept telling me to let Archie go but I had this feeling of dread that if I did, he would go and not come back – that I would not see him again and so I kept hold of him and managed to run out of Her wood with great effort.  The third night I dreamed, the Mother of the Wood appeared in the most scary form with wild hair and eyes and a voice to turn the blood to ice.  She commanded me to let Archie off the lead and She was so fearful, that this time I did, albeit with shaking hands and a heart that wanted to flee.  He ran ahead and was met by another woman; she was not as frightful as the Mother of the Wood but she was hard, harsh and cold.  She caught Archie and put him on a lead, then straightened up and looked at me; I recognised her but couldn’t quite place her, she was someone I knew but who?  Then she turned and walked away with Archie who was happy to go with her; she patted him and smiled at him as they walked away and he seemed to be pleased to be going with her.  I just watched as they disappeared into a mist that was beyond the tree-line.  Then it hit me, who she was; it was me!  But because there was a different look in my eye and a hardness that I didn’t recognise, I hadn’t recognised myself.  How could that happen?!  I shook myself awake out of the dream and realised it wasn’t just a dream, this had been a lesson from the Blackthorn and She was making sure I heard it and took notice.  The next morning, Archie seemed worse, so I set off to the vet with him.  Without warning I was told in no uncertain terms that the end had come and I had to make the right decision for Archie now – the advice was not to leave with him again that day but to say goodbye to a very ill, tired but faithful and loving friend.  I did  bring him home for one last night and returned the next day after all the family having had a chance to say their goodbyes.  He went very peacefully.

A week passed before I went back to the Blackthorn field but when I did return, She was waiting for me and told me that Archie was happy to be with Her and would always be watching over me but that he had come to us with a specific job to do and now it had been completed.  My refusal to acknowledge how ill he was and to do what was necessary, had prolonged his stay here longer than had been planned and that was why She had been so forceful in the end.  One of my lessons was learning to let go and do the right thing, even if it meant pain for myself in the short term and it would be the short term, She assured me.

Throughout the summer, I have continued to walk the Blackthorn hedgerows and the field and I have received immense healing and lessons in how the wheel turns and its consequences, again for good and bad but all very necessary.  The Dark Mother has taught me, in no uncertain terms, that we need to deal with the dark as much as the light, that we are very ineffectual if we only operate in the light and ignore the dark; to be rounded and effectual, we need to know both and be prepared to work with both when circumstances dictate.  This also applies very much to our magical work; it is no good at all thinking we are accomplished cunning-folk if we are only prepared to work with the light and “nice” aspects of our craft; if we are only prepared to get to know intimately the “white, bright” face of our craft and deliberately ignore and block out the “black, dark” face, then we are out of balance, ineffectual and wasting our time and the time of our spirit teachers.

The wheel has continued on its merry journey and we are now almost back to where we began; autumn is here and Samhain is not that far off.  The Dark Mother of the Woods is still giving Her lessons and gifts and I’m already preparing for this year’s Yule by harvesting Her sloes to make the sloe gin.  Also, at least one of my main goals for the year has come to fruition and is beginning to bear fruit with the promise of an even better crop next year and She was right on something else too; an unexpected turn of events caused the Toadsman to come across someone who is having a litter of black Labrador puppies born in October.  We are going to see them in November to have one choose us and then we will be bringing the new arrival home at Yule.

Our Beloved Blackthorn; teacher, advisor, disciplinarian and hard task-mistress but a constant and loving companion along our crooked path.