Ysella Sims

Celebrating nature, people and place

White Blackthorn blossoms against a blue sky with white clouds

A Blackthorn Winter

Letting the magic in as the seasons turn

The blackthorn, Prunus spinosa, bears blue sloes in the autumn, bitter at first, but growing sweeter with age. Its blossom, in the old country ways, is taken as the sign of ‘a cold blow ahead’ and a coming ‘blackthorn winter’ at the start of spring.

In the last week of March the blackthorn flowered. Rosettes as white as snowburied fields burst from stems black with witchcraft, from between the thorns of fairy tale and folklore; thorns whose vicious stab cast Sleeping Beauty into a hundred year sleep. Blooming on the sister sides of beltane, blackthorn and her softer sibling hawthorn are found knitted together in maypole wreaths, making a marriage of the dark with the light. 

According to John Matthew’s The Green Man Tree Oracle, the message of the blackthorn is ‘magick is everywhere.’ It can be hard to feel the magic in our world at the moment. Even our spring, usually a season of renewal and hope, is one of unending grey skies, rain, floods and mud, of drenched lambs shivering in fields. It is a spring of quick bursts of sunshine bringing the season’s blooms crowding up, all at once, through the sodden earth.

I roll the message of the blackthorn around in my head when I notice its blooms bracing a rare snatch of blue March sky. All winter I have been waiting for the magic as I hovered, like the plants under the soil, between states of wakefulness and sleep, frozen, along with my shoulder and poised for growth. 

Listening to my body

I visit a specialist physio and we piece together what it is that my body is telling me with the sharp and vicious pain in my shoulder. We talk about the possible contributory factors; the idipoathic, genetic, hormonal and auto-immmune. His questions turn from the biological to emotional as he asks about my approach to wellbeing, and life. I burn with embarrassment as he comments on the way that my jaw flickers when I speak, the tension he can see, and feel, in my neck, in my clavicle, in the way that my bicep pulses, even at rest.

“It’s not letting go, is it?’” he says, his eyes widening as he considers my arm.

In my mind’s eye I see myself holding on, making life work, making me work, not making space for the magic.

I look up the lore of the blackthorn and read;

‘The blackthorn… has a sharper healing power. Just like the biting winds or the long thorns which can pierce and infect the skin, the healing is harsh, like a needle, prodding at something we would rather not think about, until we acknowledge it and begin to come to terms with it.’1

What was my need for healing, the boil of untruth that needed lancing? What did I need to come to terms with? 

Making the jump

Perhaps it is the realisation that for years I have hovered between a creative and a realistic life, one foot in each camp; watching jealously as others make a go of creative careers, waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and grant me permission to follow them. But, I think, life is short. And I don’t need permission. Can I make the jump?

I tell Glen about my visit to the physio. “have you, your friends have you, life has you” he says. “You can let go now.”

That night I wake from a dream. In it I was moving across a wide green plain, tussocked and unpeopled, a vast blank sky stretching above me. I was planting flags, pushing them down into the hard soil with the palm of my hand. The flags were yellow. In the billowing wind I could see that they read hope.

I invite the counsel of wise women, my own sisters of the hedgerow, to help me make the jump. They appear, one after another with their messages of magic and hope. “It’s not a crisis, it’s an awakening”, Ceri tells me, “and awakenings are messy, they’re carnage – they’re all the stuff! There’s no map, no magic steps or path. You have to make them for yourself, but they’ll be the right ones for you.”

“Anyway,” she says, “I think you know this. We all know this.”

Paying attention

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about the focus of pain leading her to pay attention. The reward of paying attention, she says, is healing. ‘The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.’ 

For me, nobody says it better than Mary Oliver in these lines from ‘The Summer Day’, probably her most famous and best-loved poem,

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is./I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down/into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,/how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,/which is what I have been doing all day./Tell me, what else should I have done?/Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?/Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?

Paying attention is my creative practice. Paying attention is what I do when I write; to the natural world, to us, to myself, to the world. I want to pay attention all the time, so I’m giving myself permission to be who I am. I’m taking the advice I’d offer anyone who asked me.

Taking my own advice

Before the frozen shoulder, and while the buds of the blackthorn were a dream in the heart of the leafless hedgerows, a friend contacted me. They were thinking of returning to study, about putting writing at the centre of their world. What had been my experience of postgraduate study, they asked, what had it brought to my life? 

My reply went like this:

Going back to study allowed me to acknowledge that writing was an important part of who I am. It told me, and the world, that I was taking it seriously. And the world responds when you place a flag in the sand like that. I learned about poetry in all its forms, dramatic writing, fiction and creative nonfiction. I wrote a screenplay, a collection of poetry, had a story longlisted for a national prize. I discovered a love of creative nonfiction which has led to deepening relationships with my family and friends, my community, and has helped me to make connections with strangers. It got me through lockdowns and gave me the confidence to set up a poetry and spoken word night, to perform my work, to encourage others to do the same – it gave me the confidence to take creative risks like producing a podcast and it landed me my job.

The job that I am giving myself permission now, to leave.

Sit quietly with the idea of not making writing a part of your life, I suggested to my friend. How does it make you feel? If there’s even a hint of upset at the idea of not doing it, then go for it. What have you got to lose?

When I return to the conversation from this side of winter, as my shoulder starts to thaw and the blackthorn leaves begin to uncurl, I offer:

Not going for it keeps you stuck and a prisoner to the voices that tell you you’re not good enough, not clever enough, that it’s not a choice open to you. But, as I have found, eventually your body begins to tell you the score. Don’t listen to those nasty little voices that come from people and experiences that don’t deserve space in your head, or idea of yourself. Go and do the thing that you know in your bones you need to do. Be the person that you are.

‘The magick is everywhere’

After the snow and hail of our blackthorn winter pass I visit Shobrooke, a wooded park on the fringes of Crediton. The sky is blue again. I watch big white clouds dash across it. At the lake I stop to watch a flock of sand martins returned from Africa – a sign of summer’s approach – scudding across the lake’s surface. They play and dart, one veering from the crowd to chase an invisible insect, whistling past close to my face. I laugh. The air is full of motion and magic.

I stop to look up at the oaks, their great grey trunks and leafless limbs shining in the pale sun. At the top I watch a pair of rooks, their beaks stuffed with grass and twigs. One turns to look over her shoulder at me before pushing into a hollow as her partner watches on. On the banks of a pond I stop to look at the fat catkins on a goat willow, ripe with pollen, and realise that the air is buzzing with the vibration of bees flocking to harvest pollen grains to feed their young.  

Spring is happening, the magic is happening. The blackthorn was right, the magic is everywhere.


  1. https://ruthgoudy.com/blackthorn-and-hawthorn-identification-folklore-and-healing-energies ↩︎

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