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In America, the last Friday of April is traditionally Arbor Day, a day for planting and conserving trees. I probably should have written about the cherry tree today…but the blossoms have already largely fallen off so I am going to choose a different blossoming tree to concentrate on—the common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. The Hawthorn is another of the most beautiful flowering trees of the northern hemisphere. Like cherry trees, hawthorns are members of the rose family. They are small to medium sized trees of great beauty which have thorns and grey-brown bark with orange fissures. Hawthorns bear red pome fruit which is said to taste like overripe apples (the fruit of North American species of Hawthorns was a major food source for North America peoples before familiar Eurasian fruit arrived). The common hawthorn tree was originally native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
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The Hawthorn is known for beautiful glistening blossoms which appear in May or June and resemble five petaled roses (although the vase-shaped tree is lovely year-round. More prosaically, the trees have been used as hedges because of their dense growth, hard wood, and thorns.
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The tree features prominently in the folklore of Europe and western Asia. The Greeks esteemed it enormously—it was the symbol of hope and blossoming boughs were carried in wedding processions. In Northern Europe, the Hawthorn was identified with ancient gods. For a long time, even after Europe was Christianized, hawthorn trees were reckoned to be found near entrances to the otherworld—the realm of elves, fairies, and magical folk. It was allegedly bad luck to kill—or even cut a hawthorn tree, and the misfortunes of Delorean motor company are said to have started when they cut down a grove to build their factory.
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In Christian mythology, the crown of thorns of Jesus was putatively made from hawthorn wood. Despite this, Christians, apparently stayed fond of Hawthorn and there were medieval legends connecting it with various Saints and miracles. Hawthorn is certainly a miraculously beautiful tree. I would totally plant one for Arbor Day…if I had a sapling…or a place to plant it.
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Imagine working deep inside a mine in medieval Cornwall.  Darkness is all around you, barely broken by the hot sputtering oil lamp.  Breathing poisonous air, you have carved deep into an underworld of granite using simple handtools and brute strength.  You are seeking precious ore for some greedy lord when suddenly an unearthly knocking sound starts to come from the walls and ceilings and the whole mine starts to shudder.  It’s the knockers, the spirits of the mine!

The Works of an Abandoned Cornish Mine

Cornwall is a peninsula of ancient rock which juts out from the southern tip of Great Britain.  When the continent Laurussia slammed into Gondwana during the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, the complicated geology of colliding plates caused a massive intrusion of magma to push up into the native rocks.  This magma cooled into huge swaths of granite which underwent extensive metamorphism and mineralisation during subsequent ages—a process which left the area which rich seams of various metals. Mining began in Cornwall by at least 2150 BC–when tin was critical to bronze making– and it continued until 1998 AD (and it could restart at any time in accordance with the schizophrenic dictates of the world economy).  Various periods have seem particular flurries of mining activity—particularly the middle ages and the Industrial revolution, but the vocation has always been an underlying part of the Cornish character.  The myth of the knockers is a major part of that tradition.

The Knockers (unknown artist, woodblock print?)

The knockers were conceived of as a fairytale race of hard-working dwarf-like miners.  The height of children, the hardscrabble little men possessed the clothes and tools of underground laborers and the work ethic of supernatural beings.  Although they existed slightly beyond human kin, the knockers could be occasionally apprehended at the edges of perception–where the light faded in the depths of the pit, or just around a braced corner.  The knockers were thought to be pranksters.  They would steal tools or put out lights.  To some miners, the knockers were evil beings who would knock down the supports holding up the shaft.  The majority of miners however  thought were benevolent imps or even the spirits of miners who dug too deep and died crushed in the blackness.  When the mine walls started to groan and pop, it was the knockers trying to warn the miners of imminent collapse.

An illustration of Knockers (who are unaccountably hanging out with a fossil ichthyosaur)

There idea of magical miners was widespread in Europe.  The Germans talked about the kobald–the goblin miners who poisoned the deep shafts.  The Scandinavians believed in different races of dwarves.   The tunnels beneath the burial mounds of Ireland were thought to be the haunt of leprechauns hoarding pots of gold.  Yet of all these underground folks, the knockers seem to play the biggest part in the life of the Cornish miners.  The men demanded that mine bosses propitiate the knockers in various ways.  Individual miners took care to throw the last bite of their famous Cornish pasties to the knockers.

Knockers dress differently but share a thirst with Leprechauns.

As the world changed the mining industry changed: Cornish miners emigrated to other lands to share their expertise (and to share the profits of new strikes).  They played a substantial part in America’s mining boom and they brought their traditions with them to the mines of the new world.  The knockers morphed into the tommyknockers, but otherwise changed very little in the copper, silver, and gold mines of the old west.  As a remarkable post script to the age of Cornish-American mining, when a huge California metal mine closed in 1956 and sealed the entrance, the former workers petitioned the owners to reopen the door, so the tommyknockers could leave and seek new jobs– a request which was granted.

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