Some years ago writer and graphic designer Bill Vaughn ventured forth, chainsaw in hand, to clear "Dark Acres"the parcel of land he had recently purchased near Missoula—of a nasty patch of thorny bushes. Closer inspection revealed they weren't bushes at all, but a tangled mess of a single tree, eight trunks sprawled out in all directions, covered with lichen and caught up with strands of fence webbing, wild roses and bird nests. An afternoon's conflict ensued, and Vaughn was turned away bloodied and muddied, wondering just what the hell he was facing. It turned out his adversary was a hawthorn, and after only a month of research, Vaughn was stuck on the tree as if he were impaled.
His new book, Hawthorn: The Tree That Has Nourished, Healed, and Inspired Through the Ages, covers much ground in just 224 pages. Vaughn begins in Ireland where the hawthorn was seen as a source of potent supernatural power. Charcoal made from hawthorn, a hardwood that burns extremely hot, played a huge role in the smelting and forging of iron, which the Celts used to bloody effect halting Roman incursions into the area. Vaughn impressively tries his hand and succeeds at making his own sword from scratch, building a forge and burning chunks of hawthorn scavenged from Dark Acres.
The narrative bounces around through time and subject. There's the hawthorn's use as hedge barrier to divide land and class, and the role French hedgerows played in slowing the Allied advance in WWII. There's the attempt by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to try to replicate the hedge-bordered fields of the Old World in their new nation. There's the issue of how this pursuit spreading west led not only to the creation of barbed wire, but also played a role in the downfall of the American Indian. Then there's the hawthorn's role in developing treatments for people suffering from cardiovascular problems.
In other hands, this book could be a mess as tangled as its subject. Vaughn holds it all together, blending anecdotes, myth, folklore and scientific fact into as fun and interesting an offering of natural history as I've read. A veteran freelance writer for such publications as Outside and Men's Journal, and author of a previously published book of essays, Vaughn has never been a writer focused on any one particular subject. He's written articles about fashion and sports, food and celebrities. This diversity serves him well, because the hawthorn, as Vaughn shows us with often precise detail, has had a root or two stuck into just about every era of human history. The book almost reads as a collection of essays, though there is no lack in hawthorn-as-theme connecting each chapter with the rest.
Still, for all the delight I gleaned from the copious historical details and minutia scattered throughout the rest of Hawthorn, it is in its ninth chapter, "A Tree for All Seasons," that the book really claimed me. And it has little to do with wit or literary talent. In chapter one, Vaughn describes his home on the Clark Fork near Missoula as "the same sort of redneck backwater where I spent my motherless, feral boyhood." I naturally assumed it was somewhere upstream, maybe around Turah or possibly even Clinton. I mean, who around here wouldn't? It didn't take long, though, for me to deduce that the area he was describing was actually very near where I live, about halfway between Missoula and Frenchtown along Mullan Road. A little exploration up and down some of the side roads in the area and I soon discovered that Vaughn's Dark Acres is actually, as the crow flies, at most a mile from my own manufactured home in an ugly subdivision, the likes of which he also references in the book.
Perhaps that flying crow patrolling the distance between our dwellings isn't a crow, though, but a black-billed magpie, gathering materials for one of several nests that audacious breed of Corvid has built in the hawthorns behind Vaughn's house. What I like about chapter nine is the attention given to describe the flora and fauna of a very specific area—one that has raised my curiosity, mainly due to the ramblings I've taken with my own adventure dog along the banks of the Clark Fork at places like Council Groves and Harper's Bridge. This 25-page information dump of detail about the area where I live, particularly as it relates to the birds, has transformed my relationship to a place I spend as much of my free time as possible. That is a gift only the rarest of books can deliver.