Respect Your Elders (The Uses and Lore of a Familiar Tree)

 Kay Nielsen, The Elder Mother (ca. 1900)

“It was not exactly a story,” said the Elder-mother; “but the story is coming now, and it is a true one. For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder-bush has sprung out of the teapot.
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Elder-Tree Mother”

For people of millennia past everything crackled with meaning. The fire that burned in the soul was “of the same essential nature as the stars,” the twentieth-century Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács wrote, for the world was for those living then “new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own.” Even plants were rich in significance. The humblest weeds had indwelling spirits both familiar and strange.

The elder tree was one of the stranger plants. People thought it vampiric and presented as evidence mysterious wounds gotten while they slept in rooms lined with its wood. Elders not occupied with drinking blood busied themselves by wandering roads, pausing every now and them to peer into the windows of homes at the children sleeping within. If they spied a child at rest in a cradle made of elder, they would disturb his rest until his parents replaced the cradle with one made of another wood. Though such tales were enough for many people to avoid elders all together, others felt no aversion at all. Indeed, they might develop a thorough attachment. The nineteenth-century German author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote of one young Anselmus in his story, “The Golden Pot.” So enthralled by an elder had the university student become that he refused to leave the shade of its intoxicating boughs.

Yet elders weren’t entirely malevolent. Prometheus used their hollow stems to bring humankind fire from the gods, and the recipients themselves used them to light their own campfires, around which they told stories of how the elder gave refuge to wizards and witches and even the King of the Elves. On Midsummer Eve he could be seen marching beneath the elder’s boughs with his lilliputian train of attendants. Mere mortals looked to the elder to cure toothache, ague and rheumatism. Pregnant women would kiss the tree to ensure a safe birth, and farmers placed an elder branch near eggs, butter, and milk to keep them fresh. Believing elders would protect them from harm and illness, villagers planted them near their doorways, and hung bunches of leaves in livestock barns. Seventeenth-century writer and gardener John Evelyn extolled the tree’s curative powers. “If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark and berries were fully known,” he wrote, “I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness, or wounds.”

Superstition aside, elder isn’t quite the panacea Evelyn took it to be. We do know today that elderberries are rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants and can help to beat back respiratory disease. And they make for tasty jams and cordials besides. But neither the tree nor its fruit can win us love or luck, and its boughs are inhabited by neither fairies nor fiends. Are we better for such wisdom? In many ways, yes. Still, it’s difficult not to feel wistful for a world in which one could influence fate by propitiating the right plant, and in which people beheld the natural world with a respectful awe. “Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths,” Lukács wrote: “ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars.” Our age, by contrast, is one of considerable heat but precious little light.

Happily, elderberries are now in season. Look for the trees along ponds and riverbanks. Gather enough fruit and you can make a wine by following the recipe below. Drink enough and perhaps you’ll feel intimations of age-old divinities.

Elderberry Wine
From A Book of Favorite Recipes, Tried and True (1911)

Allow four quarts of boiling water to eight quarts of elderberries. Let all stand twelve hours, stirring every hour or so. Next day strain and press out all the juice. Put into a stone jar and add to the liquid three pounds of best loaf sugar for every four quarts of liquid. Also, one lunch of powdered cinnamon, one-half ounce of powdered cloves. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Now, turn all into a preserving kettle and boil for five minutes after the boil is fairly on. As soon as it is moderately cool, pour back into the jar, cover with a light cloth and set it away to ferment. When it ceases to work, rack it off carefully, bottle and cork. It is a very healthy wine, good for the blood and for the stomach. It improves by keeping.

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