Whispers on the wind, the smudge of the unexplained in the corner of your eye, hearing the singing of the trees, the tingles of being a part of something greater in a place of awesome nature, some of us have it, some of us long for it, and for those of us, Melissa Harrison’s By Ash, Oak and Thorn will be a book that wraps itself into your heart and shapes lifetimes.
When I first got my hands on By Ash, Oak and Thorn, I admit as a reader of children’s more than adults books Melissa Harrison’s reputation was immense but I hadn’t had the pleasure of reading myself, and I thought this would be a modern nature twist on The Borrowers quest into the wild and I was EXCITED.
Then as I read and the layers upon layers unfolded; of folklore; information about the natural world; heralds of passing seasons; and immersion in the glory of the wild surviving places, all interweaved and undulates into this incredible tale of survival against the odds and By Ash, Oak and Thorn is a cry to the very souls of readers to embrace and protect the natural world before it is too late.
For those who loved the hope, empowerment to change and wildness of Nicola Penfold’s Where the World Turns Wild and the fabulist juxtaposition of the mortal and Fae realms in Sylvia V Lindsteadt’s The Wild Folk, and for those who love The Borrowers, or indeed the Studio Ghibli adaptation Arrietty (and others with their ecological messages) By Ash Oak and Thorn belongs in that canon of stories that may be the butterfly effect, or perhaps more aptly, the turning of a page for future change.
In the garden of 52 Ash Row is an Ash Tree. Within that Ash Tree live three Hidden Folk, Moss, Burnet and Cumulus who are awakening for the Spring to the garden they have cared for since the houses sprung up around their homestead.
But there is change in the air, first Cumulus’ hand has disappeared, then the Ash Tree falls down destroying their home.
The trio decide the time has come to finally step out and find the other Hidden Folk starting with a memory of a cousin’s community in a faraway Oak.
But as their quest develops, and the world unfolds before them hard truths and hidden secrets mean they begin to wonder, are they the last of their kind?
Any child who anthropomorphises nature, imagines the surviving Fae or Hidden Folk carving out a life in the hedgerows and garden trees of creeping suburbia, or under the floorboards and so leaves offerings of first and last fruits, imagines acorn cupules to be pots, or hats or cups for fairies will love By Ash, Oak and Thorn.
As you may know or can infer from the moniker Lilyfae and blog name Lily and the Fae we are rather enamoured of tales of The Fae, the Hidden Folk, the Sidhe, the Other Folk, the Shining Ones, whatever they are called in different cultures. So when I find a book like this that celebrates the rawer, earthier and more unpredictable wildness of Fae and not as twinkly Tinkerbell meets Cicely May Barker Flower Fairies it tingles my Changeling bones and tangles in the wild roots of my heart.
Moss, Burnet and Cumulus are named for natural things that were observed in their original wild space that was lost to human developments before they had found their way to the Ash Tree hedge that in time became part of 52 Ash Row’s garden, they have been around for millennia, some since before the Ice Age, one almost at the birth of the world when he met Robin Goodfellow himself- but they are fading as the wild is fading from our world.
From the ingenious adaptations of natural and occasional man-made materials from bat skin tents to spider silk sleeping bags, to the use of discarded snail shells as kegs, and the adaptation and ingenuity to take the detritus of human society and create useful inventions from Thunderbolt (no spoilers) to haute couture, you can see that Harrison has really paused and coloured even the tiniest details in this world she has created and imagined and no doubt weaved in her childhood play and dreams too.
Those who loved The Borrowers, The Magic Faraway Tree stories and the depiction of the Fae in The Merrybegot will find happiness in these Hidden Folk.
Throughout a wistful yearning whispers to the reader; hold on to the magic, reconnect and find ourselves in nature.
Lovely sections of narrative explore the wonders of the natural world around us progressing through the stages of the quest whether urban, suburban or rural from the tangled varieties of grass we may find covering a verge to the rich range of seasonal foragables not to mention the creatures including songs of British birds in onomatopoeic form to help children listen to the bird calls around them.
Melissa illustrates to the reader the rich but rapidly depleting biodiversity and synergistic wild world around us that many mistake or mislabel as ugly, weeds or bothersome or worse; fail to notice or value the beauty of nature surging and surviving against all odds.
Simple narrative sections reveal a world of wonder and may be mind blowing to the child who looks at a verge and just sees scraggly green, to reveal underneath the world of microbeasts, flora, fauna and vibrant life holding on and are dependent upon that shelter, the seeds and circle of life that is within that small disregarded microcosm.
The clever trilogy of sections moves from the suburban to rural to urban showing any child in any situation can reconnect with nature from cultivating wild space and winter-feeding the remaining wild birds in the city, then adding preserving or creating wild space in suburban gardens with no-mow May, compost heaps and allowing cut garden wood to sit and even rot in a pile and those further out in rural spaces to add in protecting and preserve the remaining wild spaces not just ‘greenfield’ and recognise the value of the less picturesque spaces too as well!!
And yes, that requires a life shift for many and can seem laborious or daunting- especially if you may have to persuade a relative who loves a rigid linear uniform garden with a buzz-cut lawn to let the edges smear a little.
Whilst you can just read this as a glorious quest with Hidden Folk, at it’s core the book touches upon the eternal question, the meaning and value of existence and whether we are all just hurtling on a rock through space, and for whatever we feel, believe or hope about that what will we do with our time on this Earth and what will we leave behind.
Melissa speaks to the reader about how Humans are the only ‘folk’ to have forgotten how to communicate with nature, but there is a hope for us all; for every bird feeder; for every one who plants hope in earth whether a pot or the soil itself; who takes part in ‘no mow may’; or who encourages drivers to take as much care for hazards on country roads as they would on urban- (lesser trafficked roads doesn’t mean less presence of life!); and of course for those who choose to do far more.
For me this is a reminder of stewardship, that we are responsible for our surroundings and that we should try to leave a better, healthier world than the one we came into, the Earth we borrow from our grandchildren, and how we as a species must admit, and recommit to the synergy, the connection between and across all of nature; the circle, the hoop that never ends.
And Melissa shows that it will be tough and require change and stepping outside of our comfort zones much like the journey and evolving of our Hidden Folk protagonists, who are scared, facing Mortal peril and new unfamiliar landscapes with no sign of their kind left, sometimes we have to feel the fear and just do it, or we face the possibility of disappearing, but that like our characters, doing something different can be the making of us and sometimes, forge our purpose.
Now the book itself leaves us on a pivotal point, it hands the question and quest back to the reader, and yet, there will be more. And I cannot wait……… so I think I may have to read Harrison’s other works in the meantime!!
Please take the time to visit and read the other stops on this tour to celebrate such an incredible book.
By Ash, Oak and Thorn by Melissa Harrison is published by Chicken House.
Thank you so much for my copy to Chicken House and Nina Douglas 💜