Fruitful days of autumn

This is a 'mast year' for English oaks.
This is a 'mast year' for English oaks.

Written by Heather Elvidge

An old saying begs, “September blow soft till the fruit’s in the loft”, and anyone who has trees heavy with apples, pears or plums will surely agree.

Gales permitting, this is shaping up as an exceptional autumn for fruit and nuts, which is good news for us and for our wildlife. Even English winemakers are happy.

Oak trees are loaded with bright green acorns that are easily seen among the dark green leaves. A wet spring, followed by a hot summer, has encouraged oaks to produce acorns in huge numbers.

Our forebears would not have let this glut go to waste — surplus acorns, hazel and beechnuts were collected for food. Acorns were also fed to pigs. At one time every country family kept a porker, feeding it on scraps and whatever came to hand.

In medieval times, pig-owning peasants had a common right called pannage. Their pigs were allowed into the woods to forage for fallen acorn and beechnuts, known as mast.

Pannage is still a right for landowners in the New Forest. In a mast year pigs are encouraged into the woodland, because acorns are toxic to the cattle and ponies that live there.

Unlucky

You’ve probably noticed that this coming Friday is the 13th. But why is it significant?

Long ago, when numbers had mysterious powers, every civilisation had its own ideas about which were fortunate or unfortunate. In British folklore the even numbers were generally unlucky, while odd numbers were lucky.

There were exceptions — for instance, we’ve been saying that bad things come in threes since the fourteenth century. Then, people thought that the third event broke the run of bad luck. Today we take a more optimistic view and say, “third time lucky”.

The other exception retains the power to spook. Houses and hotel rooms are often numbered 12a or 14, rather than 13. One explanation is that there were 13 at the Last Supper, Jesus and 12 disciples. Another theory traces the fear of 13 back to Norse mythology.

Studies of folklore have found no English reference to unlucky 13 before the 1690s, when a popular ghost story introduced the idea that 13 people gathered round a table was unlucky. This idea persisted into the last century, when a superstitious host would invite a stranger in off the street to bring the number of guests to 14.

It seems that the dread of 13 at table became associated with Friday in the late nineteenth century. As the day that Jesus was crucified, Friday had always been an unfortunate day for Christians. The medieval church had declared it a day of abstinence, and by the fourteenth century its unlucky status was widely accepted.

There were numerous warnings about what shouldn’t be done on a Friday, mostly to do with starting something new. It was not a good day to get married, open a new business, move house, or go to sea. Even the cutting of fingernails was best avoided.

So we can blame the Victorians for Friday 13, an unlucky day in Britain and the USA. Today even the non-superstitious acknowledge it, in an ironic kind of way, naturally. And by the way, there’s another one coming up in December.