Seeking a muse in an oak tree.

I’ve been meaning to return to the subject of the Oak, specifically notes on the notion of an oak in Irish culture, our beloved Dair, first and foremost of the airig fedo, protected to the maximum extent of Brehon law (as documented in the Bretha Comaithchesa). I have no ability with medieval Irish, alas, so I can’t offer more than my own personal musings on the research I’ve been working on from secondary sources. Also I have this good intention to try to impose some sort of order and research on myself on this subject but today is a viciously tired day, a sort of calling from the bottom of a hollowed out brain cavity day. I’m hoping dropping some words in might jump start everything in a words! and ideas! and Spring! direction. I’m inclined to treat this as sort of preliminary musing, walking around the idea kicking its tyres and making concerned clucking noises at the back of my throat.

I am mildly amused that the first instinct I have is to follow the habit of tracing back something I want to talk about as the noun. A youth spent reading dictionaries cover to cover like any other books is perhaps to blame. The problem is I was never great at etymological research. I love seeing where words grew from but I lack the precision of thought to really embrace the discipline or the memory to fake it. I therefore can’t gleefully tell you, specifically and with authority, where the Irish word dair comes from, but I can do the lazy but enthusiastic potential trace back to ancient greek δρυς f (drys, “oak tree”), and from there feel justified to ramble sideways occasionally with odd bits and pieces from my college classical studies (and, perhaps, my love of dryads) while trying to talk about an Irish perception of this gorgeous tree. How positively Victorian of me…

Truth is I prefer the tree to the noun or that noun’s history, but it is difficult to put on paper/screen exactly how an oak – or indeed any tree – fills my consciousness with itself, rather than staying neatly packaged as something signified by it’s descriptor. One of the frustrating things about trying to write about perceptions of things is that text descriptions are linear, one word has to go after the last one so descriptions also need to go one after the other. You can fudge it a little bit if you can splash enough adjectives throughout to give it depth and breath but you still have to try to force your brain to catalog in order to then share. I’m rather fond of cascades of sensory perceptions all roiling and impacting at once, I’m always strangely anxious about marshaling those perceptions into lists instead of impressions – if I deal with impressions there is too much that is subjective, I can’t cover everything, everything will succumb to cliche. I will inevitably fail to communicate so I shouldn’t make the attempt.

I suspect I am strongly craving a decent walk. I start to try to think of ways to describe approaching an oak, of whatever size or age, and I get caught up in the sense memories – winds (many types) playing the tree in leafless and leaf full state, simultaneously struck with the sense of quiet and ease near really old oaks. Whippy light through saplings on a blustery day and the long, long mythical golden shafts framed by impossibly ancient limbs. The rose-papery squidgeyness of an new oak apple, the dark green, sugarcrust stained end of summer leaves, the gentle diagonal corridors of featherfall yellow. The slick wet of trunk darkened after rainstorms, the kickcloud of dust around the root-prints on a hot day. The sense of time in rivulet skin, of containment sitting in amoung some midpoint branches. Stars caught like the suggestion of diamond rings on outstretched fingers on a winter’s evening.

But those are are resident in my head. Does any of that speak to a shared idea of what an oak is? In a previous post I talked a little about what a leaf signifies, what concepts one communicates. All my life an oak tree has been one of those universal symbols for strength, steadfastness, endurance, might. If a group of people were to play one of those word association games I’m pretty sure it’s a universal kind of perception. Well in this Western Europe side of the universe anyway. It is sort of casually regarded by anyone I know as the King of Trees, right back through history, a tree of magic, power, authority, of Zeus and Odin.

Oaks are beautiful in the way that all trees are, but it’s a deliberate beauty, a definite, weathered, lowered-to-centre-of-gravity intent to remain unmoved purpose. The lobed leaves and acorns add character.

I adore that oaks in particular strike me as sharing our history. In the same way that I have always loved the idea of standing on the sun warmed stones of Athens, sure in some sense that they could communicate all the many, many foot treads of many, many centuries of people, I love the idea of oaks all over the country gathering time and history like Thief of Time time spinners. Huge, ponderous, difficult to interfere with, loose contact lines strung together by lone oaks, proud against sheets of fields. Oaks seem like guardians of time and memory.

So – Irish oaks as perceived by medieval Irish folk – According to Fergus Kelly in Trees in early Ireland any of the highest ranked trees meant that a penalty-fine had to be paid for any damage done to it at a rate of the “equivalent to two milch cows and a three-year-old heifer. In addition, if the injury he has inflicted is merely branch-cutting, he must pay compensation (aithgin) of a yearling heifer; if it is fork-cutting, a two-year-old heifer is due, and if base-cutting, a milch
cow.” Oaks are the highest of these high ranking seven trees (I’ve described these before), sometimes now called the “nobels” or “lords” of the wood. According to the ninth-century legal commentary appended to Bretha Comaithchesa the value of the oak for Irish people stemmed from its acorns and its use for woodwork. A good acorn mast year fattened pigs and therefore people. According to Kelly “A later legal commentator claims that a single oak can provide enough acorns to fatten one pig in a good year.”

It is foremost of the timbers associated with strong, dedicated buildings, impenetrable doors, things that should go nowhere. Again then to Bretha Comaithchesa which, according to Kelly, describes dair-imbe ‘oak-fence’ as the sturdiest fencing. “There are many references to a type of church called a dairthech (or daurthach) lit. ‘oak-house’.”

I’m intrigued with the idea of permanence and solidity while also being so conscious of the history of Irish oak and English shipbuilding, it being the preferred timber for large ocean faring ships. Oak, in that context, has always implied slowish moving but secure, deliberate, not easily persuaded to let in water and difficult to set off course. I have a peculiar notion of “transport” I associate with most objects. As a child I created models and diagrams with plant materials, earths, water and stones when I was working stuff out. I started to attribute characteristics to them and associated a sense of their ability to “transport” any given idea and a sense of the direction they would do so, usually in this case a sense of direction through time. Oak always seemed secure, purposeful, resolute and forward moving.

I can’t bring the specific text to mind this minute but one of the strongest ideas I got about medieval Irish people and their trees is a notion of certain community trees. Forests and specific landmark trees were specifically targeted in battles for example. There was a strong sense of a community sharing the tree, from the practical stuff like mast and shelter to the more nebulous sense of geographic identity. I noticed recently a tweet go yesterday calling for people to start naming their trees, presumably because a recent study said names trees got better protection and attention in their communities. I’m sorry I didn’t pay more attention now I’ve wandered by this way. A post for another day I feel.

Because my other interests include medieval craftwork I find the role of oaks in leatherworking and ink making completely ordinary now. Again in Brehon law there was a provision where bark for the tanning of leather was taken from an oak. “If a person illegally removed enough bark from another person’s oak to tan a pair of woman’s sandals, he must give him a cow-hide. If he removes enough to tan a pair of man’s sandals, he must give an ox-hide. In addition, he must cover the wound with a mixture of smooth clay, cow-dung and fresh milk until there has been the width of two fingers’ new growth on all sides.” (I love the idea of adding a poltice to the tree to prevent air getting in and infecting the tree) Such a penalty would still be rather better than leprosy which according to the Life of St. Columcille was the reward for the man who took some bark from Columcille’s oak tree (he was said to live under one at Kells for some time) to tan his shoes.

Columcille, also known as Columba, also founded churches in an oak-grove at Derry (Doire) and the monastery at Durrow (Dairmag, ‘the Plain of the Oaks’). He was supposed to have said that he feared the sound of axe blows in Derry more than hell or death. At some point I need to some rather more serious research into the man, but he featured strongly in my national school days, I was rather a fan of his exploits as I then heard them. He was definitely supposed to be a bit of a oak tree lover, he built one of his oratories counter to the usual Christian orientation so no trees on the site would be disturbed and he ordered that no tree that fell be touched for nine days before it could be cut up for wood to be given to the poor.

Modern ideas Irish people seem to have is that phenomena like “plagues” of locusts aren’t a thing we ever worried about. I’ll add this last note (for now) by Fergus Kelly speaking about “an undated scrap of vellum which has been inserted in the fourteenth-century Yellow Book of Lecan. It records an abundance of moths (tuile feidlecan) in West Connacht “so that
they did not leave a leaf on an oak in the whole territory of O’Flaherty”.” He supposes it to be a plague of the moth Tortrix viridana which at once horrified and intrigued me.

One of my medieval-related projects I’m working on is to research as much as I can about medieval forestry management. I’m currently trying to wade my way through John Evelyn in his Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest-Trees. He devotes significant time and energy to how an oak forest can be planned and planted. “They require room, and space to amplifie and expand themselves, and would therefore be planted at more remote distances, and free from all encumbrances: And this upon consideration how slowly a full-grown oak mounts upwards, and how speedily they spread, and dilate themselves to all quarters, by dressing and due culture; so as above forty years advance is to be gain’d by this only industry” He believes that deer and cattle could graze underneath “benignly visited with the gleams of the sun, and adorn’d with the distant land-skips appearing through the glades, and frequent vallies; betwixt whose rows the azure sky is seen immix’d,” and wild apple-trees and “happy shrubs” can “adorn” the forest. with fruit trees sprinkled throughout “for cyder, and many singular uses, and should find such goodly plantations the boast of our rangers”

( A small diversion, amusingly about a small diversion in turn, he pauses at one point to “applaud the industry of old Sir Harbotle Grimstone, who (I am told) from a very small nursery of acorns, which he sow’d in the neglected corners of his ground, did draw forth such numbers of oaks of competent growth; as being planted about his fields in even, and uniform rows, about one hundred foot from the hedges; bush’d, and well water’d till they had sufficiently fix’d themselves, did wonderfully improve both the beauty, and the value of his demeasnes. ” I only do so because Harbotle Grimstone is an *excellent* name.

Growing conditions are listed as better for different qualities and uses for the oak wood, but he says that “oaks prosper exceedingly even in gravel and moist clays, which most other trees abhor”. Transplanting a young oak, he says, makes it advance ten years. Swathes of information follows about positioning and cutting and all mannner of things, it can be hard not to just say “and then he said, and then he said, I’m resisting hard. I was gifted a rather fantastic book which I will definitely be coming back to that includes really interesting stuff about grafting. I was especially interested then to read in Evelyn about his attempts with “the graffing of oaks, but as yet with slender success: Ruellius indeed affirms it will take the pear and other fruit; and if we may credit the poet,The sturdy oak does golden apples bear and under elms swine do the mast devour.

I am reminded of a post I made earlier about Irish sacred trees or Bile, one of which was an Oak (i’ll dig out the name later) which produced apples and hazelnuts and acorns on it’s various branches, which it never previously occurred to me might have been somehow grafted rather than simply being a supernatural tree granted by a supernatural entity.

I can’t bring myself to agree with “A timber-tree is a merchant-adventurer, you shall never know what he is worth till he be dead.” Some of the various and very many uses of various parts of the tree cause me considerably less offence. I am somewhat surprised to read “Oaks bear also a knur, full of a cottony matter, of which they anciently made wick for their lamps and candles;” I will need to look into that. It astonishes me, however, to find he line “And ’tis probable the cups of our acorns would tan leather as well as the bark, I wonder no body makes the experiment, as it is done in Turky with the valonia, which is a kind of acorn growing on the oaks.” since experiments of this nature would, I feel, have been widespread.

” To these add the galls, misletoe, polypod, agaric (us’d in antidotes) uvæ, fungus’s to make tinder, and many other useful excrescencies, to the number of above twenty, which doubtless discover the variety of transudations, percolations and contextures of this admirable tree; […..]Pliny affirms, that the galls break out all together in one night, about the beginning of June, and arrive to their full growth in one day; this I should recommend to the experience of some extraordinary vigilant wood-man, had we any of our oaks that produc’d them, Italy and Spain being the nearest that do: Galls are of several kinds, but grow upon a different species of robur from any of ours, which never arrive to any maturity; the white and imperforated are the best; ” Interesting.. I have been trying to track down evidence about what sort of galls ink makers actually had access to… Fascinated by the line that describes “a certain water somewhere in Hungary,  which transmutes the leaves of this tree into brass, and iron into copper. Of the galls is made trial of spaw-water, and the ground and basis of several dies, especially sadder colours, and are a great revenue to those who have quantities of them: Nor must I forget ink, compos’d of galls ℥iiij, coppras ℥ij, gum-arabic ℥i: Beat the galls grossly, and put them into a quart of claret, or French-wine, and let them soak for eight or nine days, setting the vessel (an earthen glaz’d pitcher is best) in the hot sun, if made in summer; in winter near the fire, stirring it frequently with a wooden spatula: Then add the coppras and gum, and after it has stood a day or two, it will be fit to use. There are a world of receipts more, of which see Caneparius de Atramentis.”

I have to finish up with a couple of little bits about food and cookery, because it pleases me to do so. He speaks of small young acorns in stock-doves craws as delicious fare, “as well as those incomparable salads of young herbs taken out of the maws of partridges at a certain season of the year, which gives them a preparation far exceeding all the art of cookery.” There seems to be the idea that oak leaves “abundantly congested on snow” are an excellent refrigerator. He speaks of “mel-dews, so much more copiously found on the leaves of this tree, than any other; whence the industrious bees gather such abundance of honey” and of salt made of oak ashes to season meat, but more frequently “to sprinkle among, and fertilize their seed-corn”

I have, of course, wandered wildly off course, because I pulled at a thread more than I meant to. But It has at least freed up more words in my head and hopefully it will not be so long before I return to this, or any other, subject.

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