A while back, in autumn, a storm blew in earlier than I anticipated, probably because I hadn’t paid quite enough attention to the forecast. I was out in a small wood nearby, one largely surrounded by open fields and bog land and the trees hadn’t yet shed all of their leaves. The wind piled through it, brooking no argument or resistance, and everything suddenly sprang into giant motion with little me no more considered than I likely considered a multitude of insects scuttling along the path. It was sudden and exhilarating but, and I was surprised by this, not a little alarming, given sight of the very large ash tree previously crashed to ground and the slowly recovering gash it made in the skyline to my left. There was no question that in that particular encounter I was not ancient race or wild elemental but token puny mortal, so I took myself out of the clash of wind versus ash and oak as soon as was decent. Aspiring woodland creatures don’t want to give anything the impression we were chased out, after all. Maybe it’s possible to imagine then how immediately the difference reaching the tightly woven hazel grove struck. It was like magic. There was a busy but calming shushing, an unperturbed getting along with things, as if the storm had been filtered through a forest baleen, and what was left was oxygen and exhilaration. An early human making their way in a world ruled by trees and elements would very quickly become friends with a hazel grove, it seemed to me, and fervently hope it took them in.
So having temporarily leapfrogged it last post this post returns to number two on the list of Nobel or Chieftain trees in the Bretha Comaithchesa, which is the hazel or Coll.
Hazel trees usually grow as a clump of slender trunks, and people learned early on that the tree responded very well to coppicing, a practice which cuts the tree low on a primary truck precisely to encourage the growth of a great many tall straight branches in a single tree. The hazel even benefits; coppicing can extend and even double the lifespan of a hazel. They are underwood trees, smaller trees that can live comfortably in the canopy breaks between larger forest trees, forming the understory. They never get particularly tall but they are pleasingly and not prohibitively dense. They thrive in soils other trees find inhospitably poor or dry and in rocky places, and quickly form excellent shelter, much appreciated by wildlife. As they grow together, the soil benefits too, mossy rocks offer useful markers at points along pathways the foraging animals like badgers push amoung them. This is thriving, life visible, soil churning ground, there is new moisture and bustle as if time is in its infancy here.
Hazels thrive with their large, open leaves and their thirst to get going, fast and vertical early in the season and well past the winter sheds of other trees. They are generous with their shoots and straight and sturdy limbs, replacing them eagerly. I’m pretty convinced anyone who has ever regularly walked by a clump of healthy hazel has eyed a particular branch thinking what a great walking stick or staff it would make. Children adore them for fencing swords and nettle smiting weapons. They come in so many different thicknesses they make ready staves and they are pliant, easy to persuade into fantastic shapes and twists and curls. If magic is required in physical form then surely the accommodating hazel will provide, whether it be the carefully selected forks still used for divining today or shapes coaxed over time on the living tree to be harvested at just the right moment or worked carefully after being carefully cut from the tree. This is a wood for many tasks, it easily splits length-ways and bends usefully and easily. We know historically people have made extensive use of the wood for weaving wattle for use as fencing and house walls, which were then plastered/daubed with mud and lime. Bent hazel u-shapes were also used to hold down thatch on rooves. Like another understory tree, the willow, the thinner, whippier shoots could be used for weaving to make baskets and containers.
Already you sense a community in amoung the hazel trees, sheltered and accommodated. I have a tendency to let my imagination linger here, but I was really interested to come across The use of trees and woodland in early medieval Ireland by Aidan O’Sullivan (1993) which gives a vivid description of a much bigger scene
The house walls, property fences and wooden pathways of early medieval Dublin were typically of woven hurdle panels and these would have required vast amounts of straight, narrow rods for their construction. Indeed it has been estimated that over the life-span of these houses (10-15 years) these walls would have been renewed several times (Wallace, 1988, 147). This would have required huge amounts of underwood, a fact that itself demands systematic coppicing rather than exploitation of areas of ordinary scrub. Such underwood could have been valued in areas of land, indirectly related to the labour required to crop it. As late as 1340 AD the Holy Trinity Priory in Dublin paid two men a shilling a day to crop underwood in the woods of CIonken only five milesThe use of trees and woodland in early medieval Ireland by Aidan O’Sullivan (1993)
south of Dublin (O’Neill, 1987, 100; Mills, 1891, 64).
He goes on to give several examples of sites where hazel is a clear favourite for upright stakes in building, and to say that tree ring aging puts these largely averaging out between 5 and 8 years. This indicates that hazel underwood was being cropped through a “formal and complex system of woodland management”. The Back Lane excavation, he says, confirms that the vast amount of underwood required by the settlement of early medieval Dublin was being supplied from areas
of coppiced woodland.
We’re all familiar with oaks providing timbers for great buildings like Notre Dame but I kind of love that the backbone of an average person’s home in Dublin city was hazel, continuing to shelter people as they forged their path through history.
In January or early February (it gets earlier these days with climate change) the trees present the world with pale yellow or straw coloured streamers, the first catkins. The catkins were formed the previous year and released early in the year while the taller trees are still sleeping. They are the male ‘flower’, cheerfully letting it all hang out. Pollen is released like dust on warm days, allowing breezes to drift their potency amoung the absolutely tiny but lovely dark pink female “flowers” appearing on the same branches but lower down. These are so tiny I came rather late to knowing they even exist at all, and it is these that set a crop of hazelnuts.
These are wind pollinated trees, they produce hazelnuts without insect intervention, and they sucker too, so they’ve long been associated with fertility and abundance, even before we get to the hazel nut itself. They are heralds of spring, they oblige us with early evidence that the dark winter is passing. Following fast in the wake of the catkins come the leaves, hazel leaves are usually the earliest native ones to appear in spring and very often the last to fall in autumn, even lasting well into a mild winter. These leaves were a useful addition to cattle fodder, and there was a belief that they could increase a cow’s milk yield.
“Throughout Ireland, fruit and nut remains are a striking feature of urban medieval deposits. Indeed, colleagues in Britain dealing with medieval material have highlighted the discovery of a veritable “fruit salad” of remains at many sites (Greig 1981), underlining the wide variety of fruits recorded. Hazelnut shells are also a common find, with other nut types generally being rarer in the archaeological record.”http://ancientfoodandfarming.blogspot.com/2013_09_01_archive.html
“A measure of oaten grain, or a third of black-red sloes, or of the acorns of the brown oak, or of the nuts of the fair hazel hedge, was got without stiff bargaining at Armagh for one penny” (O’Donovan, 1856, 823) or so the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1031 tell us.
Hazelnuts were an important element in the early Irish diet, they could be stored readily, are edible raw or roasted, and can be ground into paste or mixed with flour. Hazelnuts are by weight more than 60% fat (predominantly oleic acid), 15% protein, and 17% carbohydrate, and contain many other essential vitamins and minerals – in other words a good source of protein, rich in unsaturated fat and they grow plentifully, though in our modern world this is not so apparent to us anymore. Fergus Kelly in Trees in early Ireland tells us that “later legal commentary describes the hazel as in briugu feda “the hospitaller (food-provider) of the wood”.” eDil translates briugu as a landowner, hospitaller, in later sources also farmer, yeoman. In legal texts ..a rich landowner with a public function of dispensing unlimited hospitality to all persons in his hostel, which must be in an accessible position. For this he is given the same honour-price as the king of a túath ….. He must further be hundredful and must have roads to his house.
I have managed to lose my citation that hazel shells were discovered at 87% of neolithic sites in Ireland, I do know that Meriel McClatchie was involved and I will try to track it down tomorrow but I think it *May* have been The potential role of humans in structuring the wooded landscapes of Mesolithic Ireland: A review of data and discussion of approaches in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany (Warren, Davis, McClatchie and Sands) but in Early medieval agriculture,livestock and cereal production in Ireland, AD 400–1100 (McCormick, Kerr, McClatchie, O’Sullivan) the number is Medieval times was about 40% – still clearly important.
The idea of a “Nut Age” is a rethinking of the way we think about the evolution of man and what drove it. Instead of just stone, bronze and iron the arguement is that we need to think about more than the technological drivers of change. Archaeobotanists have long argued that hazelnut is an important food source and social driver. There are several studies seeking now to link changes in hazel availability, processing and so on (eg The Wild Bunch: Exploitation of the Hazel in Prehistoric Ireland (McComb and Simpson) and the transition to Neolithic subsistence (eg Plant subsistence and environment at the Mesolithic site Tågerup, southern Sweden: new insights on the “Nut Age” (Regnell)
All of this, I think, is by itself impressive enough to earn our scrubby little underwood tree second place on the Chieftains of the forest list. But wait, she said in her best cheesey infomercial voice, there’s more! Hazelnuts came to be equated with magic, wisdom and inspiration. If you think about it a well sheltered community with warm houses and full bellies are far more likely to turn their thoughts to such things, and nuts are a famous brain food.
Every Irish school child learns about Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the salmon of knowledge, the boy who was tasked to cook a salmon for his master, burned his thumb and acquired all the knowledge and could learn the solution to every problem by sucking his thumb where he had been blistered. What maybe fewer people know is that the salmon became the conduit of that great knowledge because it had feasted on the flowers, leaves and nuts that grew, broke off and fell in the same hour from nine hazels around the Well of Segais (well in the Shannon version anyway) . Each time one of the five salmon in the well ate a hazelnut a red spot would appear on its skin. In true Irish manner storytellers don’t believe in wasting a good trick in their yarns, so there are at least two wells surrounded by wisdom or inspiration inducing hazels, Connla’s and the well of Segais. I’m quite sure someone would be highly offended that I talk about the Shannon when their story is about the Boyne and still another *knows* the salmon of knowledge was caught in Kidare and so on. I won’t pretend to have a definitive take, there isn’t one, I’m just letting the things I discover research wise carry me through this like a hazel bobbing along on whatever river you like. Speaking of, one aspect I really adore is that each time a hazel fell into the water a the trail of bubbles in its wake captured inspiration, and these bubbles were carries out in the water to the learned and to the poets. (For more details I started with the Metrical Dindshenchus Sinann I and II, and Niall Mac Coitir’s Ireland’s Trees and ended up in about 50 different websites some telling me slightly different but comfortably similar things.)
The Fianna, Fionn’s warriors, didn’t let just anyone join, there were nine tests that had to be passed, the third of which was that the applicant “must be placed in a hole in the ground (toll talman), with his shield and a staff of hazel the length of his arm. Nine warriors, with their nine javelins and with nine ridges between them and him, were then to cast at him at the same time, and if they wounded him he was not received into the Fiann” . Fionn’s shield was of hazel and I’ve only today learned more about it, and it’s a little bit awesome. I want to see if I can find an original source, but for now I’m working from the story told here from MacNeill, Duanaire Finn: The Book of the Lays of Finn, 1908, (pp134-139). Fionn’s shield was apparently created from the “Dripping Ancient Hazel”. After the battle of Magh Tuireadh, the defeated Balor (he of the Evil Eye who very much featured in my very excited child’s imagination) told Lugh that he (Lugh) would receive his blessing if his severed head was placed on Lugh’s. For reasons that will probably attest to Lugh’s good sense he declined and instead stuck Balor’s head in the fork of a hazel tree.
A poisonous milk drips down out of that tree of strong hardness: through the drip of the bane of no slight stress, the tree splits right in two. For the space of fifty full years the hazel remained unfelled, but ever bore a cause of tears, being an abode of vultures and ravens.
“Manannán of the Round Eye went to the wilderness of the White-hazel Mountain, where he saw a leafless tree among the trees that vied in beauty.” he had it dug out and even though poisonous vapors killed nine of the workmen as they did so, killed another 9 of Manannán’s people and blinded a third nine he persisted and had it crafted into a shield. “Never was shaped tree on ground that caused more cries of uchán.” “Two virtues of the virtues of the shield, to be untouched in battle or in fray — few were the shields its equal — before it ’twas a rush of utter rout.”
Where there is war there must be love and in Ireland’s Trees Mac Coitir also pointed to a motif in Irish storytelling where the heart is often compared to a hazelnut, particularly when it breaks. (pg79). This reminded me of a poem I came across ages back, which is at least more optimistic:
“Two hazel nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweetheart’s name.
This, with the loudest bounce me sore amazed,
That, with a flame of brightest colour blazed.
As blazed the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For ’twas thy nut that did so brightly glow.”
– Thomas Gray (1716-1761)
Wanting to explore the idea of love and the hazel some more I came across a paper Marie de France’s “Chievrefoil”, Hazel Rods, and the Ogam Letters “Coll” and “Uillenn” by William Sayers in Arthuriana Vol. 14, No. 2 (SUMMER 2004), pp. 3-16 (14 pages) Marie de France (12th century) has popped up in a few different places for me recently in several different contexts and since this is International Women’s Day I take it as a sign I should give her a plug here too. She is well worth more interest from me and from others, I will definitely be coming back to her again. For now I’ll just bring forward the idea of hazel being used as a medium for writing (Sayers suggests ogham is intended) and signaling that enables great love (Tristan and Isuelt).
“After pining away for a year, Tristan hears news that Mark is planning a great feast for Pentecost at Tintagel, and Iseult will be present. On the day the king’s court sets out, Tristan takes to the woods, where he cuts a hazel branch into an appropriate signal and carves his name into it. Marie says Iseult will be on the lookout for such a sign, since Tristan has contacted her in a similar manner in the past. Immediately recognizing the branch as Tristan’s, Iseult asks her party to stop and rest, and goes out in the woods with only her faithful servant Brangaine. The lovers spend their time together, and Iseult tells Tristan how he can win back his uncle’s favor. When it comes time to leave, the lovers weep, and Tristan returns to Wales to wait for his uncle’s word.” Their love is then compared to that of the hazel and the honeysuckle, which, once combined, one cannot survive without the other. But I’ll go back into that when it comes time for honeysuckle.
So.. survival, shelter, benevolence, fertility, war but only because of a taint and love which all then become wisdom, inspiration and poetry. I have my reservations about Yeats but I will admit that I have been fond of The Song of Wandering Aengus (and the sung version by Christy Moore in particular) and his walk in the hazel wood to calm the fire in his head. It seems to me that on a journey through our history all mankind has sought to find itself on just such a wood.