Nobles of the Wood


 
It’s autumn, and trees and hedges up and down Ireland are laden with fruits and nuts.

Hazel nuts are part of the wild autumn abundance offering us a way to bond with the bounty of nature. The trees have grown here since the end of the last ice age, blanketing wild woodlands. Their nuts were nutritious, woody pellets of energy for Mesolithic gatherers. These days, they’re the favourite food for badgers, foxes, mice, squirrels, and I like ‘em too! Especially in chocolate. Hazel nuts contain more protein by weight than fish.

Hazel woods are magical places, with silvery bark and leaves that let through a lot of dancing sunlight. On a previous autumn, I went into a hazel wood to gather nuts with a friend. It was not far off a paved road, but very much a forgotten corner where nature was left to itself. A noisy brook cascaded nearby and prickly branches snagged my hair. My friend said that was the faeries teasing, and tempting me to stay in the wood.

Hazel trees have multiple thin rods which grow long and straight, used for ancient homes and wickerwork, they were also used as divining rods to find water or mineral veins or energy. Traditionally, Hazel has been regarded as the tree of knowledge in all Celtic countries, with legends and stories revolving around eating hazel nuts, the ultimate receptacles of wisdom.


In the old Brehon laws, the oldest European example of a sophisticated legal system, Hazel Trees were one of the Airig Fedo, or ‘Nobles of the Wood.’ Even though it’s small the Hazel was valued for all it gave, and thus was given great protection. In Old Ireland, you would be fined two milk cows (a hefty payment) if you damaged a hazel tree. If you cut one down, the punishment could be death.

I challenge everyone to venerate the old trees, as our ancestors did. Here’s a list of the mighty noble clan (in both English and Irish):

Daur – Oak
Coll – Hazel
Cuilenn – Holly
Ibar – Yew
Uinnius – Ash
Ochtach – Scots Pine
Aball – Wild Apple

And while you're here, let the lovely 'Woodbrook' by Micheal O'Suilleabhean take you on a walk through the autumn wood:




Switzerland & Ireland Merge in The Falcon Strikes



My friend, Gabrielle Mathieu, makes her home in Switzerland, but not too long ago she visited me (and the west of Ireland) to research her latest novel, THE FALCON STRIKES. The story, set in Ireland in 1958, is part of a historical fantasy series. 


Traumatized by hallucinogenic voyages to the world of the dead, Peppa Mueller would like nothing more than to spend a quiet life together with the man she loves. But she doesn't trust herself--or her powerful falcon totem. So she hunts. 

Peppa’s search for weapons dealer Sylvia de Pena takes her from a terrifying encounter in Dublin’s finest hotel, to a wretched hovel on the outskirts of Galway, to a smoky pub that doubles as a secret meeting place for the IRA.

Will she be able to set things right? Or will she die trying?


Gabrielle loves traveling to new places. Here, she chats a bit about how her journeys have influenced her writing:

"I think of myself as a traveling bard, and so there’s a lot of motion in my series. My heroine Peppa has been described as always running away from something, or to something. Not for me, the claustrophobic stage of a family drama, coy mysteries set in damp British villages, or poignant literary novels about quiet suffering. There’s a roaming peripatetic quality to my writing, combined with a curiousity about how societies work—under what common agreements they thrive. And then of course there is my fascination with those excluded by the social contract, forced to seek validation elsewhere. In THE FALCON STRIKES that’s the character of orphaned chemistry nerd Peppa. Then there’s her falcon totem, a magical guardian that makes life even more challenging.

I returned to Europe myself seven years ago, starting over in a small town in Switzerland, after an absence of more than forty years. Our last home had been the chillin’ metropolis of Austin, Texas, an oasis of Mexican martinis and liberal politics in a red sea of Budweiser. I rediscovered old crushes at idiosyncratic coffee shops and lost new “best friends “as soon as the shine was off. I felt at once charismatic and inadequate, compelling and bewildered, weighed down with ennui and then, unreasonably excited.

Switzerland is a land of few and quiet dramas in comparison to the USA, which was certainly helpful for parking myself behind a desk most evenings and actually writing, as opposed to going out for chips and novel drinks someplace entertaining and colorful. As in most of Europe, the smaller towns are a mixture of older and newer neighborhoods. The old houses were built to last, and they still line the streets where I live, reminding me of the past days of this conservative society.


I wanted to somehow connect my heroine Peppa to an actual Swiss hero of science, pharmacologist Albert Hoffman, who just recently passed away, having lived to be over a hundred despite his experimentation with LSD. Albert, named Alex in my novel, is Peppa’s guide to the mysteries of the botanical poison that awakens her protective falcon totem.

What easier way to connect them, than to make Peppa Swiss, with an Irish mother. Once I hit on this contrivance, I was off to the alps of the Appenzell, searching for a quaint village to host the moonlight massacre that kicks off the first novel in the series, A FALCON FLIES ALONE. A walk along the beautiful promenade of the Rhine river in Basel helped me visualize Peppa’s comfortable childhood home, before her father’s ambition and guilt take them abroad to Boston and Harvard. A research visit to Munich helped solidify my gentlemanly villain’s sophisticated tastes. A professor of anthropology, Ludwig lives in a lemon-colored villa adorned by cherubs, where he eats entrails for dinner, and conducts sinister experiments in the cellar.

Having had so much fun traveling to research my first book, I decided to look further abroad for the setting of THE FALCON STRIKES. With a prematurely deceased Irish mother, the stage was set for the introduction of “the old wagon,” Peppa’s grumpy grandmother, who lives in a castle near Galway. Peppa travels to Ireland with the sole intention of stopping the sale of the botanical poison as a terrorist weapon. Irish politics quickly prove to be too complicated, and she takes refuge with her grandmother, at the fictional Brandford Castle, loosely based on Cong’s Ashford Castle. Fiona Claire took us sightseeing, and helped me brainstorm. I found myriad approaches to the castle, which would enable Peppa to sneak up on the paramilitaries who invade the castle. Galway’s bookstore had the perfect book “Galway City: Snapshots through Time”, which helped me visualize the boarding house and pubs where Peppa spends her time as she tries to infiltrate an IRA splinter group. A visit to Belfast completed the research; luckily, unlike Peppa, I didn’t have to travel on the Go Quickly, the German moped that she rides all the way back to Galway in her desperation to escape a sadistic Scottish detective. My setting was perfected; my grasp of history and various political factions is still evolving. I’ve posted some thoughts

The third book, THE FALCON SOARS, set in India, Nepal, and Tibet, will be published in 2018. Our unforgettable trip to Annapurna Base Camp is documented on my blog

Where to next?

Since my upcoming new epic fantasy series takes places on the continent of Heartland, in a country called Trea, I’ll have a real traveling challenge ahead. I’ll have to close my eyes, put on some downtempo electronica, and use my brain as the vehicle.

Cheaper, though more of a challenge to blog about.


TOO MANY CASTLES TO COUNT

Shortly after the turn of the century, I was working as an actor, risking my life in freeway traffic every day, and attempting to recover after the devastating end of a romance. I was more burned out than a cold campfire. To say that I looked forward to spending the entire summer in Ireland would be a profound understatement.

Before I left, a friend suggested I go see a ‘fabulous’ psychic. Though he knew nothing about me, the psychic was amazingly accurate. The first words out of his mouth were:

‘You’re going to travel across water to a place with lots of castles.'
It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud and squealing in his face, ‘Duh!’

In Ireland, castles are like hiccups. One pops up every few minutes when you’re driving across the countryside. Some have been painstakingly restored, but many are crumbling yet still beautiful ruins. Most are located on bodies of water, which makes them positively breath-taking. For a tour guide, there’s nothing more gratifying than hearing people gasp in awe when they round a corner and step up to these little pieces of the past. Unlike fairy tale castles, these are the genuine article, with most of the structures dating back to the 12th through 16th centuries. That means the castles were usually tower houses or keeps, built so that the people inside could be easily defended.
The renaissance period in Ireland was fraught with peril, and overrun by a bunch of angry white dudes greedy for land. The Normans swept across the country to the west, defeating the High Kings of Ireland; the War of the Roses created a wave of trouble beyond British shores; rebelling Anglo-Irish and Gaelic families wacked off heads and asked questions later; the Battle of Kinsale was a total nightmare; and then there was that whole Cromwellian load of crap. All this fighting meant that castles were a necessary practicality.

Consequently, a real castle doesn’t usually look like Cinderella’s Magic Kingdom digs at Disneyland. That structure is a hollow fa├žade (so Hollywood) based on the Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria. Neuschwanstein was built by wacky King Ludwig in the late 19th century when people no longer needed to live in castles for protection. To put it in perspective, Ludwig was more or less deposed for spending too much on his castle.
As a tour director and guide, I get lots of requests from travellers who want to see castles. My usual response is: If you come to Ireland and don’t see any castles, it means you had your eyes closed the whole time.

This coming summer, for Ireland Writer Tours, there are castles included in both the July and August tours. In addition to countless drive-byes, where ruins will be visible, and stories told, we’ll also be spending private time with specific famous castles. 
In July, there’s a magnificent structure dating as far back as the 12th century, complete with a moat and a Rapunzel tower. Though we’ll be touring the grounds, the interior is off limits (unless you want to be sneaky!) The second castle in July is a privately-owned 14th century tower house that is so haunted, a psychic medium used to travel from Scotland to teach classes there. We’ll be having dinner in the tower room and visiting the haunted bedrooms. Sometimes the toilets even flush themselves.
In August, in addition to the photo op castles and drive-byes, we have a special highlight. It will include a docent-guided afternoon in a 15th century castle tower house on the picturesque shore of Lough Leane. This tour is particularly appropriate for anyone writing or planning a project that takes place in a castle because there will be details about daily life in the castle, including everything from what people ate, where they slept, how and why they bathed infrequently, even the oddities involved with going to the loo. The docent also describes harrowing defence and battle practices, as well as architectural details and building methods.

My long-ago psychic-predicted-summer in Ireland was spent researching and writing a historical novel. And the psychic had been right—I did indeed spend a lot of time in and around castles, as I had on numerous trips to Ireland. But a nice surprise happened when I had to return to L.A. After spending three months immersing myself in the lives and tragedies of my Irish ancestors, my own life didn’t seem nearly so bad.

There's nothing quite as spiritually enlightening as travel, learning how someone else lived, and walking a few miles in their shoes.


The Coming of Alban Hefin



The Earth is hurdling toward Alban Hefin, the longest day of the year. Irish summers are poignantly beautiful in their brevity. They can also be as unpredictable and volatile as a hyena on crack. However, for the past two weeks the wild west of Eire has been blessed with magnificent sun and blue skies. Tonight, I took these photos on my twilight walk, at ten in the evening.
At this time of year, the sun doesn’t set until after 10pm and light lingers in the sky for hours after that. I’ve worked in the garden until late and been shocked to go inside and find that it’s after one in the morning. Yesterday, the daylight woke me at 3:45am. Over the next few weeks, as the moon grows bigger, it will rise in the east while the sun is still beaming in the western sky. And everywhere, animals and plants are celebrating all this light.
Alban Hefin is the old Druid name for the summer solstice. It means ‘The Light of the Shore’ and is symbolic of the shoreline between earth, water, and sky. The places where these three elements meet are considered to be ‘between the worlds.’ These are sacred places of great power. The shoreline of the largest lake in Ireland, where I live, positively throbs with energy, especially at this time of year. The trees are full of fat, green leaves, lush ferns whisper in the breeze, and delicate wild flowers in purple, blue, white, pink, red, and yellow grace the land like fashion accessories. If you stand in the quiet twilight, you can almost hear the Earth singing.
This year, Alban Hefin arrives on the 20th, and Druids in their white robes will be celebrating at Stonehenge as they have for millennia. But I’ve been celebrating the light for the last two weeks, and I’ll continue to celebrate for as long as this exquisite seasons lasts.