The Magical Holly Tree



Back at the summer solstice, you may not have noticed it, but the King of the Oaks did battle with the Holly King, and lost. But don’t despair. On the Winter Solstice they’ll do battle again, and this time the Oak King will regain his rule. This, according to Irish legend, is why the seasons change.

The holly tree is a native evergreen that stands out at this time of year among leafless hedges and woods, growing from tumbling stone walls, flashing bright, shiny, red berries, and waxy dark green leaves. Those ‘berries’ are actually called ‘droops’ and contain multiple seeds. Only the female holly trees produce the red fruits. The waxy leaves hold water which helps them stay green throughout winter. And each leaf stays on the tree from between five and eight years. Though not a big tree, it’s rugged enough to withstand winter frosts and summer droughts.

Ancient Brehon laws protected trees according to their particular value and utility. The holly tree, extremely valuable, was considered one of only five ‘Nobles of the Wood.’ It was believed to protect against lightning strikes, bring good luck, and enhance dreams.

It was used specifically in the shafts of chariots, but apart from its value to people, it’s great for birds and wildlife, and the tightly packed boughs give shelter to song birds.

In Ireland, it has always been considered a cheerful tree, joyfully flourishing even on harsh, barren land, and when the natural world has gone quiet in winter. To the ancient druids it was esteemed as a symbol of continued life and hope in the heart of winter.

The druids also chose holy for protection from bad spirits and esteemed it as a symbol for continued life and hope in the heart of winter.

So while we’re waiting for the Oak King to prevail and bring summer once more, it’s a good idea to appreciate the hope and mysteries hidden in the red and green Holly Tree.

Swan Totems



photo by Fiona Claire
The term Druid comes from the words ‘oak’ and ‘door’—with the symbol of the door being central in Druidic teaching. Like other shamanic paths, the symbolic door offers a way to enter into a different reality. Which is why I chose the main image for this website.

Shamanic teachings in cultures around the globe usually involve totems. A totem is an animal, bird or insect with whom you develop a special bond, sensing them in your consciousness via meditation, dreams, and physical encounters.

Perhaps because I live near a large body of water, the totem animals I encounter are often water fowl—swans, ducks, geese—and less often, otters, foxes and hares.

In Druidry, animals, including birds and insects, can be allies, guides and teachers. They enter our awareness to help us discover a path to personal growth. That’s why, when I encounter one of these creatures in my walks through the countryside, I’m always delighted. It’s an occasion for pause, reflection, and gratitude. Usually, I receive a meaningful message from these encounters.

Lately, I’ve encountered a lot of swans, either on my walks by the lake or flying in formation. In Ireland, the swans are mute, but their powerful wings vibrate with a whooping sound that can be heard for miles. Swans are totems of love and beauty, and they are particularly auspicious symbols for writers. Bards, the story-tellers of Celtic tribes, wore ceremonial cloaks made of swan’s skin and feathers. Perhaps most importantly, swans represent an inner call from the soul.
photo by Steve Chilton
Last week, as I sat outside compiling a list of agents to query with my novel (which follows a legend that inspired Swan Lake), a flock of ten swans flew past my house toward the lake. I jumped up and waved at them, like an idiot, sending them silent well-wishes.

It never ceases to amaze me, the gifts natures chooses to give!

Daughters of the Night Sky

Daughters of the Night Sky is Aimie Runyan's fourth novel. It's a tale of wartime valor about a group of Russian female pilots (and one in particular) who fought the Nazis during WWII. Here, Aimie tells us about the birth of this facsinating story.

F: When/How did you find out about these pilots? What inspired you to write about them?

A: I found these women by happy accident. I was hunting to shift away from the 17th century as my focus of research, and a lot of my critique partners and colleagues knew I was on the quest for the Next Big Idea as I finished up edits on my second book, Duty to the Crown. There was an article circulating on Facebook commemorating these women (I believe the last of them may have passed away, which sparked the post.) I had multiple friends send it to me with notes saying “this is what you do! Write this book!!!” and so I filed it away until it was time to start up the next project. When I was discussing the options with my agent, it was the idea that really stuck with us.

F: Did you travel to do research? If so, where did you go? If not, how did you research this story?

A: I got to go to Seattle to the Flying Heritage Collection to see an actual Polikarpov PO-2 which is the plane the women flew in combat. These machines were built in the late 20s and made from wood and linen. Open cockpit. Just about as sophisticated a machine as your average lawnmower. But they were flying at hundreds of meters up in the air in sub-zero temperatures. I wouldn’t trust my lawnmower with that job. It was fabulous to see the plane in person and to get a sense of its history. Sadly, it wasn’t flying that day, so I found a local pilot who owns a WWII era open cockpit biplane—somewhat fancier than the Polikarpov, but not much—and paid for a joyride. It was one of the highlights of my research career. Apart from that, my research was very traditional. Lots of library texts, Youtube videos, Google Maps, and beating my head against a wall. I DID have the chance to spend some time in Alaska several years ago, and used that as the basis for my descriptions of the Russian countryside. I’ve been told by people in the know, that it was a very good analogy.
F: I love the cover image. Did you have any part in choosing that?

A: A bit. Because the cover is pieced together from bits of various photographs, I got to weigh in on the model herself, the uniform, the planes, the background, the fonts, etc. We tweaked her hair, changed the position of the planes, and things of that sort. It was fantastic to feel like I was part of the process, though the cover designer and the good folks at Lake Union are far better at design than I am! I think the end result is spectacular, if I do say so myself.

F: What’s a typical day like for you? Is it easy or a challenge to make time for writing?

A: I am the mother of two small children, so I’m not sure if any day really qualifies as “typical”. Right now I get to write for about 6 hours Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, with a little smattering of time on Tuesdays. That includes drafting new projects, editing, and promotion. I’d love to have 8-9 hours 5 days a week to write, but what I have is pretty great. Next school year I’ll get Tuesdays and Fridays back, though I’ll get probably more like 5.5 hours a day, but the consecutive writing days will be wonderful for momentum. The secret is to be focused on what I’m doing when I’m working on it. It’s easy to waste a lot of time wishing I was writing when I’m doing the dishes or worrying about the kids when I’m writing, but if I am present where i am, all those things get more attention in the long run.

F: Are you working on another project now? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?

A: Yes! I am finishing up the first draft of another historical, GIRLS ON THE LINE. It has to do with the women who were telephone operators in France during the first world war, and it has been such a joy to write. I can’t wait for you all to meet Ruby!!!
If you'd like to know more about Aimie, check out her website, here: http://www.aimiekrunyan.com/

Creatures of the Night and NaNoWriMo

They creep out of the shadows at twilight, looking to eat living creatures. Little grunting noises of pleasure escape them as their sharp teeth sink into soft, slimy flesh.

They’re adorable little creatures, and I’m grateful for their presence. But as National Novel Writing Month begins, the cute little Hedgehogs that have been devouring the slugs and snails in my garden on summer nights, will now go into hibernation.
All autumn, these little balls of prickly fur have been feasting on as much grub as they can gobble—beetles, worms, roly-polies, maybe a fallen blackberry or two—before their long winter nap. During that deep sleep, their heart rate will slow, their body temperature lowers, and by March when they wake up, they’ll have lost twenty to forty percent of their body weight.

Before the winter wind and rain comes, they’re scurrying along hedgerows, gathering leaves and moss to insulate their nests. Sometimes I leave lint from the dryer under the hedgerow for them. Unlike bird nests, which are built in the spring to house eggs and babies, a hedgehog’s nest is a cozy, solitary winter home.

When they wake up, in spring, the hedgehogs will be ravenous for my garden slugs again. They’ll roam far and wide, sleeping around in every sense of the word, so they can make baby hedgehogs. They have a happy-go-lucky nature, and you have to admire their approach to life. When faced with a threat, they simply roll up into a ball.

However, hedgehogs are not native to Ireland. It’s believed they were brought into this country from England or Wales in the 13th century, probably by monks for their massive, enclosed gardens. Monasteries had kitchen gardens and cloister gardens which had to grow enough food to feed a lot of people. Since hedgehogs can eat copious quantities of plant-eating bugs, they would have been most welcome additions to monastic life.

I think of myself as a bit like a hedgehog during November. The tour industry grinds to a near-halt, and I snuggle up inside, hibernating with a new manuscript. Now, if only I could manage to shed twenty percent of my body weight at the same time . . .

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: