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: