No matter where you go in the world this time of year, the climate is lovely, moderated from the extremes. Even the arctic tundra is awakening and returning to life. Spring cleaning is done and garden beds are being prepped for the growing season in northern climes. Everywhere in West Michigan gardening is on the mind and oak trees are in the nose – or, at least their DNA is! Every year, I ask the same question: Why do I have to be allergic to oak pollen? What good does it do me or the oak tree? From an evolutionary standpoint, absolutely nothing. But it’s the preservation and propagation of this precious DNA that has spawned an international campaign to save the ancient forests of Ireland.
As the second installment in a series of posts on trees sacred to the Celtic peoples, we’ll consider the oak tree this time and the modern-day initiatives of Ireland’s Woodland League. Read the first post – on the ash tree – here.
One curious thing about the oak is that it is struck by lightning more often than any other species. Therefore, the Celts associated it with their thunder god Taranis. The oak was a common emblem of kings, because of its strength, and a symbol of a king’s hospitality and protection. It also served as a boundary marker and a gathering place for the tribe (Gifford, 2001, p. 67). It can be found in placenames such as Derry (dairbhre), meaning “oak plantation,” and Durrow (dairmag), “plain of the oaks.”
Oaks were valued not only for their dependable wood but also for their acorns, an important food supply for pigs. Pannage was the practice of measuring land according to the number of swine its oakwoods could feed (Gifford, 2001, p. 64).
The Irish law tracts mention three types of fencing, one of which was the dairime, which may have been a line of oak trees plashed. In this technique, the trees weren’t cut all the way through, so the branches may have lived and grown for a while, adding to the barrier (Mitchell & Ryan, 1997, p. 283).
The huge live oak in Raheen, near Scarriff, in County Clare was planted – legend has it – by the high king Brian Boru a thousand years ago. The tree is still producing acorns and thus valuable offspring. Trees such as this ancient specimen are essential for the recovery of Ireland’s native woodland. “Having been in the one place for 1,000 years, they have remarkable DNA, adapted to this biozone. Each native tree has developed unique relationships with insects, mammals, plants and fungi,” says Andrew St. Ledger of the Woodland League. “The authentic landscape of Ireland is western Atlantic temperate rainforest, dominated by oak….Our hills are covered with exotic confers that basically acidify the soil, don’t provide much of a haven for wildlife, and deny Irish people their cultural heritage….We are a forest people without a forest.” Today only about ten percent of Ireland is covered in forest and less than one present is primeval (Walsh, 2014). The Woodland League hopes to turn this around [see link below].
One of the rough meanings of Guoidel – the Old Welsh term for the Irish people, the Gaels (the modern Welsh word is Gwyddel) – is “forest people,” according to John T. Koch in his Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Guoidel apparently shares Proto-Indo-European linguistic ties with the Irish word Fianna, the ancient warbands who often lived in the woods. Interesting.
As for me, I’m still picking last year’s oak leaves out of the lavender beds. And since I can’t breathe now, I think I’ll admire Michigan’s native oaks from behind closed doors and closed windows!
Gifford, J. (2001). The wisdom of trees: mysteries, magic, and medicine. New York: Sterling.
Mitchell, F. & Ryan, M. (1997). Reading the Irish landscape. Dublin: TownHouse.