Sunday 18 November 2012

In praise of hazel

Hazel nuts
The most interesting thing I did this week was to look down a microscope at a four thousand year old fire. Incredibly, from the charcoal we dug up at the burnt mound excavation at Stronechrubie (for more of which see we can tell which species of tree they were burning. As well as birch, which we expected, we found hawthorn or apple, which we didn't, as well as lots of alder and hazel. I kept getting these two mixed up, until I learned that appropriately enough, through the microscope, the cellular structure of hazelwood has flame-like patterns of pores that lick up from each annual growth ring.

We also found hazel charcoal in the broch at Clachtoll, where it was used to create the floor of the first storey of the building. The woods here on the croft are still rich in hazel, and they have clearly been coppiced for centuries, presumably to make all kinds of useful things from hurdles to fishing creels. I used it to make the bender when I was writing The Last Bear and I needed to see how Brigid would have made hers. And I used it for the struts of the back-creel I use to bring bring seaweed up from the shore. Maybe it's because it's my Mum's name, but Hazel always seems a special tree to me.

I'm compiling an anthology of tree poems at the moment, and have been surprised at the paucity of poems about hazel, despite its plethora of uses, its importance as the symbol of wisdom in folklore, the sheer beauty of the tree - especially its lovely catkins in early spring - and of course its delicious nuts. G F Dutton wrote a brilliant one - but if you know any other good hazel poems please let me know.

At this time of year, I have a compulsion to gather hazel nuts. My pockets fill up every time I walk in the woods and I sow them in fish boxes then plant them out to grow on in the garden.

However, each year I complain that the nuts are mostly infertile. You can tell by putting them in water - those with kernels sink, the empty ones float. Each year, my pockets yield up about 2% sinkers to 98% floaters. This year I tried picking them direct from the trees and they have averaged more than 60% with kernels. So, I've had to revise my view that the trees are poor producers - I have far too many to grow and have been eating them - delicious! I realise the mice and voles must get to the fallen ones before I do, and they don't need to see if they sink in water to know if they're worth taking home or not - presumably a full hazelnut is, to a mouse, considerably heavier than an empty one.

Despite the low yield of the fallen nuts, two years ago I collected so many I now have lots of young hazels to plant out on the croft. Or maybe I'll replenish some of our more degraded woodlands elsewhere in Assynt. If we ever bring bears back, they'll no doubt appreciate them!

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