The hazel nut in Celtic lore was equated with wisdom and poetic inspiration. A legend tells the tale of a nut bush that grew by a sacred pool. The bush shed its nuts into the pool. They were eaten by a family of salmon. The number of bright spots on the salmon, it is said, indicated the number of nuts it had eaten and the depth of the wisdom it had thereby absorbed.
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Long ago, in a far distant land, there grew a hazel nut bush by a limpid pool, and in the pool dwelt a family of salmon. Year after year the great old nut bush burst into leaf, grew baby nuts, at first green and tender, later fulsome and tasty. Some fell upon the ground, and others dropped into the pool, where they were eaten by the salmon. Then in the autumn the leaves fell away to the ground and the nut tree prepared for the frosts and the snows of winter. The salmon hibernated beneath the ice of the pool, living on the goodness of the nuts.
Thus, for centuries and from season to season the hazel bush by the sacred pool grew its fruit and shed it. The nuts appeared and were content, for they knew that their fate was either to fall upon the ground and be the progenitors of new hazel bushes, or to fall into the still dark waters of the pool and impart wisdom to the salmon. And thus it had been since the world began, which was about six thousand years, give or take.
In due course a particularly intelligent salmon, called Sal, thought to herself, "These nuts are really delicious. At the moment half of them fall upon the ground and we cannot reach them. The trick is to persuade the nut bush to spread its branches over the limpid water. Then we can get most of the nuts". She therefore thought to speak to the nut bush:
"Oh, nut bush", she said, "precious nut bush, you are the father and mother of all nuts. They are wise, but you must be wiser. The sun is so hot and bright in summer, and the snow and ice so cold in winter. Will you not grow over the water to shelter us, for we rely on you and your magical fruit?"
The nut bush was flattered. Nobody had ever complimented it in all its long history. So it agreed.
But when they saw that the nut bush, their parent, was spreading its clump of slender trunks over the waters, the catkins* and the nuts that appeared each year in the spring were alarmed.
"You don't understand. We are genetically programmed to reproduce our selves. We must fall upon the earth and sprout, and grow roots and multiply, or we cannot reach our full and meaningful potential as nuts." And great were the lamentations from both catkins and young nuts, nestling in their clusters.
But the salmon had an answer, for she was smarter than the nuts:
"For all those of you who fall into the pool I can promise you everlasting life. You have imparted us wisdom and truth, and we will truly reciprocate in thanksgiving and joy. Those who fall into the holy water of the limpid pool will sit on at the side of the great salmon-in-the-sky, talking about the wonders of the world, to the sound of trumpets.. Those left behind and those who fall upon the soil will be eaten by wolves and hogs and stick-fingered small boys."
The catkins and young nuts were more than ready to believe this great news. For nuts are nothing if not imbued with a sense of self-importance, and it is hard, when you are young, to believe that life is finite and that the candle is, so to speak, snuffed out without ceremony. Successive generations of nuts had been looking for something to give meaning to their short lives, living cheek by jowl with other nuts with only what the nut bush could offer to sustain them through the vicissitudes of wind and weather.
"Where is this salmon-in-the-sky you talk about? asked a courageous hazel nut.
"In the vast Spawning Grounds of Heaven," replied the salmon. "The Spawning Grounds are built of priceless diamonds, jewels and gold and are fifteen hundred miles square and fifteen hundred miles high. If you as a nut are cracked, you will be made whole. When you reach your destination you will recognize all your fellow nuts from the tree and will be able to develop meaningful relationships with them without suspicion, doubt, quarrels and mistrust. You will live in permanent ecstasy, and there will be neither sorrow nor pain."
An aggressive young nut asked: "Can I book now and be sure to go there?"
"The first shall be last," replied Sal, "and the last shall be first."
This appealed to the nuts, for they were community oriented and approved of polite things like saying "please" and "thank you" and enquiring after the old nuts left over from the previous season. And they would have approved of queuing in civilised fashion had they been able to.
"Will we be isolated in such a big place? asked another young nut anxiously.
Anyone can travel anywhere instantaneously, peer at you from the sky, and listen into your conversations. There is no privacy and no one is allowed to spend too much time on their own."
This also pleased the sociable nuts, who didn't like to be on their own and preferred the general consensus to the challenge of private thought.
And so it happened that most of the nuts clamoured to grow further over the surface of the pool, hoping and expecting that in due course, when the end-time came, they would be gathered up into the waters and transported to the Spawning Grounds of Heaven.
There were some sceptics and non-believers among the nuts, for in any group of living things there is diversity of opinion. But such was the power of the image created by Sal the Salmon, that this group of individualists and free thinkers was shunned by the true believers. Indeed, some cluster-mates pressed hard upon them and made them fall off the nut tree before their time. Nuts are social fruit that cling together. To be ostracized and discriminated against on account of one's beliefs is painful. It is hard not to conform if you are a nut.
Every year, with every new spring growth, Sal the Salmon made her pitch, and the nuts of the bush welcomed what she said. They grew over the water, secure in the knowledge that a better life awaited them in the autumn.
And every autumn the nuts duly fell into the pool with a glad, expectant cry, to eventually be excreted by Sal and her plump, well fed family.
The good news is that they do indeed have eternal life, as their remains, their casings and their involucres* rot and are re-cycled in the customary ways of Nature.
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* A catkin is a downy, hanging wind-pollinated flowering cluster, precursor of the nut and associated with hazel and willow.
*An involucre is a green husk which encloses about three quarters of the shell. The nut falls out of the involucre when ripe, about seven to eight months after pollination.