Last Spring (early April 2011), I found, along with Heather B. and Wandering Woman, a small Ironwood tree that had been toppled into a stream by erosion of the bank. This was in a wooded area about an hour from our homes, and since we didn’t have any means of harvesting any part of the tree right then, we vowed to return the next weekend, with offerings and proper tools, and gather a few branches. I’d been keeping my eye out for the chance to harvest an Ironwood staff for some time.
In the lore of Northern Europe there is a wilderness called Ironwood, about which it is said:
“A witch dwells to the east of Midgard, in the forest called Ironwood: in that wood dwell the troll-women, who are known as Ironwood-Women [járnviðjur]. The old witch bears many giants for sons, and all in the shape of wolves; and from this source are these wolves sprung. The saying runs thus: from this race shall come one that shall be mightiest of all, he that is named Moon-Hound [Mánagarmr]; he shall be filled with the flesh of all those men that die, and he shall swallow the moon.”
—Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning
I am not ashamed to say that the dire reputation of the mythic Ironwood is part of the reason I wanted a branch of the mortal tree so named.
There are a number of trees worldwide that bear the epithet Ironwood. In Europe it is the Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), and in eastern North American, the American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). I’ve always admired the way their wood cords like muscles under thin grey bark. The wood where I found the stream-toppled tree has a number scattered throughout the lowlands, among towering Cottonwoods and ancient, bone-white Sycamores.
According to the Wikipedia article on Hornbeam –
“Hornbeams yield a very hard timber, giving rise to the name ironwood. Dried heartwood billets are nearly white and are suitable for decorative use. For general carpentry, hornbeam is rarely used, partly due to the difficulty of working it. Its hardness has however lent it to use for carving boards, tool handles, hand-plane soles, coach wheels, piano actions and other situations where a very tough, hard wood is required, perhaps most interestingly as gear pegs in simple machines, including traditional windmills. It is sometimes coppiced to provide hardwood poles. It is also used in parquet flooring and for making chess pieces.”
In the week before our return to the woods, it rained nearly every day. When we returned, we were greeted with a swollen river, washed out trails, and damp lowlands which were quickly being covered in new, verdant growth that exalted in the torrential Spring rains. The stream likewise, was swollen and rushing between its banks. And the tree was gone.
We looked and looked, knowing that it couldn’t have just vanished. We found it a bit downstream, washed against the undercut bank, mostly covered in mud and sand, held down by a torrent of fast water.
My friends wisely decided to remain un-muddied, and stayed on the bank to pour beer onto the earth and into the silt-colored stream. I volunteered to be the one to cut the staves, and so knelt by the water to give my offerings: to the tree whose branches we were about to claim, to the Wights of the wood, to the stream itself.
Then into the knee deep water I strode, a cold, fast current washing against my skin and sucking, gravelly sand enveloping my feet. It seemed as if the Underworld was trying to claim the tree as its prize and I would have to win it from those forces if I could.
After scraping mud and sand away, and much work with my small handsaw, I was able to cut two branches free. As I handed them up to Wandering Woman and Heather B, I spoke words of triumph such as these:
“From grave-cold earth,
From Etin’s grasp,
From rushing stream
I wrench you, branch of Ironwood.
From wolf-maids I have won you,
Wood of Etin-Home –
To be a Stave of warding
And of Woe”.
So, I wrested the staves of Ironwood from the swollen stream, and claimed one as my own. Wandering Woman took the other. The base of my branch will end up being the top of the staff. I intend to use it as a warding tool, and for underworld or dangerous Journeying, should I have need to venture into the tangled, Troll-haunted parts of the Wood beyond the World.