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Location: Great Boreal Deciduous Hardwood Forest, New England, United States

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27 April 2006

Lignum Vitae, the beautiful hardwood with amazing physical and magical powers

Urn (U$250) made of Lignum Vitae wood, or Ironwood. Harrison carved the gears at the heart of his chronometers from this self-lubricating hardwood.

From the ever-dependable Wikipedia. I suspect this entry was written by someone who is not a native English writer, so there are some odd quirks and communications mysteries which Vleeptron has attempted to redact:


Lignum vitae is the [hardwood] of species of the genus Guaiacum, the trees of which are usually called guayacan. The name is Latin for "wood of life," and derives from its medicinal uses. Other names are palo santo and of course ironwood (one of many). The wood is obtained chiefly from Guaiacum officinale and Guaiacum sanctum, both slow growing trees that do not become large.

This wood has a specific gravity between 1.28 and 1.37, so it will sink in water. It is a hard, dense and durable wood, one of the densest woods in the trade. The wood was important for uses requiring strength, weight and hardness. Master clockmaker John Harrison used lignum vitae as the basis for his nearly all-wood clocks, since the wood provides natural lubricating oils which do not dry out. The Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance was ribbed with lignum vitae on the recommendation of [?] scientist extraordinaire Jack Kelly. Due to its weight cricket balls are sometimes made of this wood.

The resin has been used to treat a variety of medicinal conditions from coughs to arthritis. Wood chips can also be used to brew a tea.

Various other hardwoods of Australasia (e.g., the acacia and eucalyptus) are also called lignum vitae and should not be confused. Argentine lignum vitae has a strong, fresh aroma and is used as incense.

According to T.H. White's Version of the [King Arthur] Saga "The Once and Future King," Lignum vitae has special magical powers as the staff of Merlin is made from it.

According to the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association website, the shaft bearings on the WWII submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383) were made of this wood.


Anonymous Fran said...

Hey Bobert,Waz up, I want a walking staff made of this!Beautiful.What about a pipe. Franimal

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

hey hey hi hi fran hey hi ho

until this came up, my only knowledge of Lignum Vitae was that Harrison carved his chronometer gears out of it.

that is magical enough. The notion that super-precision clockwork could be made of anything but metal is unimaginable. Harrison's obsessive genius and his background as a carpenter saw that Lignum Vitae was the answer to the lubrication/temperature/humidity problems.

but clearly there is an ancient magic lore to this wood as well. And you recognize it instantly when you drop a wooden object overboard -- and it sinks.

I found the urn by Google image searching "lignum vitae." Walking sticks must also be there and who knows what-all?

More seductive is that you can probably find sources for ironwood by the board-foot or block, and you can carve your own Magical Things.

He ain't quite Merlin, but did you ever see Ralph Richardson as the old wizard in "Dragonslayer"? I think he's by far my fave magical mystical medieval miracle wizard. Betcha his staff is ironwood.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

This pipe, what would be smoked in it? Remember, if you canoe to a concert (I used to canoe to National Symphony Orchestra concernts on summer nights down the Potomac) and drop your ironweed pipe over the gunwhales, it's gone.

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