I wake after dozing and for a moment the raindrop crawling sideways across the window is a sleep-blurred nonsense. Below I see the crumpled mountain world of the Rockies folding into the Sierra Nevadas. I look over lakes of salt and brown jagged emptiness and imagine what it must have felt like to be mad or desperate enough to attempt passage through this land in a wagon, with your family. Those pilgrims surely would have never tried this land had they seen it from above. The Pacific coast must have seemed like the gardens of Eden after surviving that journey.
For me the journey is only thirteen hours from my door to the door of Jim Austin’s pick-up truck. Jim’s shop is a kind of blacksmith’s Eden. Every tool you can imagine is in a rack or a marked drawer and the tools are beautiful things in themselves, unadorned and natural.
I’m here to demonstrate at an event called a ‘hammerin’ (like a love-in but with hammers). It’s basically a symposium about material culture from the Germanic Iron age focusing on recreating knives and axes in the style of this period. Petr Florianek of the Czech Republic and Owen Bush of the UK soon arrive as well.
After spending our first day together preparing for the hammerin— testing projectors, making rivets for a seax I made for the event— we head to Jeff Pringle’s house where we are staying for the nights. Jeff welcomes us into his study. It is piled with bundles of Persian swords, nineteenth century books, pucks of crucible steel, Viking Age artifacts, along with Jeff’s beautiful blades made of steel from ore he collected and smelted himself. A unicorn skull looks down from above workbenches and polished tools which line the walls, and in one corner a rattlesnake peers from beneath a rock in a terrarium. Jeff tells us how the snake has an extra set of infrared detecting eyes between its fierce looking ordinary ones and its slitted nostrils.
The Hammerin begins and people from across the US come to Jim’s forge. We make our presentations, discussing mythology and material culture, carving and forging techniques and the study of original artifacts. It’s a wonderful thing to be surrounded by people with similar interests and eccentricities. The sense of friendship and trust in this gathering is inspiring and heartening. We learn from each other and help rekindle the fires that keep us exploring the place where our questing minds and the imagined past meet.
Now autumn spruce shadows stretch long across brown grass. The red rose leaves bob and touch the ground, the only leaves left in the crosshatch of bare branches, and I’m home in my own northern place, inspiration stoked for another winter. I unpack an ingot of handmade crucible steel that Jeff gave me, hopefully the blade for at least one sword, maybe two. I’m left with the courage of knowing I’m not alone, we are an international community of oddmen —Vikings and wizards and dwarves— peppered through the world like seasoning.
Thanks to John Page of Last Apocalypse Forge for some of the photos in this post and thank you to Arts NB for awarding me a travel grant to attend.by