The previous article in this series introduced the basic features of the Einolar Wood Elf culture. These elves are animistic–and potentially cannibalistic–individualists with a culture based on democratic consensus and reverence for the forests that shelter them and which they protect with a devout ferocity. This continuation of the series explores the most profound material accomplishment of the Einolar: their transformation over the millennia of a number of tree species into new and even magical forms that make an Einolar forest a true natural wonder.
For the Einolar, trees are more than just sacred. They are kin. In the case of the Pillar Trees, this may be literally true. All of these species of trees, and a few other plants as well, are the products of millennia of elven horticulture and not a small amount of Einolar Plantsmith magic. The trees reflect and inform the Einolar culture in a more profound way than any of their other material objects, and much of their culture, tradition and even survival depend upon these trees.
Design Note: If you’re wondering why the trees of the Einolar are a fitting subject for an extended article on elven culture, it’s a fair question. But I think the answer is clear when we consider the profound effects of available local resources, particularly mineral, animal and vegetable resources, on the cultures that depend on them. The argument of a number of anthropologists and historians (perhaps most convincingly by Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel) is that environmental factors are the most significant determiners of a culture’s development and even of its survival. I’m not entirely convinced by Diamond’s argument, and would point to several notable civilizations that rose to greatness despite a lack of favorable environmental conditions.
However, I do think that many of a culture’s most important and significant patterns and behaviors are set by the availability of resources or the lack thereof. Therefore, to understand a culture one has to also understand what it has to work with materially. For the Einolar, as with many real world human civilizations, the natural resources were also developed and refined through generations of selective breeding. How a culture chooses to shape the world around them, and even – or perhaps most particularly – the animals and plants they share their environment with reveals the core of that culture’s values and aspirations.
Pillar Trees. These massive trees share characteristics with several different more common varieties. They most closely resemble some kind of hybrid of oak and redwood, or perhaps even giant sequoia, but are even larger and more impressive. A pillar tree begins life as a small seed that resembles a cross between a thumb-sized pine cone and an acorn. The leaves of the pillar tree have three lobes and are vaguely spade shaped; they’re colored a deep, rich green that contrasts appealingly with the reddish bark of the trunk. Younger trees have numerous branches, but as the pillar tree grows older, most of the lower branches fall off and the most mature specimens often have no branches along the trunk but sport a large bulbous leafy canopy at the top. They grow as wide as houses, 40 or even 60 feet in diameter in the trunk, and can reach a height of five hundred feet, towering over all other trees in the woods. They also grow in circular groves that tend to eventually weld together around the perimeter, creating a solid wall made up of many different trees.
The bark of the pillar trees is fibrous and thick and very resistant to fire. Its spongy nature also makes it hard to chop into or saw through, making them difficult to log. The wood itself is very hard and dense at the base but becomes increasingly light and porous as the tree grows. It takes about a hundred years for a pillar tree to reach a hundred feet in height, and another two hundred to reach up to two hundred feet. The growth gets progressively slower. The five hundred foot great pillars are about a thousand years old, and they can live for at least two or three thousand years more. The Einolar have magic that can speed up this process, though they are mostly loath to use it. Some regions and soils, particularly those rich in bone-meal also contribute to rapid growth. For this and for spiritual reasons the elves often plant a young pillar tree over a burial site.
Secret Knowledge. Pillar trees actually require the body of an Einolar be planted with a seed in order for the sapling to sprout and cannot germinate without an Einolar corpse. The Einolar believe that the spirit of the elf with whom the sapling was planted is absorbed into the tree. Indeed, Einolar druids do seem to be able to commune with these trees and gain ancient knowledge from them. Einolar who leave their homeland, particularly those who have been dismissed, almost always carry a pillar tree seed upon their person in the hopes that, if they die far from home, they may at least be buried with a seed and hope to become a pillar tree. This has actually happened, more frequently that one might expect, and explains the occasional appearance of pillar trees outside of Einolar lands.
As the trees grow, the insides begin to hollow out and leave multiple internal chambers 15 to 25 feet across. These tend to form natural “rooms” inside the tree which can be easily carved and sculpted into living spaces and storage chambers. Many of the Einolar use these trees as massive living towers and build their homes inside them. Often the elves who make a home in such a tree are descendants of the Einolar who originally nourished it, and so the home is both dwelling and a living shrine.
A single mature pillar tree can contain a dozen levels or more within it. These are often connected with ladders or even spiral staircase carefully carved within the trunk and may even sport windowed openings where occasional holes in the outer trunk have formed. Inside, they can be quite lovely, composed of living polished wood carved and worn over hundreds of years to conform to the inhabitant’s aesthetic sense.
Careful carving of the interior wood does not harm the trees, and in fact Pillar Trees seem to thrive on the attention of those who live within them. In particular, Einolar dwelling inside a Pillar Tree are careful to regularly fertilize it with bone meal and mulch. In most pillar trees, a chamber also exists beneath the tree, among its cavernous roots. Einolar who live in such a Pillar Tree often use this area for storage, but will also regularly dig an additional deeper pit into which they can add fertilizing mulch and even dung.
The pillar trees are revered and scared to the Einolar, and they protect them as they would their own kin, which they believe them to be. Nevertheless, Einolar practicality also dictates that all living things are to be used, and so they see no contradiction in building their homes into the hollowed interiors of the trees or even in adding the occasional window or door, though they do try to use existing features of the tree whenever possible. They are also not afraid to use the wood of a pillar tree that has fallen from great age or been destroyed by fire or some other disaster, though they would never log a living pillar tree.
Blood Oaks. This creation of the Einolar is a source of some embarrassment and shame, though the blood oak is a robust and even useful tree. Lore holds that Einolar Plantsmiths, a particular Einolar druidic order that somewhat controversially holds that it is their duty to refine and develop trees and plants, created the first Blood Oaks in an attempt to fuse animal and vegetable life.
The result is a disturbing breed of oak with eerily animal characteristics and a somewhat sinister reputation.
Though rare in most regions, the blood oak grows throughout the Deepwood and is hearty enough to thrive in nearly any temperate forest where it is introduced. Its bark is almost black in color. Its leaves are a very dark green, and a bit glossy. In the fall they turn a deep, blood red. This oak grows well in the shade of even larger trees, in the bottoms of canyons, and in other dim places. In fact, the tree does best in dim light and the leaves seem to be able to make do with even the most minimal and diffuse sunlight.
The acorns from the trees are surprisingly large, ranging from fist- to even head-sized. They have thick, slightly flexible, almost hide-like casings instead of a normal shell, and within they are filled with a strange stringy and fibrous red material that looks and tastes a bit like raw meat. The “meat” of the acorn is quite nutritious, and even tasty to those of a carnivorous bent. The “meat” can also be easily dried and preserved. The goblins of the Deepwood prize both the oaks and their acorns. The elves dislike them, even though, or perhaps because, they are a rogue strain of their own creation.
However, the elves don’t have the heart to seek out their destruction and will even cook and eat the acorns when desperate. They do, however, happily log the trees when the need arises. The wood is a deep rich ebony and dense with odd veins of bluish purple throughout and rings of dark reddish and purple hue. Carved and polished, it is quite lovely if a bit sinister.
Secret Knowledge. Why do the Einolar have such animosity towards the blood oaks? The trees, when mature, can sometimes spontaneously animate and turn into treants. Unlike most treants, however, blood oak treants tend to have somewhat violent and antisocial tendencies. They take the Einolar sense of preservation of the woods perhaps a bit too far, and may even turn on the elves if they feel their particular patch of forest is being disturbed. They are also partially carnivorous, and seem to enjoy resting their roots in ground soaked with fresh blood. A particularly large and ferocious blood-oak treant by the name of Gorestump (having lost a limb in a fight with an Einolar ranger) haunts the deep interior of the Huntwood and is worshiped as a god by a primitive tribe of goblins.
Granary Oaks. One of the most prevalent and common trees bred by the Einolar, granary oaks look like a standard oak tree variant with broad deciduous leaves that turn a rich golden orange in the fall. In the spring, these leaves are very tender and crisp and can be eaten much like lettuce in a salad. In the fall, the dried leaves have a satisfying crunch and a slight pumpkiny flavor. They can be pressed and preserved for several months.
In fact, almost every part of this tree is edible in some fashion, and it serves as a sort of vegetable cornucopia for the Einolar. The interior of smaller branches can also be stripped of their outer bark and eaten as a crunchy treat, a bit like a celery stalk. The bark of the granary oak, meanwhile, can be boiled and dried to provide a kind of vegetable jerky, though this is definitely an acquired taste.
However, it is the acorns of the granary oak that are the most prized produce of the tree. Granary oak acorns are large, about the size of a clenched fist and filled with a fibrous nut meat that can be roasted and eaten plain, or dried and ground into a form of nutritious flour that can serve as the base of porridge or bread. This flour is the basis of much Einolar cuisine and is a staple in the diet of the otherwise largely carnivorous elves. For this reason, granary oaks flourish throughout established Einolar woods and have even spread to lands beyond the elven borders, though they are a bit less hardy and slower growing than most natural oak varieties and rarely compete with them without horticultural assistance.
Though the granary oak itself provides a host of nourishing foodstuff for the Einolar, the trees almost always are also accompanied by one or more of a variety of symbiotic plants which use the granary oak for support, and which the Einolar have developed to increase their ready supply of food.
Tree Vine Grapes. Of the symbiotic vines sometimes planted with granary oaks, these are perhaps the most common. The vines use the granary oaks as a trellis upon which they can grow. The vines that wreath such trees produce several different varieties of grapes that the Einolar harvest and use to make their potent Forest Wine. Though this beverage lacks the subtlety and delicacy of the exquisite Kuehlan vintages, or even some of the finer human varietals, it tends to produce stronger alcohol content and is often distilled into even more puissant liquor. This is most often done by a process of freezing the wine during the winter and removing the ice that forms, leaving behind a more alcoholic liquor often known as winter wine. Of course, the grapes are also eaten fresh off the vine or dried into raisins.
Violet Hibiscus. All hibiscus flowers are edible, but the Einolar have cultivated a form that grows more like a vine than a shrub, often encircling granary oaks. The hibiscus vines feature very large and particularly tasty flowers. They are a delicacy but also seem to provide vital nutrients that are sometimes lacking in the Einolar’s often meat-heavy diet. One particular species, known as the Parchment Flower, can also be dried and pressed to form a type of paper that the Einolar use for writing. While the Einalr may appear almost savage in their dedication to the natural world, they still love poetry and song as all elves do and take the time to record their works and experiences.
Melchyn Berries. A shrub is often planted at the base of granary oaks where its sharp and wickedly long thorns can protect the more fragile oaks and vines. However, the bush also produces a delicious fruit of its own that looks like a beep crimson blackberry, about the size of a thumb. The berries are surprisingly sweet and can be made into an excellent preserve, though one must risk the vicious thorns that protect them. The great slow bears, or Melchyn, that inhabit Einolar realms love these berries in particular and are untroubled by the thorns, which cannot pierce their thick hides.
Moonwood. The origins of the moonwood tree are a mystery, but the Treesmiths of the Einolar universally claim that it was discovered, not bred. Perishingly rare, the lovely and graceful silvery white moonwood grows incredibly slowly, taking centuries to mature, but it also appears to be essentially immortal. It does not produce seeds, but every century or so a small offshoot or sucker will grow from the base of a moonwood tree and may then be cut out and replanted. In this way, the moonwood trees have spread among the Einolar.
Moonwoods appears to be type of evergreen conifer, though they do not produce seeds of any kind. The leaves are very pale green flattened needles, looking much like those of a yew tree but even paler. Like the yew, the silvery wood of the tree has a remarkable elasticity. However, the moon tree’s heartwood has compression qualities superior to those of the yew, and its sapwood provides far better tension. It also is less knotty and twisted, making it easier to find portions of the tree that can be used for bowmaking.
Hence, it is from moonwood that the greatest of Einolar longbows are made. The trees are so rare and slow-growing that, in most Einolar communities, material for a few such bows can only be harvested each century. Fortunately, the wood is almost impervious to rot or decay, and a moonwood bow can last for a millennium if treated with care.
The Einolar guard their precious moonwood trees with a tenacity that borders on obsession, and few outsiders have ever seen one. The number of moonwood trees an Einolar community has is something of a status marker among tribes and also indicates the relative age of various communities.
Bonewood. Also known as Ivorywood, this is an incredibly dense hardwood that comes from a low, thick-trunked flowering tree. The tree itself has broad, deciduous leaves and grows to a height of no more than 20 or 30 feet. The bark of the tree is an unremarkable gray, but the wood itself is a rich and creamy white that, when polished, looks much like bone or ivory.
Bonewood is very dense and hard, easily sinking in water, and while it is difficult to work with, it is excellent for intricate carving. When polished, it takes on and maintains a beautiful luster. The Einolar Treesmiths long ago discovered an herbal alchemical process that temporarily softens bonewood when it is soaked in one admixture, and then shrinks the wood and increases its density and hardness when bathed in another. By using this process, Einolar armorers have developed a particular form of mail carved out of interlinking rings of bonewood, all crafted from a single piece of wood, yet without breaking the links. Carving such armor can take years, even with the softening process, but it produces a unique form of armor that is as light and supple as leather while providing protection akin to that of chain mail.