I had on my mind a walking stick for my friend Lucas. I'd found two oak saplings I thought would make a good walking stick. Plan was to cut them in the fall and let them dry through winter and carve them into walking sticks next the summer. However resigned I was to the wait, it stayed in my mind that I did not want to wait that long. Id just finished a walking stick for his wife, Judy, and really wanted to have one for him too by next time they came to visit in a week or two. I had a dead mountain dogwood sapling maybe ten feet from the house. It died about three years ago. I've never cut it because I had not yet seen what to do with it. It was too nice a wood to cut it for kindling. Tuesday I was thinking about Lucas's walking stick, saw the dogwood sapling: there it is. I took the long-handled clippers and cut the branches and the top off, then measured it looking for 46 inches, the length I'd made Judy's stick. It feels to me a good length for a walking stick. Fired up to get started, I turned a five-gallon bucket over outside and sat on it with pocket knife for a few hours whittling away the bark, cleaning it down to the raw wood, smoothing the knots, making it smooth from one end to the other. At the handle end, I whittled a rounded dome that fits the palm of the hand comfortably. One doesn't use the palm of the hand on end of the stick while walking, but sometimes it comes in handy to grip the end for whatever reason. I wanted it to be smooth in the hand, wanted the stick smooth to the hand the whole length, tip to tip. A good smooth piece of wood is a sensory delight to the hand. After carving it, I ran my hands all over it looking for rough spots I'd missed. Took a square of sandpaper to it, smoothing the ridges left by the knife, smoothing it to the tip. I left the knife markings on the upper foot I call the handle to designate the handle visually, to keep in its design a step in its process and maybe to give it a better grip.
This picture shows the round dome carved for the hand and the handle section. I brought the stick in the house after sanding it, enjoying the result of the hours of sitting on the upside down bucket, which, by the way, makes a good stool. It also carries water. The stick has a couple of bends in it, good for spring. My thinking is that a perfectly straight stick, like a dowel, has no spring. A stick with spring in it doesn't jar the hand so much when it hits the ground. The vibration runs through the bones to the feet. A little bit of spring in the stick reduces the jarring factor. I just now conducted a scientific experiment. I happen to have a dowel five-eighths inch diameter, almost the same length as the walking stick. I held the dowel vertically a couple inches above a rock and dropped it to see its vibration. It bounced and vibrated like a banjo string. I did the same with the walking stick and it vibrated quite a lot more, even jumped and gave a nice ring. The lower foot of the stick's length is a good curve where much of the stick's spring is located. Up by the handle is a curve in the stick. I like about a sapling that its grain runs the length of the stick from one end to the other uninterrupted, the flow lines of its growth, of its life. I have such a respect for trees, I want the stick, the tree, to be itself with my carvings minimized to exposing the beauty in a given life form. I avoid the temptation to carve a ring around it or carve initials into it. I want my only influence to be exposing the beauty in the wood. The thing itself, a walking stick, is a creation of the human mind. I want my mind's influence be no more than that. Mind cut it to length, removed the bark and smoothed the knots branches grew from. It's smoothness to the touch from tip to tip is as far as I want to go putting mind influence into it. You might say this is a creation of my aesthetic sense. My ideal for an art creation is to make it look inevitable, like it grew that way, like it is itself without reference to my ego. I allow the stick its own shape with the least altering. It's how I am with the donkeys. I want to allow them to be themselves as much as possible without my "training" altering their minds.
Here is the stick where it touches the ground. The tip is a joint a branch grew from. It makes the tip solid and I feel like the tip end will never split. The tree took up, volunteered, close to where I keep a birdfeeder. The tree does not grow to be huge. It has clusters of flowers like a Queen Anne's lace. It's a dogwood, a mountain dogwood. Another name is pagoda dogwood. I prefer mountain dogwood. We don't have many pagodas around here. The flower of the regular dogwood is four petals. The mountain dogwood is a galaxy of flying bugs when it's in flower. I have sat on steps looking at one in flower that lived here about 25 years. Walking by I saw only a few bugs with big wings. Sitting by it for an extended period of time I saw more and more bugs until I saw the air inside the tree's branches was alive with tiny flying bugs feasting on the nectar in a hundred thousand flowers. They don't make good ornamental trees. This one I watched the bugs in was a volunteer that took up soon after I moved into the house. I let it grow until it died. I was cutting dead branches off every year. I didn't care. The cats loved climbing in it, walking out on the limbs like a tightrope. I didn't think of it ornamental. It took up with me of its own and I accepted it. I liked the tree itself, and these non-decorative characteristics I saw as the life of the tree. The tree the walking stick came from lived a short time, just long enough to give me a walking stick. A giving tree. It lived its short life to be Dr Lucas Carpenter's walking stick in his retirement. He's a doctor of literature, not medicine. He's the kind of professor whose classes I would have loved in 20th Century American poetry and American lit. I'd take as many of his classes as I could. We went to school together and explored writing together, bouncing ideas off each other, reporting discoveries, inspiring each other's interest in the art of writing and reading. Reading is important to both of us. We read very differently. He reads fast; I read slow. He reads a lot of contemporary lit criticism, reading I can enjoy for a paragraph and that's enough. It's valuable to his interest, though not to mine. And what's valuable to my interest is not to his. We don't often read the same books, though we educate our own interests by way of reading.
I like this bend in the stick that helps to designate "handle." I applied the first coat of tung oil after sanding lightly. The wood soaked the oil up so fast that the end of the stick I started at was dry to the touch by the time I'd oiled it to the other end. I pour a little oil into the palm of my hand and rub it into the wood with bare hands. A cloth soaks up too much oil to satisfy me. I want as close to all of it to go into the wood. I like oiling it by hand too. The first two coats were soaked up by the wood almost immediately. I applied the fourth coat just before sitting to this writing. The third coat took overnight to dry. This fourth coat will be dry by tomorrow. I'll let it dry a couple days before the fifth coat and a few days before the sixth, perhaps final coat. That little dogwood settled the question of how I could have a stick made for Lucas at the same time I give Judy her stick. I did not want to wait a year. Voila! The little dead dogwood I'd never cut down was just outside the door waiting to be found. I left the tree there, seeing it would make a good walking stick, but never had reason to make a walking stick and couldn't decide what length I wanted to cut it. I took my measuring tape and measured 46 inches from where I thought would make a good handle to the tip, a joint where another branch was growing. I wanted that knot on the tip end. The length was just right. I looked at it in admiration of what a good walking stick its shape will make, enough bends for spring, not so much bend to change the course of its relatively straight line. I was happy with the stick. I left the limbs on the ground. I leave the limbs that fall out of the trees on the ground where they fall. They give the birds perches and the squirrels little tunnels to run through playing chase. The ground has a slope and slides downwards over the years. The tree limbs fade into the ground giving it fiber to hold the downward erosion. It's my way of building up the topsoil. It's not much, just a matter of I want the small spot of land that is my domain to breathe with the life of the earth like in the woods. I love having tree frogs and katydids just outside the open door.
all photos tj worthington