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Monday, August 4, 2014

THE POPLAR WALKING STICK

judy's walking stick

This afternoon I sat on a step and whittled on a walking stick for my friend Judy. She and Lucas go walking when they're visiting, taking walking sticks found someplace. Nice sticks, old and dry. I made this stick for Judy, for her own personal walking stick that was made with her in mind. I cut the poplar sapling to length last year and let it dry after cutting off the limbs with clippers. Today was a sun shining day after a dry day following two wet days. Justin used the good weather to put a fresh coat of stain-sealer on the south side of the log house. I went to be there for company and for backup considering he was working on ladders. I sat on the step using my pocketknife, a Case XX stainless single blade with black handle. It's been my knife for over thirty-five years. It's called a "clod buster." Why? I don't know. I used to have pocket knives with two and three blades. I never used more than one. I like a knife with a single blade. I sat on the step to the deck shaving the top layer of the bark in careful slices. I wanted to leave the under layer of the bark, a light tan that would darken with oil. I whittled each place a branch came out from the trunk down to a smooth bump. Poplar wood is almost white. These places have a target in the center, the beginnings of rings, inside a white semi-circle, looking somewhat like an eye. I think of them as eyes to assist walking, watching for serpents in particular. A seeing eye walking stick. I don't like fancy walking sticks. Seems to me like a walking stick in these mountains is best like the way of life in the mountains, plain, uniquely itself. It's designs, the circles, I thought would make a good repeating pattern along the length of the stick showing the pattern of the branches growing out from the trunk. The pattern of its design is itself, its unique and solitary self.
the handle
 
I was of two minds about finishing the stick. I wanted to leave the rough marks left from slicing strips of bark onto my lap and the step between and around my feet. I wanted to sand it too, make it smooth. I liked both ways of seeing it in my mind's eye, though preferred smooth. I chose to leave the upper foot of the stick, the part the hand holds, semi-rough to let the beauty of the shaving lines have their place. Instead of being a length of it like a handle grip, I made the end of it rough and smoothed it slightly down the part I think of as the handle, fading into smooth the rest of the stick's length. It is forty-six inches, two inches shy of four feet. A walking stick really doesn't need a crook like a cane. A crook becomes an obstacle to deal with using it for a walking stick. A cane is more for keeping balance and favoring a leg. A walking stick is for moving ahead, sometimes an assist uphill or downhill when a third foot would help. The stick is smooth from one end to the other with soft bumps for the eyes, no sharp edges to snag a finger. The skin that is the under layer of the bark has intricate patterns of vertical flow lines similar to the lines on the outer bark. The lower three feet are a soft light brown and smooth as a woman's leg in panty-hose. The tung oil is bringing out the honey brown of this layer of bark I'll call the skin. The end of the stick on top is whittled into a smooth hump and sanded even smoother. Three rings for the heart of the tree and the white wood around them makes another eye, an inch in diameter. Poplar is a deceptively light weight wood. The stick has a few of my mistakes on it, places I cut too deep and exposed the white wood. No problem. It's the accidental element in the design, the human element that says a machine did not make this stick out of lumber. I want its design to be the flow lines of its life. I thought for a short time about carving a ring around it to designate handle. It was too conscious an interruption from outside the stick. I didn't want any of its design to be made by my mind. I thought about stripping a band down to the white around it in places where I slipped and exposed the white. No. Mind again. Let a few unintended nicks make their own design.
 
the human touch
 
I want the only part that is of the human mind to be the stick itself. It did not cut itself to this length or whittle itself. A walking stick is a human thing, a product of the human mind. As a walking stick, I hoped it could be its own design. A poplar is a beautiful tree. A pair of tulip poplar trees were in full flower the first time I saw this house toward making the decision to pick up and go to the mountains and start my new life working a farm in the place where all ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart (WB Yeats). Thoreau's Walden was one of the first books I read upon moving in during winter. Thoreau was instrumental earlier in my life by way of civil disobedience learned toward dealing with the madman at home. My first lesson in the Tao; resistance by way of nonresistance. I wanted to face solitude, learn to handle it. Comfort with solitude took awhile taking root. The tulip poplar flowers struck me at the time an affirming sign. Poplar leaves turn yellow in the fall. They will be all yellow and the leaves drop, one at a time, until the tree has a sprinkling of leaves like stars, and they hold the look for quite awhile. Not far from here on the road to Whitehead, a stand of poplars on a ridge in the near distance makes a sight a photograph only diminishes in the fall when the leaves are gone and these poplars sparkle with random yellow leaves like stars. I know a place in the woods where the ground is so nearly straight up and down, rock for the ground covered with layers of decayed leaves, very difficult to walk on. Need a fifty foot rope to walk in that place. It has the biggest poplars I've seen. They're giants that grow straight up, huge trunks. In the 1920s or 30s, lumber companies came through these mountains buying all the timber, causing erosion problems that washed away sides of mountains. Evidently, they couldn't reach these trees. Yes, I'm a tree hugger. I hugged one of them, honored them for being the elders of the Air Bellows trees.

poplar bark

The woods on the mountain are all new since the mountains were stripped of their trees and the owners of the land made a little bit of money to help paying for a new house, and new fields cleared to plant oats and corn on. I think of the forest here virgin forest. The trees and growth in the woods all started growing less than a hundred years ago. Some less long ago, having been corn fields for cornbread and oats and hay for the horses. What's left of hay fields has largely gone to Christmas trees, purveyors of cancer to residents of NW North Carolina. It's ok. They pay a lot of taxes, the county budget couldn't make it without them. I was thinking today while whittling on Judy's walking stick of all the farms that were on this mountain, big farms that raised food for work horses and milk cows, chickens, family to live on through the course of a year. This is where making liquor came in. Liquor making was the only way a farmer had to make some money. It worked pretty well until it worked too well and the liquor-making corporations lobbied laws to prohibit a man from making liquor on his own land. A really good movie was made about that time not far from here around Stuart, Virginia, across the state line from Mt Airy, NC. It starred Val Kilmer and a lot of local people from the area. In scenes where a lot of men came together to stand up against the G-man, I saw local faces galore. I felt at home among them. It was especially refreshing to see mountain people portrayed accurately by way of film, even sympathetically as something besides toothless. Lawless is its title. The story was written by the son of the man the story follows, the film made from his book. The history of these hills is in Judy's walking stick that grew out of the ground of its own accord within ten feet of the house. I've put one coat of tung oil on it with bare hands. The stick soaked the oil up immediately. I'll put another coat on it later, and one a day for several days until I feel like it has done what I want it to do, preserve it as a walking stick and bring out its inner beauty, the beauty of its unique self.  

 
stick from the ground up
 
 
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