Friday, 28 January 2011

A Brief History of the Stick

You can't beat the stick for longevity. (Actually, you can't beat a stick at all. Think about it; it's like biting your teeth, or seeing your eye.)

This is our first tool. Humans have been using it since before we were human. Even people without trees go somewhere else to get one. Picture an Inuit on the move. Guy has a stick, right?

To this day, the walking stick occupies a profound niche in our psychology. Some time ago I read a blog by a professional craftsman of walking sticks, which sadly I can't find to link to now. In it, he pointed out that an elderly person holding a walker or aluminium cane comes off as disabled, mentally and physically, while the same person with a natural wooden stick becomes an Elder, a curator of wisdom and judgement. He's right. Do the thought experiment yourself.

Amazing, eh?

Sanding is a
meditative process
It's true that wise old rustics are usually depicted this way in the media, but I'm going to go out on a limb (get it?) and suggest that this phenomenon is rooted in our genetic matrix. After hundreds of millennia, the Spiritual Stick of Authority runs deep in blood memory.

With apologies to the Freudians, I don't believe any of this is phallic. The thing simply made us, and, back when other animals had a competitive edge, even defined us. When was the last time you saw a lion, or a kangaroo, or even a chimpanzee, walk with a stick? (UPDATE! Turns out we ain't so cool after all. Read all about it here.) That's why the pursuit of a higher life, to this day, is signaled by taking one up.

Big leaf maple
sands very nicely
My stick is on both orders. That is, it's a symbol of my hermit practice, and a working tool. It's a limb in every sense of the word, an extension of my body; I feel unbalanced when I'm without it. It used to be a big leaf maple sapling, until I did some yard work at the zendo. As a wood it's light, strong, and takes a polish.

The hook on the end greatly extends the stick's usefulness. With it I pull down fruit, hang fudos, drag apart wads of stuff on the beach, and hang up the stick when at home or rest.

The blank was stripped and allowed to dry in a stable climate for several weeks, then trimmed and machine sanded with medium-grit sandpaper. Then it was hand-sanded with medium grit, and again with four successively finer grits.

To keep your monk stick strong
Eeeeeyou must whip it!
The ground end was whipped with tarred seine twine and coated with PVC cement to prevent splitting. (Update on this experiment here.)

Finally the whole thing was rubbed several times with trinity tar and hung near the woodstove for half a day between coats to cure. The ultimate polish was done with nothing but my hands, rubbing vigorously enough to raise heat, for about an hour total. (Though not all at once.) Naturally, my hands also continue to polish it with daily use.

I now have a renewable finish that raises the natural grain of the wood, pleasing to the hand, with a silky feel and deep, three-dimensional luster you can't beat with a... well, you just gotta admire.

Behold, I have mastered humanity's earliest technology!

I already had a stick,
so I made myself one.


This week's cereal box prize:

Terrific video by Russian Buddhist Boris Grebenshchikov and his band Аквариум (Aquarium). It's called Не могу оторвать глаз от тебя ("I can't even look away from you"), but in spite of the pedestrian boy-girl title, it's a love song of a different kind. One of my favourite vids of all time.

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