At its edges, the floor of the forest is a lively green bed of moss and the sun is bursting down. It’s early September and I am walking in the woods near Harestua. In the woods. Through them. Across them. Zig-zagging up and down between rocks and rotten tree stumps. I spot mushrooms and thick bushes of blueberries. On some rocks, standing entirely alone, there is moss like thickset hair, springy to the touch and knotted in a network of life. I poke my walking stick in front of me, to judge the softness of the ground as I move forward, unsure of my footing. I place it on the stump of an old, moss-covered tree stump, and the bottom of my stick goes straight through the soft and rotten bark, silently. I strafe this way and that. The top of my walking stick glued to my hand with my own sweat. Who hath not one horse may on a staff ride.
I like my walking sticks to be about shoulder height. This gives you more to lean into going up and coming down. With each walk of the woods, I pick sticks up and test them.
Walk with them a while to see how they feel in my hand. Gauge the grip. It is a strange kind of communion with the dead. Bark hard and dry, knots smoothed only by sanding. It takes weeks. Patient waiting. The drying process. The removal of the bark. It is best to do in springtime when bark has not yet dried in and a stick is easily shorn. Then you must treat the wood. There is a process to bring the branch back to life.
I picked the walking stick up early on my walk, spotting it among some felled trees. It seemed sturdy and just the right thickness. It didn’t feel brittle like some of the branches I tried first to make my walking stick. It was definitely serviceable for this walk. As I walked here and there through the woods close to the Solar Observatory, I thought about what it meant to call it my walking stick. When does a walking stick taken from the forest floor become yours? Does it ever become yours? Why imbue this dead piece of wood with meaning? To what end? To give life back to it? To extend your own inner life out to one more object that contains a piece of you?
Walking sticks have long fascinated me. As a child, I consider them a sign of infirmity. I couldn’t understand why a person who was fit and healthy would want or need what I thought of only as a kind of crutch. Walking sticks were not then fashion items to me. Nor something for the fit walker who wants to walk further, more expansively, through forests say, or up a steep hill. When I think of walking sticks, I immediately imagine the deep black knottiness of a blackthorn stick. I have always loved the look of a blackthorn stick. I can’t think of them without thinking of a song I once heard sung by a Scottish singer in An Spailpin Fanach at the Singer’s Club in Cork: Erin Go Bragh. A switch of blackthorn I held in my fist / And round his big body I made it to twist / And the blood from his napper I quickly did draw / And paid him stock and interest for Erin Go Bragh.
I also have a vague memory of a blackthorn stick that my dad had for a while, which he kept in our garage. Cut a stout blackthorn to banish ghost and goblin. And of the walking sticks that I remember in my aunt Breda’s house, in the corner of the hallway. I remember running my hands over the knots and the smooth top, fascinated. Walking sticks are close cousins to the wizard’s staff in my mind. I think of Tolkien’s Gandalf and his staff. I think of Merlin. I wonder did Sweeney Peregrine have a stick or a staff on his wanderings.
As I placed my stick in front of my leading foot through the forest I thought more and more about the magic of the walking stick.
The magic that resides in the meaning we affix to things. By itself, this stick was the branch of a chopped down tree. In my hands, it is a weapon – of defence and attack – it is a portal to a world of wizards and magic. It is something once a part of the forest now guiding me through the same place from which it came. The walking staff comes out of the Book of Exodus to us. Moses had one. In Old English it was a stæb. A stave. Staff. Isaiah prophesied that the staff of the mighty would be broken and the earth would be at peace. In the grip of the church it became a bishop’s crozier.
In Co. Clare, it was recorded once that no one would make walking sticks from the white thorn tree. This is because Christ’s crown of thorns were said to be from that tree. No one in the district would cut a lone white thorn tree because it was said that the tree would be in your bed that night. The berries of the tree were understood to be drops of blood, being red. A switch of blackthorn is better for wrapping around the bodies of your enemies anyway.
Elsewhere, to bolster your walking stick, we are told that a rams horn is got and boiled in a pot of water for about two hours. Then, it is taken out and twisted while hot into any shape required. This head is fitted to a hazel stick and secured with glue. In this way, a very good walking stick is made.
My walking stick was plain and seemed strong. It guided me between the pines, across the mossy floor of the forest. I rested it against the same rocks I rested. To let a walking stick fall when setting out on a journey is believed to foretell disappointment. Men have made whole tress their walking sticks to fend off giants. They have walked the land to talk to the king of Leinster and to cheat death with branches shorn of twigs that took them across their country. Over land and mountain, through hedge and thicket, forest, bramble and briars. Hermes, mercurial, walked with caduceus. Shepherds tend flocks with a crooked walking stick. Sometimes as I walk the woods near Harestua I hear the clanking of a bell around a goat’s neck. I have never seen a shepherd but they are safely ensconced in the forest and its paths. I have walked man made paths and I have walked those beaten by the goats. I have walked paths that only I have created. Created topographies of my own. I have done this with the help of a walking stick I took from the forest floor.
What still moves when it is dead? A walking stick.
A branch of a tree cannot be a walking stick before it first dies. Some people take down a tree to make a walking stick. Deciduous trees are best. Sturdy and strong, their bark is hard, not wet like evergreens. You can use Ash. Here in Norway Ash was the first man. Ash and Elm, Adam and Eve. Two trees given life. Then from the throng did three come forth, from the home of the gods, the mighty and gracious; two without fate on the land they found, Ask and Embla, empty of might. Soul they had not, sense they had not, heat nor motion, nor goodly hue; Soul gave Odin, sense gave Hönir, heat gave Lothur and goodly hue. Yggdrasil, the world’s tree, was made of ash. It reached the heavens and the depths. The oars of the Vikings. The spears of Odin and Thor too. Healer and aid, the ash tree is magic. Gandalf walked in Tolkien’s world with an ash stick. Der Berggeist. He could easily have been Krkonos. Walking sticks aid and abet journeys of all kinds. As my feet drift in one direction, my mind drifts in another. Drifting feet and mind have their anchor, arm’s length and shoulder height ahead.