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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A man and his faithful stick. © Wisconsin Department of Tourism

February 2001

Conversations with a stick

As an ideal walking companion, a stout stick will lend an ear.

Justin Isherwood

A man and his faithful stick.

© Wisconsin Department of Tourism

My wife accuses me of fundamental disloyalty to the 20th century. She thinks I'm mildly allergic to motor transport, not so much of farm pickups and tractors, but automobiles. Particularly, says she, when we venture to Madison or Milwaukee and I always, at least goes the indictment, park the car ten furlongs beyond where decent people park. She would have you believe when we go to the Packer game we park in Waupaca. Not true. Black Creek maybe, but not Waupaca.

It is true in most cities I'd rather walk than motor. What is the point of going to the big water hole if you have to watch the road instead of those things that might draw a farmer to such a wallow in the first place? Walking is not only good exercise; it is a good way to see. You can look over the Grand Canyon from the parking lot, take all the pictures you want, but if you desire intimacy with that ditch, you gotta walk down the hole of it and then climb out. The rest you can get from a glossy calendar.

My wife, who is seldom wrong, believes I care so much about walking because of my penchant for talking to a stick. I admit certain accuracy in the charge. While I do not mind walking without a stick, walking with a stick is a different sensation; the same as some feel when they go in the woods with a dog or a gun – for me, it's the stick. I feel provisioned when I have a stick, having this extra leg makes wandering easier, same as snow tires on the pickup. With the stick I am half again as fast and can semi-fly over logs, stumps and mires.

The most companionable thing about the stick is it is intrinsically curious. No sooner am I off on a ramble than that stick starts sniffing at every burrow and scat, having about the same nose as a quality coon dog. Soon I am following the stick and not the other way around, following it into thickets and crevasses where the unsticked peregrine ought not to go. Sooner or later with the exertion, my stick needs a rest and we hole up under some herb; it is about here I commence talking to the stick.

I am aware, being a former and somewhat revised seminarian, that Moses had a stick. And how Moses, being the bit stodgy, was overwhelmed by a powerful indisposition when his brethren took up with graven images. Moses didn't care for totem poles, hood ornaments, tattoos, figureheads, cheese hats or Swiss Army knives. Never mind Moses had his stick, same length of white ash wherever he went; always with him was that stick. That time he fought the Pharaoh's serpent, it was actually his stick that did the wrestling. When he opened the Red Sea all theatric-like ... was the stick that knew the password. When God set fire to a hazelnut bush, where was Moses? Hiding behind his stick. Perhaps not the industrial grade protection approved by OSHA, but the margin necessary.

Seems that every aspiring prophet and apprentice since has recognized the portent of a good stick. John Muir that Wisconsin boy who walked a thousand miles, took with him a stick. Being a decent Wisconsin kid, odds are the stick was white ash same as the Louisville Slugger, never mind black ash works as well. Then again Muir, being of moody Scots disposition, might have favored musclewood, what farmers call blue beech. It's swamp-born vegetation that ain't good for nothing save hammer handles and mow pins. And a quality stick is good enough to share a thousand miles to the sea.

I can see wee lean Johnnie Muir, his pants hitched up crossing what was a wild length of America led by his stick. A kind of stick to lean on, hide behind, use as a catapult if the situation turns desperate. A stick to poke the fire and prop the canvas, a stick in the middle of the storm, in the crotch of a pine tree, a stick in the darkness to talk to.

Same as Moses talked to his stick, and Johnnie Muir, and Doktor Freud, talking like a person might if they are willing to try and verbalize what is hard to say out loud. Stuff you don't want the neighbors hearing 'cause this is personal, things a person lets out after dark and it's only for a dog or a stick to hear – at least till the words get sanded smooth enough to be understood by another human being.

Talking to a stick is not much different than talking to a cell phone only the rate is cheaper and there are no long distance charges, meaning a stick is a cheap way of getting expensive things done. When you are talking to a stick, you are talking to everything the stick is connected to, which is a big place, some would say enormous, really enormous, like where extinction is a daily occurrence. Talking to a stick on whose dark end is a universe wider across than the township, a place where on an ordinary day six suburban planets get wiped out, somewhere out there, on the dark end of the stick. Then there's the big end of the stick, and you talking to it like you went to kindergarten together, and it connected to a super nova in Canis Minor, some way farther off big thumping as shook atoms and molecules out of a stray bunch of sparks.

I can't tell for certain if John Muir sat by his fire talking to his stick, then listening while the stick talked. Sticks do that after awhile, talk back. Tell you how if you think you own the stick, you got another think coming. Better just to sit back and listen before you say after whose image you think you are. How every creature and creeping thing from the grass snake to the pocket gopher feels the same including the mollusk and the snow goose, bacterium, dinosaur and the oak tree. And they'd be right.

This what happens when you're with a companionable length of stick. Next to a smolder, twilight near, chores done, it's you and the stick. Sittin' and starin'. You and the stick. Leaning on each other. At the back end of the woods, outta sight, outta ear shot, talking to a stick about all manner of poxes and plagues, backache and taxes, that layer of stupid kids, the shortage of money, never mind the seed cost. Problems coming so thick they have to take a number to get heard...You talking, the stick listening. Then it's the stick's turn.

Justin Isherwood walks, stick in hand, through the countryside near his Plover home.