Zen and the Art of Finding the Perfect Walking Stick (by Paul Harris)
Today I walked a long beach that was piled with the driftwood detritus of forgotten storms, in search of a walking stick. In search of the perfect walking stick, in fact.
To find a good candidate for the perfect walking stick is not so easy as one might imagine, even on a beach with thousands and thousands of logs and branches of various sizes, weights, and dimensions.
The first quality is that the candidate walking stick should speak to you in some subtle way that makes you think this could be an excellent stick. It should be friendly, with a promise of strength and support. Ideally, it should be roughly armpit height, with an interesting butt on the top end, and tapering to a solid smaller end on the bottom. It should be fairly straight, but a few minor crooks would make it more interesting. However, it should not be overly bowed, or it will flex when under pressure.
A candidate walking stick found on a beach has had a long and interesting life before you found it, and you will be just another chapter in its life. I hate to remind you of this, but unless you burn it, the stick will outlive you. It was once attached to a tree in the forest, supporting leaves, birds, squirrels, insects, tree frogs, and various symbiotic life forms such as mosses and lichens. How it came to be on a beach with stranded logs is a mystery. The logs are mostly escaped from log booms, having been cut in the forest, trucked to a log dump on shore, and boomed for transportation. Loggers – or more properly, buckers – normally trim all branches from felled trees before they are loaded on trucks for transportation. These branches and other slash are burned on site. Indeed, it is far easier to find thousands of large logs on a beach than a few nicely formed branches, worn smooth by their contact with the elements, sand, and logs. Though you can cut a green branch in the forest with which to make a walking stick, you’ll have to peel the bark and then let it dry for months. It won’t be as interesting as a beach-found stick. A branch that has been pummeled by surf, sand, rocks, and other wood detritus comes already prepared, the bark removed, and the wood nicely sanded, the ends rounded. A certain character has been imbued into the stick by its life on a driftwood beach, even before you continue to hone that to a finer point. A further short sanding with a fine grit sandpaper, and then application of oil or varnish is all you need. If you want to get fancy you can wrap the butt with leather, and attach a rubber or other base to the bottom end.
The perfect walking stick can’t be found. To presume you can find one is to offend the gods. As in engineering, where all solutions are compromises between conflicting demands, a walking stick cannot satisfy all demands in all situations. Japanese joiners of old recognized the hubris of presuming to create a perfect product by purposely building in a small hidden imperfection to their work. You might find a stick of armpit or shoulder height good for average walking, but for hikes with steep descents, a longer stick will be useful. Similarly, there is always a tradeoff between heft and strength of the stick.
The search for a good walking stick can be compared to the path to enlightenment or nirvana. The path is all, the end result inconsequential. The enjoyment and companionship of the finished stick will be a thing you can live with and enjoy forever in all its imperfections, a perfect reflection of your own imperfections.
Hornby Island, BC, April 2017