I been thinking about the subject of walking sticks lately. As an ecologist, botanist and herb-wife, one can often find me outside wandering the local hills, drainages and wetlands. Prior to stepping out-of-doors, I always equip myself with basic field gear: a hat, jacket or vest, gloves, boots and a pocket knife. Yet the most essential tool I reach for and rely on is my walking stick. I “never leave home without it”, as they say…
The walking stick, or staff as I prefer to call it, has been used since ancient times as a weapon, record, and support for the tired feet and legs of the sojourner. Banned from owning conventional weapons, the poor of many countries traditionally turned to the staff for protection. Elite members of tribes would carry a staff as a symbol of authority and power. The Druids believed that a thicket of small trees had its own living spirit, and would apologize to a tree before cutting it for a staff. I prefer to look upon my own walking staff as a support, an equalizer and a guide into the understanding of simple truths.
My staff is handmade of chokecherry, a straight shoot I cut from a thicket of chokecherry suckers I discovered near an antique barn in town. The chokecherry is one of my favorite tree/shrubs. Chokecherry fruits are edible and I make scrumptious jams, syrups and occasionally a heady scented wine from its berries. In addition to foodstuffs, I have been given a great gift from the chokecherry. My walking staff is a powerful, transformative tool on my walk or sojourn in this wide World. It is the one item that consistently accompanies me when I dive into nature’s landscape regardless of my purpose. It’s with me when I watch a sunrise, feel the rain on my face, or when I turn my back to a strong wind. My staff is there to assist me when walking on uneven ground, crawling over boulders, or walking down the center of creeks when fishing. I instinctively depend on it to keep my Balance. It supports me through awkward maneuvers, pushes aside objects that impede my way, and is used as protection when followed by a mountain lion. A steady companion, indeed.
My staff has taught me how to pause, to be silent, to observe what is before my eyes with mindful attention. I easily lean my chin onto my hands, which are cupped lightly atop its leather covered handle. I always keep my eyes soft when viewing a landscape. It is the landform itself, its mountains or swales, erosional patterns, dendritic patterns indicating water flow. The deposition of rock, clay, granitic sand and surface salts, all demarcated by the presence or absence of specialized plant species. Together, these features show me the surface characteristics of Gaea’s skin….that fine, intricate, biogeochemical layer that creates the alchemy for Life on earth.
When I become aware of the wind as it eddies and pulls around my body and through the textures of vegetation, my eyes soften and close. I allow myself to drop deeply into my sense of hearing. Ears are delicate things, comprised of highly sensitized membranes, tiny bones and nerve endings. They can detect the slightest vibrations of sound carried through the ethers…like the lilting song of a meadowlark, or of water cascading over rocks. If a person listens deep enough, they will discover the cacophony, the hum and thrum of the very heart of Nature. One can hear it through the resonance of frogs, cicadas, and crickets. Through the plaintive call of coyotes in the pre-dawn hours, the hollow tones of the mourning dove, in the cries of tundra swans and Canada geese winging overhead. This heartbeat whispers through the sound of leaf fall in autumn, and in the gentle silence that follows a winter snowfall.
I have learned much while leaning on, and being lead by, my staff. Wisdom only acquired through the silence of my mind and through the simple act of being Present to the world around me. My staff steadies me as I enter, and then leave outdoor spaces. My ingress and egress, coming or going, living and dying. Simple actions we all do everyday. My staff assists and supports me through the uneven, and even dangerous trails of my journey through this Life. It has proven itself a strong ally when I traverse through unknown landscapes and protects me from predators….of all kinds.
Barbara Donohue B.Sc, M.Sc is a retired ecologist with degrees in Forestry, Wildlife Biology, and Wetland Ecology. She is a multi-media artist, writer, herbalist and teaches workshops in Wildcrafting Culinary and Medicinal herbs, Crafting the Wild Basket, and other sustainable living skills. She lives in northeastern California.