THAT day, the delivery man didn't drop the package at my doorstep and rush away as he usually did. He waited until I answered the door and said apologetically, ``Would you mind opening this package right away? We're afraid we may have damaged the contents in shipment.'' One end of the cardboard tubing was bent at a worryingly oblique angle, but when I pulled off the tape, I had to laugh. Inside was a long wooden stick, a gift from recent visitors who also liked to hike. The stick was bent, but naturally so. ``It's supposed to look like this, '' I told the puzzled delivery man. ``It's a walking stick.''
He looked at the stick, then at me, and departed more bewildered than before. After all, this was no burly cudgel, no sturdy masculine walking stick. Tiny knots and gnarls peppered its slightly curved 50-in. length. At the top it had only the diameter of a quarter and tapered to a mere half-inch, a skinny witch's finger, at the tip. It must have looked to the delivery man like nothing more than a crooked branch, pruned carelessly from a tree, certainly not an object to be wrapped and shipped with care and at some expense.
I, however, had long coveted such a lady's walking stick, and had certainly disgraced myself often enough by hinting to my friend that I would like to have one like hers. Its careful maker, my friend's father, had somehow known just which branch of ash would have the right combination of lightness and strength. Once he found a branch the right length, he simply stripped off its bark and hand-rubbed the wood to accentuate its gnarliness. He had not varnished it or in any way made it more than an essential branch.
That slenderness, that naturalness, is its beauty. The first walking staves must have been like this one - cut casually from a nearby tree - long before their makers began carving woodland gods on their shafts or lathing them into a series of fine Victorian knobs. It's the sort of object that deserves respect, but it's not so beautiful that I'm afraid to use it. It has even been misplaced from time to time, in the back of the closet behind the woolly feather duster and the tall multicolored umbrellas from Fiji.
One spring day near Illinois's Knobloch Woods, I set the walking stick down by the roadside while I took pictures of an especially beautiful patch of stars-of-Bethlehem and a few lingering spring beauties. In a fit of absent-mindedness, I continued hiking and taking pictures, and didn't miss the stick until I stopped to admire the white and pink blossoms again on the way home. There it lay nearly hidden among the wildflowers. I felt more embarrassed when I failed for several moments to even recognize it as mine. Its rough-hewn ordinariness had saved it from being taken, or even noticed.
That ordinariness has also nearly been the stick's demise. Last spring, during a visit by family friends, we stood on a dock, feeding fish in a nearby pond. Their five-year-old son, Max, snatched it from my hand and did what every child wants to do with the nearest stick - he flung it as far as he could. We all watched it rise into the air, spin out flat, and come to rest floating on the water, about 10 feet from shore. Without hesitating, I waded out, sneakers and all, up to my calves in mud and up to my hips in the chilly water, to catch it before it sank or floated away into deeper sections of the pond.
Max was completely bewildered by the scolding his parents gave him. He had thrown sticks in the water before. What was so special about that stick, he wanted to know. While his parents were explaining that the stick belonged to me, I couldn't help but notice that he had the same incredulous look as the delivery man.
``What do you do with it?'' he finally asked me.
``I use it to spank little boys,'' I teased, but he was scampering off, laughing. Still, Max asked a fair question, and I hadn't realized until he threw the stick in the water how precious it had become to me.
What do I do with it? I could have said it is good protection, but I've only used it once in a way that might be considered defensive - to flip an aggressive garter snake out of my way one spring morning when he didn't feel like giving up his sunny spot of warm concrete beside the mailbox.
The times I did need it for protection - the hike near the Patuxent River in Maryland when two copperheads lay a few feet from the path, or the time the Doberman pinscher ran at me full speed, snarling, his teeth bared - the walking stick was at home in the closet. And perhaps I really didn't need it. The Doberman stopped at the boundary of his territory; the copperheads were enjoying the sun too much to threaten my passing. But I still feel safer when the stick is between me and a danger.
The stick does make walking easier and helps me keep my balance on steep slopes. As fragile a it looks, it's sturdy enough to hold my whole weight. It has saved me from numerous falls when its narrow base pierced the ground and the stick somehow bowed to hold me. At the same time, I find I'm reluctant to think that I need it to aid my walking. I don't want to begin thinking of it as a crutch because I'm an able-bodied walker.
All my justifications weren't completely true, though, for I find myself often carrying the stick horizontally, swinging it, as much for the delight of having it in my hand as for balance. Max started me thinking. But then what other excuse do I need to carry a stick, other than that it's a pleasure simply to look at, to touch and to hold?