In front of me here, propped up against the bookcase above my bench, is a “production”
fly fishing rod that an uncle long ago won on a lunch counter punch-board. He gave it to me, right off the bat, this three-piece, nine-foot set of sticks. I was maybe thirteen and hugely happy to have not one but two fly rods. Just imagine, a kid like me with two fly rods.
Sticks! Is there any stick like a fly rod! And is there any richer rough-and-tumble Anglo Saxon single syllable word?
When soon after WWII, the renaissance in cane rod making was getting underway. Sticks became a code-word to indicate that one was an insider and knew what was going on. We learned to call our rods “sticks” as in the language of high romance.
Now I hear, with real pleasure, construction men calling their framing lumber, “the sticks”. The conductor tells his musicians to “watch the stick”. And watch it they do until it comes blooming to life in glorious sound as in the last moments of that Glenn Close film, Meeting Venus (1991) Like Tannhäuser’s staff, the conductor’s baton-stick bursts miraculously into flower signifying, as for his medieval counterpart in song, his salvation. Ah, these magic wands!
One cannot have too many good sticks. A good stick can be a friend, a friend in need, to point, prop, brace, reach, beat, keep time, brandish, defend, puncture, prod, and heaven knows what. There’s the good, long stick in the hand of a teacher to rap on the blackboard of my memory, to teach me words like these. And never to forget Tannhäuser’s stick of salvation.
Wood sticks are best. How about the top half of an old broken-off five-strip fly rod of fond regard? I’ve got one right here. It never loses its life, which is to say its sensuality. Beside it is a truly exceptional forked stick worked by that late master rod-maker and man of general genius Lou Feierabend into a zinger of a sling-shot. It’s lovely enough to bring tears to your eyes and frighten squirrels. Then too, there’s a three-tined, like a pitch-fork, stick of particular interest, but good for nothing but to supplicate Druidical gods. An actor playing Cordelia to my Lear gave it to me…. (It could have come from one of Lear’s priests….)
Other than a fly rod, or a conductor’s baton, our good stick may serve for a gentleman’s walk or Fred Astaire to dance with. Think of that long one to balance that brilliant Frenchman who walked the wire between the great and late lamented towers. Or a sturdy stick to help me wade and keep my balance in the creek, and get me to where I otherwise could not go. This stick presages the time when, without such a stick, I can go nowhere at all. After that, perhaps, a good strong stick can pole Charon’s bark across that dark river.
And, of course, there are chopsticks, arrows, and spears. There’s the bow on a violin, Or a Neanderthal’s lethal club eventually to become a Louisville Slugger. And the dibble, lost like so many sticks in the dim recesses of agricultural time, becomes my rake, my, hoe, and my shovel. Or perfectly balanced drumsticks to pound the tympani.
A good well-tempered stick, dry, light, strong, well balanced, wants nothing so much as to get to work. There is something ineffably eager about a good stick.. Often, when getting from my car to the stream, I have had to stumble along as fast as possible in order to keep up with the joints of that rod in my hand. Like a good dog in the field, it wanted only to get at those fish out there, to fly to them-- fast. I have always tried to obey and follow. Life is where you find it.
Along the trail, I may casually pick up any old stick and heft it in the air. Maybe it has no life, no balance, no sense of purpose and I toss it away. Or it may instantly feel like a friend to help me along the way, a good companion. It may point out what I otherwise would never see.
I wonder about little African Lucy, was she the first, half unconsciously, to bend down to pick up the first true stick and invite it into the human experience? Did she see an ape push a stick deep into an anthill for the sweet insect food? Did she, one day, sit aimlessly scratching strange marks in the sand at her feet, marks that reminded her of something-- and that she would remember?
Out on a Pacific beach one day, there lay in the sand this homely little stick of some fourteen inches, three-eights of an inch in diameter, bent with a slight dog-leg. The ocean had satin-smoothed and hardened it to the temper of steel with the gentleness of a faery wand. Like Lucy, I scratched in the sand with it and now on the screen of this Mac. With it I can rear back and “conduct” these sentences like the best of them. I can find their rhythms, their harmonies, and catch their infelicities. The Mac remembers.
Recently I received a fine, expensive walking stick from London, sender unknown. I reported the fact on this blog. Now, roundabout, I have learned that it was my daughter, the professor, who, while walking to the British Museum (we should now call it “The British Library”) spied this elegant shop, stepped in, and had them ship this splendid stick to me. There is no accounting for one’s kids.
Still, in the end of all, I think it would be good to be like that archetypal bare-foot boy, with his rough-cut pole and can of worms, on his way down the lane to the old fishing hole. He knew in what depth of water the great treasure lay, and with his good stick and piece of string, he felt sure he would find it.