Ash Plants and Arthritus

by the Late John Rowing - First Published in the February 2011 Magazine

At well over the recommended sell by date, even the anticipated shelf life is looming, I am decidedly chipped at the edges. I do not complain about this as for many years I was repeatedly told,  “you will suffer in old age”. I accepted it as the price to be paid for the life I chose to lead. One does not ranch cattle off horseback without getting a few knocks, especially if the cattle are Borans, a breed whose bad temper often makes them the choice of the American rodeo circuits. Some of ours were born in the Northern Frontier desert and the rest in the African bush. That they did not like humans very much is understandable. The only times they were in close contact with us they had to suffer the indignities of being branded to confirm ownership, castrated if male, ear-clipped  to identify age and inoculated against the many diseases they could fall prey to. They also had to be dosed regularly to control internal parasites and submerged in a cold bath of dip once a week for external ones. In between times they lived the life of a wild animal and behaved like one, and I loved them.

We frequently spent time fishing waist deep in rivers that ran off high altitudes, several starting in the ice fields of Mount Kenya. Not for us the waders of the well dressed anglers of more temperate climes, for a few minutes in the hot sun soon warmed you up, we got so used to it we did not think about being in wet clothes until arriving home or in camp and our memsahibs told us we were fools, and would suffer in later life. Another good reason for not complaining!

In the dry weather polo was played with an enthusiastic desire to unhorse one’s opponents almost equal to that of scoring goals. One did not often achieve the former legally, but fouls, mostly unintentional, caused some spectacular pile-ups. In the wet season drag hunts were ridden at a speed over country that would probably horrify many who are used to hunting in the Shires. Our horses developed an uncanny knack of missing the numerous pig-holes that ant-eaters, or aardvarks, had dug all over the bush provided we left their heads alone but even they sometimes put a foot wrong.

Arthritis is caused by the wear and tear of various joints in the body and ours like those of jump jockeys got plenty of that. Many afflicted with damaged knees require a stick or perhaps like myself need two for any distance.

There are many types of walking sticks ranging from the more modern ones made of metal or fiber-glass to those made from the stems of harvested brussel sprouts. While this latter one has the advantage of the raw material being readily available and is light and strong when “dressed” or finished, it is restricted to one style, that of the conventual curved hand piece. Perhaps the most useful material for the “dressing” of sticks is that of the ash tree whose timber is also used amongst other things to make tool handles from small chisels to those of pitch-forks and axes. Ash is much favoured for the shafts of horse-drawn vehicles. It is still used for the spokes and felloes of wagon and carriage wheels and was used for the wheels of early motorcars. Irishmen use ash for hurly sticks, their national game. Hurly, a rough game, is a cross between hockey and rugby, the rules of which, if there are any, only an Irishman can understand. Ash wood lends itself to becoming soft when heated, by steam or fire, thus easily bent or straightned and returns to its original hardness when cool.

Should you go to a country fair it is very likely you will find at least one stall selling not only “dressed”, or finished sticks but straight lengths of ash, and other woods to supply amateur  “dressers”. Suitable pieces are difficult to find growing in hedgerows and in any case farmers and landowners are not too keen on having their fences pulled about. These stalls will also supply bits of stag and rams horn, material even more difficult to find than a decent length of stick in the wild. These sticks will have been grown commercially straightened out by steaming or heating and very likely seasoned as well.

Some brought up in a rural environment will have heard the terms of, ash plant, ash stick or ash root. These are names by which of the different types of stick are known. Some sticks terminate in a handle that is at right angles to the shaft. To try and find one of these growing in the wild is worse than looking for needle in a haystack. I know for I once wanted to make a hunting whip. The shaft or stock of such whips as used by hunt servants is most frequently made of ash. Despite diligent searching I had to resort to buying an ash plant walking stick and cut it down.

Commercially such sticks are produced in numbers by growing ash saplings. When a certain height is reached these are dug up and buried lengthwise in a trench there the secondary shoots will sprout and grow as main stems. Well looked after these will grow up like a row of guardsmen and when strong enough they are dug up. Each stick freed from its neighbour by being cut on one side leaving an “L” shaped end. After being seasoned the plant is trimmed or dressed and will produce a walking stick with a handle neatly attached to the main shaft at ninety degrees. .

The ash-root is exactly what it says. Saplings are left to grow single stemmed. Pruning will cause the rootstock to enlarge and when it is considered to be of suitable size it is dug up seasoned and dressed. The root when trimmed will make a comfortable hand piece. These sticks have been used as weapons of offence and defence but should not be confused with that Irish stick, the shillelagh. To qualify for this name it should be made of blackthorn and have the spiky thorns, the longer the better, left on which when dried are surprisingly hard and sharp. These deter an opponent in a heated discussion from grabbing hold of if to prevent its use to drive home a point more forcibly, should he do so a good strong pull will rip his hand badly.

The ash stick lends itself to a variety of finished patterns. The simplest and most common is the thumb stick. Because the secondary shoots grow out of the main stem opposite each other all that is required for this stick is to cut it at the desired length when you will be left with a well proportioned “Y” in which the thumb may rest. If of the right length it will come comfortably to hand for walking. Should the end of the stick be positioned slightly in front of the body forming a triangle with the feet the user can then lean forward and the body weight rests evenly on the three points.

A straight piece of stick can have the end turned over by heating or steaming to make the conventional walking stick. By the same method a shepherd’s crook, or crummock can be made. Rather more work is required on this for the end has to be slightly turned back and shaped to allow the hook to slide through the fleece when hooking a sheep round the neck or leg. A bishop’s “crozier” is a good enlarged example of this. While I have seen such wooden crooks used, forged iron heads on wooden shafts are much more common. I must confess the bent bits of aluminum tubing much in use today are light, cheap and efficient but I feel slightly saddened when I see them for a lot could be learned from a mans crook. Shepherds of the old school took pride in them, for it was one of the tools of their trade and the ability of a craftsman can often be judged by the state of his equipment.

The use of rams horn more than deer antler enables many a “dresser” to display any artistic trait he may have for in the antler suitable thumb pieces are found where the tines branch out from the main spread or beam of the horn and little or no work is needed to produce a suitable head stock. This is fortunate for an antler although grown, or rather re-grown, in some cases to a great size, every year is very hard. It was used in the past for weapons and tools and is not an easy material to work with.

Rams horn, indeed most horns of the smaller animals are a stick “dressers’” dream for when heated become very malleable thus can be shaped, carved and worked into various forms generally associated with the countryside. Fish and birds are very popular but foxes, hounds, gundogs, and hares are frequently fashioned, indeed should any countryman wish to have his favourite sport or animal portrayed he can do so. As horn takes colour well some truly fine works of art are produced and further competitive interest has been encouraged by the formation of a stick dressers’ guild.

There are two outlets that have dwindled over the years, these are staves, or poles. Otter hunters used these somewhat heavier and longer lengths, not to kill or hit the poor creature that was being hunted but to stand in line across a stream ahead of it and by moving the poles in the water created a “stickle” or a run of rough water, that could well cause the otter to move onto the bank. They were also the hunters’ third leg in rough and boulder-strewn rivers and streams. In my school scout troop we all carried a similar stave. With these we built bridges and similar constructions to improve our lashings and various other types of rope work. Being young boys, often when out of the sight of higher authority we would indulge in Robin Hood style battles of quarterstaves. While these were sometimes painful I can recall no serious injury. Young boys were and I suppose if left to their own devices these days would be, pretty indestructible.