Burl Dreams

Due to a recent stroke, I’ve had to relearn how to sit, stand, and walk.  I have sitting and standing down pat, but staying upright is still a challenge so my walking remains wobbly.  Around the house, I walk without aids of any kind.  But I promised my physical therapist that I would use a cane whenever I walk outdoors to avoid falling when rough ground or awkward moments inevitably appear, so I use a cane whenever I do so. 

I have long had a fascination with canes and walking sticks.  My first staff was a driftwood stick found on a beach on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.  Helen and I were walking along the tide line and I picked up the sea-weathered stick on a whim.  Soon after finding it, we discovered a plastic sole – all that remained of a long disintegrated shoe.  It had a convenient hole near the heel where the driftwood stick fit neatly.  As we walked, the staff walked with us leaving a single row of prints.  And so Helen and I became a five legged beast, and Helen named the staff our Walking Stick.  It came home with us and we still have it nearly 40 years later. 

Following the completion of my physical therapy, I began my outdoor walks using my aluminum quad cane.  But, since I really detest the notion of being disabled and not wanting to appear so to others out of, I suppose, an excess of vanity, I quickly started looking for a substitute. I had previously purchased a couple of canes due to a knee injury, but one of them resides in my car in case of need and the other, having been purchased before I understood the importance of length, was too long for me.  Besides, neither was a thing of beauty, and if I had to use a cane I felt that it ought to have style. 

So I went looking on line for a new cane and kept finding myself drawn to canes made by Shawn Gillis.  They were practical, functional canes; they were also things of beauty made from a wide variety of exotic and domestic hardwoods.  I am no artist, but I am an avid appreciator of art, having gone so far as to marry an artist who loves color even more than I do.  Shawn’s canes come in many natural and unenhanced colors, and he has the gift of knowing which colors are complementary and which handle shapes suit which shafts. 

And so it is that I now own six of Shawn’s canes: two “off the shelf” canes I found in his Etsy shop called Walking With Wood, and four custom-made ones. The first custom-made cane was merely a variant of one his standards.  I liked the wood he used throughout (black and white ebony) but didn’t like his choice of handle, so I asked if I could substitute another of his designs.  This simple change taught me that he was easy to work with and non-judgmental.  The second custom-made cane was the result of a challenge I issued to him: to make the cane he had always wanted to make, but never had.  That challenge produced a beautiful redheart travel cane with an ebony handle and taught me that he could handle my sardonic criticism with good humor.  I hadn’t liked his preferred shape for a travel cane, likening it to a chair leg.  He laughed instead of getting angry. 

It was the third custom-made cane, however, that really amazed me. It, too, was the result of a challenge: to make a complete cane from a wood he’d never used for the purpose, but would like to. His choice was amboyna, a rare, expensive Indonesian red and yellow burl that he’d have to source from Vietnam.  As soon as I saw examples of amboyna, I said yes. When finished, it is brightly colored and has outstanding depth and richness. I left the design of the cane to Shawn with only a few stated preferences that he was free to disregard should he wish. The result was a fantastically beautiful travel cane that is a true work of art. 

It is a truly wonderful thing.  While heavy, it has an intensity of color and detail that enthralls me. The mystique of its burl has captured my and Shawn’s imagination. Where I see figures in twisting in a smoky den, Shawn sees rocks after a rain has washed away the dirt accumulated between them.  It doesn’t really matter what either of us sees as long as we look as deep into the burl as we can and let our imaginations roam free. 

As beautiful as it is, the amboyna cane is a functional working cane should I choose to use it as such – as are all of Shawn’s canes. I now use Shawn’s canes regularly and exclusively on my walks about the Farm and the country lanes surrounding it. After all, I promised my physical therapist to use a cane whenever I go outside, and I’d much rather use a thing of beauty to keep my promise than a bland aluminum quad cane.  

Walking is the most important thing I can do to regain full balance, and the farther and faster I go the better. While I have always enjoyed walking around the Farm and down our lanes, my current, almost-daily walks are really full-on physical workouts. Relearning how to walk is hard, lonely work. I usually return to the house exhausted and sweating heavily, wondering whether I can make the last few yards to our front door.  

I have become a boxer. While I have a large team supporting and urging me on, whenever I exit our front door to take a walk I am really entering a boxing  ring where I stand alone on my own two feet.  Punches begin to rain down immediately, and it is solely up to me to withstand them – no matter how much assistance awaits nearby. Every step I take is an effort of will, concentration, and newly minted memory. Mind you, I couldn’t do much of anything without my supporters – especially Helen who will always be there whenever I need help – but when I walk I am alone even when someone walks with me.  Only I can find my lost balance; only I can train a new part of my brain to keep me upright, my old center of balance having been irrevocably lost to the stroke. 

Using Shawn’s canes minimizes the workout aspect of my walks.  Being functional art, they remind me to smell the liquor of the wind, to listen to the unbridled joy of birdsong, to immerse myself in nature’s bounty. They help transform my walks into things of joy rather than solitary struggles.  They whisper to me that my supporters are walking with me in spirit even when I am by myself, and remind me that there is great joy and comfort in the company of friends – especially when we struggle. 

But I don’t use the amboyna cane very often simply because it is so much more a work of art than a cane.  Instead, I keep it by my side whenever I sit in our living room to avoid damaging it and to stare into its depths whenever I feel the need.  Helen has come to call it my scepter.  I love to immerse myself in the depths of its burl.  There, I can return to the summers of my youth and lie in green grass to study the clouds.  In my burl dreams my body is young, my sense of balance is strong and secure, and I walk again with grace and swagger. And these few moments of freedom from the cares and the work of my old age given to me by the amboyna cane are as valuable as the incremental improvements to my balance made each time I take one of Shawn’s other canes out for a walk. 


About Gavin Stevens

Humptulips County is the wholly fictional on-line residence of Stephen Ellis, a would-be writer, an avid fan of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, and a retired lawyer.
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1 Response to Burl Dreams

  1. Shawn says:

    Hi Steve,

    Thank you for sharing this deeper perspective with me, helps me understand your challenge a little better. Thank you as well for the opportunity and the invitation to be a part of your story. I will certainly save this, just like your\’s and Helen\’s \”walking stick\” from the beach many years ago.

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