When Dragontrainer was about 15 months old, still a little grublet, we gave him his first poking stick. It was a dank February of a day near the Congaree River, all over in clammy mud and low cloud. I sat him on a dryish patch of dirt, picked up a handy piece of kindling, and said, “Look. Here’s your poking stick.”
He didn’t hesitate. He immediately began poking things.
He poked rocks. He poked the dirt. He dug in the dirt a little, then started whapping things. Trees thunked satisfyingly. Dry leaves rattled. He toddled to the edge of the water and poked it. It splashed fetchingly. He poked some more, then flung his poking stick in.
He pointed. “More!” he demanded. “More!” And veered off to find another stick.
This is because sticks are awesome, and poking things with sticks is some vital part of being human.
Try it, if you don’t believe me. Pick up a stick. Poke something. Especially something you don’t really want to touch, like a dried-out worm or squishy mud. Poke that fire ant hill and watch those suckers boil out. Yep. Sticks are awesome.
Small boys know this instinctively. If we hadn’t handed Dragontrainer a poking stick, he’d have found one himself. Upon release from the miserable confines of indoors, he immediately looks for a stick. He prefers hefty sticks, the longer the better, straight and uncluttered by branches. One-year-old Sunny contents himself with anything: tiny, thin sticks seem just as awesome as sticks three times his height and probably somewhere around three-quarters of his weight. He likes to dig with them. This seems a contentedly primal act that keeps him busy for all of ten minutes at a time.
The sticks poke. Today five-year-old Dragontrainer and I poked a piece of dried-out dead bird, probably left over from a terminal hawk encounter. We poked a worm. He poked an ant hill and Bear yanked him away, because Dragontrainer’s poking skills aren’t advanced enough for him to know the cardinal rule of ant poking: poke and move the hell away, because those suckers hurt.
The sticks were binoculars, swords, and blasters. Mama! I see a bird in my binoculars! Let me look! Dragontrainer fiddled with them, as if adjusting a viewfinder. Look, mama! Baby Bear threaded a long, skinny willow switch through the bridge slats and into the river. A particularly solid, straight heft of a stick was coveted by both boys and discarded only when we got to the car. I half-thought Dragontrainer was going to bring it home. I’d totally have let him. Yesterday, the kids used sticks to “make clay” and cook, which are fancy ways of saying “stir dirt and water together to make gloriously sticky mud”.
Occasionally, the sticks become, in parent-speak, an issue. Yesterday we stopped Dragontrainer from bludgeoning a game adult friend with a very large pine branch. I sometimes ban sticks from playground equipment when too many kids get whapped upside the head (we try to confine sword violence to those equally armed). I’m not naive enough to ban them completely – I just tell Dragontrainer he can’t have them on the slides. The boys sometimes drag sticks into the house. I ignore the thin, puny ones and sub out pool-noodle light sabers for the big ones. Because they’re going to hit stuff. So they might as well use something soft near the flatscreen.
And if it’s not sticks, it’s these metal tubes that were, in a previous life, some kind of xylophone part for maybe half a minute before the kids dismantled it and used the pieces for pretty much everything. Or Baby Bear takes the stakes out of the tomatoes, again, and runs around with them, again. He brought them into the house during a party last weekend. No one thought this particularly strange.
I don’t worry they’ll poke their eyes out. Even though I actually once saw my dad get jabbed in the eye by a tree, which sounds wildly improbable but looked seriously painful. I don’t worry the kids will impale themselves while running, because that would require a layering of dexterity, luck, and sheer ridiculousness I’m not sure exists outside of urban legend. Occasionally, the sticks provoke tears. Someone gets jabbed, or beaten, or gently poked when they didn’t want to be poked. That’s life. They’re small children. If it wasn’t the sticks they’d breathe on each other wrong and wail about that, because life is hard when you’re small and things are very, very, very serious and world-ending and awful. It’s hard work to learn about the world.
Which is why you poke things with sticks.