I found the heavy stone a long time ago. I may have found it in a gravel pit near an Indian burial ground; I can’t be sure. If so, it was from a piece of land about to be converted into New York’s Interstate 86. The stone might’ve been used by Native Americans to tighten and dry an animal skin. One hole has been drilled into and out of the rock, and a ridge line that divides each end of the hole from the other seems to have given the tool a facial characteristic. This smooth rock with its odd shape is a touchstone for me, but not in the usual sense. I don’t use it to determine a standard of stones; I don’t strike it with another rock to determine the quality of minerals. I simply touch it then allow imagination to roam.
Touchstone is a clownish character in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” a comedy I read way back in high school. Touchstone is the “wise fool” who can play with language and the power of words, who can guide the drama and put himself and all other characters to the comic test. He’s a touchstone of another stripe and color.
With his assistance, I allow my thoughts to make connections and associations. I think about the photo I took of a millipede, a creature I found last summer crawling across the Dog Canyon Trail in New Mexico. The millipede becomes something more than just a curious animal. I ask it questions: Hey, do you have all your feet on the ground (all of them?); do you miss the cottonwoods while you’re hiking under the desert sun? If I get an answer, I get it from the Fool of Arden.
Recently I found the usnea out back behind the house, among dead apple trees. Usnea is the genus name for several species of lichen that hang from trees. Like a clump of gray or greenish hair, usnea grows on my decaying trees. Usnea is also known as beard lichen, tree moss, and Old Man’s Beard. On learning about this lichen, I remembered Tolkien’s character Treebeard, the eldest of the Ents. Usnea is my touchstone for the magical blends of lichen and algae.
Usnea grows slowly on sick or dying trees where an opened canopy allows it to photosynthesize more readily. Sensitive to air pollution, especially to sulphur dioxide, usnea was once widespread and luxuriant in Great Britain, where it now appears to have been decimated in most locales except in the highlands. Usnea has a reputation for healing certain afflictions. It contains a great deal of Vitamin C. For a thousand years or more, it was thought to contain what’s known today as antibiotic and antifungal agents. Usnea was applied internally as well as topically.
Viewing the dying apple trees on my property in which a few clumps of usnea hang, I thought of Treebeard and his friends. At one point in The Lord of the Rings, the tree-like Ents decide to attack the forces of Saruman for hacking down their forest and using the plunder for war. I found myself wishing I could conjure the Ents to fight environmental degradation and, while they were at it, could they ward off the threat of hydro-fracking for Marcellus gas, especially where it isn’t wanted or appreciated?
Hanging usnea is used for nesting by a migratory warbler known as the Northern Parula. This colorful little songbird has been extirpated from some of its northern range (as in New York). The population decrease may be due, in part, to changes in the warbler’s habitat, perhaps because of air pollution that inhibits the growth of lichens necessary for nest construction.
Usnea, as a touchstone, is an ordering device, a tool. It provides a moment of peace when I contemplate its origins. The madness of civilization falls aside briefly. It’s like a quick vacation in Shakespeare’s Arden. When Touchstone plays with words and blends a black-and-white reality with the limitless beyond, I like it. Nature provides a gift; I accept it with thankfulness and make a new connection.
Man-made objects can have a similar effect. I recently tied some Hare’s Ear wet flies and found myself dreaming productively. “Far away, yet close to home.” I tied the classic pattern on large hooks with a beadhead up in front. Nothing fancy here. The pattern’s been around since 1839 or earlier, and English flyfishing literature suggests that it was tied with fur pulled from between the long ears of a hare.
Is it a hare’s mask that I see in my rock that came from a gravel pit? Is it the provider of fur for that somber pattern loved by anglers far and wide? Never flashy, this great imitator of trout foods, this touchstone of the wet fly realm, often gets more effective when it frays and looks a bit worn.
It becomes a standard-bearer of the fly box. I tie it and see a rainbow leap from the river. The trout has some colors of a male Northern Parula. I’ll look for the warbler in my maple trees this spring. A trout leaps and my winter dreams unfold.