Pick Up Sticks


“We look at the world once in childhood. The rest is memory.” Louise Gluck

So clear is my memory of a screened-in porch on a modest Cape Cod style house where I lived as a child in West Hartford, Connecticut. It was a pleasant suburban neighborhood and our porch stood off to one side surrounded by leafy greenness. There in the shade of the porch we played board games upon a glasstop table, along with countless games of Pick Up Sticks. I considered myself steady of hand and quite skilled at it, but who knows; I was also the oldest of my siblings. 

Decades later, I live on San Juan Island, a sea-swept island in the Salish Sea off B.C. Canada. Famous for windstorms in winter, the ground frequently becomes saturated, trees keel over, and power goes out. Ferry rides are then either rough—with vehicles shifting during transit–or canceled. Winds rise and the waves up rise in winter, while islanders dress down in wind breakers and boots and take weather alerts in stride. 

After each windstorm, I enjoy picking up sticks and fallen branches. Clearing the decks, the drive, and the grassy area. The gravel area with a picnic table and firepit. The drunken bocce court. The woodpile, stacked kayaks, and dormant gardens fenced for deer. One bank covered in salal and another bank in heather, as well as our wooded areas. Clearing the property clears my mind. It’s much like editing a long rambling verse.

Now meet my neighbor down the road who has kicked it up a notch. About three years ago, Dave began picking up fallen twigs and branches and piling them, intermittently, while walking trails through the woods. His habit soon expanded to his walks on rural roads, around the loop by Roche Harbor and out to Neil Bay. There are more walkers than cars where we live. I contribute to these piles, and I like to think everyone does.

Dave’s goal is simple: to reduce the fuel load in the forest. Raised in Orange County, Southern California, fire consciousness was built into his DNA. In the summer of 1967 he worked with a fire crew in the Deschutes National Forest, near Sisters, Oregon. “There were so many fires that summer,” Dave recalls, “I made enough money to pay for two years of college.”

Each spring Dave rents a chipper and tows it on his truck while picking up stacks by the side of the roads. The piles on trails are reached by a Kubota tractor. Firewise, a voluntary program to reduce wildfire risks at the local level—there are three Firewise groups in our area alone–and Roche Harbor Resort provide partial funding for this effort. 

For my part I will always be picking up and piling sticks. As a writer I tie up a lot of loose ends in my head doing this, and I get to move my legs. I leave the truck, Kubota tractor, and chipper to my good neighbors.


Filed under playing games, windstorms, reducing wildfire risk

11 responses to “Pick Up Sticks

  1. Susan Martin

    I love this one. It’s particularly appropriate as spring comes and many of us are preparing our properties for the coming dry season. Firewise is a great volunteer effort. Even in the midst of the pandemic, our Firewise Ninjas (as the Roche Harbor Neighborhood Association dubbed them) persevered and collected and chipped wood wearing their masks and maintaining a safe distance. It also brought back fond memories of playing pick up sticks in my very urban childhood neighborhood.

  2. Tracy Ahrens

    It seems like so long ago that I last played “pick up sticks”. At some point, you and I must have played it together. Funny, how we continue to pick up sticks for the rest of our lives if we live under trees. And it continues to be satisfying.

  3. Debbie Brown

    Love this! Your writing describes things so beautifully and is so articulate.

  4. Pingback: Pick Up Sticks: Kimberly Mayer | Roche Harbor Neighborhood Association

  5. beatrice carla Wright

    Oh, Kim…right to the heart of the matter…twigs. Living on a 5 acre parcel, named Treetops by my grandchildren, surrounded by Douglas Fir and Madronas, I will forever be occupied by picking up limbs and pine cones, cutting back blackberry bushes and ocean spray, a healthy and meditative habit that continues on walks elsewhere.
    Carla xo

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