These beautiful walking sticks are “Little Pieces of Islesboro”
By Arielle Greenberg
Photographed by Chris Battaglia
Excerpt from our October 2022 issue
For nearly 40 years, 72-year-old Stephen Miller’s career has brought him closer to the trees. Since the co-founding of the association Islesboro Islands Trust in 1985 he served as the organization’s executive director, helping to protect some 1,000 acres of mostly forested land and 15 miles of shoreline and creating more than 13 miles of trails. More recently, when he’s not protecting Islesboro’s trees, he’s taken to pruning their branches, turning them into elegant walking canes that he sells through his side business, Greyfeather Woodcraft.
Growing up, Miller was intrigued by his grandmother’s “Shillelagh staff”, a walking stick she brought to America when she immigrated from Ireland. As a child, he learned woodworking in his grandfather’s basement, but it wasn’t until three years ago that he started making canes. It was the same year that his eldest son died, and he found solace in work, just as he had done in woodworking and the land trust when he lost his wife, Elaine, cancer about two decades ago. It’s a book by a couple of Welsh craftsmen who rekindled their childhood fascination, a guide to the techniques and process of making canes by hand. “I remembered the words of a Joni Mitchell song: oh Carey, get out your rod, I’ll put my finest money, ” he says. “Walking poles can be festive.”
Miller’s sticks start out as limbs he prunes or salvages from leafy trees. Then he runs an electric rasp over the irregularities, sands them down, and finishes them off with oil (Odie’s oil is his favorite). Each stick is one of a kind: they can add a leather strap to one or a metal handle to another or carve a button at the top to look like a bird’s head. On each piece, he engraves an ancient Celtic symbol representing an ash tree. This summer, he launched a Greyfeather Woodcraft website – named after the gray feathers he often finds on the beach at Coombs Cove, one of his favorite spots on the island. “These sticks are little bits of Islesboro,” he says. He also sells island cedar benches, the same one he’s been making since 1998 to ride the land trust trails.
Of course, Miller’s poles are more than just works of art – he mentions hikers who take them on the trails and a disabled friend who uses them as an aid. One day, he says, he’ll retire from the land trust, and it’s comforting to think that, thanks to Greyfeather, he’ll still be helping people access nature. “Having a stick,” he says, “is a major motivator for getting people to enjoy the outdoors.”
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