The Perfect Stick
A Beginner's Guide To Backscratchers
Crocodiles have a design flaw.
If insects bite a croc in the middle of the back, the crocodile’s legs can’t reach that spot to scratch. March Flies in the Northern Territory exploit this, stabbing into the soft parts between the impenetrable, shell-like, outer casing of a crocodile.
Whilst this is more irritating than serious, the blood of crocodiles doesn’t clot easily and thus the bites can theoretically present an existential threat. The crocodile’s response is to roll in mud to create an artificial barrier so the insects can’t get at them.
The crocodile's futile attempts to scratch the middle of its back resonate with me as I too have this design flaw.
I'm not a flexible person. Never was.
Like a crocodile, I would benefit from having something to give my back a lusty, satisfying scratch.
My obsession with backscratchers is recent. I found myself overwhelmed by heat, humidity, and mental exhaustion after moving to Brisbane. Luckily, we live next to a forest with well-maintained walking tracks. I soon discovered that exercising in nature was a great antidote to the artificial tiredness created by stress and heat.
Most days I'd force myself out in the late afternoon, dressed in exercise gear and a broad brimmed hat, and walk for one to two hours. I later included some hills and, after a hamstring injury and recovery, incorporated running to improve my fitness and strengthen my legs.
I’d arrive back at the house temporarily reborn.
During this exercise, however, I would notice sudden pinpoint itches in the middle of my back. Perspiration may cause this or possibly bites from small insects. Perhaps it is the soap that I use.
When this happens in the house itself, I find myself slyly and discreetly rubbing my back against a sharp vertical wall edge. The sensation is extremely satisfying, but I try not to let my partner see it. I might have that same deeply satisfied expression my old dog had as she rubbed her itchy back on objects.
I don’t want my partner to ever see that expression.
Reaching parts of my back for a quick, therapeutic scratch when itchiness occurs in the forest is not possible. Reversing up to a tree and rubbing myself on it like a bear is an option, but I’d no doubt appear furtive if spotted doing it by strangers.
When I first found myself squirming in the forest with an itch in the middle of my back, I desperately looked around for inspiration.
That’s when I noticed short sticks.
There are literally thousands, perhaps millions, of sticks lying around in a forest.
Sticks are ready-made backscratchers, but I’ve learnt that not all sticks are born equal. Some important principles about backscratchers quickly became evident to me and I’d like to share these to spare others of the mistakes I’ve made.
The ideal length for a backscratcher is somewhere between 12 and 15 inches. This is long enough to reach any spot on the back, even on the days where you are particularly inflexible. Yet this length is not so long that the stick will snap under the intense pressure one may apply for a particularly satisfying scratch.
The stick should preferably be quite smooth and have some obvious weight to it (although I have discovered a satisfying stick that I’ve dubbed the ‘ultra-lite’ - more about that later). There is probably no logical reason for the weight. It simply feels better in the hand. There is probably an aesthetic element to this principle, in the same vein as selecting a tennis racquet, or, for those who have watched the British TV series ‘Detectorists’, a metal detector.
The thickness of the stick should be about a finger’s width. A little more is good, but that’s my go-to breadth.
I like the stick to taper naturally to a point at the end which does the scratching. It should not be too sharp. A sharp stick could tear the fabric of the exercise shirts that I tend to wear. It can even break one’s skin, which is not desirable when having a brief scratch.
5. Nature vs Custom Made
Should you break a stick to length or look for the perfect stick which just happens to be lying there?
I now find myself instinctively synthesizing information about my surroundings when the need arises. If one needs to snap a longer stick, then by all means do it. Obviously be careful, because it can hurt if the stick is too thick and only breaks under intense pressure. Unfortunately, you may have to learn this the hard way, but you’ve been warned.
I, however, tend to look for a stick which is the right length in the first place. If you are in a forest, this should not be a problem.
6. Straight vs Curved
The way I think of it, a straight stick is acceptable. It’ll do the job, in the same way as a base model car or cheaper tennis racquet will do the job. But there is definitely merit in having a natural arc in the stick if you can readily find one with this quality. It may not, however, be worth wasting time if a straight stick which matches the previous criteria is right there in front of you. It would be like a club level tennis player buying a racquet that Nadal would insist on – it probably won’t make the club player any more effective.
It depends how urgent the need to scratch is.
7. Keep or discard?
What do you with the stick after a quick, satisfying scratch? I find that 5 seconds to scratch a spot is all that I need, so I’m reluctant to immediately just throw the stick away, particularly if it has proven to be a superior model. What if I get another itch 10 minutes down the path? This is quite possible. It has happened. Then I would have to resume my search for the perfect stick all over again!
Regardless, my advice is brutal and simple: discard the stick.
You don’t want to be seen carrying a stick in the forest, particularly if you are deep in thought and have a funny little smile playing around your mouth (and particularly, if like me, you are also a middle-aged man in exercise gear wearing a broadbrimmed hat).
You are in a forest – there are sticks everywhere! Sure, they aren’t all suitable, but you will soon be able to synthesise like me, bend, snap (only when necessary and with care) and be joyfully scratching within seconds.
Discard the stick. Getting attached to one particular stick is a little odd, after all, isn’t it? It’s obvious when you think about it.
Yet this is where I confess to breaking Rule 7.
I have on the portico at the front of the house a stick which I just couldn’t bring myself to discard. It is the perfect shape and size, smooth, gently curved, slightly pointed, strong but surprisingly light. It is what I think of as the ‘ultra-lite’ model, a sort of titanium equivalent, yet made of wood and manufactured by nature!
It is the best backscratcher that I have ever come across. It ticks so many boxes that I haven’t yet been able to discard it. The day that I picked it up was like striking the mother lode.
But I never take it with me on a walk into the forest. That would be premeditated and downright strange.
It has become largely decorative.
1. 12 to 15 inches long
2. Smooth and solid – feels good to grip
3. A finger width (or fractionally more) is ideal.
4. One end pointier than the other, but not excessively sharp
5. Snap a longer stick, but only if necessary – and with care
6. An arc in the stick is nice, but straight will do the job*
7. Discard afterwards – there are more sticks in the forest (and smiling men with big hats wearing lycra who also carry a stick in a forest may unsettle people).
A little longer and a little thicker is okay, of course.
*A curved stick may be worth a few extra moments of searching.