The Pilgrim’s Staff

Yesterday we bought our walking poles in St Jean Pied de Port – our final piece of equipment for the Camino de Santiago – the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostele in Spain. Today we should have been walking, but have decided to take a couple of rest days to get over the last of a bug caught en route to Paris from a fellow traveller. It is also a ‘snow day’ – meaning the high path, or Napoleon route, over the Pyrenees is closed due to snow falls.

So it’s time to explore the town – and we encountered a museum housed in what was once the Bishop’s jail. It was interesting to reflect on the importance of the walking pole or pilgrim’s staff in the history and iconography of the Camino.

Ergonomic studies on the use of trekking poles show that they can take up to 20% of the load off the knees. This enables hikers and walkers to cover greater ground with less strain than without using them. They provide stability in uneven or slippery terrain, and act as ‘brakes’ when walking down hills. But I notice that many pilgrims still prefer to walk with a traditional wooden staff or stick – perhaps to keep time and maintain the walking rhythm, and to test the depth of streams before fording them.

In the museum there was a bit of a write-up on the use of walking poles or trekking poles. As a device to support walking and provide stability, the staff has come to symbolise the axis of the world, around which we all perambulate to a greater or lesser extent.

In biblical representations, the staff of Moses guides the people to safety, even driving back the sea to enable safe passage. In this sense the staff is seen as the soul transformed by the divine – a symbology related to the redemptive power of the cross of Christ. To do a million step walk is also to lift and carry that staff a million times – so perhaps there is an element of carrying one’s cross or burden.

When you consider that the staff is at once support, defence, and guide, the stick has become the king’s sceptre, the Marshall stick of the brigadier, the caduceus of our doctors and the crozier of bishops, as well as the eyes of the blind.

For all these reasons, the staff has become the main symbolic attribute of pilgrims – not only for pilgrims on the Saint James route, but since the dawn of time, pilgrims have been using a staff for support, guidance and defence against robbers and thieves.

In medieval times it became quite an icon. So much so, that they appeared to be used even by pilgrims who went by sea. So its symbolic value was always high regardless of the mode of travel. Indeed the Ergonomists would probably agree that if you are lifting something like that a million times, it had better be useful!.

So next time you see a hiker, trekker, or pilgrim walking with trekking poles or a stick regardless of whether their sticks are made from carbon fibre, aluminium or wood, spare a thought for that humble trekking pole!

PRACTICALITIES

Trekking poles come in a great variety of shapes sizes and materials.

Materials

Lightweight carbon fibre ones are light and durable, but can be expensive. Aluminium ones are a little heavier, and can be sprung or unsprung. Wooden ones, might appear traditional, but give the least ergonomic advantage.

Use

The value comes from the straps which take your weight as you bear down on them. So wider straps are better.

Always insert your hand from beneath the strap so that the strap passes over the back of the hand. That way, if you drop the pole it will just hang there on your wrist. Also you won’t break your thumb if you fall.

There are several styles of use. I prefer to place them in opposition to the walking foot – as though you are crawling, but upright. You can establish a good rhythm in line with your walking and natural swing of your arms.

Just tapping the sticks might make a nice audible rhythm, but will give you no help with the weight you carry. Bear down on the strap and just guide the stick with your hand, don’t grip it. You will save a lot of fatigue that way.

Types

Trekking poles can be fixed or extendable, sprung or unsprung, and some telescope into themselves, while others fold up like tent poles. I certainly prefer them to be adjustable for height. The fold up ones can be less secure as there is only a small overlap between segments, allowing a lot of play. I don’t recommend those for use on uneven ground where they may be called upon to provide real stability or support.

Where to buy

The best places are usually dedicated hiking or outdoors shops – make sure you get them fitted properly for your height and that they show you how to use them properly.

Hands-free trekking umbrella

What the…?

This post is my solution to using an umbrella hands-free. Sometimes when hiking, or walking with trekking poles, it can be useful to use an umbrella. Now, before I get shouted down by the ultra-lightweight hikers, it is, of course, a personal choice. The problem with an umbrella –aside from weight – is that it requires a means of support, usually a hand, but this is incompatible with using trekking poles, or indeed dealing with using a camera, a phone, or just about anything else.

 

umbrella mount

 

Why use a trekking umbrella?

So why use one at all? Walking the Camino in 2016, I found I was walking sometimes in warm weather, sometimes in rain. In terms of heat, I was walking West in the mornings, and hence the sun was almost always at my back. Despite a hat, and the shade of the backpack, I found I was getting a sunburnt neck, and there were times when it would just have been nice to have a shady tree to walk under. There are not many of those on the rolling plains of the Meseta in Spain, so some form of shade is a good idea. It was too hot for a hood, and it was nice just to be able to take advantage of whatever light breeze might be available.

I did carry a lightweight umbrella last time, but had no way of attaching it to my pack, so it was always a choice between using the poles or using the umbrella – so it got very little use.

As I prepare for my next Camino, I thought I’d sort this issue – and researched hands-free umbrellas for trekking. I wound up buying the ‘Dainty’ model of the Euroschirm trekking umbrella [this is not an affiliate link, and my opinions are my honest response] – it was the lightest one (195g/7oz) that folded down to the smallest package. And it was reflective silver, and UV treated so it can be used equally as a sunshade or against the rain.

Alas, it didn’t have any mounting system, so it was time to devise my own.

How to attach it

My backpack has two loops on each of the front straps – designed to run the hydration tube down either side. The umbrella did not have a loop of any kind, so I drilled a small hole in the plastic handle to take a keyring ring from a $2 shop and threaded the keyring loop through so it was permanently on the umbrella. I then bought a set of four velcro cable ties – called ‘One-wrap’ from Officeworks – $7.30 (NOTE: this is also not an affiliate link – just there to show what I used). The reason I chose these is that they can thread back through themselves, so I could attach it to the backpack loops making them always available for attaching the umbrella. The free end of the velcro is then wound around the umbrella and attached to itself. When you undo it, the velcro remains on the pack and the umbrella can be easily put away for another time.

I threaded one velcro loop on one pack loop and another on the other pack loop on the shoulder strap. I then used these to secure the keyring ring to the lower one and the upper one around the shaft of the umbrella. This gives a secure hands-free mount which can be used on either strap depending on which side the sun is shining. It works like this:

umbrella mount

This system will work with any manual or automatic umbrella and does not require any specialist fasteners (or a specialised umbrella).

Conclusion

The result is I can have my own personal shady tree equivalent regardless of the presence of any shade. And the umbrella has the added bonus of keeping the rain off the top of the backpack too, so is suitable for light rain. Does it work? I took a daypack with me sketching on a clear mid-summer day in Australia with a temperature approaching 40C/104F and deliberately sat out in the full sun while I sketched for an hour and a half. The umbrella performed brilliantly and kept me cool enough to focus on my sketching, rather than on the way the bitumen was melting. With the UV protection and the silver reflective covering, it was like sitting under a shady tree. It felt several degrees cooler than the ambient temperature. From this test, I have decided the umbrella is well worth its 190g/7oz weight and will be coming with me on my next Camino.

Just a small aspect of my Camino preparations for our 2018 walk across Spain.

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Cassini – Science the Church and a Gnomon

As the Cassini Saturn probe prepares for its final few orbits before being de-orbited into the planet, it’s worth considering who it was named for – the C16th Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini. These days the Vatican collaborates with the European Space Agency and NASA on space science. Even the Vatican Library uses an image file storage system developed by NASA – it was a system originally designed for radio astronomy.

But it is worth remembering that the Church has often had an uneasy relationship with science. Galileo Galilei was tried in 1633 for heresy by the Inquisition and was sentenced to formal imprisonment – one of the Church’s ‘oops’ moments – later commuted to house arrest.

In 1582, when Galileo was just 18, Pope Gregory revised the calendar, as the Julian calendar developed under Julius Caeser was getting embarrassingly out of step with the solar year (it lacked leap years). But the introduction of the more accurate Gregorian calendar that we use today, presented a new problem. The major Feast Days needed some re-calibration. The most difficult one was Easter – a so-called Moveable Feast – and a pretty important one to the Christian faith. It was supposed to fall on the Sunday following the first full moon after Spring Equinox (20 March). While today we just look it up on Google or wait for Facebook to remind us, it was a bit more complicated back in the C16th. You see, the problem was that the Church followed the lunar year, while everyone else followed the solar year, and they don’t quite match up. It was time to find some astronomers who hadn’t yet been executed for heresy, and who would admit to being astronomers… no pressure then.

Genovese astronomer Egnazio Danti (cosmologist to Cosimo de Medici I) was called to Bologne to work with Pope Gregory’s Calendar Commission to help determine accurate dates for the Spring Equinox – and by extension, Easter. He constructed a Gnomon – a sight line – inside the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologne and cut a hole high in the wall to allow the sun to shine through onto the gnomon. This was used to determine the path of the sun at certain times of the year, and help with measuring the lunar cycle too. But less than 100 years later, some renovations designed to expand the Basilica meant that the wall with the hole for the sun was removed (oops)… So in 1655, a mere 20 years after Galileo’s death, Giovanni Cassini was brought in to design a new gnomon in the same church. His ambitious plan was to build a much longer gnomon for more accurate observations. His ulterior motive was to prove Galileo’s observation that the Earth went around the sun, not the sun around the earth – this time without getting into trouble with the Inquisition.

So what has this to do with travel? You can still see Cassini’s gnomon today in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologne. But if you are visiting Rome you can find another Gnomon – it’s worth checking out the floors in some of these churches, and look for an angled line in bronze running across the floor… There’s also one at the Church of San Sulpice in Paris (pictured below) – made famous by the movie of Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

Church of St Sulpice Paris

The C16th Basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli in Rome was dedicated as a Basilica in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. But from the outside, it doesn’t look much like a church at all. Curiously, it was built inside the ruined Frigidarium of the Roman baths of Diocletian (ca 300AD), thus preserving a significant part of the ancient Roman building into the modern age.

 

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

The church itself was designed by none other than Michelangelo. So, from a simple ancient Roman exterior, you enter into a magnificent Renaissance church of breathtaking scale – one of the world’s largest.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

But I had heard that it held one more surprise. A gnomon. The gnomon here was copied from Cassini’s design. Pope Clement XI commissioned the astronomer Francesco Bianchini to construct the Gnomon. Bianchini was Secretary of the Calendar Commission, and h chose the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli because of the stability of its Roman walls and foundations, and because of its height and large internal space. Bianchini improved on Cassini’s design by allowing for the observation of stellar transits – even in daytime.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

Here you can clearly see the sun approaching the meridian line.

The pinhole occulus through which the sun shines is located high on the wall, and to give it a clear path, part of the entablature and the capital of the pilaster – designed by Michelangelo – was cut away – perhaps a metaphor for the tension between art and science and the church! I have added an arrow to show where the sun enters.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

The church also houses a Foucault pendulum which demonstrates the earth’s rotation through the pendulum’s elliptical swing.It was invented by French scientist Leon Foucault, who first demonstrated it in 1851 at the Paris Observatory – it now resides in the Museé des Arts et Metiers in Paris.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

The pendulum weight is in the form of a globe as though pushed with a giant hand. Metaphors for force were quite literal! As you can see below

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

So, from a C16th astronomer seeking to solve the Church’s problem with Easter through detailed observations of the Sun, to a spacecraft providing detailed observations of Saturn we can glean nearly five centuries of the Church’s relationship to science and the arts by visiting a two-thousand year old Roman bath house renovated by Michelangelo in Rome. And all this, from noticing a strange geometric pattern on the floor of a church! It does pay to look down sometimes!