It’s not pretty.
The apple tree in Michael Moe’s back yard has grown there for 30 years or so, since the houses went up in the Fir Grove neighborhood near Silver Lake.
Nobody knows what kind of apple tree it is or who planted it on the short rise too close to the fence. Its small fruit isn’t much for eating, though birds seem to like it.
A few years ago Mike decided to cut it down. He needed room for a trampoline, for his girls, and so he cut off all the tree’s branches.
Its trunk would have gone next but his wife Heather nixed the whole trampoline idea. It wasn’t safe.
Ignored again, the tree kept living.
It sent tall shoots, straight like tines on a pitchfork, up to the sky. Side shoots grew from those. Over the years the tangle became strong and thick.
Someday the new branches would provide a harvest.
Mike’s disabled parking permit hangs from his truck’s rear view mirror.
Strangers sometimes doubt he really needs it.
Mike, 46, might not always look like a man with multiple sclerosis. The former college football player shaves his head and wears a beard and a diamond earring. People can feel intimidated.
When he parks in a handicapped stall and gets the evil eye, Mike just smiles and waves his cane.
He’s glad he’s walking.
With the help of chemotherapy, Mike got out of his wheelchair. His cane helps him maneuver safely, provides him insurance against a fall.
He decided that if he was going to use a cane, it had to be a good one.
For a long time, he and Heather were constantly on the lookout for interesting, sturdy canes.
A nurse, Heather cared for a cancer patient who called himself Wild Bill. He enjoyed talking about woodworking, which was his hobby. She asked him if he would carve a cane for her. She wanted it rough and folksy.
Wild Bill understood exactly what she meant. A nice stout stick, he said.
The cane was delivered before Bill died.
On Christmas morning, 2001, Mike unwrapped the special gift.
A rattlesnake wrapped its way from tip to top. A growling wolf’s head was the handle.
It was beautiful, he thought, the most incredible Christmas present he ever received.
It’s the kind of cane that gives a man strength.
And as he considered that, he knew there was something he wanted to do.
“I looked that cane over and thought, well, maybe I can carve something like that too.”
Mike bought some carving tools online. He needed to teach himself what to do.
That pile of wood from the apple tree was a place to start. He produced four candle holders. He used a wood-burning tool to draw the apple tree in each season.
Then he made some Santa Claus figures for Heather to add to her collection.
When Mike was ready to try his first cane, he looked to the apple tree again.
The shoots, now thick, were certainly hard enough, he figured. And they were tall, too.
The first cane he carved featured a winding castle wall.
He kept that one.
Others followed, a dozen, two dozen, a dozen more. He figures he’s made about 100 canes, most of them from what he’s come to call the cane tree.
When the apple wood burns under the heavy RPMs of his power grinder, it doesn’t smell like a fireplace in winter. There’s a perfume, a little like apple core and stems and peel.
When he smells the apple wood burning, Mike’s right back to working on his first cane.
“I still can’t compare it to any other smell, other than it is evocative, and private.”
Sometimes Mike carves with an exotic wood that guides him like a creative muse.
Cocobolo wood from Mexico has an animal odor, and the diseased willow that presents diamond shapes in its branches releases a sweet smell.
“Oh, yeah, I’m a touchy feel guy now. I used to scoff at this kind of stuff.”
His disease affects his memory. Mike’s notebooks and sketches keep him on track for his carving projects, some of which have won prizes at Quil Ceda Carvers competitions.
He’s made canes with red salmon jumping a fish ladder, one that honors victims of Hurricane Katrina and another on which he carved a spiral of barbed wire and topped it with a wire cutter for a handle.
Mike especially likes his Halloween canes. One has a skull for a handle and another is carved from a cedar root that naturally curves into the elongated skull of the monster from the sci-fi movie “Alien.”
There are dress canes for funerals, special events and going out to dinner.
In every room of his house and in each of the family’s vehicles he stashes his canes, usually keeping about 15 in rotation.
The prettiest ones are gone, of course, donated to fundraisers and given as gifts to friends, relatives, teachers and strangers.
Each cane has a story.
One with the deepest meaning to him is the one into which he carves the initials of American men and women who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They aren’t just numbers. These are people whose families miss them.
“I decided that whenever I met a vet, I would thank him for his service. If I can, I thank them with a cane.”
In 2006 he was visiting family in the Midwest for Christmas.
That’s when he met Jack Wynn. Wynn and his wife were out for lunch. Mike noticed the World War II veteran’s Marine Corps cap.
Mike went over to their table. He explained that he was honoring vets by making free canes for those who needed one.
Wynn thanked him, but didn’t need a cane. The men exchanged phone numbers anyway.
A year later, after Wynn scheduled a knee replacement, he called Mike to take him up on his offer.
“The cane he made for me was no ordinary cane. He used wood from Africa and then engraved on it the globe and anchor symbol of the Marine Corps,” Wynn said. “What a wonderful gift from someone I met only once. May God bless Mike for what he does for veterans.”
Mike’s daughters have never known him without his illness. Still, they wish he could shoot hoops, go to a job like their friend’s dads and stop taking naps every day.
They appreciate, though, that their father is always there for them.
He uses his Monroe Elementary School cane when he picks up 8-year-old Alaina after school or attends her soccer games. He uses his Cascade High School Bruins cane when he watches 16-year-old daughter Haley play volleyball or softball.
He was there to get a stud in his left ear so Haley wouldn’t be afraid to get her ears pierced on her 10th birthday.
He is there on summer afternoons when he sits outside to carve. As he works, he watches as Alaina and her friends ride their bikes up and down the street.
The little neighbor boys often bring Mike gifts of wood and urge him to make cool things, boy things, like glaring eagles and scary masks to sell.
The accountant who does Mike’s taxes suggested he form a business to sell his canes.
Mike has sold some from his Web site, ables-cane.com. He admits he’s not a great businessman. At $100 a cane, he’s charging less than a dollar an hour.
Mike also made a pact with Heather and the girls to not carve after 7 p.m.
That’s the time the walk-in medical clinic closes. The Moe family has made too many trips to the emergency room on account of his carving accidents.
The canes accompany Mike everywhere, helping him find balance.
In winter, and especially during this snowy one, the Moes like to be together in their cozy family room.
Haley and Alaina finish homework and play on the computer. Heather adds photos to her scrapbooks.
Mike stirs up a little dust with his carving tools or peels bark from apple wood. Now and then he gets up and wanders outside to check the cane tree to see if any branches are ready.
If one is, he’ll saw it off to make someone a cane.
Reporter Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.