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This Maine veteran found a way to make money from a plant no one else wants

Bangor Daily News - 1/30/2019

Jan. 30--The Asiatic bittersweet vine may be invasive, but Richard "Dick" Tasker thinks its beautiful. Tasker seeks out treelings that have been wrapped and coiled, often fatally, by the thick, scaly vine for his hand-carved walking sticks and canes.

Even after shaving and carving the rest of the wood, he leaves the vine intact, painting it to look like a snake.

"I just like anything that's weird and differently shaped," he said, admiring his handiwork.

If you have been to any sportsman show or festival around the state of Maine, odds are you have seen Richard "Dick" Tasker and his sticks. For 18 years now, Tasker has been hand-carving walking sticks, canes and other wood objects for his business, Dick's Stix. Last year alone, Tasker sold 693 sticks at over 30 events, which he attends with his wife, Nancy.

During his travels, Tasker talks to people about the plants they have on their property. His artistic interest in the Asiatic bittersweet vine has made him something of an artisan landscape remediator for removing the invasive plant.

"I travel all over the state," Tasker said. "Anybody that has an [Asiatic] bittersweet vine really doesn't want it, and they're just begging me to come and cut all I can."

Besides finding beauty in the invasive plant, he is able to turn a profit from its unique stylings; his most expensive item right now is a cane with a formidable rattlesnake-painted vine that sells for $200.

Tasker uses trinkets he gathers during his travels for more creative designs, like handles made of Christmas balls, baseballs, beer tap levers, and moose antlers, or sticks embedded with compasses, boat cleats and gold coins.

At events, Tasker can often be found sitting on an 1800s-style shaving horse (it is great for quickly switching out wood, Tasker explained, and is popular in the woodsmen magazines he reads), peeling bark from wood with an old-fashioned draw knife, a long blade with a handle on either end designed for shaving wood. He may or may not be wearing an American flag shirt, but he will definitely have an American flag flying from his booth.

Tasker is a veteran who started carving walking sticks after completing a 33-year-long military career (28 years in the Air Force and five in the Army). When he retired, he returned to Maine and worked at Peacemeal Farms in Dixmont. The owner, Mark Guzzi, had purchased the land from Tasker's parents, who used to run a dairy farm on the property. When he was a kid, Tasker said he often explored the 300-acre property.

"When I wasn't busy taking care of the milk cows or haying in the summertime, I was out in the woods," he said of his childhood. "I would paddle up the stream, find some beaver sticks and carve them up."

He perfected that craft in his discharged days. "I wanted to do something in my retirement that I really enjoyed and kept me busy and active," Tasker said. "I had too many friends of mine that when they retired said they weren't going to do anything. A lot of them are not with us anymore."

Tasker's stick carving turned from a hobby to a business venture at the 2001 Common Ground Country Fair. He was selling vegetables with Peacemeal Farms and he brought sticks to sell on the side. He had a few minutes of downtime, so he decided to get a headstart on some more.

"I took a 10-gallon milk can, sat on it, and started peeling off bark with a jack knife," Tasker said. Fairgoers started crowding around to watch the emerging artisan at work. "By Sunday, I had sold 50 sticks."

Now, Tasker is a member of the Maine Crafts Guild, and he brings a cedar shaving horse to events for demonstrations. He said he can shave about 10 sticks in a single event.

Shaving is the only part of the stick-making process that Tasker demonstrates at events. The rest takes place at his workshop in his garage on the Plymouth town line. The entire process from cutting to walking takes about a year. After it is cut, the wood needs to be dried for about eight months.

Once the wood is dry, he shaves it, sands it and coats it with Marine-grade polyurethane. Sometimes, he will stain the stick, almost fingerpainting the stain on with his gloved hands to make unique patterns, but more often he keeps the natural wood or bark.

"I like the look of natural wood," he said. "That's the best way to have them." He pointed out how the subtle crimson in the knot of the diamond willow wood begins to pop even with just one layer of polyurethane.

For years, Tasker made walking sticks exclusively, but his customers kept asking for canes, so he started to make those as well a few years ago. "Half of my business right now is making canes," he said. The canes are shorter than the walking sticks and curved at the top for a handle.

Tasker usually uses the natural form of the tree -- usually in the form of a root -- for his cane design. "All these canes have natural handles on them," he said as he held a few to demonstrate. If the handle has a distinctive, beaky curve, Tasker will paint them to look like flamingos or loons.

He also sometimes manipulates wood to get the shape or design that he wants. He wraps wire around the growing trees to curve them over the course of many years, either for bent cane handles or for spiral designs.

Tasker works on sticks during shows in the summer and in his workshop in the winter. He has to have between 300 and 500 sticks ready to go at any given time for the five stores that he supplies to in order to keep them stocked.

Tasker said his stick venture is profitable. He also gives away a fair number of sticks every year.

Woody Higgins, vice president of the Penobscot County Conservation Association and co-chairman of the Eastern Maine Sportsman Show, said that Tasker is generous with his sticks at events.

At shows, he will give small, light sticks away to curious children (with their parents' permission, of course). He also donated over a dozen sticks to the Bangor Vet Center for veterans who could use them.

"I'm a vet. I like to give back," he explained. "It's not only about the money."

Higgins has seen that first hand.

"He is very apt to work with veterans. He has in the past given free sticks to veterans who need them," Higgins said.

Even though Tasker turns 78 in April, you can expect to see him at events in the future as long as his health permits.

"I just feel so fortunate to be able to do what I do," he said. "It's just a lot of fun. As long as I can keep it fun, I'm going to keep doing it."

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