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Whittling Wood

It was during the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis that I started whittling wood. I kept it simple—walking sticks. I loved walking; and I loved sticks. Someone had gifted me a crafted strip of sweetgum last year, and I took it on walks with me often, the way other people take a dog. To walk with a stick is to be gifted the transformative feeling of rambling. When I ramble, I forget where I started, which means I forget that I’m supposed to return to a place called home. I just keep walking like I might walk free forever. My house stops being my home, a place of return, a place of stillness, a place of rent payments to a lord of land. Instead, the woods open up in revolving embrace. A good stick helps, like a bit of magic, a practical talisman.

I’d had it in my head for a while to gift my nephew a walking stick. Two years ago, I salvaged a strawberry-red branch of madrone from Big Sur and drove it across the country with me. Then I left it on my father’s woodpile in his shop, hoping to whittle it into a magical talisman later on. I never saw it again.

When the virus began to show itself in D.C., I went to the National Arboretum with my partner at the time, knowing the space would close to the public soon. It was my third time that month. We avoided people while chasing magnolia blossoms.

“I don’t know if we should stick our noses in these,” she said, as I whiffed deep—deep enough for a stigma to plumb my right nostril. “What if someone with the virus stuffed their nose in that, too?”

I looked at the blossom, a Yulan magnolia, wider than a fist, all citrus-butter and fragrant glory. There were so many of them. But damn this one looked good. What were the chances that this one blossom was festering in corona particles? I looked around. I saw another human plunge his nose into a star magnolia, eyes closed, as if it were a drug. We went the other way.

I carried my sweetgum stick. We rambled through a dawn redwood stand, and then the through the dwarf conifer collection, and on the other side of another hill, we found a pair of unlikely friends for D.C.—a giant sequoia and a coastal redwood, together but apart. I hugged the redwood, rubbing my beard into its hairy bark. I had quit hugging people except my partner, and now all of my backlogged affection went to trees. I hugged the sequoia next. Several of its branches littered the ground. Remembering the lost California stick for my nephew, I now picked another.