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.
The next day I began to whittle on my porch. Soon after I had a collection of sticks—sycamore, tulip, ailanthus, black locust. I whittled them all. I wasn’t sure what whittling actually was, or if what I was doing constituted whittling. What I was doing was stabbing and scraping sticks with a sharp knife. It wasn’t even a proper whittling knife. Instead it was an expensive, spring-action switchblade, more suitable to skinning a small animal than shaving a branch.
But I liked the rhythm. It involved no screens, no Zooming, no words, no consumption of content or digestion of grief. It had tempo, a simple mechanical flow, scrape, peel, scrape, making something smooth from the rough discarded limbs of my favorite living organisms. A sharp knife helped.
When the knife was too small for bulky knobs on the bark, I used a machete. I placed the stick across my right knee and slid the machete across the top, driving the knobs off. I swigged beer between cuts. I had bought the machete three years ago, justified by boyish fantasies of cutting through chaparral and chopping kindling for fire. But mostly I had used it to dig holes for poop when I camped in backcountry wilderness. Once, I dug a foot-deep hole in the sand dunes of Colorado. I was the only human sleeping in the dunes that night. The quiet of the San Luis Valley unsettled me. I could hear wind sweeping sand. When the wind stopped, I heard nothing. I couldn’t remember another time in my life I heard nothing. It told me how far I was from anything human, a distance that first frayed, then soothed, my nerves. I rambled across the seams of the dunes until I was comfortable, knowing I was thousands of miles from any house where I might have to pay to call it home. I was happier out in the wide open. So I dug a deep hole for poop. I planted my machete in the ground next to me, squatted, and when I looked up, I saw the Milky Way, stretched out like a soft hammock. I felt cradled by it, but also grounded, small, a kid and his big knife, rambling alone in a valley of sand and stars.
* * *
I’m sure the machete unsettled the neighbors. When I first moved to D.C., I took pleasure in this effect, drinking beer in my little yard in a changed-and-changing Logan Circle, shirt off, trucker hat on, jump-slicing at dead branches above me. My neighbors all had more money than me. They likely thought that money could get them away from this kind of thing. But it couldn’t. Until someone bought the house from under us for $1.3 million. The tenants were given a chance to match the offer. We didn’t. After I left, they didn’t trim the trees in the little yard; they cut them all down.
When the pandemic hit, I was living in another neighborhood, tethered to another home. I had lots of time on my hands that first month. I had tried to ramble in the park, but home was the safe place now, and every walk started with a sense of prompt return. It felt safer to sit on a porch than stroll busy public trails, and not even a good sturdy stick could transform a walk in the park into an open ramble.
So I whittled. It’s a loner’s habit. Drinking beer, paring wood. And when the mailman approached, he took one look at me and my machete and kept walking. “No mail for you today,” he said. He skipped to the next house, delivering mail to all the other homes on the block.
I didn’t blame him. No one was sure who was safe to approach those days. Trees and sticks were safe, but other living things, we weren’t so sure about. I simply nodded, sipped my beer, and then changed back to the switchblade, curling red sequoia bark onto my bare feet on the porch. It seemed like a good way to pass the time. It still does.
Six months later, another move to another home, and I’m still making walking sticks. I have a dozen good branches right now—aspen, planetree, spruce—collected after an unexpected hurricane-like wind storm in Salt Lake City. COVID cases are on the rise here again. The crisis endures. So I whittle. Pretending to make a magic object for future use. And if this walking stick doesn’t turn out to be magic, it will still make for a sturdy companion on a quiet ramble alone someday, away from here, this safe place called home.
Sam Nelson is a student in the University of Utah's Environmental Humanities graduate program. He is a teacher and writer and has published work in The Washington Post, So It Goes, DCist, Fiction Southeast, and other places. He is currently working on children's literature about trees.