Reading Redwoods

Leona Sevick speaks of isolation and vulnerability in her reading of Jason Isbell’s song “Only Children” and in her poem “Albino Redwoods.” Sevick’s poem appears in Volume 72.1.



“Only Children,” my favorite song on Jason Isbell’s latest album, Reunions, perfectly evokes the loneliness of a solitary childhood spent among books. The melancholy guitar, which he plays like he’s rubbing the ears of his favorite dog, drives the sadness of his song about children drawn together by their strangeness:


Remember when we used to meet

at the bottom of Mobile Street

do what the broken people do


Like the speaker in this song, and like so many writers I’m close to, I felt different from other children I grew up with. Isolated and precocious, sensitive and verbal, I found comfort and companionship in books. My brother and I lived in rural Maryland without a neighborhood or friends close by, so we hauled away stacks of books from the one room library in town, running up fines we knew they’d never make us pay. Both our parents worked long, hard shifts: our immigrant mother sewed patches for uniforms at a sewing factory; our father was a state trooper. When we weren’t doing chores around the house, we were reading thick books or riding our banana-seat bikes. We were smarter and more creative than most of the kids we went to school with, and we damn well knew it. Sometimes that got us into trouble, and sometimes that made us wish for a future somewhere else. We learned early on that being special can be isolating, especially for children.


Are you still taking notes?

Do you have anyone to talk to?

Castle walls you can walk through?


I wrote “Albino Redwoods” during the pandemic, when I started riding my bike for the first time since I was a child. Nearly every weekend I took long rides through the woods, where I noted the great variety of trees that grow in the George Washington National Forest. One night I ran across an article online about albino redwood trees that can’t produce chlorophyll, which makes their needles stark white. They are so rare (only about 400 living examples) that they are protected by docents who direct people away from them, so they won’t be injured or trampled. I thought about the trees’ sensitivity and rareness, their need for other trees to host them through a complex root system. Like poets, they are fragile and persistent, introverted and reliant on others. My poem, “Ghost Trees,” came together as I thought about these trees through the lens of pandemic isolation.


Will you read me what you wrote?

The one I said you stole from Dylan

Over-encouraged only children.


My brother’s life took a very different direction from mine, and we never talk about our shared past—some of it painful, much of it joyful. Still, like the speaker in Isbell’s song, my brother got to be an astronaut—at least for a little while—and I’m proud of him and what he’s been able to do with his specialness. I got to be a poet, and although my path is not as rare, at times, it is hopeful.

Leona Sevick is the Press 53 Award for Poetry winner for her first full-length book of poems, Lion Brothers. Her work appears in Orion, Birmingham Poetry Review, Blackbird, and the Southern Review. She was a 2019 Walter E. Dakin Fellow for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She serves as advisory board member of the Furious Flower Black Poetry Center and is Professor of English at Bridgewater College in Virginia, where she teaches Asian American literature.