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Tree carving creates art that mixes old, new

A reindeer totem pole was carved from an old big yellow pine in the Wolfrums' backyard. 
 (Photos by J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)
A reindeer totem pole was carved from an old big yellow pine in the Wolfrums' backyard. (Photos by J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)

When last winter’s wind storms whipped the tall ponderosa pines in Bert and Betty Wolfrum’s backyard, they thought the trees might blow down.

The tops of the three trees were already split and the Wolfrums decided to fell them before the next gusty storm could knock them into the neighbor’s pool.

But instead of taking the trees to the ground, they left tall stumps, chopping off the tops and tossing the split logs over the fence for a neighbor to use for firewood. Then they commissioned tree artist Don Nelson to turn the stumps into totem poles.

Tree carving, says Nelson, creates art that is both new and old, and he always feels like he didn’t create the art, but find it within the wood. “The piece you carve is already antique the minute you start it,” he says.

Of the three poles Nelson carved, Betty’s favorite pays homage to Chief Joseph, depicting the Chief after he gave his famous, “I will fight no more,” speech of surrender at Bear Paw in 1877.

The stoic figure faces north, toward Canada, his eyes closed and left arm pointing skyward in silent salute while his right arm droops with the knife he would no longer raise in battle.

“I always admired Chief Joseph,” says Betty, gazing at the pole through the picture window from the warmth of her living room. “It says a lot to me. It says, ‘Take care of my people.’”

Before carving the Chief, Nelson says he studied pictures and the story of the surrender. Library trips, he says, are common before a tree carving job, because it helps him know his subject and what the homeowners want before he starts carving.

For the other poles, the Wolfrums wanted eagles and deer, but gave Nelson free rein to carve what he saw in the trees.

On one, an eagle looks as if it were flying off the top of the pole, a fish in its talons, while another eagle soars below it.

While carving those eagles, Nelson says the Chief startled him a couple of times. “I’m carving the eagle, and I turn around and just about jumped out of my pants because Chief Joseph is staring at me.”

The final pole is a more fanciful rendering of a mule deer, sporting a set of antlers Nelson chose from 10 unmounted racks the Wolfrums had from their son’s hunting excursions.

Nelson picked a large, well-weathered rack because, with a protective coating, it would be the most likely to survive the elements, bringing the Wolfrum’s years of all-season pleasure, whether they are inside or out.

“It adds something to the yard. It gives us something to look at,” says Betty of the three totems, noting they plan to install lights so they can still see them at night. “It makes for good conversation.”