Richard Hazard’s safety goggles are covered in sawdust and he is squinting at his newest project. He guides his chainsaw along the more than 100-year-old tree, making detailed cuts that start to reveal the face of a polar bear.
Hazard is working on carving every inch of a 22-foot-tall pine tree on Acampo Road, across from Houston Elementary School. The homeowner, George Stout, was forced to cut most of the limbs off because they were interfering with electrical wires and the pine needles the tree shed were putting stress on his roof.
Instead of getting rid of the trunk, he wanted to make a piece of artwork that can live on for generations.
“It’s a shame to cut something down that’s been there so long. It’s one of God’s creatures, and we are celebrating the tree by honoring it,” Stout said.
The totem pole will be called Pooh’s Corner, with Winnie the Pooh front and center and a beehive placed just above him. On the totem there will be also be a variety of bears, including panda, polar, black and brown bears.
There will be a mama bear perched on a ledge watching over her cubs. The top of the tree will have limbs carved into it, giving it the appearance of a canopy, Stout said.
The tree will also feature a bunch of grapes and the “Pooh’s Corner” sign will be made out of a wine barrel. On the other side, there will be a tribute to the Lodi Flames and the Tokay Tigers.
“I like it because it’s got so much in it. It represents everyone and everything,” Stout said.
The tree is 3 feet wide at the base, and the limbs alone have 50 rings. The tree is a landmark in the area, Stout said.
Hazard, the manager of Java Shop, has carved bears that are displayed in front of businesses and on lawns throughout Lodi. He has given them as gifts to customers, and has also been commissioned for special projects throughout the region.
Last year, Hazard carved a Smokey Bear wood statue out of a 700-pound piece of redwood to celebrate the icon’s 66th birthday, for the United States Forestry Service ranger station in Pioneer.
Hazard learned his carving technique while he owned a coffee shop in Alaska in the early-2000s. He watched artist Nick Lavender, who owned Beartooth Carving, and then started carving his own bears.
The tree is the largest project Hazard has ever taken on. He was worried about being 22 feet in the air with a chainsaw.
He carves for several hours a week, and so far, he has carved the first 10 feet. He is following the natural grooves of the tree, and found a way to incorporate knotholes and the remaining branches. He has changed the design based on what catches his eye. For example, he noticed electrical wires near the tree cast a twisting shadow at the bottom of the trunk, so he carved in bricks that also twist up the tree.
While walking around the trunk, it looks like the bears are actually in the tree. Pooh looks like he is holding on through a cubby hole, and one bear’s body pops out in two different parts of the tree.
“In my mind, the inside of that whole tree is hollow, and there are bears inside playing and they are popping their heads and their bottoms out as they play,” Hazard said.
Originally, he was only supposed to carve a few bears into the tree, but the project has gradually become more and more complex.
“It’s not just a job now, it’s a challenge. ... It’s a sense of accomplishment that you can actually tackle something beyond what you thought you could do,” Hazard said.
Once it is complete, Stout said he will use four to five gallons of preservative on the tree every two years. If it is taken care of properly, it could last a hundred years or more, Stout said.
Hazard has been working for three to four months, and the goal is to complete it by Christmas, but he said he is not going to rush the project.
“Instead of just cutting this beautiful pine tree and leaving the stump to rot, this is a way of recycling and repurposing. It’s over 100 years old, and it would be a shame to lose it,” Hazard said.