STILLWATER, MN (WCCO) — As families gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table, there’s a pretty good chance that at some point conversations touched on childhood memories. And some of the fondest of those memories may have involved trees.
What kid didn’t build a tree fort, hang a rope swing, or climb to the very top? The backyard oak or elm was often a favorite gathering spot for neighborhood shenanigans. The reality is, there’s yet to be a toy invented that could take the place of that backyard tree.
But when families pack up and move away from the old homestead it’s often with a sense of sadness, knowing all those memories are now in the past. Burnsville wood artist Tom Peter senses that too.
Peter is helping a Stillwater family ease the transition away from the place it’s called home since 1957.
“I think the squirrels planted that one,” says family matriarch Wynn McAfee. She’s referring to a big black walnut tree that stands near the edge of her Stillwater property.
For over half a century, the McAfee’s back yard was the neighborhood playground, a place where children from blocks around gathered.
“It’s been a special place for all of us,” said the 86-year old McAfee.
It’s a large property by today’s standards, encompassing eight city lots. It has plenty of space for a large garden and room to plant a variety of deciduous and conifer trees.
Wynn’s son, Rolfe McAfee, recalls the wonderful summer days he and his friends spent climbing the trees.
“I remember climbing to the very tops of the trees. That was my goal as a child to see how far up I could get,” said Rolfe McAfee.
Wynn said she and her husband loved planting trees and watching them grow along with their children.
As she reminisces, Wynn laughs and says, “Three children, but now they’re old folks!”
Those “old folks” now have kids of their own and as age takes the normal toll on Wynn, the large homestead is simply too much to take care of. She’s decided to put the property up for sale and find senior housing, but the tough part is leaving all those wonderful memories behind, including all those trees which meant so much.
“It was really time though. It’s a mixed blessing because it’s become a burden for mom to care for this huge place,” said daughter, Barbara McAfee.
That’s where Burnsville tree trimmer and wood artisan Tom Peter entered the McAfees’ lives. Peter understands the family’s conflicted feelings and compares separating a limb from a tree to a family from its home.
Peter gripped his chainsaw and eyed up an Amur maple tree in the backyard. Before he cut into a broken limb, he reflects, “there’s a piece of magic in here with this pruned branch! Inside here there’s a real piece of magic.”
It’s that hidden magic of the beautiful wood grain that Peter believes will ease anxiety over leaving. He’s named his business, “Respectful Transitions.”
With three generations of McAfee’s gathered around that old walnut tree, Peter goes to work, climbing high into the tree. He’s roped off an overhanging limb that will be gently lowered into the hands of Wynn and her children.
Peter is like a preacher in an outdoor cathedral officiating the ceremonial passage from one life to the next. The limb will provide him with precious wood grains that he will turn on a lathe into mementos of memories.
“Its art in your hands of the property you used to live on. A legend of your lifetime basically,” said Rolfe McAfee.
In his Burnsville wood shop, Peter prepares an awkward chunk of walnut for wood turning, saying that “balance is everything.”
When he’s found that perfect center of balance the piece of limb is spinning around and Tom presses a gouge into the wet wood.
“Here again, I’m getting splattered with water. I love this part,” he explaine, as he begins tearing away the bark and fiber to reveal nature’s concentric rings of time.
Within minutes the rough shape of a bowl begins to emerge.
“So my bowl is starting to take place where now, here comes design. I could start hollowing it out but it would be really awkward yet,” said Peter.
What took nature decades to grow is transformed in a matter of hours. The bowls or vessels are as unique as the trees from which they come, and the kids who once climbed them.
Peter believes the element that connects past memories with what people see in his bowls is what he doesn’t remove from his wood turning.
“Number one they see the bark and recognize that bark. Everyday they walked by it and saw that bark, they can recognize that bark,” he said.
The finished products of his skilled hands are unveiled mere days after the tree branches fell. Back in Stillwater, one week later, Tom Peter walks into a room where Wynn and Barbara McAfee are sitting. He opens up a box and pulls out one of his finished bowls, still wrapped with paper.
Peter explains, “and this is how that one turned out. There’s the magic of your Amur maple – isn’t that beautiful?”
Barbara and Wynn McAfee gasp with excitement and satisfaction. For the McAfee’s, the maple and walnut vessels will now hold the memories of years gone by.
More importantly, they will help ease the transition away from a place where trees and family grew.