Lifting the spirits of dead trees

The next time you're admiring the wilderness of High Park, you might find some of the vegetation staring back at you. Throughout the park, four distinct faces — carved into trees and stumps — watch over the park's visitors. This isn't the result of a mystical force beyond the realm of our understanding. This is the handiwork of Colin Partridge.

In 2006, the City of Toronto commissioned Partridge, a wood spirit carver, to carve figures into the dying trees in High Park (carving living trees would leave a permanent wound, likely shortening the lifespan of a tree). He spent two weeks working with a chainsaw, hammer, and chisel.

"When I did the first carving in High Park," he explains, "this gentleman came up to me, put his arms around me, and said, 'I've lived here for 20 years and that tree has always been my favourite. When it died, I was devastated. You have just given it new life.'"

The carvings can be found in various spots throughout the hills and dales of High Park, such as on a stump near the southeast corner of Grenadier Pond.

Partridge, who lives in the small town of Thornton, just south of Barrie, started carving wood spirits a decade ago, after retiring from the RCMP. He first encountered wood spirits in Germany's Black Forest, where he was stationed as a young soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces. Even though he carves mostly for private commissions for homes, cottages, and golf courses — he believes public space carvings, like the four faces in High Park, add a unique touch to a city's visual identity.

"If you have a really fine sculpture in the city," he says, "people pass that day by day and don't even see it. Where I find if you do a wood carving, people see it immediately."