Spotted: Old Pine’s maple minister

If you’ve walked down the 400 block of Pine Street, then you’ve likely noticed Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church’s beautiful churchyard and the radical tilt of its historic cast iron fence, leaning over the sidewalk. It’s the result of a slow motion, decades-long fight between two trees and the fence. Though the trees won the battle, displacing the fence’s base, it was time for surrender in the name of public safety and the fence itself.

Last year Old Pine decided to take action – but simple removal didn’t quite feel right. One tree was cut down, the other was left as a 16-foot tall stump and has become a vehicle to tell a story about the place.

“The tree pushed the fence out, so now we’re using the tree to spread the message of the church, the history of the church, and use it as a fundraising tool to raise the funds needed to do the proper repairs on the fence,” explained sculptor Roger Wing. After a year of planning, Wing spent the last six weeks transforming the tree into a sculpture of one of Old Pine’s earliest ministers, Rev. George Duffield.

By reputation Rev. Duffield was more revolutionary than wooden. But now, 200-plus years after his death, Wing has brought Rev. Duffield back to life, rendering him from that churchyard maple. As a Colonial-era minister Duffield preached for independence. Duffield’s words yielded a bounty on his head from King George III, and it’s said influenced John Adams to side with the revolutionaries. In wood, Wing sought to capture Duffield’s dynamism.

“He’s standing atop a hillock, perhaps in New Jersey, preaching to troops as they are confronting the British, coming under cannon fire. He’s looking to text to share a scripture and he’s raising his hand in a protective blessing,” Wing said describing the sculpture. “The tree wanted to be more than an upright stiff old preacher.”

Now Duffield’s example is being marshaled to a new cause.

“I’m a wood carver because of my love for trees. I love the fact that the neighbors and the church community all love the tree so much that they couldn’t let it go and they wanted to do something to pay tribute to the tree that had grown here for a hundred years,” Wing told me as his work on the sculpture was drawing to a close late last week. “The reverend was a revolutionary and when I look at who’s dying on the front lines today we have the world’s forests coming under the axe and the fire and the plow. I think that to have a tree stand as a revolutionary to oppose the mindless destruction is a fitting further life for the tree.” 

Wing describes the project as a collaboration with the maple tree, which he said resists every effort to carve it. But it’s also because of the wood’s hardness that sculpture’s detail will hold as it ages. To help stabilize the artwork its tree, the wood was injected wit 50 borate rods, which is a soluble salt that makes the stump and roots unappealing to insects, mold and fungus. Wing also coated his work it with layers of linseed oil and topcoats that included varnish to seal the wood.

The longevity of the sculpture is, however, dependent on how quickly Old Pine can raise the funds to fix the fence.

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