A guardian falls

Beloved ‘spirit tree’ of Bois-des-Ésprits falls

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This article was published 22/08/2021 (533 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

While a beloved spirit tree in Bois-des-Ésprits may have fallen, it will never be forgotten.

Woody-Mhitik, the three-metre-tall spirit tree that watched over the forest for the past 15 years, succumbed to the elements earlier this month. The wood began showing signs of decay in 2020 and slowly its condition deteriorated.

The story begins in 2004 with one of Save Our Seine’s first campaigns, executive director Michele Kading said. The group wanted to protect the forest, which was slated for clearing in order to build the Royalwood community.

Photo by Tony Nardella Woody-Mhitk finally toppled over after 15 years standing guard over Bois-des-Esprits.

SOS connected with Robert Leclair and Walter Mirosh, two members of Les Gens de Bois Woodcarving Club, initially with the idea of having them contribute a few pieces for a raffle. The group was celebrating its 25th anniversary and wanted to do something special.

“We heard of Save Our Seine and their work with the forest and thought ‘Let’s do some wood spirits in there’,” Leclair recalled.

A tree was identified that had been afflicted with Dutch elm disease and was due to be removed. Kading said tests showed the tree was 150 years old. The City of Winnipeg said that if the bark could be stripped by April 1 of 2004 the work could begin. It was something new for Leclair.

“I never tried anything that big but I said ‘Let’s see how it goes’,” Leclair said.

It was a long process. Work began on Feb. 16, 2004, and finished in the spring of 2006. Leclair explained he was still working, so he and Mirosh would carve when they could.

Leclair and Mirosh were seldom alone while creating Woody-Mhitik. Nature kept them company, whether it was frogs croaking, birds singing or other creatures walking by. They sensed a connection with the animals, and that bond was strengthened when the design began taking shape.

“When we started carving that first spring, we began with the eyes,” Leclair said. “And the birds singing, the frogs croaking, it all stopped, went completely silent. Was that by accident? I don’t know. It was a long time before we finished and then they started chirping and croaking again.”

Leclair and Mirosh finished one side in 2004 before working on the other half in 2005. He said they didn’t have a vision when they began. There was a big bump on one side they used for a nose. It was damaged by a fire a few years later and repaired, leaving Leclair to joke Woody-Mhitik got a nose job.

When Woody-Mhitik was near completion, not any old name would do, Leclair said. He knew Louis Riel had lived nearby and thought he should consult elders, so he visited Thunderbird House to invite them into the process. Representatives participated in the naming ceremony on May 28, 2006 and when an elder finished singing, she gave the statue the name Mhitik, which translates to Woody.

Kading said Woody-Mhitik means so many different things to different people. Since word of his end has come out, people have offered donations and support.

Supplied photo Walter Mirosh (left) and Robert Leclair are seen here with Woody-Mhitik after carving of the spirit tree was completed in 2006. The beloved tree in Bois-des-Ésprits finally succumbed to the elements last month.

“It’s really quite heartwarming to see the impact Woody-Mhitik has had,” Kading said.

“As an ecologist I can appreciate the tree for its ecological value, but I think Woody went beyond that. There was something special about the tree and it served as a guardian of the forest.”

An artist loves to see their work appreciated, and Leclair said Woody-Mhitik will always have a special place in his heart.

“The community was always looking out for it and that was really touching for me,” Leclair said. “He was looking out after his forest.”

Kading said the Save Our Seine board has begun conversations with the carvers about creating a new Woody to watch over Bois-des-Esprits. They are looking for another tree affected by Dutch elm disease that could be suitable. Woody-Mhitik will live on in the digital realm, however, as someone completed a three-dimensional rendering and gave it to the group.

Leclair said he visited Woody-Mhitik last year and knew this day was coming. Since he and Mirosh created Woody, they have both faced their own mortality, with Leclair surviving a brain tumour.

“Sadly, we’re not eternal and he’s not eternal,” Leclair said. “Yes. It’s sad but this is life. We woke him up but now he’s a spirit.”

Tony Zerucha

Tony Zerucha
East Kildonan community correspondent

Tony Zerucha is a community correspondent for East Kildonan. Email him at tzerucha@gmail.com

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