21Country: Brothers share story behind hidden ‘wood spirits’ in Allen Co. Parks

Carved totems enchant seasonal visitors who know when, and where to look
Updated: Sep. 13, 2022 at 5:30 PM EDT
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ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WPTA21) - With the changing of the seasons, Jeff and Tim Ormiston adorn select trees with their carving creations. They’re whimsical, they’re fun, and they’re symbolic of nature: wood spirits. The brothers have been doing it for over three years, and it has exploded with popularity — each quarter, enthusiastic visitors search for the hidden totems throughout Fox Island or Matea County Parks. “The philosophy of wood spirits started out in the Black Forests of Germany,” Jeff Ormiston, Allen Co. Parks Environmental Educator told us. “Each tree contained a wood spirit that protected that tree, and it also protected the travelers of the forest.”

They’ve been doing it for several years now. His brother Tim, began helping out shortly after. “Jeff was interested in doing wood carving. I’ve been a woodworker for some time — I thought this kind of looks fun!” he shared. “I’ve been helping him with this inventory so to speak.” Both Ormistons spend hours every week carving objects and characters out of dead wood salvaged from the parks. A portion of their output, is in wood spirits of all shapes and sizes, bearing a variety of expressions and personality. “I try to carve everyday,” Tim added. “The best carvers say, even if it’s 10 minutes, carve every day. I really try to get a knife in my hand, a piece of wood, and do something.” When it comes to carving a design, Tim says the type of wood “speaks to him”, and a wood spirit’s face emerges during the process. “This is a piece of redbud,” he showed us. “It had a knot in it, and I decided to make a whistler out of it — the knot became a whistle mouth. The wood kind of told me what I should do with it, and that’s why they are all different.”

Each wood spirit takes 1-2 hours. “I hang these up at the changes of the seasons: March, June, September, and December,” Jeff explained. “That’s my original intention and I do that because it happens about the same time each year, regardless of what year it is. And I thought that was pretty cool to also honor the changes of the seasons with our spirits.”

Tim and Jeff Ormiston carve wood spirits at Matea County Park
Tim and Jeff Ormiston carve wood spirits at Matea County Park(Daniel Beals)

But perhaps, the gesture is even more significant this year. In June, southern Allen County was slammed with a derecho. Fox Island County Park was among the hardest areas hit. Officials say over a thousand trees fell — opening up some forested sections to broad daylight for the first time in a century. Jeff Ormiston spends most of his time there, and in the past, chose Fox Island to hide the wood spirits. But the majority of the park has been closed to the public for months, while staff work to clear trees and debris from common trails. This year, their wood spirits will adorn trails at Matea County Park, though most of the carved totems are made from reclaimed wood destroyed in that storm. “To be able to pick those up, and carve images on them and faces on them,” Jeff said. “And think that you can come out, bring them to a park across the county and have other individuals find them — I think that’s a great connection.”

RELATED: Fox Island still cleaning up after derecho

The brothers hope the search for their pieces will draw newcomers to the park, and that the beauty and serenity will keep them coming back. “We tend to look at the things on the surface — whether it’s the ground, or the bushes, or the trees in front of us,” Tim told us. “But there’s much more than that in a forest, and hopefully these draw you in. It takes you off the trail a little bit, and maybe you find something that you never thought would have been there before.”

“I’ve been amazed in the last three and a half years we’ve been doing this, how popular it is,” Jeff added. “Where people actually want to know when the next installation is, where it’s going to be.” He continued. “When I post that, I’ll look out and see the parking lots are full of people… A lot of them are just out to find the wood spirits.”

If you want to head out to search — you’ll need to wait about a week. The Ormistons will share on social media, via the Matea County Park and Fox Island County Park pages, when those wood spirits will be hidden. Jeff and Tim are very passionate about carving, and lead classes through Allen County Parks. The next event is Oct. 15.

“It’s truly cutting out what’s in there and making it visible,” Tim concluded. “Is there a spirit there? I wouldn’t say that there is — but certainly when I go into a forest, I love the idea that it speaks to you. There’s sounds in the forest that you don’t hear anywhere else.”