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Dan Rodricks: | Faith and the art of chainsaw carving in rural Maryland | COMMENTARY

Outside his roadside shop in Grantsville, Maryland, Bob Wilt uses a chainsaw to carve bear figures of all sizes from hemlock and white oak.

Maybe it was the sudden and distressing news about a relative, or because 800,000 Americans have died in the pandemic, or because of the incessant gun violence in Baltimore. Whatever the reason, I decided it was time to pull over and watch a man carve a bear out of wood with a chain saw.

Near Grantsville, in Western Maryland, Bob Wilt, the bearded bear carver of Bittinger Road, put on a face shield and hearing protectors. He pulled the cord on a Stihl with a 16-inch bar and started cutting into a hemlock log. Fine dust flew off the chain, flecks landing on Wilt’s hoodie, jeans and boots. He moved around the log like a barber around a customer, trimming the top and clipping the sides, careful to avoid cutting off ears.

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The day was sunny and the temperature mild, unusual for mid-December in Garrett County. Wilt said he was behind in work and needed to catch up. There were sections of barkless hemlock and white oak all around him, some as big as courthouse pillars, all slated to be turned into replicas of ursus americanus. Wilt carves likenesses of black bears at various stages of growth, from cub to adult, sow and boar. He’s also carved eagles and jack rabbits.

“Saw a man do it at a fair in West Virginia,” Wilt said, when I asked how he got into carving animal figures with a chain saw. That was 20 years ago, just over the line in West Virginia. Wilt watched and decided he could do what he saw the fellow at the fair do. I took that to mean he’s self taught, that one day he stood a 4-foot section of tree trunk on end, woke up his chain saw and gave carving a go. He’s been earning a living this way ever since and seems to take pride in his work, though he didn’t use those words. In fact, when I complimented him on some of the pieces in his roadside showroom, Wilt didn’t respond. We went back outside and I shot video and stills of him bringing a bear out of wood. During a lull in the carving, as the chain saw idled, I told Wilt he was an artist.

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“I just hold the saw,” he said. “God does the cutting.”

I didn’t expect that, but I wasn’t really surprised to hear a man in rural Maryland openly invoke faith in God and give the Almighty credit for his creations. I’ll admit to being a fellow who quietly groans when he hears professional athletes give it up for God after they’ve hit a home run or scored a touchdown. I’m not much for public piety the way my mother-in-law isn’t much for scrambled eggs. But I wasn’t about to groan at the certitude of a man holding a chain saw.

In fact, having been jarred by a recent run of bad news, I felt ready to hear more. The moment seemed suddenly blissful — a man making wooden bears, instead of hunting and killing real ones in the yonder woods; a man grateful to a higher power for his ability to create something people are willing to buy.

“The Bible says everything you touch is blessed and it says you’ll prosper in everything you do,” Wilt told me, turning his chain saw off. “I said, ‘You cut better than I do, God. … You said I’ll prosper in all I do and everything I touch is blessed, so God, I’ll run the saw, you do the cutting, and then you put a name on the bear and send the people to buy it.’”

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I asked about his church and Wilt identified as Apostolic Pentecostal. He came to it after his mother died 10 years ago.

Five years ago, he said, his business hit a rough patch. He had several carved bears lined up along Bittinger Road but suddenly no customers pulled into his lot, and winter was closing in.

“For two months I didn’t sell no bears,” he said. “I was faithful. I said, ‘God, I ain’t selling no bears. God, this [carving] is what you have me doing. Money’s running thin. You’re supposed to supply my needs, man.’ I talk to God just like I talk to you.”

And just before the snow started to fly, Wilt said, business picked up.

“A lady stopped by and picked up a bear for $375. I said, ‘Praise the Lord, thank you Jesus.’ Two days later, another couple bought another bear for $375. So now I know that every bear I cut, God puts a name on it and he sells them. He’s taking care of me.”

Before I could ask Wilt why he needed God as an explanation for those much-needed sales, he added, “That’s all by faith.”

And I’ll only challenge another man’s faith when it’s harmful to others, never when it merely satisfies a personal need and brings on bliss.

“I’ve got an awesome God,” Wilt said. “Do I hear him? Yes. If you don’t hear the voice of God, I think it’s time you talk to him.”

Wilt said he had to get back to work. We wished each other well. As I drove away, he pulled the starter handle and went back to holding the chain saw for the master carver.

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