As the Easter Sunday tornado raked across Chattanooga and North Georgia, it left behind a path of shattered homes and lives. Among its victims were trees that once stood tall and wide in front yards, outside churches and alongside streets.
The twister had torn off branches and snapped trees in half like fragile toothpicks, leaving behind splintered memorials of its destructive fury.
After the storm subsided, men and women emerged from the rubble to begin restoring the communities the tornado had touched. Some of them carried chain saws, which they fired up and sliced into trees that had fallen across streets and crushed rooftops.
Leslie Langhart, a 27-year-old woodworker who lives in Chattanooga, took his chain saw to the property of a married couple from his church. The tornado had flattened the man and wife’s heavily wooded backyard, and Langhart wanted to help them clean up.
Then he remembered a hidden talent he had discovered while living in his native Switzerland.
When he was young, Langhart received a whittling kit as a Christmas gift and developed a love for carving small animals out of pieces of wood. When he was older and learning how to operate a chain saw, he discovered he could use the tool to carve animals out of tree stumps.
“I had always been interested in woodworking,” he says. “When I started cutting down trees and became familiar with the chain saw, I started carving super easy stuff and realized I have a gift.”
So, Langhart picked one of the stumps in the husband and wife’s backyard and shaped it into an owl. This touched the man and woman who were heartbroken over the devastation of their property.
“They were touched to see something beautiful come out of the damage,” Langhart says.
After hearing about this act of kindness, a friend told Langhart about a 100-year-old cedar in Ft. Oglethorpe that the tornado had reduced to a fractured stump about the height of the average grown man. Intrigued, Langhart met with the family that lives on the property, and Gustar was born.
Gustar is the name of the bear that now resides where the tree once did. Carved out of the remains of the 100-year old, 50-foot cedar, Gustar watches over the traffic on South Cedar Lane and holds up a battery-operated lantern to light the way for night travelers.
Although blocky for a bear, Gustar is nonetheless a beautiful specimen. Standing erect on his back legs, he seems proud of the graceful lines of his arms, legs and face, which Langhart somehow formed with the fierce and destructive edges of his chain saws.
Deep red and brown wood that was once buried under the tree’s protective bark is now exposed to the elements and serves as Gustar’s handsomely textured coat.
Patches of lighter wood span the bear’s sides and highlight his nose and mouth, adding character. Under Gustar’s raised left arm, cracks in the wood from the stress of the tree being bent in the storm serve as a birthmark that tells the story of how he came to be.
When Langhart first saw the shape and dimensions of the stump, he immediately saw a bear in the disfigured wood. He also saw its arm raised and a paw holding a flickering lantern.
“One of the chipped parts was taller, and I saw the arm coming up with the lantern in his paw,” he says.
Langhart made his initial cuts with a Stihl MS272, a hefty chain saw with a 20-inch bar. He then used his smaller and lighter Stihl MS170 to add definition. Finally, he utilized a small rotary tool called a Dremel to create details like Gustar’s claws and wide mouth, which from certain angles looks like a smile.
As a final touch, Langhart burned small sections of the wood to bring out the bear’s eyes, nose, paws and feet.
“I also used an angle grinder to sand it a little more, and at the end, I made marks with the chain saw to give it an authentic look,” Langhart explains.
As Langhart carved, passing drivers honked their approval or stopped and praised his efforts. “I liked seeing people smile as I worked,” he says. “At one point, there was a big traffic jam. It encouraged me to keep going.”
Now complete, Gustar is the creation of not just careful hands but also caring hands.
Langhart says the sight of toppled trees saddened him as he drove through Chattanooga’s neighborhoods following the storm.
“Knowing they would be thrown away or turned into mulch hurt me because I have a deep connection to wood,” he says. “I try to use as much of a tree as I can during a project because it takes a long time for wood to grow, and I want to honor it and continue its life.”
A carpenter by trade, Langhart builds custom furniture and cabinets through his local business, Olive Branch Woodworking. When he’s not making coffee tables or reshaping trees into animals, he can be found at Freedom Church Chattanooga, where he helps his wife, Kate, lead the youth group and plays violin and guitar in the worship band.
A profoundly creative person, Langhart also draws. But none of his many artistic endeavors are as meaningful to him as the time he spends with wood.
“I loved turning a tree the storm ripped apart into something beautiful that brings people joy.”