For the last year or so, a verse of Scripture has guided artisan Pam Lewis through her latest woodworking project:
"Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they are?" — Matthew 6:26.
Inspired by the words, Lewis began crafting wooden "comfort birds," a small, smooth chickadee shape that rests in the cup of the hand, its weight and symbolism meant to provide reassurance to whoever holds it.
Initially, she shared them with residents of Garden Plaza at Greenbriar Cove. Lewis' father lives in the Ooltewah retirement community, and Lewis has taught woodworking to the residents there for more than eight years, until the coronavirus pandemic banned visitors. The birds are too specialized for the class curriculum, but she had given them to several residents, as well as others in her circle, and witnessed how meaningful they seemed when she shared one.
"It hit me, the significance of a comfort bird, how much it meant to those people when they were going to the hospital or going through rough times or just being elderly, to know that God is still looking out for them," she said. "I was really, really impacted by how much it provided comfort for them, just to hold it."
She might have continued indefinitely with the occasional gift, but the Easter tornadoes that hit parts of North Georgia and eastern Hamilton County compelled her to do more. To date, she has made 56 comfort birds for families affected by the late-night storms, which included seven tornadoes and winds up to 145 mph. The devastation claimed 11 lives across the region and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
To make the comfort birds for these families even more meaningful, Lewis is crafting them from downed trees that hold special meaning for the recipients, whether it's a touchstone of the trauma they survived or, in some cases, to memorialize the lives that were lost.
From each ravaged property, she hopes will come a reminder that there is still beauty in the wreckage.
"What the devil meant for evil, God is providing some good," Lewis said.
Her first request for a bird made from tornado-felled wood was from a doctor friend who already owned one of her comfort birds. Lewis had made his original bird from the orange-tinted wood of a 150-year-old Osage oak that fell at the Hamilton County Courthouse in September 2012.
The bird was among the items destroyed at his office when the Easter tornado sent a 20-year-old oak crashing through the building.
"He wasn't worried about the lost medical records," Lewis said. "He said, 'I lost my Osage orange bird.' He was so sad about that. You feel kind of bad about mourning a tree, but he said, 'It's like losing an old friend.'"
The doctor's request for a bird made from the office oak gave Lewis the idea that other people might appreciate a similar token.
Her son, Nathan Lewis, volunteers with Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department and was on site at many scenes of devastation in Hamilton County. He was at the Ooltewah home of his friend Skyler Phillips, a Chattanooga Fire Department captain and director of emergency medical services, when his mother messaged him, "Get the word out. I want to do this for the tornado victims."
Phillips quickly put his name on the list, giving Nathan Lewis a portion of a downed dogwood from his yard. Phillips had several options. Six of his own trees went down in the storm, along with a massive oak in a neighbor's yard that clobbered his backyard.
Nathan Lewis continued to spread the word via social media and in person over the next few days as the Tri-Community squad triaged the neighborhoods in their district.
"We got flooded with interest," he said.
Each bird requires a section of a branch 8 to 10 inches in diameter and 12 to 14 inches long. The logs are roughly squared to the correct size with a chain saw, then smoothly squared with a table saw. Fresh wood can't be carved, but Pam Lewis has learned that a food dehydrator can speed up the drying process.
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Lewis usually sells her comfort birds for $35, using various types of woods that interest her. Snake wood is a favorite for its unusual, reptilian markings. Bradford pears turn out a coral color. Box elder is white with red markings, like vanilla ice cream with a strawberry swirl. Often, worm holes or diseases add visual interest to the wood.
Lewis is giving the tornado comfort birds to the families for free. She said she has been touched by the stories they have told her.
For Jessica Brownlow, a white oak in her dad's yard had been a favorite since he was a small child growing up next door. A tree swing had entertained countless children, and her dad decorated the lower canopy with string lights for her and her sister's weddings. The nearby house sustained little damage during the storm, but the tree was lost.
"We were thankful our home wasn't destroyed, but we loved that old tree," said Brownlow.
In some cases, the stories are more tragic than sentimental. A woman from Murray County, Georgia, picked up eight birds to help families memorialize the eight people who died there.
Lewis said she has "whispered many prayers over the wood" as she carved it.
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