Metro Detroiters Turn Tree Trunks Into Totems

Totem poles are one of the most enduring and recognizable legacies of the Pacific Northwest.

Native Americans carved looming sculptures from cedars, ornately decorating them with animals to mark a clan’s achievements and symbolize characteristics.

Some metro Detroiters have adapted the tradition, turning dead trees into modern-day totems. After a storm killed a tree next to Birmingham resident Michael Stein’s driveway in 2007, someone suggested he carve animals into it. But, veering from Native American tradition, Stein devised another idea.

“It just clicked in my mind, why not turn this into, in effect, the family tree?” he says. Stein asked local chainsaw carver Scott Kuefler to fashion an academic lineage from the 20-foot trunk. For a man who earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, a law degree from Georgetown University, and a post-graduate degree from the London School of Economics, the scholarly choice isn’t surprising.

“I think academics are important, and it’s just something that connects us,” Stein says.

With the symbols for Stein’s three schools stacked at the top of the trunk, next come the undergraduate and graduate degrees earned by his children and their spouses. Schools range from Wayne State and Lawrence Technological universities to Princeton.

But the colorful totem is a work in progress: His two youngest children have yet to make their mark and then, Stein says, there will be the grandchildren.

Jack Metzel, another Birmingham homeowner, took a more organic approach to the dead tree in his rustic backyard garden. He and his wife found an artist who carved a morel mushroom into the 10-foot stub. The sculpture blends with their landscaping, and now they’re looking to do something similar with the 70-footer in their front yard.

“It’s not often that you can find something that’s dead right for somebody to do something with it, to make it worthwhile,” Metzel says.