When Paul Stafford picked up a battered old chainsaw from his grandfather’s workbench at 16, he held three generations of history in his hands.
His father, grandfather and great-grandfather worked as saw millers or loggers in rural Victoria. His life seemed mapped out.
“I come from a pretty big family. There’s lots of utes, lots of chainsaws, lots of logging,” Mr Stafford says.
He left school to start his own business selling firewood and became a tree feller at 21.
After work, Mr Stafford and his friends liked playing backgammon and board games. Over a round of Pictionary one night, he realised his future could be different.
“It was my turn to draw, so I drew a wagon. And they all just went, ‘Oh God, you can draw,'” he recalls.
Encouraged by the friends around the table that evening, Mr Stafford began experimenting with wood sculpting.
He started by making things for his mates for free, which led to commissions and requests to appear at country shows.
Now 47, Mr Stafford gave up his day job two years ago to work full-time as a sculptor in his workshop at Nayook, 100 kilometres east of Melbourne.
He uses chainsaws and rotary tools to carve intricate faces into fallen trees, shape animals from stumps and create life-like busts of local icons from lumps of cypress.
The best part of his job is seeing his creations return to nature.
“On a sunny day, it’s the light that does the work. It changes all day long and then into the moonlight,” he says.
“The sculptures are still but kind of alive as well.”
It’s taken time for this delicate side to meet Mr Stafford’s burly, chainsaw-wielding demeanour.
“It’s having the ability to juggle or melt into that yin and yang and not be held to one side.”
He pauses, before a burst of laughter: “That’s an insight I’m just having now.”
Mr Stafford’s career change happened as the national forestry workforce began facing more uncertainty due to bushfires and state governments phasing out native logging.
An Australian Industry and Skills Committee report shows employment in logging has long been fluctuating, while the number of young people getting their qualifications is decreasing.
Many of Mr Stafford’s family and friends still work in the industry and he says some of his best days were spent among trees.
“I get a strong earthly feeling from timber,” he says.
“Just the smell and that real earthy feel is very grounding. Timber is so much of a part of us and we’re a part of it.”
He has an enormous respect for trees, their resilience and ability to adapt.
“They grow back. If you don’t touch a bit of land, trees will just start growing back.
“Trees are amazing things.
“I don’t want to be religious but trees are God’s gift to Earth.”