"Since my brother passed away, I've been looking for signs, waiting for him to come to me in my dreams, tell me goodbye," said Juan Ochoa, 45, who works at Queen of Heaven Cemetery, where tree trimmers stumbled upon the religious symbol.
The discovery, Ochoa said, is helping ease his pain.
Workers removing the fallen California pine stopped cutting when they found the cross image in a section of the tree. No other portions of the tree contained similar markings, Ochoa said.
Cemetery administrators are displaying the 4-inch-thick tree slice in their office. It sits in a gold stand, but plans are to place it in a clear box for display.
"We've never seen anything like it before," said Queen of Heaven worker Anna Engelhard.
People have stopped to pray when they see the cross; others have taken out their rosary beads. One man who was shaken by the symbol told cemetery workers he was going to go to church. "He felt the power that there is something," a staffer said.
Emily Chandler owns the tree service whose trimmers discovered the cross. She said that when her son, a foreman, texted her a photo of the cross, she told him to take the slice home or that she would keep it herself.
Chandler, whose business goes back several generations, said workers have found interesting images within felled timbers — including a perfectly shaped heart in a dead birch tree some years ago — but they had never found a cross until now.
"If you're spiritual, Christian, Catholic, whatever, I think you find very comforting meanings in things like that when you come across them," she said.
For Ochoa, the discovery is especially significant. He planted the tree 12 or 13 years ago at the foot of a gentle hill overlooking some of the Catholic cemetery's sprawling 200 acres. The tree was a potted Christmas tree left at a grave. When families don't pick up such little Christmas trees after the holidays, workers plant them.
Lewis Feldman, a professor of plant biology at the University of California-Berkeley, said it's possible the cross is aromatic scar tissue known as "heartwood," which trees transport into their centers, where the tissue is dead. He theorized the tree could have had its main tip damaged and the connections belonging to remaining branches that eventually fell off were preserved, with the brown tannins and resins moving to the center of the tree.
"It's very interesting that it was put in a cross shape," Feldman said. "Something was going on (with the tree) at that time."
Brother Charles Hilken, a professor of medieval studies at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., said reported appearances of sacred symbols and apparitions are not surprising. He said that until more is revealed about the matter, the private experience of believers should be respected.
Scientific phenomenon or not, cemetery employees are happy with the find.
"It's on holy ground where a lot of people are buried," said Joanna DiSibio, a family service counselor at Queen of Heaven. "We believe there's a meaning to it."
— By Jennifer Modenessi, Contra Costa Times (MCT)