“And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” – Luke 9:23
A rustic wooden cross, raw like a nerve, hangs near the gravel drive entrance off the farm road. Love, pain and hope are embedded in the symbol. It tells an ancient story of sacrifice.
It also tells the story of its maker.
Mark Irland’s hands are both sensitive and rugged. Rough as the bark of the cedar with which he works, they guide the spinning blade over wood. Sawdust flies as he shapes another tree into a cross. It’s the second or third he’s made on this cool, sunny afternoon in spring.
Just a couple of days before Good Friday, smoke from oak logs burning in an outdoor firepit hangs in the air like incense. Crosses surround his cabin in the woods, creating a sense of the sacred. The stained cedar crosses are arrayed on one side of the cabin porch, hanging from trees. One cedar, still sprouting from the earth, has had the trunk cut and shaved into a pair of crosses, like they just grew there naturally. More crosses are attached to a barbed-wire fence on a ridge overlooking the sloping, open pastures surrounding his home in Sunset. The crosses stare into the distant north until the land rises to a tree-studded horizon where the Grasslands begin.
“If it wasn’t for the cross we’d all be dead in our sins,” Irland says, chipping smooth a groove in a fresh cross. “It means a lot to me that the cross is empty. Jesus has paid for our sins.
“It gives me a lot of peace. It’s the sacrifice God sent his son to die for our sins. I don’t know why he did that. He’s all-knowing so he knew how much it would hurt. I don’t see how he did it. I couldn’t do it by choice.”
Irland knows the pain of losing a child.
Early in the morning of Aug. 12, 2010, his 28-year-old daughter, Meg Irland, was killed in an automobile accident on U.S. 380, just west of Bridgeport.
“It’s been two years and six months, but time means nothing,” he said. “A lot of things help, but you have to go through it, day in, day out. You’re kind of on your own, is what it boils down to.”
Since that time, despite having so much taken from him, he has devoted himself to giving.
CROSS TO BEAR
Every highway and farm road stretching north and south, east and west, across Wise County tells tragic stories.
Roadside memorials, crosses reaching up from grassy bar ditches, let passersby know someone was lost here. Since losing his daughter, Irland has built hundreds of crosses for people who have lost a loved one, or who are dealing with their own hardship.
“I do it for therapy and to hopefully help people get over the loss of a child, or the loss of anybody,” Irland said.
His crosses on the roadside serve two purposes.
“It’s always a message,” he said. “You never know when somebody’s gonna ask, ‘Momma what does that cross mean?’ Somebody might be led to the Lord that way.
“As far as being a cross at a death or accident, it signifies it. It shows where it happened. Everybody always wants to go to the grave, but they can also go to the site and perhaps get some relief … It’s kind of a two-way deal. The message is Christ. Maybe they’ll just see that and not relate it to an accident scene. And the other is that someone was lost. It’s a place where someone might come pay tribute.
“I’ve never been to the site of my daughter’s crash even though I made a cross that sits there. It’s actually a signature cross. It’s got a pen hanging from it where you can sign. But I’ve never been able to go by there myself.”
His pastime has turned into a mission and a form of relief for his own anguish.
“I’ve probably made 800 to 900,” Irland said. “I quit keeping track of it because it was too burdensome. I usually get calls two to three times per day. I started making them 10 years ago, but it became a ministry to me, not just a hobby, when I lost Meg. It’s therapy. It keeps your mind busy so it don’t hurt quite so much.
“I just feel like I need to do something for them. It means a lot to people. If I didn’t get the feedback I did, I’d probably stop. But it’s probably more of a blessing to me than it is to them.”
His hands grip a leather-bound book in which he tried to keep track of all the people he’d constructed crosses for. But there were too many. On the first page, his wife Becky wrote: “Mark’s hobby quickly became his passion, his ministry, his therapy, and his sanity (nearly!).”
He’s constructed many of them in complete anonymity, dropping them off silently for people who can take comfort in the sign of the cross. Cedars, a tree many people pay him to remove, are transformed into signs of hope and memorial.
He’s delivered crosses to people in such far-flung places as Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska and even Connecticut.
“I made a cross for those killed at Sandy Hook,” Irland said. “It’s the biggest one I’ve ever made as far as weight. It weighed 80 pounds. We engraved the names of all 26 of the kids and the adults who were killed. The names went all the way around. It said ‘faith, hope and love, and Sandy Hook’ on it. We sent it up there, and they’ve put it at the new elementary school.
“One of those parents is going to look at it at some point and see their child’s name on that cross and find some comfort in it.”
TRAIL OF TEARS
The roads of Wise County offer abundant locations where Irland can plant his stained crosses. Local highways remain some of the deadliest in the state. Eighteen people died in traffic fatalities in Wise County last year, 16 the year before. Over the past decade, 185 people have lost their lives in fatal wrecks in Wise County.
Neighboring Denton County has seen about 250 fatalities in that time, and they have almost 12 times the population of Wise. Wise has had almost 20 more fatalities than Parker County in that same time frame, a county with twice the population – and an Interstate Highway.
State trooper Adolfo Patterson has spent the last decade with the Texas Department of Public Safety patrolling the roads of Wise County. He’s witnessed more than his share of fatal accidents.
“Why does Wise County have so many fatal wrecks?” he said. “That’s a good question. I know it’s changed since I first got here. When I first arrived (in 2003) it was a lot of crashes involving tractor trailers. But since then the enforcement of commercial vehicles has improved. It’s been 10 years and I’ve seen a change with adding the number of troopers here in the county.
“We’ve slowed it down. We still work a lot of fatal crashes, but I think we’ve made a difference. A lot of the crashes are about speed. And a lot are drug- and alcohol-related.
Patterson encouraged people to “… just slow down, take that extra second to make sure everything is good before making that next traffic movement. To me speed is always an issue. The faster you are going the more damage is going to take place. And it’s harder to react if you are going faster.”
Due to the number of crashes, fatal and non-fatal in Wise County, the DPS office has grown to 20 troopers with two sergeants. They also have a separate commercial enforcement station here to deal with the heavy truck traffic associated with oilfield work and quarries. And it has made a difference. In the early 2000s, the average number of fatal wrecks per year numbered in the mid-20s.
Most of the fatal wrecks last year occurred on U.S. 287. Eight people died on that highway that cuts through the county from northwest to southeast.
One of them was Josh Hernandez, an 18-year-old senior at Byron Nelson High School in Trophy Club. He died last April from injuries sustained in a wreck near Alvord. He was driving with his twin brother Jesse back home to Roanoke after watching a girls’ varsity soccer game in Wichita Falls.
Now, as drivers make their way south from Montague County, one of the first things they see when they enter Wise County is one of Irland’s crosses, marking the place where Josh lost his life. It rises from the top of an embankment reminding all not only of the sacrifice made by in a desert 2,000 years ago this Easter Sunday, but also the loss and pain suffered by family and friends of a young man killed too early in life.
Every roadside cross tells its own story.