ONCE, when Silver Spring was still a spring, a fine old oak stood by the Colesville Road. It was 100 years old, and it was how you knew you were in Silver Spring.

But then the town grew up, and the oak died, leaving a tall, silver ghost of itself. Second Avenue cut across its roots, and a car company moved in next door.

"A friend of mine saw it," said sculptor Michael Higgs. " 'There's this tree,' he said. So I went and talked to 'em, and part of it lies by Safford Lincoln-Mercury's wall and part is on county property and part belongs to this lady."

Higgs offered to turn the stump into a sculpture. Everyone was delighted, and it only took two years to give him the go-ahead. Higgs finished it last year.

It stands 17 feet high, and at the top is a finger pointing to true north. Faces peer out of the gnarled wood, the seven ages of man's endurance through time, the sculptor said.

"I got the faces from people walking by. I'd say, 'I beg your pardon, can I use your eye?' and they'd stop and model for me. Some of them sat for hours."

The plaque says the sculpture is a "symbol of renewed life" representing the future of downtown Silver Spring. It is the biggest thing Higgs has ever done, though he is now working in his Ellicott City studio on a spectacular tree root which he is turning into a mushroom cloud, "an international stop sign to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons."

Higgs, 37, has been whittling wood since the age of 5, when he used to sit with his grandfather on the porch (his grandmother wouldn't allow beer in the house) and make feather sticks from kindling. Later, living in Japan, he was impressed with the Japanese talent for finding beauty in ordinary objects.

Returning to this country, he put himself through the University of Maryland by working in a mental hospital ("I learned a lot about myself"). He took drawing, painting, eventually some sculpture. In October 1968 he went to Vietnam as a Navy photographer.

"After Vietnam -- I got back in October of '69 -- I did my first sculpture, for a church in Poolesville," he said. For a few months he roamed South America, sketching in Ecuador and other places. He teaches woodcarving now at Antioch College-Columbia and is a substitute teacher in the public schools.

Most of his work he does just for himself. Every Christmas he makes another nativity figure for a cre che he is giving his wife. And this year he is creating some wooden toys for a store: pull toys, dragons, butterflies. But mostly he works with human figures. One sculpture, a tribute to the U.S. hostages in Iran, is in the university's permanent collection.

"Don't ask me where the carving comes from. I just always did it. I like to think it's from God. You start working on the wood and making it what you want, and the wood says, 'No, I don't want to be this.' So you have to pay attention to that."