A LONG-DEAD cherry tree on 44th Street is coming to life. It is turning into a bird.

Three birds, in fact.

And a man.

Leonard Mazur couldn't bear to chop down the lovely thing, which for years had brightened the whole neighborhood when it blossomed. "I had to do something," he said, "so I called the Northern Virginia Woodcarvers Club, which I had seen a notice of."

His proposal was announced at the next club meeting, which happened to be the first time that John Harlow attended. "Is anybody here crazy enough to do this?" they said.

Harlow bit.

"We talked," Mazur said. "I said he could make whatever he wanted out of it. I hoped to use as much of the tree as possible. We went through a lot of drawings."

That was six months ago.

Today the cherry is more bird than tree. The trunk is being embraced by a man who shouts his passion, a man who represents Mazur. The branches are full of wings, marvelous strong wings, wings beating free of the earth. They belong to the two birds who represent Mazur's sons. A third stands on his head as he reaches for them, clasping them.

"The sculpture is about this family here," said the 23-year-old Harlow, who just graduated from the Corcoran School of Art. "When'll it be done? Don't ask."

He works on it on weekends, and he and the Mazurs have more or less adopted each other. Mazur bought Harlow a set of chisels and a grinder. He fixed the porch swing where the family often sits on a Saturday, chatting and watching the wings come out of the wood. Mazur works in the office of the inspector general at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Harlow is a downtown bike messenger.

"I use a chain saw and the chisels and my little hatchet," said the artist, who comes from Cape Charles, Md. "This was my grandfather's hatchet, and I love it."

He still has the original sharpening stone, worn down like a bar of soap. The blade could cut whiskers.

Harlow specializes in birds, which is not surprising for a student of Berthold Schmutzhart, a Corcoran teacher and artist who glories in wings and flight and the freedom of the sky. At 6, Harlow carved his first duck head ("I'd just got a whipping and I went out back and took a carving knife with me, and my mother came out to get me for that too . . . but then she saw what I was doing with it"), and now his decoys and realistic duck models are his bread and butter.

Lately, his sculptures have been getting bigger. His show at the Source Theater gallery on 14th Street includes a larger-than-life pouncing falcon, and last year he did a 10-foot phoenix using materials from the Wolf Trap fire debris. But the tree is something else again.

"I have to keep walking around it, trying to see it. You can't take any one part too far along. You make a mistake, there's no second chance."

Two branches that soar high out over the sidewalk already look like huge wings, though they are only roughed in with the chain saw. You can see how they will be: curved up to catch the wind, feathers ruffled, just about to start the great downswoop that will send them wheeling superbly upward.