We are all aware of the ancient cottonwood tree leaning conspicuously to the south on Taos Plaza. It is not intensely large, nor particularly balanced or attractive, yet it is a well-loved member of the Taos community. Judging from grainy photographs and story fragments that remain, it is presumed to have been planted in the 1890s and has stood patiently askew for the last 120 years or so. This tree has witnessed a significant segment of Taos history, both known and unknown. It has endured multiple fires at nearby structures, soil compaction around its roots, water deprivation and throngs of loud, joyful and sometimes angry people. Despite its compelling “hanging tree” limb structure, its use for this purpose, so far, likely remains mythological. The Plaza landscape, the surrounding buildings and the passersby have transformed all around it, yet it has stood to provide habitat for birds and small animals, shade for people and an enduring connection between the past and the present.
To the sadness of the Taos community, this tree now needs to be removed for public safety concerns. Trees transition between life and death in a much slower and tedious fashion than we are accustomed. The most unencumbered death, barring natural disasters or human intervention, is to gradually decline and lose canopy and limbs until eventually the massive weight brings the trunk to the soil, creating opportunity in its decay for life to begin again. In a developed and populated landscape (such as Taos Plaza), this natural process beckons interruption. As the tree declines, we lose the ability to safely predict the degree of danger the tree presents. Town of Taos officials have been considering the removal of this tree for several years now and have attempted to mitigate the risks with pruning measures and safety precautions. However, the time has now come to take more certain steps to remove this tree.
This should not be taken casually given the magnificent spirit of life that engages this tree in its surroundings and relationships. Many feel a deep connection to this parallel life form in time and its enduring presence in an equally harsh climate and contested landscape. We had hoped the tree could be allowed to endure just a few more shifts occurring around its fading canopy spread and within its root zone. But alas, it is now time to say goodbye to an old and weathered friend. The town is initiating the replanting of trees and shrubs as advised and negotiated through community meetings summarized in the “Taos Plaza Cultural Landscape Report.”
Many of the visioning details in the report are actively contested, but this is nothing new. Taoseños have long struggled to define their community identity both within and in contrast to larger mainstream culture. This dynamic will likely continue as the next generation of trees is planted in an uncertain future. We trust that the space and resources will be eternally allotted for the long-term survival of the next generation. Trees we plant in the present will surely play a part in the Taos Plaza future just as they have in the past, no matter the chaos and indecision surrounding them.
An Arbor Day ceremony will be held at the old cottonwood tree at 2 p.m. on Friday (April 28) to honor the tree’s life and community contribution. Stories, music and prayer are invited.
Wright is a Taos arborist and a member of the Taos Tree Board. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.