When one of the towering historic cottonwood trees in the historic Taos Plaza was cut down at the end of October, several people wondered what would happen to the wood.
After all, it represented the memories of a few generations in its bark.
When Ruthann McCarthy heard that a lot of the cottonwood's pieces had been hauled off to the Taos County Regional Landfill, she went ballistic. "You don't cut our history into 100 pieces, and throw it in the trash. Come on people, think!" she wrote in a Facebook post.
She called Mayor Dan Barrone. She urged others to do the same.
And after a few days, the mayor stepped in to help move the pieces of old cottonwood from the landfill and put it at the McCarthy property on Paseo del Pueblo.
The fate of the cottonwood tree, estimated at somewhere between 68 and 100 years old, was decided in 2017.
The tree was tested that year by certified Taos arborist Paul Bryant Jones. He found the old tree was dying and needed to come down eventually. It had become a hazard, weakened by age and drought, and posed a risk that a strong wind would knock more branches down. The town trimmed back branches and did what it could to stabilize the tree.
But earlier this year it began leaning precariously toward La Fonda, said town of Taos manager Rick Bellis. Waiting any longer risked the tree causing serious injury to someone or damaging property if it fell.
So a town crew chainsawed the tree down bit by bit in late October. The largest piece was sent to Olquin's Sawmill and Firewood, where Barrone, owner and operator of the mill, intends to make it into a bench to be placed back in the plaza.
Bellis, the town manager, said in an email that anyone "who wanted to take wood for a remembrance was free to do so the day we took the tree down but had to stay out of the work area while it was being taken down. Some people did take pieces."
Some people used it for firewood. He said the rest of the wood was taken to the landfill for storage and stacked in an area on its own to dry and cure.
Like McCarthy, Jones was surprised when he heard most of the tree remnants had been sent off to the landfill. He said town staff had assured him at the time he sealed the tree's fate with his diagnosis that the wood would go to Taos Pueblo drummakers, be turned into benches or made into firewood for people in the community.
Jones, a founding member of the Taos Tree Board, had no doubt the tree needed to come down, but like McCarthy he understood the tree represented much more than a hazard. It was part and parcel of a town's history.
After talking with McCarthy, the mayor used his own equipment and crews to retrieve the cottonwood chunks from the landfill and helped load it into the trucks of volunteers who moved it to the McCarthy property.
Barrone said young trees had been planted on the plaza and the town is trying to plant two to three for each older one that has to come down.
In an email shout-out Nov. 8 to everyone who helped out, McCarthy wrote: "I cannot say enough about the efforts of Daniel Barela and Luis Barela. Man oh man. Just, above and beyond. Thank you Joseph Garcia, Manuel Mares, Josh Gonzales, Reggie Cordova, Dad - you guys are our wood whisperers! Dan Barrone, thank you for moving the wood onto the guys' trucks, or we would still be there. Claudio Martinez from Taos Landfill, thank you for being so kind and patient with my daily visits."
About a dozen large pieces and 18 smaller pieces of the cottonwood are now drying at the Rock House parking lot, 122 Paseo del Pueblo, and in a nearby storage area, said McCarthy in an email. "After, the pieces will find their forever homes in our historic district, park, plaza, churches and Taos museums."
Bellis said later in an email that this isn't the only cottonwood that has been taken down by the town or the last. "This is far from being an isolated incident, nor unique," he said in the email. "The town removes several mature cottonwoods every year for safety reasons, to prevent the spread of tree diseases, such as insects and fungi, [when] they are hit by lightning or when they fall or may fall down during storms on houses, cars, people or utilities (causing blackouts of internet, phone and electric throughout the valley), because the branches can no longer get water and die or because the root systems can no longer hold the weight of the tree after we cover the surface with roads, sidewalks, patios or driveways.
"The vast majority of our cottonwoods are beyond their life expectancy, and have been further stressed by lowered water tables, less rain and snow and hotter, longer summers (climate change)."
And those stresses are likely to grow as climate change continues.