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“Just a tree”

by Patsy Garber
LA VETA — “It’s just a tree.” Such a phrase has been used by some in La Veta to describe a large cottonwood tree on Poplar Street which has been the topic of much discussion in recent weeks. But as I stood watching and photographing its demise, cut down in pieces with a chain saw, another refrain kept passing through my head. Maybe it’s hokey, but I couldn’t forget the lines of a Joyce Kilmer poem I learned in childhood, “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” God or Mother Nature or however one interprets it, it seemed irreverent to refer to this majestic, hundred-year-old goliath as “just a tree.”
I am a newcomer to La Veta, so I have not been part of the two-year battle between differing viewpoints in the town, arguing whether to save or cut down the tree. I do not know enough about the town’s drainage problems to offer an opinion about whether cutting the tree will improve or worsen Poplar Street’s storm-water issues. I am not writing as a neutral reporter on the pros and cons of the decision. I am writing to express the emotions I felt when, having been asked to photograph the event for the newspaper, I sat watching for the better part of two days, talking to the saddened, angered, or distraught townspeople who stopped by.
When I arrived at the site I was struck by its resemblance to a crime scene. A portion of the street was cordoned off with yellow ribbon, and the town marshal’s car was parked at one end. At least five men in hard hats were there, some cutting branches, others loading them into pickup trucks. I do not consider myself a feminist, but I couldn’t help remark to myself that all of the crew were male, while the object of their destruction was female, a grand old lady who had in her lifetime dispersed millions of seeds to procreate her species.
There had been a town meeting about the tree the night before, with 30 townspeople in attendance. They had submitted a petition with 104 signatures, including those of two former mayors, asking that the tree be left standing, at least until every other drainage option had been tried. Barb Kowalik, former chairman of the La Veta Park and Tree Board, was there. She had been under the impression that a new engineering study and the advice of an arborist would be sought before the tree was cut. Nonetheless, the tree was being dismantled as I watched.
As cars stopped and people commented, I heard such words as “sad,” “It makes you want to cry,” “heart-breaking,” “so unnecessary” and a few that I can’t repeat here. “This is an outrage!” was one opinion I heard several times, referring to the fact that one of town trustees was apparently part of the crew. The conversation continued in the library, where a fellow browser mused out loud; “I guess it sounds silly, but I can’t help wondering if it felt pain, if it wanted to scream when the chain saw cut into it.”
I learned, as I sat there waiting for photo ops and listening to folks, that an urban forester with the Colorado State Forest Service had determined that it was a healthy tree with a value, when alive, of nearly $35,000. The value of trees like this are determined by their capacity to produce oxygen, reduce climate-change gases, suck up and disperse storm-water which would otherwise run out of control, and provide habitat for other species.
I was told that a tree of this size provides enough oxygen to supply the daily breathing needs of two people, and that its “carbon sequestration” – the amount of CO2 it stores in its cells – equals 1 ½ tons, all of which will now be released into the atmosphere.
And I know, from personal experience with the cottonwoods in my yard, that such trees provide homes for squirrels, shade for deer, nesting sites for a host of birds, feeding sites for woodpeckers and nuthatches – not to mention safe napping places for bears and their cubs.
When contacted, Mayor Gerry Fitzgerald said he listened to the Streets and Alleys Committee and the Park and Tree Board and “in my mind, it was a reasonable compromise to cut one tree instead of two because we had to move on.”
She is gone now, but the Poplar Street Cottonwood will be remembered by many as more than “just a tree.”