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Moab Flashbacks #4: THE BIG TREE


On a brilliant mild afternoon in late autumn, just a few weeks before the Millennium, the Big Tree on First South began to uproot itself.  The sidewalk buckled and split in two as the cottonwood’s massive root system slowly lost its grip on the good earth that had sustained her for more than a century. Within the space of a few hours, the tree was visibly tilting toward the street. The news rippled from one end of Moab to the other and by sunset, scores of Moabites had gathered to watch and to mourn.  City work crews, fearing the tree might topple completely, blocked traffic in both directions and sought advice from tree specialists at the University of Utah. They drove down from Salt Lake City the next day but it only took a short while to assess the Big Tree’s future—-she was going to die.  The city decided to put it out of its misery.

The Big Tree might have lingered for weeks or even months, but its collapse was inevitable.  Within a few days, the slow and arduous task of tearing the tree down, one sacred limb at a time, began.  Moabites, from small children to octogenarians, all who had remembered the Big Tree as children and played in her shadows, now came to pay their respects, to honor a lifetime friend and to gather remembrances. They collected small cross-sections of branches left by the wood-cutters, to take home as cherished relics. To preserve the memory of a Moab landmark.  I brought my camera and photographed the old cottonwood from every conceivable angle.  I had passed beneath these branches, had appreciated its coolness on a hot summer day, had marveled at the translucent light that filtered through its leaves in the late afternoon, countless times.  To think these images would be the last—–that these were indeed its death photos—seemed more than tragic. It seemed impossible.

Finally only its central trunk remained, one naked gnarled battered finger extended toward the sky.  A bulldozer prodded it a bit and brought the cottonwood down completely. I saw the small explosions of dust and debris and heard the snapping and cracking and tearing of roots giving way and watched them reluctantly relinquish their steady hold at last, after serving the Big Tree so well for so long. The body parts were chopped up and hauled away, the hole left by its uprooting was filled and leveled.  A construction crew, no longer impeded by the Big Tree, extended the curb to the corner and laid new asphalt.

A month later, not even a hint suggested that a magnificent 100 year old cottonwood tree had ever lived at the corner of First South and Third East in Moab, Utah.  Visitors and new residents alike, from that day forward, would pass by the site and have no idea what was once there.  They could not mourn what they’d never experienced and so they felt nothing at all as they hurried up or down the street.  It became that way with Moab itself.

—Jim Stiles

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