Weeping for a willow: Flagstaff family removes iconic tree due to rot in trunk
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Weeping for a willow: Flagstaff family removes iconic tree due to rot in trunk

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For seven decades, a weeping willow in Coconino Estates spread its branches in an open embrace, offering a giant parasol of shade to those walking below and creating a perfect spot for decades of picnics and neighborhood potlucks held by Harry and Jopie Guetter, who raised their three children in its shadow.

With heavy hearts, the Guetters and their children and grandchildren gathered for one more meal in the front garden as they worked with local sawyer William “B.J.” Bert to fell the tree that had become a part of their family.

“It’s a part of us; it’s just like our house. It’s been here from the beginning. It’s almost like a funeral, like a burial. We definitely have a sense of grief," Harry said as he watched Bert unload a series of chainsaws from his truck.

The Guetters bought the house on Havasupai Road in the spring of 1968. They had decided to start a family and were looking to adopt. To adopt children from Coconino County, they needed a house rather than a rental apartment. On the day that they bought their house, there was a tree standing in the middle of the front lawn.

“It was only about 2 feet in circumference, but by 1998 we were given a plaque because it was one of the biggest trees in the city,” Jopie said. “We adopted three children, Mark, Adrian and Stephanie. We adopted them individually and at the time it wasn’t hard. We adopted them through the county. As our family grew so did the tree.”

“The tree was actually a part of our home. It made the home warmer in winter and cooler in the summer. Our kids grew up climbing it and my wife did, too,” Harry added with a smile.

“Only 12 feet up,” Jopie quickly chimed in.

“We have seen it grow in 52 years from a small tree to a huge monster," Harry said. "Standing under it, to see its massiveness, to see all the boughs stretching very high … I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tree so imposing. We had street picnics every year at the end of June. It would be on our lot under the tree in the shade. This year will be the 25th annual picnic.

"The tree is at the center of our street. It has become the symbol of our street and it brings us unity. For everyone who lives on our street, it’s a centerpoint.”

As the neighbors who had gathered under its branches came out of their houses to watch, Bert climbed into the basket of a heavy lift cherry picker with three chainsaws and pulled levers on the control panel to lift the giant hydraulic arm into the crown of the tree. The angry buzz of the saw soon filled the street as Bert started dismantling the tree branch by branch. It took several hours to remove most of the crown, leaving a network of bare branches. As the sun reached its zenith over the skeleton of the tree, a huge crane turned the corner from Highway 180 onto Havasupai and came to a stop next to the tree.

The second phase of the process involved the placement of heavy lifting straps around individual branches and hand signals between Bert and the crane operator as he cut the massive branches to be lowered to the street 45 feet below. The scale on the crane indicated that the first branch to be lowered weighed 9,000 lbs.

Neighbor Lance Diskin stood watching the crane operator bringing down the huge branches.

“It’s a death in the family. I’ve got 25 years of pictures of this tree, sunlight, winter and snow,” Diskin said.

“It’s going to leave a huge hole in this neighborhood, not just physically but emotionally. I would compare this tree to local photographer George Breed, a great asset to the community that brings the perspective of age. It says something about Flagstaff that so many people grieve for a tree,” Diskin added while looking at the groups of his neighbors standing in their front gardens watching Bert work.

As Bert was busy above, three generations of the Guetter family were working below, filling trailers with the sinewy whip-like willow branches, sweeping millions of tiny leaves into piles and cutting the smaller branches into logs for firewood so that the tree could warm the family one last time.

It took an 8-foot-long chainsaw blade to place the last cut in the trunk and gently topple it to the lawn, leaving a stump larger than many dinner tables. Arm in arm, Jopie and Harry stood together, watching the final moment for the willow with grief all over their faces.

Much of the wood that had been lowered to the ground had been in such beautiful condition, glowing bright white in the sun, that there had been some talk that perhaps it had been too soon to cut the tree, but once the trunk was down the true scope of decay was clear to see.

The tree stump measured 6 feet, 6 inches wide and across that span was a dark stain of rotten wood more than 4 feet across. Harry walked to the stump and plunged his hands into the heart of the tree, coming out with handfuls of mulch like wet newspaper.

“I felt sorry all day because everything we cut was good, fine wood, but now that I’ve seen the trunk I’m glad that we brought it down,” Harry said.

While the tree may be gone, wood from its branches has been milled into planks that will be used to build furniture for the Guetters, so the weeping willow that served to bring a community together will continue to be a part of the family that loved it so deeply.

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