Utahns say goodbye to beloved trees in the windstorm’s aftermath

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stella Panos, 7, walks on top of of of several dozen trees that were blow over by the heavy winds earlier this week, at Liberty Park on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020.

The 60-foot-tall blue spruce at the corner of Bonnie Mitchell’s yard was a fairy house, in the imagination of the little girl down the street.

For a boy in the Salt Lake City neighborhood, the secret space beneath its boughs was a bear cave that he used to duck into whenever he walked by. During the Harry Potter craze, children would don their wizard capes and pretend the hollow was a castle or Platform 9 3/4, Mitchell said.

“For 25 years, it was the fantasy playground for a dozen or so kids,” said Mitchell, whose now-adult daughter was one of them.

But she didn’t realize how much the spruce meant to her neighborhood until this week, she said, when gale-force winds that swept the region brought it crashing to the ground. Since then, she said, a troop of parents and their grown children have stopped by to share their stories and maybe salvage a scrap of wood for memory’s sake.

Alex Owens-Baird, who remembers darting underneath the tree during tag matches as a child, joked that it was “a pretty sappy moment” when he learned this week that the blue spruce had fallen down. In seriousness, though, he wants to take a slice of the tree home with him, believing that it carries the energy of the generations of children who played in it.

“If you take a piece of it with you,” the 25-year-old said, “you hold some of that.”

The storm that barreled through the state earlier this week was destructive in many ways — one man was killed, wires were downed and on Saturday evening, more than 17,000 Utahns were still waiting for their power to come back on. And many are also mourning the loss of trees that have harbored birds, shaded backyards and breathed oxygen back into the air.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall estimated during a news conference this week that this week’s storm leveled about 2,000 of the city’s trees. It’s a blow for the tree-loving mayor, who compared herself to the Lorax, the Dr. Seuss character who speaks on behalf of the fluffy Truffula trees and tries to protect them from destruction.

But Mendenhall, who campaigned on a promise to increase the tree canopy, said the city’s urban foresters have ramped up their planting activity this year, which should help Salt Lake bounce back from the storm.

“We will grow back,” Mendenhall told reporters. “But we’ve lost trees that are 60 to 100 years old, some even older than that. And our city will not look the same for the rest of my life.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of the many downed trees from the high winds earlier this week at Sugarhouse Park, on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020.

In the interests of safety, Mendenhall said the city was closing tree-filled spaces including Liberty and Washington Square parks and Salt Lake City Cemetery.

By Saturday, Judith Zimmerman said she still hadn’t been permitted inside the hard-hit cemetery, where her grandparents, Thomas and Clara Snowball, are buried side-by-side. But photos from a relative who snuck inside the cemetery showed a massive tree had toppled over, its spreading branches concealing the graves of Zimmerman’s grandparents.

Zimmerman, who grew up in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood, said the cemetery has always been a special place for her and her family. As a child, she played there, collecting the pinecones that had plopped to the grass from the evergreens above. She continued to visit as an adult, using her midday work break to steal a few peaceful minutes in the cemetery.

“I would go over to the cemetery and eat my lunch because it was so beautiful with all the trees,” said Zimmerman, who now lives in Millcreek.

Until the site is reopened, she won’t know how much has changed as a result of the storm.

Over at Liberty Park, the storm’s effects are more easily visible, with giant patches of sky where branches used to be. Though it’s still officially closed, visitors have been flocking to the park since the storm to marvel at its toppled giants.

As she waited for her husband to complete a virtual half-marathon Saturday, Diane Hartz Warsoff snapped cellphone pictures of a tree that had fallen next to the path. The trunk, its branches already sawed off, ended in a tangle of exposed roots.

“The first time I saw a couple of these trees — it gets you right in the heart,” she said.

Miles away in Taylorsville, Becky Sandusky has been lamenting the collapse of her neighbor’s 50-foot willow trees, which used to cast their shadow over her yard every afternoon. Even though the willows were always shedding twigs and leaves onto her lawn, Sandusky said she was so grateful for the shade that she didn’t care about the extra cleanup work.

The willows were also a safe haven for the birds, and Sandusky loved when she’d occasionally hear a woodpecker hammering its beak against the trunk.

But the winds tore up both willows by their roots, she said, leaving her yard without an afternoon break from the sun. She’s wondering if her three children will want to spend as much time on their backyard swing set and trampoline now that the shade is gone.

“It’s crazy," she said, “that trees would have that kind of effect.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) People pose for photos on one of the trees that was toppled by the heavy winds earlier this week at Liberty Park, on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020.

But Diane Hartz Warsoff and her husband take comfort in the thought of a new generation of trees inching skyward in Salt Lake City. Art Warsoff, Diane’s husband, serves on the board of TreeUtah and said the nonprofit organization intends to plant thousands of trees this year.

It’ll be a while before any of the saplings can replace one of the decades-old trees that Warsoff passed on his morning run through the park. But his wife said they’re not impatient.

When the couple moved to Utah about 26 years ago, she remembers, there was a maple in their backyard that was almost small enough to put their hands around.

“And now, it’s this massive tree,” she said. “I’ve got to tell you, time moves fast.”