PATAGONIA - What was long the nation's biggest cottonwood tree is dead, split into two slabs, its gargantuan trunk sprawling askew.
Its base is hollow, its bark, rotting. Most of its leaves are brown, with green ones shimmering on a few branches. The furrows on its branches are softening, their rough edges wearing out.
The tree recently toppled over and broke in half in its grassland home of at least 150 years on the Circle Z Guest Ranch about two miles west of Patagonia. Standing 75 yards south of Sonoita Creek and a couple hundred yards north of Arizona 82, the tree was a landmark for decades.
Off and on since 1970, the tree ranked No. 1 among all cottonwoods on the National Register of Big Trees, run by the conservation group American Forests.
It was 92 feet high and 42 feet around and had a crown spread of 108 feet on top. Not only was it the nation's largest cottonwood for many years, it was Arizona's largest known tree of any size, said Ken Morrow, the state coordinator for the national big tree program.
What some residents here call the Big Tree was a victim of old age, said Morrow, a Patagonia resident.
He said he saw it had toppled over when he drove past on Sept. 19. Although cottonwood trees have been falling and dying elsewhere in Southern Arizona because of drought in recent years, the Sonoita Creek area hasn't had such problems and the water table there remains generally stable.
"The decline of giants is always sad, but in the fullness of time, all things pass," said Jock Soper, Circle Z's manager, who described the tree as a fixture on the ranch.
Soper's predecessor as ranch manager, Jim Cosbey, said that for people who love nature, this death is like losing a member of your family.
"If you've never seen it, you'd be absolutely amazed at the size of it," Cosbey said. "We've had people on horseback at the bottom of the tree being dwarfed by it. Somebody might say it was a freak of nature. I'm not sure that's totally accurate but it was a wonderful sight to see."
Morrow said he was in mourning over the Big Tree's death until he learned that a replacement was not only waiting in the wings, but was ready to take center stage. That tree, living about 20 miles south of Prescott in the Skull Valley area, was shorter and thinner than the Big Tree 15 years ago but has outgrown it.
That tree has now dethroned the Big Tree of Patagonia on the national big-tree register, which was established in 1941 as a way of recognizing and encouraging protection of the country's biggest trees. It currently has national champions for 780 tree species, including 87 from Arizona.
The big cottonwood was essentially discovered in 1970 by Don Richard, a U.S. Forest Service range manager in Nogales who spotted it while driving by on duty and looking across a clearing. While it was slightly smaller then than today, Richard, now retired and living in Flagstaff, considered the tree an "eye opener" and a "jaw-dropping sight."
He nominated it to the national register and it joined the list in January 1971. At the time, it was about the same height, but its crown spread was 103 feet and its circumference 34 feet, 10 inches. It stayed on the list until 1984, when a larger cottonwood tree was discovered in New Mexico.
Then the Patagonia tree figuratively dropped out of sight. In 1993, when officials of the Arizona big-tree register tried to locate it, they failed. They were under the impression that the tree was on the Nature Conservancy's nearby Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, but the big, gnarly cottonwood they found there didn't measure up.
Three years later, an Iowa birdwatcher who had seen the Patagonia tree a few years earlier contacted the Arizona big-tree registry about it again and they went out and remeasured it. This time, it had outgrown the New Mexico tree and regained its spot on the register.
It was last measured in 2004, and had stopped growing since then, Morrow said.
The Skull Valley tree, meanwhile, stood 102 feet tall, had a circumference of 46 feet and had a crown spread of 149 feet when measured on Oct. 2.
"It's in perfect shape, absolutely perfect," said Dave Thornburg, a Cottonwood resident who measured the Skull Valley tree and along with its owner and a third party nominated it to the national register.
Living off a 12-foot-deep water table, "It has no big dead limbs, is symmetrical and has a huge crown," Thornburg said.
As Morrow walked to the Patagonia tree this week, he recalled that it had been a favorite spot for Circle Z guests to visit on horseback and stop for a picnic lunch. Next to it was a tree stump low enough for riders to dismount. Morrow works for the guest ranch shuttling guests to and from Tucson International Airport.
The tree had continued sprouting plenty of green leaves every summer, and 30 to 40 feet up, a prickly pear was growing from its bark. Now that prickly pear lies under the fallen tree, a sight that drew an exclamation from Morrow when he got his first close look at it this week.
As for the tree itself, "When I saw it fallen over last month, the leaves were still alive, shivering in the wind," Morrow recalled. "It was an eerie sight."
A WRITER'S TRIBUTE
Author Charles Bowden on Patagonia's Big Tree:
The tree stands along the creek, too big to see, too old to know, too important to be remembered. Comes out of the ground and Abraham Lincoln is three. The Civil War ends and the cottonwood is in its fifties. World War I gives way to World War II and still it grows. Cattle noon under it and the experts come and go and decide it is the biggest cottonwood tree in North America. Then it falls - no one hears a sound - into the meadow, a broken body sprawled on the ground. Soon the rot comes, then dust, then a stain on the ground and memory goes and it never existed. While the tree stands, it hardly exists to people. Wars come and lovers die and the tree lives on and on. It is about what matters and for that fact it is ignored in life and death.
- Bowden, formerly of Tucson, now lives outside Arizona, but still spends time in Patagonia
some Arizona championship trees
• The Skull Valley cottonwood, near Prescott: 696 points, based on size
• The recently deceased Patagonia cottonwood: 623
• Arizona sycamore, Coconino National Forest: 462
• Longbeak eucalyptus, Chandler: 409
• Alligator juniper, Prescott National Forest: 383
• Velvet ash, Prescott National Forest: 353
• Arizona cypress, Coronado National Forest: 349
• Gambel oak, Coconino National Forest: 341
Source: American Forests' National Register of Big Trees
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.