September 11th Survivor Tree

A memorial pool at the site of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. Water flows over the lip, down to the void. Names of the dead ring the pool, marking the footprint of the towers.

911 memorial“Freedom Tower,” the tallest skyscraper in the Americas, lances the clouds next to the pools.

freedom towerI visited in winter, on a sleet-slammed, windy day. In addition to paying my respects at the site of the attacks, I wanted to see and touch a special tree. People clearing the remains of the fallen towers found a Bradford pear under the dust and concrete. The tree had stood in a planter next to the towers. Most of the pear’s branches were shattered by the attacks, reducing the thirty-year-old tree to a stub.

Now, after years of care in the City’s Arthur Ross Nursery in the Bronx, the “survivor tree” is back at the site. Unlike the rod-spined white oaks that line the wide walkways at the memorial, the pear’s body is scarred and fragile. The tree stands within its own hooped railing, its placement and form jarring with the metronomic plantings of oaks (trees that form a living, green roof for the museum and train station below). Straps loop the pear’s branches and trunk, stabilizing wood that, although it is partly healed, has fractures — tree memories — that will forever remain within.

survivor pearsurvivor pear 2Despite these wounds, the tree’s body speaks of vitality. Twigs are bud-fat and arched skyward. Rows of sapsucker holes spoke of the time that the tree spent regaining its strength in the leafier and more woodpecker-friendly nursery.

survivor pear 3A human interpreter and guide stood with the tree and translated its story from wood-words to human language, explaining to new visitors why the tree stood where it did.

Some visitors slowed, listened, and rested their hands on the pear’s skin, leaning into the sturdy life.

Others raced around, laughing, snapping smiling selfies in the sleet: Me with the Tree, Me with the etched names of the dead, Me with a big tower. Survivor Tree commemorative trays, umbrellas, mugs, and ornaments are for sale in the Museum Shop.

Sadness upon sadness, “As if there was no death.”


6 thoughts on “September 11th Survivor Tree

  1. lydiaboroughs

    Marc and I visited the twin towers spot about 6 months after 9/11. They were still removing rubble, and ‘triage!—>’ was still written on many nearby walls with spray paint. Beneath window air conditioners were long V’s of the dust, for blocks around. The site itself had construction barrier around it, but you could still see. The visitors had been attaching cards and tributes to the barrier.

    What struck me most, though there’s a tough contest there, was the juxtaposition of the horror, grief, and freshness of all that, with the smiling tourists, posing for selfies. Smiling, pointing to the signs, laughing, admiring themselves.

    It still feels like yesterday.

  2. S

    It’s sad but also not surprising how tragedy becomes history. Wars from the distant past have resulted in the deaths of so many people but we often don’t treat them with any kind of respect. The more time that has passed since a tragic event, the less respect we have for it. I was in Prague recently and visited a site where decapitation of unruly citizens regularly occurred hundreds of years ago. When I visited, it was clear that no one there was lost in thought thinking about all the people who lost their lives but yet it was something very real for the people who experienced it at that time. With time, 9/11 will change from something personal to something students read about in their history class and its sentimental value diminishes as humanity loses connection. For those of us who were alive to experience it, we take offense to this change but we are only fighting the nature of things. I think the gift shop just reminds people that our personal feelings will hold no bearing on future generations and just reminds us all of our own small worth in the grand scheme of life.

    1. John Salmond

      I claim great worth, for myself and for all I am close to, people and dogs and birds and even rabbits, in the (apparently) absurd scheme of life

  3. John Salmond

    Can even trees save grace?
    Just now I was reading in WG Sebald’s ‘After Nature’:
    “… the absence of balance in nature
    which blindly makes one experiment after another
    and like a senseless botcher
    undoes the thing it has only just achieved.
    To try out how far it can go
    is the sole aim of this sprouting,
    perpetuation and proliferation
    inside us also and through us and through
    the machines sprung from our heads
    all in a single jumble,
    while behind us already the green
    trees are deserting their leaves and
    bare, loom up into the sky…”


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