The Survivor Tree

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on July 17, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

It’s odd to see a memory under construction, the conscious act of recollection cemented and planted in full view of a curious public. Odder still is the attempt to make that memory sacred in the face of the sacrilege that caused it to come into being. That’s why I wasn’t surprised that my wife and I almost missed the most powerful symbol of the September 11 Memorial & Museum this weekend, lost as it was amid the sheer audacity of the blooming six-acre World Trade Center site.

The memorial was tasked with casting the grief of a nation into permanence, replacing the thousands of handmade epitaphs dotting the city from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to Union Square. Understandably, eyes are drawn upward to One World Trade Center’s “Freedom Tower” as it wills itself into existence on the New York City skyline. A crane atop the structure reaches out a bony finger like Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Man,” each massive steel girder hoisted thousands of feet into the heavens in blasphemous defiance of gravity as life is breathed into the scarred ground.

Below, the gaping maws of two man-made waterfalls marking the footprints of the old towers create a subdued orchestra drowning out the construction crews surrounding the site. The rush of cascading water is eerily reminiscent of the fall of the towers themselves, and teary-eyed visitors scour the bronze plates for the names of loved ones on the parapet walls that line the pools. The unfinished museum, consisting of two trident beams from the original towers, sits lifeless and encased in glass. An aching, painful absence permeates everything.

It’s amid this paralyzing emptiness that the “survivor tree” stands in quiet opposition to the overwhelming feeling of loss. A whisper in a sea of screams, it sends a message that the glass and steel above it cannot, a permanence and hope of which these manmade things are incapable. Hundreds of young swamp oak trees seem to huddle protectively around this last survivor pulled from the wreckage of the fallen towers, but its mere presence suggests a power that renders protection meaningless.

In October of 2001, the trunk of this callery pear tree was uncovered from the smoldering rubble in the plaza of the World Trade Center, the last living thing pulled from the wreckage. Like the citizens of the city, callery pear trees flourish in urban areas because they are tolerant of a variety or soil types, drainage levels, and soil acidity. Originally planted in the 1970’s, the charred and blackened stump was carefully exhumed and sent to a Bronx nursery as it clung to life. Soon, like the nation itself, the tree began to heal. In the process, it became a more fitting memorial than any of the buildings that now rise around it.

Even after the ten-year anniversary of the attacks and the opening of the memorial site, we are still left to make sense of the tragedy. We rush to rebuild because that’s what our country does best, yet we are no closer to ensuring it never happens again. There’s no “good” that will ever come out of this. Therefore, the callery pear tree is an all-too-fitting symbol for this event: like our best intentions, they do not bear much fruit.

Instead, these trees are resilient. The survivor tree, like the World Trade Center site itself, is springing to life even though it still bears the scars of the attacks. One can actually see the timeline of 9/11 on the gnarled bark and dead holes on the trunk that then give way to clean, healthy limbs springing unblemished toward the sky. In the same way, the rebuilt office buildings of the World Trade Center rise above the ever-present orange netting and temporary sidewalk fencing, a testament to hope and a commitment to life.

In essence, the 9/11 memorial site attempts to carve out a place for peaceful contemplation on ground consecrated by horror. This can’t be accomplished by sheer force of will, but rather with the understanding that we we’ll never truly understand anything. The site provided its own memorial in the form of the survivor tree: a living, healing symbol that reminds us that while we cannot sweep away the pain of the past, we can still go on and continue to grow.

An offshoot of this tree was recently planted in Oklahoma City to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the federal building bomb that claimed 168 lives. Three other “clones” have been cultivated with plans for many more, a reflection of our need for tangible connections to this simple sign of hope in the middle of that horrible day’s madness.

Before I saw it for myself, I measured the progress at the site by the number of stories on the Freedom Tower or the date the museum was due to open. Now I realize it’s more accurately gauged by the strength of a pear tree’s root system. There’s an old Appalachian saying: “Rough weather makes for strong timber.” In this way, the tree is stronger than any memorial we might build around it.

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