Last week on the 11th anniversary of the Trade Center bombings I came across Nitty Gritty Dirt Man’s blog. He mentioned the Survivor Tree, a Callery pear that lived through the mayhem of 2001. I’d never heard about it before, this tree that the city planted at the eastern edge of the original World Trade Center plaza in the 1970s.
Workers found it in the wreckage of Ground Zero, a burned stump but with one living branch; they moved it to the Arthur Ross Nursery in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. A team of gardeners led by Richard Cabo, the citywide nursery manager, nurtured the tree back to health, and it grew back, to 30 feet tall. But get this: In March 2010 a storm knocked the tree over, so Cabo replanted it again. And again it recovered, so that in December of that year the city returned the tree to the World Trade Center site, where it sits near the south pool — a silent witness to the fallen South Tower. People go to the 9/11 Memorial and get their pictures taken with the Survivor Tree.
This is now on my life list of things I must do: visit that tree and thank her for her courage.
Discovering the story of the Callery pear is extra meaningful because I’ve been meditating on the symbolism of trees for a while, thinking about how their ancient wisdom winds its way through almost all cultures. Trees are everywhere: The Norse Yggdrasil; the Judeo-Christian tree of life in Genesis, planted before the tree of knowledge; the Egyptian acacia, associated with the goddess Iusaaset; the Mesoamerican world tree. It’s not hard to see why trees are so rich in meaning. They start as seeds and grow (usually slowly) into powerful, mature plants. They can bend and flex with wind and rain, or they can crack and break. They give shade and food. They can withstand extreme violence.
About 15 years ago I went on a silent retreat. On the first full day I hiked up behind the center where I was staying and found an old oak, alone on the edge of a small field. I climbed it and looked out over the valley below. The sky was pearly overcast, the kind that makes it seem like you’re at the bottom of a milky white bowl. I was in angst of some kind as I perched in that oak, staying still enough that eventually a cluster of deer came into the field and grazed. Sitting in the tree nourished me — I could feel how it was separate, unaffected by my emotional turmoil, but also right there, a solid physical reality.
So when I read about the Survivor Tree I remembered that retreat, and the oak, and how trees — both symbolic and real — have comforted me. For many reasons the past few years of my life have been challenging (nothing on the order of the September 11 attacks, certainly, although painful enough). It feels like I’m coming out of this phase, and so this summer I had a tree tattooed on my forearm as a way to mark not only my gratitude to the healing power that permeates the world, but also the growth I’ve experienced. When I catch sight of the tree etched in my skin I’m reminded how strength comes out of weak, broken things. I’m reminded that the stump or the burned branch can heal, and become a healthy tree. Again and again.