I had wandered around the pools at the National 9/11 Memorial and drenched myself in blowing spray. I had chatted up the security people and peered through the reflective window of the unfinished museum. I had done a little reflecting myself, and now I was strolling toward the makeshift exit that snaked through the ever-present construction when I encountered a little tree.
Since every other part of the memorial was all shiny and new, this tree was remarkable for its homeliness.
The bottom half was covered in rough bark, portions of which were blackened. It looked as though it had been badly pruned at some point, with limbs ending in stumps from which smooth baby branches emerged. It was anchored to the ground so enthusiastically with numerous rubber-padded ropes that it looked like nothing so much as a prisoner.
This was the Survivor Tree.
Now, I have seen Survivor Trees before. The Oklahoma City memorial has one–a grand old American Elm that had been in a parking lot beside the bombed building.
But this tree was different–so beaten and burned, so warped and twisted.
The tree is a Callery pear, a common landscaping cultivar originally from China. In any other circumstance, this smallish, unremarkable tree would be a throwaway item, like old tulip bulbs in the fall.
But so great was our need to see something survive the horror of 9/11 that the burned and blacked stump of this little tree was “removed from the piles of smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center.” Little more than charcoal, it was taken to a park in the Bronx, where, I imagine, no tree has been more lovingly tended. And like so much that was broken, it began to mend and then to grow.
It was transplanted to the 9/11 Memorial in 2010 and is staked against the wind that sometimes blows fiendishly across this southern tip of Manhattan. It appears to be flourishing, fulfilling its role as a symbol of hope and resurrection.
Because in that place, never has the need for hope been so urgent.