Friday, May 6, 2011

Ground Zero "Survivor Tree" is a Tree of Life

This week was the first time I had heard of the Ground Zero "Survivor Tree," when President Obama laid a wreath there.  A quick Google search revealed several past articles about this tree, which I apparently missed before.  But now that the tree, (which is a callary pear originally planted at the World Trade Center in the 1970s) has received national publicity, everyone is aware of it. 

And I think it is a wonderful symbol.  Unlike the "cross" that was really just an iron support beam that landed upright after the explosions (and which got so much publicity as a "miracle" right after 9/11), the pear tree is a truly universal symbol that can be embraced by people of every faith or lack thereof.   Like a phoenix from the ashes (if I may mix my species metaphors here) this tree symbolizes life and hope.  For me, as a Jew, there is a double meaning, because the Torah is also called a "Tree of Life" -- and it is the Torah which gave our country its basic moral compass through the Ten Commandments, which include "Thou shalt not murder."   For other faiths and philosophies, too, the symbolism of a Tree of Life affirms positive values. 
Survivor Tree in 2002
(courtesy of NY Parks Dept)

Here's what the Survivor Tree looked like just a few months after 9/11 -- nothing much was left but the trunk and some stubs.  "It looked like a wounded soldier," said horticulturalist Richie Cabo of the New York Parks Department.  It was only 8 feet tall and barely alive when it was moved to their Arthur Ross Nursery in Van Cortlandt Park for rehabilitation. 

Pear trees have amazing regenerative abilities, and it was not long before the tree began to sprout new growth.  Cabo, who was just starting his career at the Parks Department at the time, spent nine years lovingly nursing the tree back to health. The tree is now 35 feet tall and has been transplanted to the Ground Zero memorial site, where Obama laid the wreath on May 5, 2011, almost a decade after the tree was damaged.

Some people have criticized "the press" for dubbing this a "survivor tree," claiming that the word "survivor" indicates defeat.  I strongly disagree. First of all, it is not the first tree to be called a "survivor tree"; there is also one at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing.  And secondly, a survivor is someone who overcomes tragedy against all odds -- and that is exactly what this tree did.   When you look at that charred stump as it was right after the attack, it seems impossible that it could ever regenerate  into a healthy tree.  But it did.  In the same way, we were deeply wounded at 9/11 but we were never defeated. 

"The survivor tree is a testament [to] our ability to endure, the symbol of our unshakable belief in a brighter future," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who kicked off the 9/11 Memorial planting ceremony in December 2010.

Six other 9/11 survivor trees – three callary pears and three leaf lindens – are permanently planted near City Hall and at the Manhattan entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Survivor Tree recovered, September 2010
(Photo courtesy of


Patricia Lichen said...

Yes! I completely agree. And I know too many survivors of cancer and HIV to ever disparage the word.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Welcome to my blog, Patricia. My own wife is a breast cancer survivor, so in our house, too, the word has a positive meaning.

Anonymous said...

This is the Tree of Hope. It is now dying and they cant stop it, this is a testimemt to "The Harbinger" which is clearly indicated in Gods word and written about in Jonathon Kahn's Book called "The Harbinger" The tree is dying and will die.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Well of course all trees die eventually. This one was originally planted back in the 1970s, and it went through a horrendous trauma. I'm not sure what the lifespan of a pear tree is, but the story is still inspiring.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Actually, the "Tree of Hope" referred to in the comment above is an evergreen planted on 2003 in a churchyard, which is different from the one in this article.

Anonymous said...

True different trees. But the tree of hope planted is a sign of failing hope coming upon america if it does not turn back to god. It replaced the sycamore and refers tp isaiah 9:10 judgement on isreal and now the united states.

Yonassan Gershom said...

I do not wish to get into a game of "dueling Bibles," nor do I want to d the Jewish-Christian debate here, but as a Jew I read this verse as a warning that Jerusalem would be destroyed and a promise that it would be rebuilt. Replacing a deciduous sycamore with an evergreen cedar is probably a reference to the rebuilt city being more permanent than the one that was destroyed.

At any rate, I am not in the habit of trying to calculate the "end times" from Bible verses applied to current events, because you can read just about anything into that, depending on your own theology. The prophets were preachers, not fortune tellers.

Jews are not supposed to look for "signs" in that way, because it can turn into superstition. There is an old story about a Jewish archer in the Roman army who was told by his commander that they could not march that day, because a certain bird sitting in a tree was a bad omen, warning them to wait. The Jew drew his bow and shot the bird dead, then said, "That bird could not ever protect itself from my arrow, how could it protect the Roman Army?"

Enough said. Peace.

Dave M said...

It would be interesting to take grafts from the tree and maintain a living perpetual memorial. There is or was an organization from which one could purchase "historic trees", including the Oklahoma City "survivor tree" and saplings grown from grafts taken from the only tree known to have been planted by Johnny Appleseed.

Yonassan Gershom said...

I have no idea if anybody is doing that. I've heard of the Johnny Appleseed grafts. Pears are equally easy to graft, so maybe some historical org will do it?