What the Survivor Tree at Ground Zero Can Teach Us


After visiting the 9/11 Memorial for the first time last week, I can’t get the Survivor Tree out of my mind. I keep wondering, what stories might it tell us that would inform and inspire our lives now?

Of course the tree itself has an uplifting story. Planted at the eastern edge of the original World Trade Center plaza in the 1970s, workers found it damaged and “reduced to an eight-foot-tall stump” in the wreckage at Ground Zero. It was moved to a New York City park and nurtured back to health – that’s 30 feet strong. In December 2010 it was returned to the WTC site and sits to the west of the south pool (representing the fallen South Tower).

A lone Callery pear tree among swamp white oaks, I was particularly struck by its relative anonymity as I stood next to it. Had I not read about it prior to visiting the memorial, it would have simply blended in except for perhaps the guide wires supporting it. There’s no plaque touting its exceptionalism and, the more it sunk in, I kind of liked that. Still pondering this days later, I keep thinking about what it has “seen” and what it continues to see daily from this sacred spot.

It saw up close the worst scene (arguably?) that’s ever unfolded on our shores, been covered in whitish dust made of concrete and paper and human remains and been uprooted by devastated rescue workers beyond thrilled to find something that had not perished at the hands of incomprehensible madmen. It has been nursed back to a thriving state, surrounded by gleaming structures rising into the sky as (mostly) men toil away in our literal rebuilding and, even closer, by enormous reflecting pools exquisitely designed so that the water descends into center voids.

Every day it sees thousands of etched names of people who woke up and went to work on a gorgeously sunny day and never went home. It sees visitors from New York City and Kansas City and Paris and Tokyo pausing, posing, crying, remembering, letting the realization of the volume of names hit them as they begin in a corner of one reflecting pool and start reading, walking, reading, walking some more. It’s like the names never end and the sadness and disbelief escalate and then a little spray of water comes up from the pool in a mist of reality.

The tree is there, growing, next to this. Growing.

It dawns on me it’s not so much about what the tree saw or sees but what it continues to be. Alive. Unwittingly it blossoms and sheds and blossoms again. Two fallen skyscrapers didn’t kill it. Nor a move. Nor another move. Hurricane Irene didn’t ground it. We are meant to marvel at its endurance so we can check in on our own. If it can withstand all that, surely we can stand tall in our own lives.

Duh. Obvious. I know. That’s why it’s called the Survivor Tree.

But after all of the above played through my mind like a movie, I was left with this -- what are we going to do with that? Just say ‘Isn’t that nice? The tree lived.’ Or is there more? Can we do something to honor what that tree represents?

We’re here. Are we plodding through our days or putting some thought into them? I have had life coaching clients whose lives have been altered dramatically by this tragedy and others. They’ve absorbed the loss the best they can and, ideally, let it change them in a way that has them emerge more sensitive to others’ tragedies, more compassionate in others’ grief, more realistic about what life can dish out and why that calls for enjoying it as much as possible.

What a testament it is to a memorial that can trigger all of this. I recall the first time I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s and how surprised I was at my own emotions. Designer Maya Lin created a wall shaped, according to Wikipedia, like “an opening or a wound in the earth to symbolize the gravity of the loss of the soldiers.”

I knew the 9/11 Memorial would have an even greater impact on me, not just because I was in New York that day but because I live across the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline is a daily reminder of it. Architect Michael Arad, whose design was chosen from over 5,200 submitted from around the world, was in New York that day, too. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Arad was featured in a piece in its magazine by Kimberly Link-Wills where his expressed intent reminded me of Lin’s:

“When the design competition was launched, I began to consider how to build a memorial on the site of the tragedy. I wanted to connect the site to the streets and neighborhoods that surround it and try to mend it and the city. After making the sites to grade, I carved two voids in its surface. They are open and visible reminders of loss and absence.”

According to Link-Wills, “Jury chair Vartan Gregorian said the two 30-foot-deep reflecting pools in the footprints of the twin towers that define Arad’s design have made ‘the voids left by the destruction the primary symbols of our loss. While these voids still remain empty and inconsolable, the surrounding plaza’s design has evolved to include teeming groves of trees, traditional affirmations of life and rebirth. The result is a memorial that expresses both the incalculable loss of life and its regeneration.’”

The Survivor Tree is both participant in and witness to it all.

In Mary Oliver’s poem titled “When I Am Among the Trees” her last verse seems to capture the essence of our takeaway as the trees call out to her: “It’s simple … and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.