11.05.11

A Tale of Two Trees

Down at the Wall Street movement stands the Tree of Life, and only one block away is the 9/11 Survivor Tree. Michael Daly on how they symbolize American greatness—and our fractured country.

It is a tale of two trees, a London Plane known as The Tree of Life and a Callery Pear known as The Survivor Tree, separated by little more than a block of a street called Liberty, yet seem as far apart as the boisterous idealism of youth and the solemnizing wisdom that comes with age.

The London Plane stands at the eastern edge of Zuccotti Park and has been christened The Tree of Life by the Occupy Wall Street protesters expressing nationwide anger at the unfairness of the bailed out banks getting only richer while so many honest souls are jobless and shut off from the American Dream.

The Callery Pear stands in the new 9/11 Memorial and is known as The Survivor Tree, having seemed beyond saving when it became the last living thing recovered from the fiery ruins where 2,983 innocents died, among them 441 first responders whose courage and selflessness inspired the nation to join as one in a fleeting moment of true American Greatness.

That time of unity now feels so distant and the nation is now so fractured that those gathered to protest big-time greed seem barely aware that their park turned campground is directly across from the intersection hallowed by noblest sacrifice. To make the short walk between the place of the Tree of Life and the place of The Survivor Tree is to know that lasting American greatness could come if the power of these two places could somehow be joined, if ebullience were joined with resilience and insistence with resistance, if there were lasting common ground at Ground Zero, if these two trees could stand together as they should, as twinned as those two fallen towers.

The Survivor Tree stands just beyond the memorial pool that occupies the footprint of the South Tower. This is the closer of the two pools to Zuccotti Park. The sound of the cascading water and the noise of the continuing construction do not quite block out the drums some of the protesters play into the night beside the Tree of Life.

The South Pool is also where the names of the first responders are inscribed, 343 members of the New York City Fire Department, 37 members of the Port Authority Police Department, 23 members of the New York City Police Department. The NYPD members listed on the bronze parapet include 14 who were assigned to the Emergency Services Unit, then commanded by Chief Thomas Purtell, who now commands Manhattan South, the area the Occupy Wall Street protesters occupy.

That time of unity now feels so distant and the nation is now so fractured that those gathered to protest big-time greed seem barely aware that their park turned campground is directly across from the intersection hallowed by noblest sacrifice.

Back in the immediate aftermath of the twin collapses on 9/11, Purtell had called the surviving emergency service cops together and stood stricken-faced when he saw how many cops he had lost. Purtell subsequently directed the NYPD’s part of the search and rescue effort at what became known as Ground Zero. The NYPD, the FDNY and the PAPD combined found just 20 survivors in the ruins, ending with a clerk named Genelle Guzman McMillan, who was discovered alive after being buried for 27 hours.  The last living thing to be recovered was a Callery Pear that had been uncovered stripped of its limbs, its remaining eight feet of trunk scorched and charred. It had been given little hope of surviving, but even the slimmest chance made it worth a try.

“In those dark days, we felt we couldn’t disregard any sign of life,” Mayor Bloomberg later said.

What was left of the tree was transported by flatbed truck to the New York City Parks Department’s nursery in the Bronx.  It arrived with toxic grey dust still caked where the crown had been.

“There wasn’t much left of the tree,” Parks tree expert Richard Cabo recalls. “When I first looked at it, I didn’t think it would make it.”

Exactly two months after the 9/11, workers planted the tree just inside the nursery, to the left of the entrance, adding compost, fertilizer and a root stimulant. They covered the surrounding ground with wood chips to ward off the cold. Winter was nearing and even a healthy tree would be going dormant. They knew they would have to wait until spring to see if it would survive. The answer came with bright green shoots appearing from the old wounds.

“That’s when we knew the tree was going to make it,” Cabo says.

The workers snipped a half inch off the tips of the new growth to trigger hormonal commands for still more growth, then later snipped off those tips to trigger even more. They kept on and the tree rose ever more up and out.

“Nobody knew it was going to be such an important tree,” Cabo says. “We just did our job.”

As the tree grew to 30 feet, word spread and cops and firefighters began to come by to gaze at this seemingly miraculous testament to resilience from the place where their comrades had perished.  The white flowering seemed almost a victory.

When construction of the World Trade Center Memorial was finally underway, it was decided that the tree should be returned there. A tag marked WTCMEM #350 was affixed to one of the new branches. The transplanting was set for April of 2010.

But, in March a Nor’easter swept through the city, knocking down a half dozen trees in the nursery, one of them the Callery Pear. Cabo was at home when he received a message on his mobile phone.

“911 SURVIVOR TREE DOWN AT THE NURSERY”

He hurried there with his three children, 9-year-old Nga, 6-year-old Adam and 3-year-old Zohar.

“I told them, ‘Come on, we’re going to save the tree!’” he recalls.

Cabo decided it was best to stabilize the tree before making any effort to right it. The kids joined in covering the toppled tree’s exposed roots with mulch and sprinkling them with water so it would not go into shock.

“This way, the tree wouldn’t really know she was in trouble,” he says.

Some officials worried the survivor tree might not live, but once again its resilience and the workers’ dedication combined to prevail. It arrived at the memorial that December a miracle renewed. Those who took up a shovel in the ceremonial replanting included Fire Lt. Mickey Kross, who had himself somehow survived though he had been on the fourth floor of the 110-story North Tower when it collapsed on top of him.

“The tree survived, I survived,” Kross says.

Four stabilizing wires were staked around the tree as a precaution against it ever being toppled again. It stood still gnarled and scarred amidst 225 almost too perfect swamp white oaks, but it was at the foot of this tree that President Obama laid a red, white and blue wreath after justice finally caught up with Osama bin Laden last May.

On September 11, Obama returned for the observances of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the dedication of the Memorial. Admission to the grounds that first day was restricted to the families of the victims and they paid little attention to the Survivor Tree as they made their way to the pools where the names of their murdered loved ones were inscribed.

In the days that followed, the grounds were opened on reservation basis to members of the public, for whom the individual names generally held no specific interest. Visitors were given pause by the notation “and her unborn child” beside the names of the 11 victims who were known to have been pregnant, but otherwise the most pronounced effect of the names was their sheer number, so many as to blur into the unimaginable.

What was distinct as the visitors turned away from the inscribed edges of the pools was the lone gnarled tree. Its unique status was acknowledged by the stabilizing cables and a protective circle of steel railing, but there was no plaque to explain its significance. Visitors would gather around it, asking what made this tree so noteworthy.

By then, word had spread far enough beyond the parks workers and first responders that somebody would come over and explain that this was the Survivor Tree and recount its story. The gnarls and scars would turn suddenly beautiful to the newly enlightened, who often proved eager to tell the tale to other visitors.

Six days after the anniversary, visitors walking down Liberty Street on the way to the Memorial passed the first of the Occupy Wall Street protestors gathering in Zuccotti Park.  The protest had been conceived by a Canadian activist group that puts out a magazine called Adbusters and once drew charges of anti-Semitism when it ran an article that listed prominent neo-cons with Jewish names and asked “Why Won’t Anyone Say They’re Jewish?”

The group’s 69-year-old, Vancouver-based founder, Kalle Lasn, had acknowledged he might have worded it differently, but stuck by the thesis that Jewish neo-cons had urged America into the war in Iraq. Such notions of Jewish conspiracies contributed to New York and the Twin Towers being targeted by Al Qaeda in the first place, but Lasn does not even mention the anniversary of 9/11 when he explains why his group chose September 17 to commence the protest.

“A Saturday in the middle of September,” Lasn says. “It was just the right amount of time after the revolution in Egypt.”

The 33,000 square foot open space the protesters chose had been formerly known as Liberty Park, which seemed to many a perfect name for a place beside the site of the worst single attack ever upon the homeland. It had nonetheless been renamed Zuccotti Park after its post 9/11 renovation, not in honor of one of the first responders who perished across the street, but in recognition of the chairman of the firm that owns the land, John Zuccotti of Brookfield Properties.

In refurbishing the park, the designers added 54 honey locust trees and one larger London Plane at the northeastern corner. The London Plane was surrounded by semicircular granite benches, on one of which was perched a seated bronze statue of a businessman inspecting his open briefcase. The work, called “Double Check,” had been installed in the park before the attacks and survived with only a few scrapes from falling debris. This “everyman” figure was now joined by some 100 protesters, an animated but decidedly modest turn-out of people largely in their teens who seemed a kind of throw-back to the youth of the aging organizer, who remained in Vancouver with little inkling of what was soon to come.

“We could feel the rage that was building in young people [who] couldn’t find a job and those fat cats on Wall Street, not a single one of them had been brought to justice, not a single one stood up and said, ‘I’m sorry,’” Lasn says, “But we didn’t expect it to take off the way it has.’”

The protesters received little public attention until a march on September 24, when NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna went casually rogue, using pepper spray on some young women who stood already pacified and manifestly harmless behind a crowd control net.  The ranks of the protesters grew and a march the following Saturday ended with 744 being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.

An even bigger march followed, this including everyone from labor unions to a Marine in dress uniform named Danny Cribbin, who had enlisted when he was 17, gone to boot camp at 18, Iraq at 19 and Afghanistan at 21. Now, at 22, he said, “I didn’t fight for Wall Street.”

That march ended without incident. The NYPD’s highest ranking uniformed commander, Chief of Department Joseph Esposito, noted that when there was no law-breaking, there were no arrests. He was not commenting beyond the march, but by this same logic it eemed that the problem on Wall Street might not so much be enforcement of existing laws as an absence of laws applying to finance that are as clear as those prohibiting blocking traffic.

After the marchers returned to Zuccotti Park, a small number of the more rambunctious ones decided to move forth from what they consider to be the front line of their protest, the end of the park facing Broadway and closer the heart of the Financial District. They announced they were marching on the actual Wall Street and charged a police barricade that blocked their way, resulting in the predictable arrests.

Later that night, the NYPD commander of this half of Manhattan, Purtell, stood on Liberty Street, the face that had looked so stricken on 9/11 now professionally impassive. A convoy of police vehicles arrived, and Purtell called for them to turn off their flashing lights lest they rouse the crowd unnecessarily.

A festive, tribal drumming was coming from the other end of the park. This is the end closest to Ground Zero, but in the prevailing view of the protesters it is the rear area, the place farthest away from where the marches embark, the place farthest from Wall Street. Next to the drummers, on the corner directly across from the Brooks Brothers shop that had served as a morgue after 9/11 and diagonally across from the Memorial, stands the London Plane tree. Its new name was related by a hand-lettered cardboard sign.

“WELCOME TO THE TREE OF LIFE”

Under that was a second sign.

“This Is a Community Sacred Space. Please feel free to contribute something to the Altar.”

Candles, seashells, incense and a miniature Buddha were among the offerings left on the makeshift altar at the base of the tree. The less militant protesters attracted to here included a 23-year-old poetry graduate student from Virginia named Chelsey Weber-Smith, who sat in a meditative position facing the tree, but not consciously facing Ground Zero.  She had a small cardboard sign of her own hanging by some twine from her neck.

“OCCUPY YOUR SOUL”

She had come from Charlottesville with a fellow poetry student, 28-year-old Austin Smith.

Chelsey Weber-Smith summarized the principle they felt should guide the sorry souls on Wall Street and could lead America from its present crisis: “To know and do what’s right.”

Unbeknownst to these two Smiths, they were in what would have been the shadow of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, which had stood just across Liberty Street on that day a decade past another unrelated person named Smith saved hundreds of lives.

People who encountered Police Officer Moira Smith in the burning tower remember the steadiness of her blue eyes as she urged them to keep moving, not to allow themselves to be transfixed by the sight of all the carnage. This 39-year-old mother of a two-year-old daughter at one point led a bloodied executive to safety, then this Smith strode right back inside. Her body was later identified by her shield and nameplate.

The name “MOIRA ANN SMITH” was now inscribed in panel S-24 of the South Pool, surrounded by the names of so many others who made this space sacred not by putting up a sign declaring it so, but by giving their lives while demonstrating the holy opposite of greed.

Yet, the names have no individual meaning to visitors such as 68-year-old Nicolass Seulijm, who is Dutch but has long resided in Brazil.  He did take note of the one tree that stood so different among all the others. He joined the small crowd gathered around it on a sunny Monday afternoon.

“What’s special about this tree?” he asked.

He was told the tale of the Survivor Tree. He stood beside it and gazed about the memorial.

“This is really America, what I think is so great in America,” he said. “The pride of the country, and that’s something beautiful.”

A gust of wind swept down into the north pool and rose up under the cascading water on the far end of the western side, sending a spray up into the sunlight, which refracted into a rainbow. An added gust turned the rainbow to multi-colored wisps of rare beauty.

The thought that The Tree of Life and The Survivor Tree might someday stand reconciled as twins seems ever less likely as tensions mount between protesters and cops in other cities. It nonetheless remains no more impossible than a rainbow rising ebullient from the solemn depths of a memorial pool.