Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Survivor Tree

A pear tree is a gift from the gods.
-Homer/ The Odyssey

I held it’s branch the way one may hold someone’s hand; the kind of hand holding necessary when there are no words. My fingers wrapped gently around the lowest branch of the pear tree as I stared up at Freedom Tower.

There is no plaque explaining the story, but anyone could tell this tree was different than the other landscaping by the metal fence around it and the chains wrapped around it’s trunk. Word-of-mouth travels fast at what was once ground zero. Someone passing by mentioned, “It’s the last living thing to be pulled from the rubble. It’s the survivor tree.”

The “survivor tree,” originally planted in the 1970’s between buildings four and five of the World Trade Center complex, now grows in between the two reflecting pools that replaced the footprints of tower one and two. Charred, decapitated and severed at the roots, it was found still giving off green leaves on one of its branches. Arborists from the New York City Parks Department explain in this video how they nursed it back to health. The seedlings from this miraculous tree were carefully collected and propagated at a Queens, New York high school agriculture program. Descendant trees are now thriving from Oklahoma City to Boston; gifts to cities still recovering from their own devastating losses.

In the thirteen years since it’s rescue, the survivor tree has grown from eight-feet tall to more than thirty-feet tall. It’s legend as a symbol of resiliency and healing continues to flourish with each new spring bloom.  But there is far greater symbolism in this widely reported story that no one else seems to be paying attention to.


 In literature, art and mythology, the pear tree has long symbolized strength and fortitude and influenced culture and religions worldwide. In China, the pear tree symbolizes immortality. The Chinese translation for pear means both pear and separation, and has fostered a tradition never to separate or divide a pair. A pair, like twin towers?

From Renaissance paintings like the “Madonna and Pear” and Leonardo Davinci’s Botanical Fables to references in Homer’s “Odysey”, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and Charles Dickens “David Copperfield,” the pear tree has served as an enduring literary symbol. In the West, where Christianity dominates, the pear tree is a metaphor for a sacred tree and the holy spirit, known for longevity, justice, strength and fruitfulness. In the Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the partridge is symbolic of satan stealing souls (game birds are known for stealing eggs from other bird's nests) while the pear tree is symbolic of man’s salvation.

In a case, where no writer could’ve made up a more poignant script, the arborist who tended to the tree found a dove nesting amidst the tree's new growth before it was returned to the World Trade Center. The dove is the universal symbol of love and peace.  Not a bluebird, a cardinal or even a pigeon. A dove. It wasn't an oak, a birch or a maple that survived. It was a pear tree.


Do you ever think there is something much grander going on than we can possibly imagine?

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