Monday, September 29, 2014

FOR DEAR LIFE – The Tree that Survived 9/11

UPDATE - 3/15/21: Ronaldo Vega, who, along with the Survivor Tree, is the "co-star" of this post, contacted me to say how moved he was by the piece. He asked if I'd yet been able to get to the 9/11 Memorial and "meet" the tree in person. Sadly, I still have not had the chance.

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The Discovery Channel's documentary series, “Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero,” recounts some of the countless captivating back-stories surrounding 9/11. One episode, re-aired recently on the thirteenth anniversary of event, has made an especially deep impression on me.

After weeks of clearing away the 1.4 million tons of debris from the vicinity of the World Trade Center towers, workers unearthed a living survivor of the horror—a bruised, beaten and burned, 30-year-old callery pear tree.

   It was the last thing to leave Ground Zero alive.

PHOTO: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation

In a long-shot effort to save the mangled tree, a horticulturalist for the Parks Department had it removed and carefully transplanted in a nursery in the Bronx, where it remained in obscurity for nine years. This was not just the only one of many trees on the WTC site not pulverized by the force of the collapses; it was the last thing to leave Ground Zero alive.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo Vega, another city worker and one of the thousands enlisted to help bring equipment and supplies to Ground Zero after the tragedy, reported faithfully to the site every day, doing what he could to help bring closure to the nightmare and honor the memory of its victims.

Vega never missed a day. He was so committed to the site that he eventually was named the 9/11 Memorial’s Director of Design and Construction. As concepts for the Memorial percolated, he heard about the intrepid pear tree, and was immediately smitten by the power of its symbolism. He wanted that tree.

It took Vega six weeks to find out what had happened to it. In March, 2008, he went to the nursery and got his first look at what he now referred to as the Survivor Tree; it was in full bloom. From that moment, the tree would become the focus of his passion for the Ground Zero site, and he vowed it would occupy a prominent spot in the Memorial’s design.

But the challenges weren’t over for the tree. No sooner had Vega seen it flourishing, than it was torn nearly in half by the 100-mile-per-hour winds of a huge nor’easter. Nursed once again back to health, it was finally moved into place on the 9/11 Memorial Plaza in 2010, where, just nine months later, it managed to hold on through Hurricane Irene.

PHOTO: Noel Y.C.

Now, the story of the Survivor Tree is dramatic enough. But that is a matter of cellular biology, phytochemistry and perhaps a bit of luck. What leapt off the screen for me in this documentary was the story of Mr. Vega himself. That, my friends, is a story of heart.

Though it’s difficult to find much written about Vega’s personal challenges, one can piece together the narrative. As a first responder and a denizen of Ground Zero every day for 13 years, he was exposed to no end of toxic particles and vapors. At 55, he’s got triple the maximum levels of arsenic and mercury in his body, and suffers disease of the liver, lungs, sinuses, blood and skin.

Like so many workers on the site, the exposure is killing Ron Vega. Yet life has never been more fulfilling for him. “There’s certain things you decide in your life what's worth it and what's not worth it. Working at Ground Zero was worth it, was worth it whatever comes," he says.

     The Survivor Tree has the power to steer us        
     to those places of body, mind and spirit where 
     we were always meant to be.

The tree has become the most important part of Vega’s life. He suggests, in one interview, that his devotion to it has supplanted other relationships and responsibili- ties—those of home and family and friends—to the detriment of all. But he is consumed by the depth of meaning this one organism holds for him, how it "speaks to both the horror and the healing" of the tragedy.

I take the significance a step further; the way I’d put it, the Survivor Tree represents the sheer power of Nature to sooth, to heal, and to steer us to those places of body, mind and spirit where we were always meant to be. I suspect Ron Vega's discovered that truth and realizes, as precious few others can, exactly what the journey is worth to him.

PHOTO: Discovery Channel

I’ve not yet been to the 9/11 Memorial, but it looks like the most stunning American monument since Maya Lin's rend-the-earth design for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. Its two square waterfalls surround the footprints of the twin towers in whispers of remembrance. Outlining each are bronze parapets engraved with the names of each of the 2,983 victims of the 9/11 attacks.

PHOTO: AP/Mark Lennihan.

These waterfalls and pools represent the voids left in human lives and in the hearts of a city and a nation. And around them stand other powerful symbols of the transformation that so often grows from the grief. One is the spectacular new buildings erected around the memorial site—including the new One World Trade Center, or Freedom Tower, built to exactly 1,776 feet in height. I guess they’re, at the very least, an understandable statement of defiance and pride.

The other symbol, one that holds a softer, yet more powerful, meaning for me, is the 400 swamp white oak and sweetgum trees, harvested in areas surrounding the sites of the three 9/11 crashes. These gifts of Nature also represent the hope and the unshakeable spirit of growth and renewal that define a city, a nation, a people.

And finally, how magnificent that Ronaldo Vega and his indomitable callery pear—the Survivor Tree—are there to represent the nexus of those two realms of remembrance. Theirs is, of all the symbols, perhaps the most powerfully personal and moving testament to the constancy, the splendid beauty, the healing promise of Nature.

For theirs is a testament to love.

PHOTO: Amal Chen/The Epoch Times

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

GREEN RIVER – Leafscapes of Change

         In one last gasp the thirsty land exclaims 
       in fervent hues, “Do not forget me, green!”

         These aerial views of summer’s wane are rich with meaning. 
           The landscapes speak of flow and ebb, growth and decay.

              Rivers of green recede from lands they’ve nourished, 
            lush and pliant, since May. Tributaries that coursed then 
             with new life now gather it, drain it back to the source. 
      Stream to brook to rivulet—all know in their cellular souls that, 
      here in northern climes, frozen flow hurts more than none at all.

         In between, red, orange and gold spread as on New England   
                 hillsides. In one last gasp the thirsty land exclaims 
                        in fervent hues, “Do not forget me, green!” 

                    In the end, flow slows to trickle; trickle, to seep;
             and then is gone. Sere earth mottles, cracks and crumbles. 
        And decay’s fall brew percolates to nourish the land once again, 
                      stored up for yet another May flood of green.

Monday, September 15, 2014

WHEN NATURE SPEAKS – Echoes of Eternity

When Nature speaks, it’s for a reason. She's sharing things we need to hear—invitations, affirmations, lessons about truth, beauty, love and life.

While the human animal’s obsessed with how to stretch and bend her to create our own realities, Nature reminds us of one eternal reality, that everything is connected. Everything. That what we might fear in her we actually fear in ourselves. And that what we do to her we do to ourselves and others. 

What a joy our place in her should be, a position that, miraculously, both humbles us when we’re arrogant and ennobles us when we’re feeling unimportant.

Nature’s voice surrounds us, fills us, every day. She speaks to our minds, showing us immutable truths of how things always grow and move and interact. At the same time, she refreshes those ancient instincts that have always advised us on how to apply those truths. She tries as she can to show us both the portals and the boundaries of our intimacy.

            Only if we love her back will we 
            care enough to protect her as if 
            she were our own flesh and blood.

Sometimes the message is for our bodies, calling us to work with her, run with her, bask in her. She fills us with contentment, with exhilaration, and then reminds us that, while she may seem indefatigable, we are not.

Finally, she speaks to our hearts and our spirits, reminding us of our deep belonging to her. It is an unconditional love, that of the tenderest of gods, yet utterly indifferent to the values we humans have devised for ourselves—and so often fail to exemplify. 
Don’t think for a moment that what Nature has to say to us has to be a monologue. In fact, there are many ways to hold up our end of the conversation. Perhaps the most obvious is through sound.

If we spot a beautiful bird—a cardinal, let’s say—we obviously can’t look like a cardinal; we can’t feel or taste or smell like one either. But we can sound like one. I do it all the time (and the cardinal nearly always comes closer).

When Nature calls us to our child side, we might answer her with playful cries and joyous laughter. Or we can welcome her accompaniment as we shuffle leaves, crunch acorns or splash water.

We can shout or clap our hands and listen as desert ignores, forest ponders or canyon mimics. Or we can offer Nature the one gift we have that might nearly rival birdsong and wolf call—our own voices in song.

                You know it's not really a 
                sound, but still you hear it.

Can we converse with Nature through silence? Have you ever experienced true, total silence? I’ve done so only a few times in my life. It leaves an impression. At first your brain doesn’t quite know what to do without the foundation of at least some ambient sound.

It’s kind of like being in total darkness. It makes you dizzy. You can almost feel your ears reaching out, expanding, cupping to detect something, anything, to get a bearing on.

Then, like the way we try to fill the awkward lull in a conversation with an “um-m-m” or an “ah-h-h-h,” Nature comes up with her own space filler, a sort of dull roar. You know it's not really a sound, but still you hear it.

How curious that, while total silence may disorient, near-silence—especially that infused with Nature’s whispers of wind through trees, water over rocks, the jabber and scurry of life—is where, more than any place, you will hear the sound of your own spirit, that reassuring voice that reminds you of your unique part in the oneness of everything.

This is an era in which too many of us humans seem to be getting it backwards in our attitude toward Nature. We've come to fear her more than we love her. We keep our young ones indoors where we can keep an eye on them. We discourage them from the kinds of adventures that defined our own childhood, but which we now somehow believe are too risky.

        In her voice are the echoes of everything 
        that ever lived...or ever will live.

If we truly listen, we know that the truth is a different matter. In fact it is Nature that should fear us. Once again, she’s telling us—and we should be listening—how we hurt her through our arrogance, our greed, our short-sightedness and, perhaps most tragically, through those poorly-informed fears.

Nature is as benevolent as she has ever been. And, in this era of virtual experiences and connections, her presence in our daily lives is needed more than ever. Depriving our children of her nurture, her teachings, her healing spirit, is hurting them—and us—in ways we are only now coming to document, and to a degree that far, far outweighs any actual risks.

So keep your ears peeled for Nature’s voice. It’s there, not just in the forest, but in the heart of the city. You can hear it in creatures’ voices, including our own. It comes from growth and movement—the raspy rattle of tree branches rubbing shoulders in the wind; water’s cheery chortle as it charms its way over and around hard rock. Some folks even hear the trees, the clouds, the land.

And only if we listen—truly listen with ears, hearts and souls open—will we learn about Nature and our belonging in her. For in her voice are the echoes of everything that ever lived...or ever will live. Then, only when we know and trust that eternal bond, will we be able to reciprocate her love. Only then will we know enough to protect her as if she were, indeed, our own flesh and blood.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


 TIP #12
Once in a while, look up.

You'd think this would be a no-brainer, wouldn't you? But, if you're at all like me, it's like breathing. You take it for granted; you forget that, occasionally, it needs your attention. Haven't you ever concentrated so much on something—you know, that body-and-soul concentration where you shut out everything around you?—that you realized you'd been forgetting to breathe?

Well, it's the same thing with looking up. We get so focused on what's right in front of our noses, or what's going on inside our heads, we forget that, of the hemispherical reach of our vision, most of it—with all its wonders of wisp and wing, billow and beam—lies above eye level.

"A find is a terrible thing to waste."