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


jean said...

What a rich and beautiful post, Jeffrey! In the midst of so much grief, it is wonderful to know that there is a symbol of strength and hope! I have always loved trees! I grew up with an enormous sycamore tree and I LOVED that tree more than anything. First, it got a fungus disease initiated by drought. Then one of the hurricanes with a mini twister broke one side of it, and finally, a wind storm finished bringing it down. We had tried to save it when the fungus started, spraying fungicides and feeding it. I even had friends come an form a prayer circle around it and leave it a prayer stone. But I finally lost it----the neighborhood lost it, too. Everyone felt grief for the tree. Since then, I have planted a new maple tree near-by, but nothing will ever replace that magnificent tree! I have written poems to it in which I realize that the spirit of that tree will occupy that space in my yard and in my heart for as long as I live. Many humans have deep and intimate relationships with trees. I understand how Ron Vega could, in the unfathomable horror and destruction he witnessed, fall in love with that survivor tree and all it represents.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Many thanks, Jean. I'm so glad my post refreshed this fine memory for you. I too recall a favorite tree, a huge 60- ft. white pine in the front yard of our summer place on the St. Croix river.
There was a wild wind storm and we all hunkered down in the cellar until it had passed. When we came up we saw that the big box elder tree next to our beautiful pine had gone down, shearing off all the limbs along one side of the pine.
Sixty yrs. later, that pine still stands, having all but rebalanced itself with new limbs...but I can still see that it's not quite right.

Ruthie Redden said...

What a moving post Jeffrey. I hadn't heard of either the tree or the man! Mother anture teaches us so much if we only take the time to listen. Trees ~ " They are beautiful in their peace, they are wise in their silence, they will stand after we are dust, they teach us and we tend them " Altiem MAcDunelmor

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Ruthie -- Isn't it a wonderful story? Of course, 9/11 is etched forever in our souls here, but it's easy to get lost in the immensity of it -- but for the small, personal stories like these.

joyceling said...

By total circumstance when visiting the memorial, we ran into and talked to Ron, not knowing what part he played in the memorial. What a humble and welcoming ambassador. Sending metta for his future health and peace of mind.

Jeffrey Willius said...

That's so cool, joyceling! You mean you didn't know of his role until you read my post?
At any rate, thanks so much for stopping by One Man's Wonder and for leaving a comment. I hope you'll stop back now and then.

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