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The Survivor Tree

The Survivor Tree, a Callery Pear tree, at Ground Zero, Lower Manhattan, New York City.
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The Survivor Tree, a Callery Pear tree, at Ground Zero, Lower Manhattan, New York City.

On September 11, we remember the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, which took place 22 years ago. One way to commemorate that event is through the messages that trees can communicate to those who survived.

In the aftermath of the attack, a severely damaged tree that had been growing at Ground Zero was discovered alive, but severely damaged. Its roots had snapped and its branches were burned and broken. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation took over its care, excavating and removing the tree — a Callery pear — for rehabilitation.

In time, new limbs sprouted from its stump, and in 2010, it was replanted it at the site of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Now called the Survivor Tree, it stands as a living example of resilience of life in the face of death.

But its message goes beyond that tree. From that tree came the Survivor Tree seedling program, which is coordinated by an arborist firm and a high school in Queens. Each year, they provide seedlings from this tree to three communities that have endured tragedy. The young saplings are planted and nurtured as an inspiration for hope and regrowth.

In 2022, the Ukraine was one recipient, to help commemorate the casualties and refugees that have stemmed from the war with Russia. In 2021, the World Health Organization received seedlings for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other groups in many countries have derived inspiration from them to recover from hurricanes, shootings and wildfires.

Of course, the presence of a single tree cannot prevent nor make up for the great losses that emerge from such tragedies. But this Survivor Tree program — and similar efforts that harness the quiet power of trees — inspire a sense of hope, solace and promise in people and places around the world.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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