This Old Tree with Doug Still
The First 9/11 Survivor Trees (Transcript)
Season 1, Episode
Published October 22, 2022
Doug Still: 0:00
The Survivor Tree is a callery pear tree that was rescued from the rubble at Ground Zero about a month after the 9/11 terrorist attack. It was a ragged trunk when they found it, but it was nursed back to health by New York City Parks Department horticulturalists and eventually planted back at the site as part of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It has been visited by literally millions of people who have come to pay their respects and remember the victims of that day. The tree has become a well known and stirring symbol of resilience and survival. But what few people remember is that there were six other trees rescued from the site and transplanted in early October of 2001. I know, because I was part of the team that found them. I was with Bram Gunther, my friend and at the time my boss with the City's Central Forestry and Horticulture Division. Coming up, I recount with him the day we visited the World Trade Center site, what we saw, how and where these remarkable trees were moved, and what has become of them.
Thanks for joining in. I'm your host, Doug Still, and this is This Old Tree.
This Old Tree theme song - Dee Lee: 1:08
This old tree, standing here for more than four centuries. I wonder what you'd say if you could talk to me, about what it's like to be this old tree...
Doug Still: 1:27
So yeah, I was a New Yorker for many years before I moved to Providence in 2005. Everyone that lived in the city on 9/11 has their own story from that day - where they were and how they were affected. There was so much trauma and tragedy, and all of us were shocked and shaken. But I remember having a funny feeling in the days and weeks following the attacks, even as reality sunk in for the families who lost loved ones, as first responders continued to risk their lives searching through the rubble and securing the site for our city, and crews put their health on the line clearing debris. An inconsequential feeling to anyone but me perhaps. But to be honest, I didn't know anyone directly affected by the terrorist attack, or involved in the ensuing recovery efforts. New York is a big city, and frankly, all I could do was follow the events on TV and on the radio. I lived in Brooklyn and worked in Queens, and frankly, I don't think I even set foot in Manhattan for weeks. I remember sort of feeling like a spectator, a feeling that stopped short of guilt, but was definitely a sense of disconnect. I remember attending a professional conference for the Society of Municipal Arborists late that September in the Midwest, and in a touching moment the whole assembly stood and applauded for me, recognizing that I was from New York City, and to show their solidarity. It was a wonderful thing to do, and I recognize that it wasn't really about me. But all I could think was, "I didn't do anything. I don't deserve this." But when I got home, a small small chance to contribute something appeared.
Here's my interview with Bram Gunther, as we recall our visit to Ground Zero.
This Old Tree song - Dee Lee: 3:08
Doug Still: 3:12
It's October 11, 2022, and I'm in New York City with my friend and former boss, Bram Gunther. Thank you for being here today, Bram,
Bram Gunther: 3:22
You're welcome. It's my pleasure.
Doug Still: 3:23
I think we last saw each other in person at a conference in Los Angeles about 10 years ago. I can't remember what the conference was, but we escaped a few sessions or one session anyway, and went to your room. And you brought out a little folding guitar that you travel with, and that you wanted to sing me a song or two. You remember that?
Bram Gunther: 3:46
I do. That guitar is now here in this apartment, as it was given to my son.
Doug Still: 3:51
Yes, we are now in Bram's son's apartment in New York City in the Upper West Side. And it's nice to be back in New York.
Bram Gunther: 4:00
And it's nice to see you.
Doug Still: 4:01
But we're here today to reconstruct and remember our visit to the World Trade Center site, about a month after 9/11, almost exactly 21 years ago. I don't remember exactly what the date was, but I think it was probably about four weeks or so... to look at some trees that were reported to have survived. At that time. I was the Deputy Director of Street Tree Planting in the Central Forestry Division of the New York City Parks Department. And you were...
Bram Gunther: 4:31
I had originally said I was the Deputy Director of the whole division, but now I'm thinking I was probably the Director and Fiona was the Chief.
Doug Still: 4:41
You were the Director at the time. But we had a management team that worked very closely, not only on tree planting and increasing the city's tree canopy, but on a lot of projects that had broader impact on the urban forest. It included Fiona Watt who was the Chief of Forestry, Jennifer Greenfield who ran the New York Tree Trust at the time, and she is now... could you repeat her title?
Bram Gunther: 5:05
She is now Deputy Commissioner.
Doug Still: 5:08
And also Barbara Nickels, who was the Director of Street Tree Planting
Bram Gunther: 5:13
Who is now Deputy Chief.
Doug Still: 5:15
Deputy Chief, great for her. But the day we went to the World Trade Center site was three or four weeks after 9/11. And I believe, you know, the human rescue effort had shifted more towards a recovery phase and they were doing environmental assessment at the time. And so just looking back, we then got word or instructions from the Commissioner of Parks to make a visit.
Bram Gunther: 5:46
Yeah, his name was Henry Stern. And he was interested because he was privy to some of the information that was coming from the pit, which is what I think they called it. And he probably heard some of the folks down there saw some trees. And so he reached out initially to me, and said, "Dogwood," - we all had nicknames.
Doug Still: 6:13
We all had a Park nickname.
Bram Gunther: 6:15
Park nicknames, and he was StarQuest, the Commissioner Henry Stern, and I was Dogwood. And you were?
Doug Still: 6:22
I was Slugfest.
Bram Gunther: 6:24
Doug Still: 6:26
I was Slugfest I had... well, he gave you the opportunity to choose your name. And that was my email handle because "Doug" rhymes with "slug" and my friends would call me Slug, Slugga, slugfest. So I just use that and transferred that. StarQuest - what is the meaning behind StarQuest?
Bram Gunther: 6:49
"Stern" is "star" in German, and "quest" represents his consistent questioning of things in general - staff, colleagues, existentialism [laughs]. And I should just say, since you told the story of your name, I also got an hour in a meeting to choose my name, and I knew at that point that some names that he chose for people were not so flattering. So I was like, I need to think of a good name. [that's right] And at that time, my favorite tree was a dogwood.
Doug Still: 7:28
Perfect. [laughs] We all had badges, and these were included in a book that an assistant for StarQuest would carry around and he would refer to. But, prior to that, the city and our country was in a strange state, as we were recovering from this terrorist attack. And I remember, just looking back a few weeks earlier on 9/11, I was in my apartment in Park Slope in Brooklyn. That morning, I didn't go in to work. I was moving that upcoming weekend, and I was donating a desk to the office. And someone from the office was coming by in a truck to pick up the desk, and he was late. So I called the office to find out why and I was told, you know, they don't know why he might be late, but maybe it's because of the plane that just hit the World Trade Center building. And I sort of brushed that off. I didn't know what that meant. And I said, hmm, and I went to my television which broadcast from the top of the World Trade Center, my signal. No signal. And I got concerned and then I turned on the radio and it all unfolded, and I learned about it there. And then didn't go into work, I think, for a few days because the subways weren't running and things sort of, you know, closed down. I do remember that afternoon going out in my neighborhood in Park Slope, and it was a beautiful, calm day, blue sky, and there were bits of paper falling out of the sky. Really upsetting. Do you remember what your experience was on 9/11?
Bram Gunther: 9:18
I do, in broad strokes. My son had been born just a few months earlier, at the end of July. And so my wife and I, we were living in the Bronx then. And so I was feeling particularly optimistic about the world at that moment because I had a brand new baby at home. And that morning I had left the Bronx. I do want to say again, that my memory's not 100% about that day, but I trust it by and large. And I think I started the day at the citywide nursery. And as you said before, even though our division was called Central Forestry, we are actually, at that point, Central Forestry and Horticulture, because recently we had taken on horticulture to oversee operations and best practices across the city. In the same way that we were both responsible for planting street trees, but also developing best practices. And in having horticulture added to the title of the division, we took upon the management of what was called and still is called the Citywide Nursery, which is in the northeast section of Van Cortlandt Park. On the TV, with some of the gardeners and horticulturalists there, we watched I think the first building go down, or maybe both. And I remember just feeling sick to my stomach, in part because my mom for 15 years, her office was on the 77th floor. So I just had this eerie feeling that if she hadn't retired a few years before, that was going to be it for her. And my oldest friend in life worked on the 70th something floor of World Trade Center either one or two, and I was worrying about him. But instead of going home, I left the Citywide Nursery and made my way to our office, which was in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, because I felt that in my position I needed to be there to help support the staff, both manage their feelings and manage their logistics.
Doug Still: 11:49
Right, just getting home. My partner walked from midtown Manhattan all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge, just to get home that day.
Bram Gunther: 11:59
Wow. So bridges feature in my story of that day. So I eventually went across the Whitestone Bridge, and I could see the flames and the smoke coming from downtown Manhattan. And I again, I just felt physically sick. [yeah] I didn't know emotionally what to make of it yet. But physically, I was sick.
Doug Still: 12:24
I remember a lot of fear that day too, what's going to happen next.
Bram Gunther: 12:27
Yeah, I had that fear of myself. worrying that there were other targets. Because Manhattan is filled with really tall buildings. Not all, except for the Empire State Building, none really that high. But I was filled with fear too. And I should just say, as a coda to that story, that my good friend Adam, who I'd known since birth, who worked in the World Trade Center, was perennially late. And he was typically late. So, it's a month later, and as I had said, they're doing work that day. And so by that point, the first building had been hit. Then he was told to just go home. And that saved his life, being late. [wow, wow] And that really, really haunted me. environmental assessments. And this call is made from StarQuest to you to go investigate, what, what can be seen down in the pit or nearby. And so you came to me, and asked if I would go. And I also asked somebody else in the division to come with me, this woman who at this point had taken over from me heading up a Greenstreets Program, which was putting gardens in the right of way where there was unused space. So a mass public gardening program. Because I knew that there were some new Greenstreets in the area, and I wanted her to look at them to get a sense of how, if they could survive or not. What's funny about that moment is, so the three of us eventually got into a Parks Department car, headed from the borough of Queens down to Lower Manhattan. But she was pregnant that day, and she was under strong advisement from her husband not to breathe and what we now know was chemical laden air. So she ended up staying most of the time in the vehicle [that was a good warning] as you and I went into the pit.
Doug Still: 14:48
Right. And that was the first time, after all that time watching this on TV, that I'd really gotten close, and it really affected me in a sort of "eyes on" way, a real way. So I remember parking near the church on lower Broadway, [Trinity] Trinity Church, and walking through the park there along the side of the church. And the first thing that I noticed is that the trees, I think their London plane trees, are coated with ash on one side, on the World Trade Center side of the trees. So coming from the west. And so then I can only imagine what that plume of debris was like. Do you remember walking through there?
Bram Gunther: 15:41
I do. I remember that pretty lucidly. I remember the ash as you've just described it. I remember the ash on one side of those trees and not the other side, which really stood out. And for some reason, my first thought when I got out of the car, is this is Vesuvius. It was a volcano. And it was just our crazy, violent terrorist version of it. And that was the only way I could make sense of it in my head.
Doug Still: 16:16
It looked like that.
Bram Gunther: 16:17
It looked like that.
Doug Still: 16:18
Yeah. And so we arrived at the site, and we needed hard hats and masks. And I remember the staging site, or at least one office where we got those things, was on the second floor of a building, sort of right along the south east corner of the World Trade Center site, but across the street. It was a Burger King.
Bram Gunther: 16:43
Yes, I remember that too. And it was upstairs, and it felt like we were on the inside, right, because the people coming in and out were the people working in the pit. But I know that I myself also felt like an outsider at the same time, because these people were there...
Doug Still: 17:07
I felt like an outsider.
Bram Gunther: 17:09
Right. Insider, in that we were both working for the City, [right] and this was a City effort, and this was an attack on our city. So that made me, and I'm also born and raised in Manhattan. So I feel very at home in Manhattan, but an outsider when it came to the fraternity of people -fraternity, sorority - of people that had been there since day one, and had to experience the horrors directly [right] that you and I didn't have to see.
Doug Still: 17:44
Do you remember getting clearance for that? Or how did we get in?
Bram Gunther: 17:48
Clearance was given to us through the Commissioner's office at the Parks department with the other agency - I can't remember which agency it was - that was mainly responsible for coordinating. And it could have been DCAS, which stands for Department of Citywide Services, I think. [okay] But it could have been another sort of overarching agency. And they checked us on a ledger as we were headed upstairs to the second floor of the Burger King.
Doug Still: 18:28
So then we descended, we went into the pit, [Yeah] and we were right near, was that building number seven with the plaza that had the trees?
Bram Gunther: 18:40
Oh, you mean where we found the trees? [Yes] It might have been building seven. But it was on the northeast side, and we entered on the southern side. And we walked through the pit. And I can't obviously speak for you, but we were not talking to each other then partly because we had gas masks on, but I remember looking leaning over and looking into the pit. I didn't see any human remains.
Doug Still: 19:11
We were, like, walking along the edge of the pit.
Bram Gunther: 19:12
We were walking along the edge of the pit. [Yeah] But I remember seeing the remains of all the things that had been in the way, including these two buildings, which had featured in my life, as I mentioned, because my mom worked there. And then getting this, you know, understanding that there were human remains there just a few days ago. I think they were still there. We just didn't see them directly. And again, feeling so sick to my stomach and not understanding what to make of this. Except that I had a purpose, we both had a purpose, and that the more I focused on that purpose, the easier it was to manage my emotions when I was there.
Doug Still: 19:59
I think there was little talking, when we walked out, it felt very, very solemn. The seriousness of the event really took hold again, you know, going there in person. And we saw these trees. [Yep] We saw some green.
Bram Gunther: 20:19
Unbelievably enough, we did.
Doug Still: 20:21
There were six. That's what you thought.
Bram Gunther: 20:22
There were six trees. And I remember thinking Yeah. Three pears, and three littleleaf lindens as when we first got to the trees, and so we were a little bit away from the epicenter of the pit, if I can put it that way. [right] And my first thought was, if I had been on the plaza at that moment, and I was hugging one of these trees, I probably would have survived, because these trees were unscathed. Don't know why that thought came to my head, but I have never forgotten that. ID'd by you, because I could tell the pears but, and I knew they were lindens. But I wasn't good enough with my tree identification.
Doug Still: 21:10
So we identified three callery pear trees and three littleleaf linden trees that were in the plaza. Yeah, they're, I mean, they have very similar leaves, and there they were standing among the rubble. And I remember the building sort of.. part of the frontage of the building was still there, [mm hm] but sort of jagged.
Bram Gunther: 21:30
Yep, or mauled is the word that I had used to myself then. The building has been mauled. Again, not sure why that word popped up, but...
Doug Still: 21:41
But it was incredible that the trees weren't snapped. You know, that nothing had fallen on them. [Yeah] They just withstood this incredible billowing of air and ash and debris that the trees a few blocks away at Trinity Church had absorbed, or at least the sides of them had.
Bram Gunther: 22:03
Or the other trees on the plaza had been disintegrated. And yet these trees were okay. [Right] And of all the shrapnel, if that's the right word, of the explosion also didn't hit these six particular trees. They just flew around or over or passed it. But these guys were okay.
Doug Still: 22:25
Now, the Survivor Tree that was grown at the nursery and transplanted to the Memorial Site now... we didn't see that tree.
Bram Gunther: 22:36
Not on that day, no. That tree was discovered by some landscape architects. I don't know if they were Parks landscape architects or not, I can't remember, but some landscape architects who discovered it. I eventually saw it and it was mangled. And when I first saw it, I said there's no way we can resuscitate this decapitated tree. But it had taken on a lot of meaning to a set of people that were working in the pit day after day. And a colleague at the Parks Department who had been there, had volunteered his time. So he had been there regularly, and said, "Please, you got to do something." And they were only appealing to me, because very recently, we had gotten the Citywide Nursery in the Bronx, which is where I had started my day on 9/11. [Right] So we suddenly had the resources, where eight months ago, we were not managing the Citywide Nursery, so it would never have come to me. But it did, and how can I deny that right? We were to do our best. And I remember the day it was sort of taken out, it was sort of soldered. And I think I don't know if it was literally, but it the concrete or the brick of the building or whatever it was, the material had sort of made, it was integrated or assimilated into the trunk of the tree. [incredible] So we cut it apart, and then it went up to the Citywide Nursery and the men and the women at the Citywide Nursery, they understood the meaning of this tree, and boy did they give it some TLC.
Doug Still: 24:23
That was after the six had been transplanted [yeah] near City Hall.
Bram Gunther: 24:28
If I remember the chronology correctly, it was after we had taken out and transplanted the six trees that you and I found.
Doug Still: 24:38
So it's funny, nowadays we would have had our phones out. We would have taken pictures of all of this. We did not carry cell phones in 2001, at least I didn't. [I didn't either] We had beepers. [both laugh] So all of this is just relegated to our memory really.
Bram Gunther: 24:59
But I also think there was a prohibition against photographs in the pit. [I see] I can't say that for sure. But I'm pretty sure I remember it correctly that, you know, people with cameras were just asked to leave their cameras.
Doug Still: 25:12
And this is where my memory really begins to fail me. At what point did we think we could save those trees? We could move those trees? Was it right on site? Was it during the drive back? Was it doing a debrief when we returned to the office?
Bram Gunther: 25:34
It's a very good question, and I don't have a definitive answer. [Yeah] I do know that you and I looked at each other when we saw those trees, and it was a look of recognition that these trees at this moment in time when we were looking at them seemed okay. But I don't remember when the decision was made definitively, but it was soon [right] because we had to act. Maybe we didn't, you know, maybe it was someone else, or it was part of a discussion later that the trees could be transplanted. But mostly, we reported that they were alive, and were relatively intact. Right. And that message went back to Henry Stern, aka StarQuest. So my sense is that you and I have probably said to each other, "Betchya these trees are okay." But he definitely said, "Move them." [Gotcha] And so we had to find a site soon after for them to go to.
Doug Still: 26:33
So how did that develop?
Bram Gunther: 26:34
I knew you were going to ask me this question, and I cannot remember who identified - and it could have been me, but I don't know - this triangle directly east of City Hall, at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, as a place for these trees to go. I remembered vaguely that there was a tree planted in that site as a memorial remembrance to the Oklahoma City bombing. So perhaps, the person who suggested that that memorial tree go in that spot, made the connection with the trees that were going to come from the World Trade Center, but I don't remember exactly how that spot was chosen. But it was. And it had meaning because it was right across from City Hall., so it was sort of remembering both the history of the City and then this incredible, horrifying, unique moment.
Doug Still: 27:39
Now were you in charge of organizing that planting?
Bram Gunther: 27:44
I was. I was in charge through the power that I had at the Parks Department that oversaw in general, green spaces and policy for trees. Didn't mean that the Parks Department managed all the public trees, but we were the ones who sort of set policy. But it was done through that. The removal of the trees, the moving of them from the west side to the east side, and the planting of them was done through an existing contract through the agency that was in charge of this whole effort.
Doug Still: 28:29
I see. So it wasn't a Parks Department contractor.
Bram Gunther: 28:33
It was not. So it was their contract. I was just there to supervise because I knew enough about what it would take to take the trees out, and increase the potential that they would survive, and what they needed on the other end. So I was there supervising in that capacity.
Doug Still: 28:56
Were they planted by November, do you remember?
Bram Gunther: 29:02
Oh, absolutely. By November,
Doug Still: 29:04
So it was by the end of October.
Bram Gunther: 29:06
I think it was actually mid October.
Doug Still: 29:08
That moved pretty quickly.
Bram Gunther: 29:10
It moved very quickly because [we had to] we were up against the deadline, I remember. Because they wanted to take...first of all, they thought building seven, if it was building seven, but I think you are right. It was either building seven or five. [Okay] People thought it might fall down at any moment. [Right] And if it didn't, they were going to take it down anyway. So we were under a deadline to get those trees out. So I remember working relatively quickly. So I think it was mid... second or third week of October. We were told by StarQuest, "Move quickly."
Doug Still: 29:46
Was there a ceremony?
Bram Gunther: 29:49
There was not a ceremony the day that we transplanted them. But there was a ceremony soon after, because the commissioners started a program called Living Memorials. You know, and at this point, if you - you the audience - and I remember the Mayor then was Mayor Giuliani. But in the election in November, it transferred to Mayor Bloomberg, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But Giuliani had initially petitioned first for a whole other term, because he had said look, this started on my watch. At that point, he was known as America's mayor. So he was arguing that he needed another term to manage this. Bloomberg said no, but he did say yes to delaying taking office. I don't remember how long, but the Living Memorial ultimately was under Bloomberg, and that there was some celebration at some point. I don't remember when it was.
Doug Still: 31:07
Gotcha. That was something I was not involved in.
Bram Gunther: 31:11
Although I think you were there for the event. Maybe not. I was not [Okay] Yeah. And it was within the Parks Department's responsibility to care for the trees after and water them and make sure that they survived? Yes, yes, and let me just backtrack a little bit, because I think it's an interesting part of the story. Tree spades were used. These were not huge trees, but we, me and other people were talking to determine what was going to be the best way to transplant them. And so the concrete and the rubble was dug out around it, and then a tree spade, which I had never seen performed before. I knew they existed.
Doug Still: 32:00
So they had backhoes that came in and sort of cleared a path for the spade, a truck with spade to get in. And then dig them out.
Bram Gunther: 32:07
That's right. That's right. And I, it was the first time I had That's good. [both laugh] Well, you do carry that authority. seen directly with my own eyes, a tree spade in action. And I was like, wow, this is amazing. And then the other part that I remember is, as the truck was leaving the truck that was carrying these six trees, the people in the pit that had been working and saw this whole thing started both cheering and crying. [Wow] And I started crying myself, I was in the back of the truck -oh no, I was in a parked vehicle following the truck. And then it left and I had so impressed upon these contractors, that were not landscape contractors. Right? [right] I impressed upon them so much, that if you know, wind burn, and being gentle. So they drove from the west side of downtown Manhattan to the east side of downtown Manhattan at five miles an hour. And we were just going so slowly, and I think they were so worried that the trees that they had just taken out with a tree spade were then going to die on their watch in the truck. So they just went five miles an hour, and I was, I did at that moment in time. Yes. [both laugh] sort of laughing to myself. Well, I guess they really heard me.
Doug Still: 33:38
Can you describe what it was like when the trees were planted?
Bram Gunther: 33:41
We get to the site, and there's clearly enough space for these trees. Do you remember how big they were? Do you remember the size? I'm not sure I remember.
Doug Still: 33:51
They must have been 12 or 14 feet tall.
Bram Gunther: 33:55
Yeah. Yeah, that sounds right to me. And we laid them out. I demanded everything was done by hand. And so they were digging these pits. And I remember, it's a little tangent, but it's worth telling, that this one - probably was a gardener title - he was so strong, and he works so quickly, that he ended up taking these huge pits. We're talking about a 12 to 14 feet tree that can have a pretty reasonable sized root ball. And he dug them all by himself because he just was that good at it. And I had demanded that it be as I said, be done by hand. I was just so nervous. So when the last tree was being put in the ground, and we were filling the tree pit with soil, we all said a kind of prayer to ourselves, not out loud, around that last tree and then they were in the ground. [Music]
Doug Still: 35:02
The survivor tree that we all know now, which was almost basically a stump [right] that was taken out. That was not plantable.
Bram Gunther: 35:13
That was not at all.
Doug Still: 35:15
and as you described had become a favorite among the workers there. That was brought to the Bronx to the nursery. And planted?
Bram Gunther: 35:26
It was at first... I wasn't in charge of its rehabilitation. I think at first, it was brought into a greenhouse, and they tended to it [I see] in whatever way they did. But ultimately, it was planted in an open spot. Once they saw that there was some life left in it, and it was growing again, it was planted in a very certain spot. Then they put up their own handmade memorial sign in front of it.
Doug Still: 36:02
It's probably mid-fall sometime they brought it in, put it in a greenhouse. [Yeah] Perhaps for the winter.
Bram Gunther: 36:09
Could be, I can't guarantee you that I remember that exactly.
Doug Still: 36:13
Who was in charge at that time.
Bram Gunther: 36:15
It was a man named Bobby Cipolla, who was an incredible horticulturalist. And his, one of the workers on the staff was a man named Richie Cabo, who was my friend, and ultimately took over for Bobby when he retired. And those two men in particular really are the ones who took responsibility for that tree.
Doug Still: 36:41
How long did it stay up at the nursery?
Bram Gunther: 36:44
Twelve to fifteen years? I could be off a few years, maybe it was...
Doug Still: 36:50
So at least a decade.
Bram Gunther: 36:51
...at least a decade. Yeah. It needed TLC, right. But it so was at least a decade and city officials by and large forgot about it. We had not, because it became, you know, a symbol of sort of hope and reparation for us, because the tree just loved the TLC that it was getting. But at one point, the 9/11 Memorial, which was both an organization as well as a sort of museum, but it was mainly an organization to put the pieces of that day and that time together.
Doug Still: 37:37
That took some time.
Bram Gunther: 37:39
That took some time. They found out, I don't remember how, they found out that the tree was up at the Citywide Nursery. And they reached out to the then Commissioner, who I think was Adrian Benepe at the time, and said, look, we would like to have it come back to the plaza. We're almost done repairing it. And even though it was hard for the people at the Citywide Nursery to let it go, they understood that that's where it needs to be.
Doug Still: 38:07
Amazing. Amazing. And it's become world famous, really, the Survivor Tree. Numerous stories about it and, I just hope people don't forget the six trees that we found.
Bram Gunther: 38:20
I think most people have forgotten them, which is why we're bringing them back to life now with this interview. That Survivor Tree became so popular, I think at one point, I had counted that there were over 50 requests for interviews. But everyone forgot about those six other trees.
Doug Still: 38:41
What do you think people find most inspiring about the Survivor Tree? And by extension, these other six
Bram Gunther: 38:49
It's a great question. Humans have turned to trees? plant life, but in particular trees throughout our existence, to help us memorialize traumatic or happy things in our life that we want the generations beyond us to remember.
Doug Still: 39:12
They span the generations.
Bram Gunther: 39:14
That's right. So I think that is sort of built into us. Historically, I'm not gonna say genetically, but historically. So there was that remembrance, physical, tangible remembrance, spanning the generations, as you just said.
Doug Still: 39:31
And I think what's different about these is that they weren't planted as memorial trees. They were survivors. They were actual trees at the site and made it through and I think that's inspiring.
Bram Gunther: 39:44
Yeah, that I don't need to add to that. I think the fact that they were survivors, was incredibly important to the people of the City in general, and especially the people who had been toiling in the pit. And even though we could not speak their language, the fact that they had witnessed and survived was extremely and emotionally important to the City of New York, and then ultimately the world.
Doug Still: 40:12
I was thinking about this on the drive in today, and there's another aspect of it, I think, that intrigues people. And that's just sort of the randomness of it. That's sort of the beauty of randomness. [Yeah] That they could have been crushed, but they weren't, you know, we think of other tragedies or events where some people made it through and others didn't, or some things survived in airplane accidents, or something like that. And it's always remarkable, I think, to think about that. And so I think these trees kind of fit that mold, in a way, like, "Wow, how did they survive that?"
Bram Gunther: 41:01
I agree completely. And don't really have anything to add to it. But it is, it's a strong feeling, to want to support survivors.
Doug Still: 41:13
One thing...throughout my career, you know, I planted and I've overseen the planting of tens of thousands of trees. And, as you know, urban trees have a tough life. Just every day, yeah, surviving the compaction and salt, and vandalism and cars running into them. Every once in a while, we lose one of the trees we plant. And it's always satisfying to, incredibly rewarding to plant trees and see them grow. But there's sort of an extra bit of reward when every once in a while a tree gets run over, and there's a stump. But then it starts to put out sprouts. And the initial reaction is oh, we need to replace that tree with a new tree, get a contractor and plant and spend money and select the tree. But every once in a while, we prune one of the sprouts, train it into a leader and let that same organism live. And it's amazing to see how well they do when you do that, because the root system's alive. It wants to grow. And there are many trees that developed into mature trees in that way. And there's like this extra little bit of satisfaction with those that I find, like, oh, that's one that we trained from a stump sprout, right? There's a little bit of that going on here, too, I think. Just that there were trees, from our perspective, maybe not the general public, but from our perspective - that we saved them.
Bram Gunther: 43:02
Yeah, well, especially related to the survivor tree, that what you just described was relevant, and that we did take the sprouts from the stump that came to us a few weeks after 9/11, and I think grew out a hundred little babies from it? I'm sure some of them are still there at the Citywide Nursery, but we eventually gave out some of those babies to other places across the world - and I'm glad you brought that up, because I'd forgotten about this part - that had also experienced national traumas, and wanted this survivor tree as a way to remember and memorialize their trauma. [Wonderful] So many of those trees went out, some of them just went to the 9/11 Memorial. And the other part I wanted to add when I was coming down here thinking about the interview, too, is that I consider trees Earth's greatest living creatures. And I've always felt that. And there is something about an organism that big, that long lived, which is partly why humans are so intrigued by whales, just as an example. or elephants. You and I have that towards trees. And so the fact they already hold such an incredible place, at least for people like you and I, in our sense of the world, and the sense of the biology and the diversity of the world, to be able to have those trees to speak for us, so to speak, was really moving for me. [Music]
Doug Still: 44:46
So I'm really interested in going downtown and seeing these trees after all this time.
Bram Gunther: 44:51
Me too. I'm really looking forward to seeing them.
Doug Still: 44:55
Okay, let's go.
This Old Tree song - Dee Lee: 45:03
Doug Still: 45:03
[Sound of city traffic.] So Bram and I made our way downtown on the 1 train to Chamber Street and walked over to City Hall Park. And, where are we located right now Bram?
Bram Gunther: 45:14
We are at a triangle-shaped green space that is directly east of City Hall, and at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan traveling towards Brooklyn,
Doug Still: 45:27
I haven't been here in about 10 years, and I am amazed at all of the people on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Bram Gunther: 45:34
The Brooklyn Bridge had some capital construction work done to it, and the walkways that were always there, but were fixed up. Now this is one of the main features of the City down here. People love it.
Doug Still: 45:49
But this little triangle, it's nice to see. That our living memorial trees, make this triangle. There are four left, four out of six. [Yep] We don't know what happened to
Bram Gunther: 46:02
Well, one I had heard through, when I was still them. at the parks department, I had heard that it died through Manhattan forestry. [I see] The second one I had not heard about. So it must have died in the last several years.
Doug Still: 46:15
So three of the littleleaf lindens are still here, and one 'Bradford' pear. It's a callery pear, but it's definitely a 'Bradford' cultivar. I can tell by the poor structure. But it's doing quite well, I have to say, left on its own.
Bram Gunther: 46:30
And we should say for the record that the Survivor Tree was a 'Bradford' callery pear.
Doug Still: 46:36
So very successful, at least, I think, you know, to have four of them left alive? The plaque is gone, [Yeah] and there is some debris here. [Yeah] Rubble. Looks like nobody knows these trees are here.
Bram Gunther: 46:57
They are beyond everybody's veil. Yeah. Which is very sad to me. Because these trees, as Doug and I were discussing before, are meaningful in so many ways. Except for most people, they they don't know them, or they've been forgotten.
Doug Still: 47:18
But unlike many trees in the City, they're not planted in pavement, they're in grass. They're protected by a fence. Pedestrians can't walk where we are, we snuck in through a hole in the fence. These guys are protected.
Bram Gunther: 47:31
Yeah, and it's pretty moving to see them actually. Because I remember them the day after I saw them. And even though they were not hurt, they were in shock if I can use that term. And here they are living their lives out. Four of the six are here living their lives out across from City Hall.
Doug Still: 47:55
What would you say this project means to you?
Bram Gunther: 47:58
The project of transplanting the trees here? [Yes] It means to me on a personal level, now that my mother has died, and that my mother worked on the 77th floor of the World Trade Center, it's partly a remembrance of her and her life. But more importantly, for me, it's a remembrance of a really, really difficult and sad time in New York City's history. And they're still here as living witnesses.
Doug Still: 48:35
Thanks for joining me today, Bram.
Bram Gunther: 48:37
You're welcome. It was my pleasure. [Music]
Doug Still: 48:46
Bram later clarified that the site we visited was called the Living Memorial, and there was one each in the five boroughs created during the Bloomberg administration. The Manhattan site had, of course, these first 9/11 survivor trees planted within it. Keeping it real, our happiness at seeing the four remaining trees again and how healthy and vital they still were, was mixed with some disappointment that they were unmarked and seemingly forgotten next to the busy, never ending flow of people, bikes, and cars. Since our visit, the Parks Department has cleaned up the site, fixed the fence, and is reinstalling a sign that had been misplaced, which is great news. I hope everyone will go see the trees. [Music] Back then, and as a department, we are able to make one small positive contribution, I feel, doing what we do. Just as the Survivor Tree is a symbol of endurance and the spirit of life, so are the four remaining First 9/11 Survivor Trees, still standing near City Hall and the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. To Bram and I and the others who were part of their rescue, these trees are symbols of something extra - our human connection. I want to take a minute to thank all you tree lovers who listen to the show today, especially to the regular listeners who have followed our young podcast since the start six weeks ago. You are greatly appreciated, and I hope to get to know you. An extra way to connect is via Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to see photos of the trees we talked about and get regular updates. You can also visit the website at thisoldtree.show. One thing you can do to support the show is hit your subscribe button on your podcast app when you're done listening. There isn't a Tree Story Short again this week, but don't be afraid to tell us your personal tree story, which you can record just by using the memo app on your phone. It should be one to three minutes long. Instructions are in the show notes on where to email it. Finally, here's arborist and songwriter Dee Lee to take us out with his music.
This Old Tree song - Dee Lee: 50:50
This old tree, standing here for more than four centuries. I wonder what you'd say if you could talk to me about what it's like to be, this old tree. Shadow and shade, kids down the block are selling lemonade. Send them down to cool breezes sweet cascade, tailor made by this old tree. In 1600 you were just a seed, reaching bothers sky, high. Waiting for a chance to take your place in the warm sunshine. Here I go, high above the place where the people grow, leave my troubles on the ground far below, so I can get to know, this old tree. Summer sparkle in your leaves. Autumn winds will bring relief. Winter calls for you to sleep. Spring returns again in green. But the town - ships on the water side spy your royal crown. Sentinel of green, two points off starboard bow, homeward bound to this old tree. In 1800 you felt the thunder or roll, lightning split the sky, high. Though the fire raged in the little town below, you managed to survive, this scar upon your side. This old tree, reach out and touch a living history! Beneath my hands an ancient mystery, how small I am by this old tree. How small I am by this old tree.