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A Callery Pear Tree's Saplings

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

9/11/23 - 22 years later

(Each section below has 100 words. This is part of a practice I've been trying to maintain of writing 100 words a day. I skip days sometimes. And other times I write quite a bit more than 100 words! Thank you to Dorothy for inspiring me to write more often, and to Ava for helping me remember our visit to NYC in November of 2001.)

A Callery Pear Tree's Saplings

Today there were blue skies, like then. Dorothy also went to a dance class. I didn’t have IBS yet. We thought it was a joke at first. We thought it was a private plane, the kind with only two people who are both very rich. We didn’t imagine any deaths at all. Later, the dance class would be canceled. We watched the teacher get a phone call from the city. Just an hour’s train ride away. In 2001, only New Yorkers had cell phones. You could spot them crying on the pathway, hugging near the bathroom, walking towards the chapel.

Two months later, Ava and I went to the city. Sneaker shopping on Broadway, eating street nuts. The plan wasn’t originally to visit Ground Zero. It was dark already. Nighttime silhouettes. No rescue missions. We walked a wide loop around the wreckage. It smelled like burnt everything, like someone set the whole city on fire (which they did) - all the people, the dogs and cats, inkwells and house plants, cast iron skillets and paperback novels. The air was thick with it. We ducked into a hotel lobby. The concierge gave us water, said to sit as long as we needed.

Our friend Liz lived on Long Island. She said that, two months on, every plane that flew overhead you could feel the collective pause - tense - relax of people on the streets. The collective head tilt as they looked up. And every time a fire truck went by they cheered. I remember flowers stuck in rusty gates, hastily constructed barriers with pictures of the missing. I remember the moment I realized the dust clouds contained people. I remember someone saying, and also asbestos. I remember wanting to cry, and to scream, and to sing so hard my lungs could burst.

The whole world had faith in us then. For a few short weeks, we were all of one tribe. But we squandered it. I read that it’s actually a law that every U.S. president create a library with their papers. They can’t leave anything out, but they’re allowed to decide what to highlight. George W. Bush’s library gives all the justifications for an invasion of Iraq. It probably also talks about Freedom Fries and American Flags. But not about all the people who wished they could move to Canada, and not about all the firefighters who died of cancer.

Speaking of Canada, there was an Irish guy on his way to America that day, visiting his brother, who went to my college. He ended up in Newfoundland. He was young, and didn’t give much thought to the whole thing. He got drunk with a German for five days while staying in a high school gymnasium-cum-dormitory. Passengers couldn’t access their luggage, but the airlines gave them all toiletry bags. I met him a few months later. I used his toiletry bag for all the years we were together, plus another 15. Then I mailed it to a museum in Gander.

Recently we were talking about air travel - which is your favorite airline, travel stories about flights gone wrong - and I just kept thinking about the clip I saw of a guy who owned land in Pennsylvania, where a plane went down on 9/11. The guy’s father called him that day. “Look on TV. Those are your trees.” During the clean up he went to see it. He asked, “what kinds of materials are you finding?” The coroner reached down and picked up a tiny piece of metal the size of a fingernail. “Like this.” Metal, nylon, seatbelt, paper, human.

Today, 400 swamp oak trees line the tower footprints. They were going to use a variety of maple, but it turns bright red in the fall, and you can't have that. There is also one “survivor tree” - a Callery pear tree that blooms white in the spring. It was removed, rehabilitated, returned. Its saplings grow at a high school’s greenhouse in Queens. The students send them to towns around the world that have endured a tragedy. A mass shooting, a terrorist attack, a wildfire, a hurricane. They attach a medallion to each - The Survivor Tree Project - and wish it well.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” is a poem that appeared in the post-9/11 issue of The New Yorker. Adam Zagajewski suggested that we must praise it, with “gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns.” I saw a breathtaking book of photography with gentle light - smoke and ash create a stunningly white backdrop for the chaos. Small moments of humanness. Two cops hold hands. A man gives another a handkerchief. A blackened piece of printer paper with handwritten notes. There is an elegance to destruction. Things you can only see because of this beautiful, heartbroken, wonderful, mutilated world.

- Tate DeCaro

– – – – – – – – – –

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June's long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You've seen the refugees going nowhere,

you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

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