Jane Goodall Reveals Her Lifelong Fascination With…Plants?

After studying chimpanzees for decades, the celebrated scientist turns her penetrating gaze on another life-form

Goodall’s travels have often brought her face to face with exotic plants. In Cambodia, she was “awestruck” by the giant roots of an ancient strangler fig she found embracing the Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat. (Ignacio Ayestaran / Flickr / Getty Images)
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The discovery was reported to Bram Gunther, who was then deputy director of central forestry for the New York City Parks Department, and when he arrived he initially thought the tree was unsalvageable. But the cleanup workers persuaded him to give the tree a chance, so he ordered that she be sent off to the Parks Department’s nursery in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

Ron Vega, now the director of design for the 9/11 Memorial site, was a cleanup worker back then. “A lot of people thought it was a wasted effort to try to rescue her,” he recalled. “So she was taken out of the site almost clandestinely—under the cover of night.”

Richie Cabo, the nursery manager, told me that when he first saw the decapitated tree he did not think anything could save her. But once the dead, burned tissues had been cut away, and her trimmed roots deeply planted in good rich soil, Survivor proved him wrong.

“In time,” said Richie, “she took care of herself. We like to say she got tough from being in the Bronx.”

In the spring of 2010 disaster struck Survivor again. Richie told me how he got news that the tree had been ripped out of the ground by a terrible storm that was raging outside, with 100 mile per hour winds. At once he rushed there with his three young children. They found the roots completely exposed, and he and the children and the other nursery staff worked together to try to rescue her.

At first they only partially lifted the tree, packing in compost and mulch so as not to break the roots. For a long while they gently sprayed the tree with water to minimize the shock, hoping she’d make it. A few weeks later they set to work to get Survivor completely upright.

“It was not a simple operation,” Richie told me. “She was 30 feet tall, and it took a heavy-duty boom truck to do the job.”

Again, Survivor survived.

It wasn’t until six years after Ron Vega witnessed the mangled tree being rescued from the wreckage that he heard Survivor was still alive. Immediately he decided to incorporate her into the memorial design—and with his new position he was able to make it happen. She was planted near the footprint of the South Tower. “For personal accomplishments,” Ron said, “today is it. I could crawl into this little bed and die right there. That’s it. I’m done....To give this tree a chance to be part of this memorial. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

As we walked toward this special tree, I felt as much in awe as though I were going to meet a great spiritual leader or shaman. We stood together outside the protective railing. We reached out to gently touch the ends of her branches. Many of us—perhaps all—had tears in our eyes.


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