Journal

Nine-Eleven Remembered

“Where were you?” is a question New Yorkers still pose to one another as the subject of the destruction of the World Trade Center twenty-one years ago. I was not personally at the scene at the moment when the two skyscrapers exploded, leaving massive piles of rubble, twisted steel beams, rough chunks of broken masonry, jagged shards of window glass and the remains of people who had been trapped on high floors and chosen imminent death by jumping rather than incineration. Among the 2,606 victims were the 343 firemen who had tried bravely to rescue the trapped before it was too late and 72 emergency responders from other departments of New York City’s government and nearby medical facilities. There was for me, however, a view of the disaster and its aftermath besides the one on the television screen.

All day, from a south-facing, nineteenth-floor window in our apartment on the Upper West Side, my husband Ted and I watched the twin columns of white smoke rising as pulverized debris settled into a malodorous, gray dust pall over Lower Manhattan. Around noon, looking down on Central Park West, we saw the first ranks of a huge, multicolumn army whose soldiers would be trudging uptown all day, which is when we realized that, of course, the subways had been shut down. Some of these doggedly determined homebound survivors were probably New Jersey commuters heading for the George Washington Bridge. Then, in the late afternoon, we instinctually sought the same place of solace others besides us had already found. When we arrived, there were little knots of anxious people gathered on the grass of silent ball fields and meadows or clustered together in the shade of a prominent tree. That day Central Park had quickly become a refuge of shared incomprehension together with the balm of communal compassion, a gift comparable to the succor that it has provided New Yorkers in a less sober way during the Covid-19 pandemic.

We chose to go to the base of Summit Rock and stand on the ground beside Tanner’s Spring, the water source for the former residents of Seneca Village, the African-American community that occupied this site before it was incorporated into the rectilinear boundaries of the Greensward plan, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s blueprint for building Central Park. This fountainhead of groundwater had long been hidden from view, providing a moment of personal excitement for me when it was rediscovered by a group of Central Park Conservancy horticultural interns who were removing dense masses of weeds and thorny brambles. Since then, the glassy surface of the spring’s little pool had become an attraction for several species of birds. Ted and I found solace in sitting on a rock next to this gift of nature as we sought a preliminary understanding of how the tragedy would alter the destiny of our country and the lives of many American families. When we walked down the 81st Street sidewalk on our way home, we found ourselves among friendly strangers, all of them asking each other and us, “Are you all right?” meaning, “Was a loved one of yours a victim?” This was not unexpected because New York becomes a communal place when adversities like blackouts occur. Indeed, the whole country had begun to feel communal, and by the next day there were American flags not only fastened to the entrance-door awnings of apartment buildings on our block but also far beyond in the cities, suburbs and rural communities across the nation.

_

Nine/Eleven occurred during a period of my life when I had fallen into the habit of composing sonnets by internalizing the beat of iambic pentameter lines when my running shoes hit the ground during morning jogs in Central Park. I still consider myself to be more non-fiction writer than poet, but I continued for several years to regularly write sonnets, almost all of which draw on the park as inspiration. Among the first of these is “Tanner’s Spring:”

Tanner’s Spring
September 11, 2001

We found beneath the weedy mass
Of long neglect a tiny running brook
That pools beside the flank of Summit Rock.
Desilting has brought its leafy mirror back
To life, but now when sky is plumed with black
Smoke and fine debris of toppled blocks
Un-scraping sky with death, mayhem, and shock,
The yellow eye and iridescent black
Of glossy grackle bathing here appears
As something dire, an augury of doom.
But birds are not like captured planes, they fly
Oblivious of our guilt, our pain, our tears,
Their shuttling rounds ordained on nature’s loom,
Unknowing that with fiends they share the sky.

In those days we had hardly begun to understand the dimensions of another dire threat: climate change. However, because of the influence of the remarkable 1962 bestseller Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, there has been a growing realization of the many ways in which the planet was being damaged by Homo sapiens. The environmental movement was born as Earth Day, a rally to raise public awareness and concern for living organisms and the inextricable links between pollution and public health. Its official launch on April 22, 1970, inspired 20 million Americans (10% of the total population of the United States at the time) to congregate in streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate against the impact that 150 years of industrial development has inflicted on the planet and human health.

_

Earth Day is still observed on the April 22 anniversary date of its founding. However, sometimes Earth Day is scheduled to coincide with the spring equinox on March 21, as was the case in 2002. It was thus that on this date I came home from my morning jog around the Great Lawn in Central Park and wrote the following sonnet in the rhyming meter prescribed by Petrarch still in my head:

Earth Day, 2002

This is Sunday, March 21, CE  2002,
After 2021’s out-of-the-blue
Catastrophe I welcome now the slow
Return of green and living Spring. I know
Now how much I love this park and all
That sings on branch of tree. I see baseball
Players on the Great Lawn and hear the smack
Of a cloth-covered ball soaring overhead to the cup
Of a leather-covered hand after the crack
Of a fast-swung bat (pure joy in that!). The ground
Is damp from needed rain and peeing pup,
How good this ordinary scene is back!

Then and now. The so-called new normal is far from promising, with disaster still piling upon disaster around the globe and scientists’ prognoses that the planet Earth is being destroyed by the inability of its human inhabitants to adopt an environmental ethic that will retard, if not entirely reverse, that fate. But for the half-hour that I lingered today by Tanner’s Spring, I remembered the solace of the communal gathering here in a time of mass grief twenty-one years ago. I also thought of Central Park’s recovery from near destruction, beginning with the birth of the Conservancy twenty years prior to 9/11. Since then this public-private partnership has become a leading example of the efficacy of citizen care in fostering the restoration of horticultural beauty and ecological wellbeing in other historic landscapes and thereby a role model for the conservancies that have sprung up in other cities throughout this country. The multiplication in the face of daunting odds of coalitions of wilderness and natural-resources conservationists following the ones engendered by the origin of Earth Day in 1970 is needed now more than ever to ensure the recurrence each year of a green and living spring of hope and promise for the future life of planet Earth.


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JOURNAL ARCHIVE

DIARY

Venice Revisited

Wainscott: Cherishing Memories of my Former Home in a Non-Hampton Hamlet in the Hamptons

Hill Country Journal

Budding Poets in the Park

Central Park Conservancy 40th Anniversary

Nine-Eleven Remembered

ESSAY

An Analysis of the Sonnet as a Form of Poetic Expression

OBSERVATIONS

Part Five: Central Park as An Outdoor Museum

Part Four: Bethesda Terrace, Arcade, and Fountain

Part Three: Central Park as An Outdoor Museum

Part Two: Central Park as An Outdoor Museum

Part One: Central Park as An Outdoor Museum

Designing the Central Park Luminaire: Nature as Ornament

“The Gates” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 2005

Jacob Wrey Mould: Central Park’s Third Designer

America’s Greatest Example of Land Art

Summit Rock, the Tallest Point in Central Park as a Palimpsest of Multi-generational History

Discovering Central Park’s Above-ground Bedrock Foundations

POETRY

The Naming of the Park

The Life and Times of Garth Fergusson, Poet

NEWS

Writing the City

REVIEWS

Lee County: The Setting of Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead and Land of my Pioneer Ancestors

The Wind in the Willows