Three years ago, a book tour took me to Oklahoma City, and before I left town, I made my first visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. The experience — especially the storytelling achieved by both the Memorial and the Museum — made a big impression on me.
Among the many facets of the story that began with the bombing of Oklahoma City’s Murrah Building on April 19, 1995, is the Survivor Tree that stands between the Museum and the Memorial. Here’s a photo I took of the tree on the day I visited:
After my visit, I could not stop thinking about the bombing and the effect it had — and still has — on the lives of so many people. That’s always a pretty good sign, for me, that there’s a book I should write.
I began reading a lot about the bombing and the resulting Memorial. In June 2017 I returned to Oklahoma City to do more research, which included quite a bit of time in the Museum’s archives. That’s where I saw this photo showing the Survivor Tree soon after the bombing:
I also took some close-up photos of the tree itself, demonstrating just how carefully it is tended to —
— and how healthy and full of life it became in the two decades-plus after the bombing:
Not long after, Lerner Publishing agreed to publish my picture book, All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing, with illustrations by Nicole Xu. The book is almost finished and will be published next February.Two weeks ago, for the 24th anniversary of the bombing, I returned to Oklahoma City again, along with the book’s editor, Carol Hinz; art director, Danielle Carnito; and my wife, Jennifer Ziegler. We attended the annual Remembrance Ceremony, after which Survivor Tree seedlings were distributed to attendees.
Though our book is not only about the Survivor Tree, the tree and its offspring definitely are integral parts. Yet this was the first time I had seen the seedlings, some of which were larger than I expected.
It was also my first opportunity to meet some of the people I had interviewed by phone, including Mark Bays, an urban forestry coordinator with Oklahoma Forestry Services.
Mark has helped lead efforts to revive, preserve, and propagate the Survivor Tree since shortly after the Murrah bombing, and he was stationed at the entrance to the Museum to distribute seedlings.
By the time I got there, only a few seedlings remained, but the line of recipients had dwindled down to nothing, and I took a seedling for myself.
Later that day I visited the Memorial at night for the first time — by the light of a full moon, as it happened — and got a view of the Survivor Tree that I’d never had before:
Early the next morning, Jennifer and I got on a flight home. I heeded the advice I received from her — and from Carol, and from Danielle — not to try to pack my Survivor Tree seedling inside my carry-on suitcase. (No, I was told, not even if I tried to do so carefully.)
So, from Oklahoma City to Dallas to Austin, my seedling poked out of my leather messenger bag that I kept between my feet.
When we got home, I bought a new blue pot and planted the seedling. That won’t be where it stays permanently, but I don’t know that our pecan trees leave enough room for an American elm to grow and thrive. There’s a good chance that I’ll offer to plant the my Survivor Tree seedling — by then, perhaps, a sapling — next spring, sometime close to the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.
In the meantime, I’ll appreciate seeing it outside my front door — and remembering all that it represents — each time I come and go.