From the ashes, a pear tree tells us of survival
Even now, you look up at the sky and can't believe the immense absence of the twin towers, writes Joseph O'Connor
I REMEMBER the first moment I saw the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. It was a fiercely hot Manhattan night in the summer of 1992 and they had been illuminated for the approaching Fourth of July celebrations, so that when you looked at them even from a distance they seemed brighter and more immense than any photograph could ever convey.
I was in a taxi from Kennedy Airport, weary and jetlagged, and I had heavy things on my mind, but the sight of those towers flooded the heart with that particular joy the visitor to New York always feels on seeing the Manhattan skyline, so beautiful and strangely familiar yet so resoundingly itself that it always seems newly minted. As we crossed the bridge and came into the city, a firework display began. Normally, fireworks never fill the sky the way they fill a television screen, but this was a Manhattan fireworks display and it seemed to reach all the way to the moon. "Ain't that something?" said the taxi driver. "They don't got that in Ireland, right?" I agreed. We didn't got that in Ireland.
I don't think I slept at all that night. A friend had arranged for me to sublet a tiny apartment in Little Italy, and the annual San Gennaro Festival was gearing up. New Yorkers love a party -- Italian New Yorkers more than most -- and the music came booming up from Mulberry Street. In the city that never sleeps, you need to be stoically patient, a fact no guidebook ever tells you. At dawn, I remember walking down the island, watching the city shake itself awake. I aimed towards the towers, which were swathed in the gauze of a low-lying cloud so that their middle storeys disappeared from view like the turrets of a castle in a fairy tale.
New York has a plentiful supply of spectacular sights; the neon delirium of Times Square at midnight, the cathedral-like plaza of Grand Central Station; the impossible greenness of Central Park spread across the middle of this noisy island like a ballgown laid out on a bed. And the city certainly had more beautiful buildings, as it still does now. But the twin towers were a statement of the unique personality of New York: in a very young country, they were in a way Manhattan's Stonehenge, its pyramids, its Newgrange; devoted, admittedly, to the gods of commerce, not time, but it would take a stone-hard heart not to be able to see that they also sang other praises than those, and that they sang them bravely, to the skies.
In the intervening years, I have returned to New York many times. I have lived there, worked there; my children have gone to school there, and I have come to love the city as much as I love my home. In its enriching mix of peoples and languages, cultures and religions, the extraordinary tolerances by which it lives, it is a sign of what all cities will one day be. Europeans sometimes feel a superiority to American ways, but there is no European city so inclusive and so various as Manhattan, an island on which 200 languages are spoken every day and every nationality in the world is present.
Even now there are moments when you look up at the sky and can't believe that immense absence, which is somehow, still, a kind of presence. I was in New York again last weekend as the preparations began to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. There will be high-profile events but it isn't one of those that caught my eye. In the smouldering ruins of the towers 10 years ago, the workers found a pear tree, burnt to a stump, broken, almost dead. Last week, having been slowly and stubbornly nursed back to life over a decade, it was replanted in the footprint of the World Trade Centre. A sign of what might be the great unwritten motto of this greatest of cities: Though the mountains may fall and be washed to the sea, some trees can never be felled.
Joseph O'Connor's Wednesday radio diary is broadcast on RTE One's 'Drivetime with Mary Wilson'