Filmed over the course of five years, The Trees documents the journey of over 400 Swamp White Oaks from their temporary home in New Jersey to the World Trade Center Memorial Plaza. Through the stories of those who design, plan, and construct the Memorial, The Trees explores the evolution of one of the world’s most innovative “green” roof gardens. The film shows public reaction to this lasting, yet ever-changing memorial to the victims of the September 11th attacks. A visual meditation on seasonal changes and the possibility of rebirth, The Trees asks how we memorialize and remember.
The Trees premiered on PBS on the 15th Anniversary of 9/11.
Our guides on this journey are a team of people charged with turning the plaza into reality. We follow the architects, arborists, and engineers who build and manage one of the most intricate construction sites in the world. It is an emotional journey, marked by battles over design and seemingly insurmountable engineering challenges. Despite setbacks, they hold fast to the vision of a day when visitors, survivors, and victims’ families will gather under the branches of the Memorial Plaza, inspired by the beauty and peace of the site to remember, grieve, and heal.
With the Memorial Plaza one of the largest and most sustainable green plazas ever built, a key player in the film is Peter Walker, the renowned landscape architect who created the overall vision of the project. One of Walker’s central themes for the project was the idea of the park representing the cycle of life, growth and constant renewal. Every detail, from the type of trees, to where they came from, to how they’re grown and pruned, to where they are placed on the site, is linked to this idea. As Walker explains, “the trees are terribly important to us. They’re the things that changes the site from any other site downtown or anywhere else in New York.”
Head arborist Jason Bond individually cares for each of the 420 individual Swamp White Oaks. For four years, as the trees grew in large boxes at a nursery in New Jersey, we follow Bond as he regularly checks on the trees and notes their health, height, and when they change colors in the fall.
At the construction site that will become the 9/11 Memorial, we meet project manager Ron Vega who has been working at the World Trade Center site since just after the attacks. We follow Vega as he visits the “Survivor Tree”, a pear tree that was one of the only plants to survive the September 11th attacks. It has grown from a burnt stump not four feet high into a thirty-foot beauty and Vega supervises its move from a Bronx nursery to its new home at the Memorial Site.
From a field station in outer Queens, urban forestry researchers Lindsay Campbell and Erika Svendsen contextualize the importance of trees and nature in the act of memorializing tragedy. The idea of a "living memorial" is not new, they say: “For centuries, humans have used nature as a symbolic and innate response to mark the cycles of life.”
While documenting the labor of these and many other individuals who care for and monitor and study the trees, we constantly return to the trees as characters. The film follows the trees over the years, documenting their growth, care, and transportation to the site. We see how they adapt to their new home and watch their seasonal changes as the 10th anniversary approaches and eventually, in the spring of 2014, the Plaza opens to the general public for use without reservations or security checks. Throughout the winter when the trees are bare, to the summer when they provide leafy shade, people gather, rest, sleep, laugh and cry under the trees. Interstitial scenes throughout the film serve as a visual meditation on how humans interact with trees; and how the seasonal change of the trees offers a beautiful and poignant reminder of the cycle of life, and the possibility of hope and rebirth.
Scott Elliott, Director
Scott Elliott was editing his first PBS documentary twenty blocks from the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 and knows many people who lost loved ones in the attacks. The Trees combines his interest in architecture, urban design, and gardening.
Scott is founder and creative director of 590films. His first feature length documentary, Slumming It: Myth and Culture on the Bowery, about the history of the Bowery in New York City, aired on the PBS series Reel New York. Scott’s most recent documentary, Into the Gyre, about plastic pollution in the Atlantic Ocean, has won numerous awards at international film festivals, including Best Picture at the 2012 Scinema Festival of Science Film.