Like my previous post, this post concerns the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, a place dedicated to the victims of the Murrah building bombing of 1995. I hold the deepest respect for all those touched by the bombing, and for the Memorial itself; it is not my intention to cheapen or overanalyze its various aspects in this or following posts.
This week, we were asked “of all the objects (big and small) you encountered at the Memorial, which would make the most interesting artifact for us to analyze as a way to learn about the way everyday things can become powerful symbols in a community?
When choosing an artifact to be the object of rhetorical criticism, visual rhetorician Sonja K.Foss suggests using “an instance of symbol use that is of interest to the critic and seems capable of generating insights about the rhetorical processes.” Although the Oklahoma National Bombing Memorial was brimming with objects that fit this bill, my thoughts immediately sprang to The Survivor Tree.
This tree is a 90+ year old American Elm that survived the blast of destruction, and now stands in the south corner of the grounds. Even before the bombing, according to the museum website, “the tree was important because it provided the only shade in the downtown parking lot. People would arrive early to work just to be able to park under the shade of the tree’s branches. On April 19, 1995, the tree was almost chopped down to recover pieces of evidences that hung from its branches due to the force of the 4,000 pound bomb that killed 168 and injured hundreds just yards away. Evidence was retrieved from the branches and the trunk of the tree. ” After the bombing, many thought the tree to be dead, and it wasn’t until almost a year later, at a memorial service, that gathered survivors and family members noticed that the tree was beginning to bloom again. It now thrives as “a symbol of human resilience. Today, as a tribute to renewal and rebirth, the inscription around the tree reads, ‘The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.’”
I recommend this object for several reasons. First, there already exists a rich history of trees as symbols. They have been used to represent life, growth, shelter, religion, nature, strength…the list goes on and on. Analyzing the significance of our specific tree against this rich backdrop of myth, fiction, and history could both inspire and supplement quality research questions.
Despite this deep background, however, trees still remain such mundane objects. I see them absolutely everywhere, and I can’t remember the last time I stopped to really look. This strange pull between supreme importance and uneventful repetition intrigues, I think, anyone remotely interested in “the way everyday things can become powerful symbols.”
Additionally, the tree is alive. This provides a unique stimulant for research questions and study of the object in general, for this symbol actually grows and transforms, and hence its meaning does the same, and the people that create or respond to this meaning must adapt or predict. The Survivor Tree has gone through at least four phases so far: the sole provider of shade in a downtown parking lot, a blasted, dead symbol of destruction, a faint hope of renewal, and now a thriving, concrete symbol of life and defiance in the face of disaster. The utilitarian contributions of the tree could also be analyzed: it provided shade, and later, evidence. Even more, the tree reproduces symbols, for seedlings from the Survivor Tree are distributed across the United States on the anniversaries of the bombings. The fact that people attach meaning, not just to the tree itself, but also to its offspring, stirs intriguing questions on the creation and conveyance of symbolism.
The Survivor Tree also works particularly as a study of “powerful symbols in a community,”for it was a community as a whole that designated its status as symbol, and mandated its inclusion in the Memorial Grounds. The distributed seedlings could also reflect on the growth or expansion of the affected communities, or the number of people that attach meaning to this tree, for it is obvious The Survivor Tree is meaningful on a more than individual level. The very fact that it is alive, and that it is named “The Survivor,” suggests the tree serves as a common identification point for or representation of all those who survived the effects of the bombing, and that its growth reflects the growth of the surviving community as a whole.