The Bradford pear tree in my parents’ front yard often greets me before they do. The tree stands dark green and shaggy against the row of townhouses behind it and rises above the young sycamores and elm hybrids growing along the curb below. Our pear tree naturally interrupts the Mt. Pleasant street lined by porches and parked with cars.
My parents planted the Bradford pear in the early 1980s, before I was born. The ornamental tree flowered white in the spring, but bore no fruit. It was sterile, my parents explained, though years passed before I understood what that meant. My distinct memories of the tree formed in the early 1990s, when the deep green crown reached my third-floor bedroom window. Waxy, spade-shaped leaves rustled in the wind and blocked the view of the house across the street. Sparrows and starlings congregated in the upper branches during the summer. The birds sometimes darted from the tree to my windowsill, surprising me with suddenly close chirps. Winter gray twigs reached forlornly to the sky, dusted white on occasional snow days.
Our front yard was small: two terraces of earth adjacent to two flights of steps leading to the porch of a town house. Railroad ties restrained the lower bed, a three-by-six-foot rectangle planted with flowers and shrubs. The pear tree dominated the higher bed, a six-foot-square formerly dominated by English ivy. Mom ripped out the ivy when I was little, apparently to rid the resident rats of their hideout. As the pear tree grew into its crown, it became the recognizable landmark of where our house sat in the block. It smelled sweet in the spring, and littered the concrete landing between our front steps with white petals.
Tropical Storm Fran blew the pear tree over in 1996. The dark green crown caught the wind and didn’t let go. The trunk snapped. The tree fell toward the street and landed on the city’s curbside tree, bending it at a ninety-degree angle. The street tree saved the car parked beneath it, and the unlucky intervenor never grew straight again.
I was eleven, and the tree I had known my whole life was gone. No longer did I wake up to see dark green leaves and gray twigs outside my window. The sun was bright, the sky clear. I felt exposed without the top of the tree to hide behind. A tree service crew finished the job the tropical storm had started. They sawed through the trunk and chipped the whole tree for mulch. All they left was a sweet-smelling stump. Soon, however, new stems shot out of the stump and roots. Bradford pears sucker prolifically, and ours was no exception. We let them grow awhile, waiting to select the strongest one. Eventually my mom pruned the weaker shoots, and a single stem grew from the stump.
Years passed. The shoot grew from weed to tree without me even realizing it. Suddenly, a pear tree dominated our yard again. It shot past the porch roof, then reached the second floor windows, and finally its upper branches grew past my bedroom. Sixteen years after Tropical Storm Fran made the tree start from scratch, it has surpassed its predecessor in height and crown size. The grown sucker even bears fertile fruit. The tiny, rock-hard fruits are not what my young self imagined would hang from its limbs, but the starlings like them well enough. Birds help the Bradford pear (and other Callery pear cultivars) invade the surrounding landscape. Municipalities and state natural resource departments now warn about the tree’s extreme invasive quality.
Though it has grown taller, wider, and bountiful, the tree feels the same as it did when I was young. It flags my childhood home amidst the row of identical houses. It greets me in the morning as I peer at the outside world. It shades in July and anchors cobwebs and skeletons in October. The tree recovered completely from catastrophic trauma. Except for my mom’s initial selective pruning and some occasional watering, the tree has done it on its own. I am in awe of the pear tree’s resilience.
Our pear tree is but one example of a tree overcoming such a destructive episode. I see the resilience of herbs, shrubs, trees, and forests everywhere, from the urban curb to old-growth forests. Their resilience reassures me. We humans can do our best to avoid inflicting damage on forests, and we can also do our best to rehabilitate them–actively or passively–once unavoidable destruction occurs. The dynamism of individuals and systems is their greatest strength, but not one we should test too often. May resilience give us hope, however, that all is not lost.