I’ve lost track of how many times well-meaning adults read The Giving Tree to me as a kid. I hated it. I liked books about cute furry animals (badgers, bears, rabbits with red wings, ballerina mice); I didn’t like books about humans, and I especially didn’t like it when the tree got chopped down. (The roots of my treehugging vegetarianism go way back.)
As I got older, I began to suspect that it reinforced patriarchal gender roles. The tree struck me as a maternal figure, providing, nurturing, and self-sacrificing to the point of total destruction. Chop me down? Go ahead, as long as it helps you.
Lately I’ve begun to see this children’s classic in a different light — less feminist, more environmental. Earlier this week, I thought: of all the messed up, unbalanced, unequal relationships in my life, my relationship with the planet is probably the most dysfunctional. It provides; I take without a second thought, a thank you, or any kind of repayment. The waste I generate no longer goes back to enrich the soil; it sits in landfills, unchanged and unchangeable, basically forever. I honestly can’t remember the last time I planted something. Aghast, I realize that I am the boy of the story, the spoiled, selfish, thoughtless, and utterly despicable boy who never stops taking.
Unless your life is radically different from mine, you are also that boy.
I think it’s possible to fix this relationship. Actually, I think it’s essential to, if we want to continue enjoying life on this planet. Maybe not completely (we’re never going to give back as much as we’ve taken), but at least into something respectful, thoughtful, and conscious. We don’t have counselors for this particular dysfunctional relationship, and we’re going to have to do without years of therapy on a comfortable couch. But maybe we can start simply by thinking of our personal relationship with the planet as important. Behaving with the same consideration towards the planet that we put into our relationships with the people and animals we care about.
That would be a start. The ending of The Giving Tree is pretty telling, if we read it as an environmental cautionary tale. The boy is now an old, tired man and with nothing left but a stump to sit on. I really don’t want that to be us humans: no more shade, no more apples, and all because we were too shortsighted to see the consequences of our behavior.
What do you think of The Giving Tree? Do you see yourself in the boy, too?