The Giving Tree & Our Dysfunctional Relationship with the Planet

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.

Yeah. No.

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?

19 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by northwestshift on 01/26/2011 at 13:06

    I agree completely! I recently went to purchase some childrens books and saw The Giving Tree. I remembered that it was read often and has always been considered a classic. Then I opened it… Um, so the guy ends up old and lonely with nothing but a sad stump to sit on? I hadn’t remembered that part! Needless to say, I put the book back on the shelf!
    I think we can all see ourselves in the boy. Even the “greenest” of us could probably still do more. Something to work for! We must look after this planet if we want it to continue providing for us! It’s a two-way street! Unfortunately, the majority of people still don’t see it that way… Maybe they’ll read your post…


    • It would be interesting to think about how we could actually give back, instead of merely lightening our footstep. Would that mean volunteering at coastal cleanup days, planting trees, restoring habitat? I know most of what I do is aimed at reducing my impact. This year would be a good year to change that focus toward something more productive.


      • Just wanted to say that I love your thought about giving back, rather than just lightening our footstep. I’m wondering if that’s what the permaculture principle is based on if you get into it at its deepest level. Really thought provoking – thank you! I read this book to my daughter a few months ago (I’d never heard of it before) and I was in tears with it because I really *felt* how that tree felt. Although I try to be as green as possible I too am that boy :/


        • Aha! I think you’ve put your finger on the main reason why The Giving Tree doesn’t do anything for me: my utter lack of any maternal instinct, feeling, or experience whatsoever.


  2. Posted by northwestshift on 01/26/2011 at 14:25

    I’d like to make a similar shift this year. I love the coastal cleanup and habitat restoration ideas! Hmmm… Now you’ve got me thinking…


  3. You hit the nail on the head: our relationship with the planet is dysfunctional. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t date someone as selfish, needy, and uncaring as humans are when it comes to their home. It’s almost psychopathological, if that’s even a word!

    Giving back to the earth can be done in so many ways. Picking up litter, planting trees, and helping to restore habitat are some great ideas. If you want a bigger challenge, try starting a community garden! There’s nothing nature likes better than to grow stuff. 🙂


    • Oh man…I bet I’d have to talk to people to try to start a community garden! There is actually a local organic farm a few miles from me, and I know they take volunteers, so maybe that would be one way for me to give back.


      • Jealous!!! I’d volunteer on an organic farm in a heartbeat, if only there were any that close to me. Good luck, and I hope you report on what it’s like if you start volunteering!


  4. I have never read that book, but want to. It may have just been written about the environment! What a haunting story. I agree that our relationship is disfunctional, and I think it is because our view of the cause and effect relationship our our actions is fuzzy. I toss this coffee cup, I never see it again. I drive everywhere, I don’t actually see the pollution. If we actually saw our garbage that we personally generate in a year all piled up in front of our house, the connection would not be so fuzzy.

    At our core I believe we are deeply connected to nature because we are nature. But we are so caught up in other things we don’t realize this connection, trust it, cherish it. We neglect it instead, much to our own peril.


    • There’s probably a good reason it’s an American children’s classic — it’s often read as an allegory about parent and child, and the child is never really chastized for his greed and lack of consideration. (Maybe this explains something about us?) I’m pretty sure it’s not meant to be read as an environmental cautionary tale!


  5. Posted by Emily on 01/29/2011 at 13:02

    Beautiful post, Jennifer. This is an amazing point you’ve made: “how [can we] actually give back, instead of merely lightening our footstep.” I need to take this into serious consideration.


    • Me too. I think I’m going to try making seed bombs this weekend with native California, drought-resistant flower seeds. I’m not sure they’ll actually make much difference, but maybe they’ll increase the biodiversity of empty lots near me. 🙂


  6. I’ve never read the book but i dig your review completely.
    We can change the way we treat our natural habitat.
    Though i fear it will take a lot more effort to stop things like oil spills and landfills containing non- boidegradable product, and nuclear waste dumping etc.


    • Thanks for stopping by! It should be easy to find the basic gist of the story online somewhere, if you’re curious. You’re right that being aware of the problem is different from fixing all the huge things contributing to it…but it’s a start just to realize that we have a responsibility to put some effort into our relationship with the planet.


  7. I have been reading this book for years-as a kid and now to my kids and it always makes me teary. Now I know why-you got it-it is an environmental cautionary tale. We need to take care of the earth or we will only have a measly stump left. Thank you for shedding new light on an old classic.


    • I’m sure I’m in a tiny minority of people who find The Giving Tree annoying as heck. But perhaps it is time to read it in a more environmental way and start asking how we can give back. (The subject of my next blog post!)


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