Before the fear of germs and children-getting-dirty era we appear to be living in, we used to go outside and play. In the summer, my mom would get my brother and I up, feed us breakfast and send us outside to join the rest of the neighbourhood kids. We would play, for hours. Sometimes we’d go to one of the local playgrounds, or to the nearby beach, or explore the woods that surrounded our property. Regardless of where we were, we would imagine worlds or scenarios and play along with them. Unless it was raining (and even then we’d put on our bathing suits and run around in it!) we would only come in for pee breaks, sunscreen reapplications, snacks and/or lunch. Otherwise, we didn’t come in until suppertime. There was a natural bond with the outside world that engaged our creativity and our curiosity.
When we became teenagers, this relationship faded a bit. Our new focusses were maintaining grades, friendships and – for me, as an extremely self-conscious and insecure teenage girl – the neverending search for a high school sweetheart (who, by the way, never appeared. This has ultimately encouraged my independence and, until a recent visit to London, goal to become a cat lady). The time spent outdoors amongst the trees continued to diminish. Graduation happened, college and work life set in, and there arose a need for money.
Money. The root of most, but not all evil. Money is the focus of almost everything in the world we currently live in. It determines our value in society, what we can and cannot achieve (although there are certainly always exceptions), and pretty much every other aspect of our lives. In some cases it even dictates where we can go and who we can interact with. This, my friends, is the brilliant work of a (not-so) little something called consumption, or should I say overconsumption. We’re taught from an early age that material goods make us better, more desirable people. Fancy sports car? Big house? Endless bank account? You’re important! But heaven forbid you live a modest, happy life; then you’re just average, at best, and looked down upon. Maybe this is not true of all people and places, but that is how society wants us to perceive those around us, I think.
Over the last year or so I have read several articles on the message behind my favourite childhood book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. One of the dominant arguments against this book is that it contains a (perhaps not-so) hidden sexist, anti-feminist message. Each article and post I have read picks apart the wording of this classic children’s book, arguing that the unconditional love displayed by the tree is a metaphor for either a) a mother’s love for her child or b) how a woman should give in to a man’s every request.
A longtime fan of the book, I have never identified with these criticisms. Sure, the tree is obviously characterised as female, and the boy is, well, a boy, but this supposed message of pushing an anti-feminist agenda just doesn’t sit well with me. I can’t speak for Silverstein and state what his intended message was or is. I can’t definitively say that, yes, he did in fact intend to make sure little boys grew up to take advantage of important women in their lives at every opportunity, nor can I tell you with any certainty that he didn’t. What I can tell you is how I have always viewed the message of this book.
I’ve always believed, and more so as I get older, that this story is a metaphor for the relationship between humans and nature. Reading it when I was a child, I always felt a kind of sadness for the tree. ‘She’ literally gives every part of herself for the happiness of the boy. ‘She’ asks for nothing in exchange for the demands of the boy, other than to be treated with some form of respect – in most cases to be appreciated, loved and for the boy to spend time with ‘her’ without asking for anything. Ok, now I can slightly see how this could be taken as a ‘pro-male domination’ argument, for lack of a better term. But is it actually?
As a child, the boy plays with the tree. He engages with the tree without any hesitation. He climbs it, swings on its branches and gets lost in the interaction. As the boy grows up he requires money and shelter – material goods. The book suggests that these things make the boy happy… but he never really seems happy. At the end of the boy’s life, as an old man, he sits against the stump of the tree, tired and worn down.
The story resembles my own, and many others’ childhood experiences. The boy grows older, and needs money, so the tree provides the boy with apples. He needs shelter, so the tree sheds its branches. He desires a boat, so the tree allows the boy to use its trunk. And at the end of the day the boy returns one final time to just sit in peace with the tree. Now, I haven’t reached this point in the story in my own life. That is something that is hopefully many years away. But the point of my argument is this: the boy takes and takes and takes from the tree, without considering what he is doing to it and without considering the relationship he had with the tree when he was younger. This aspect is no different than how we, as a global society, use the natural world around us. We take oil in quantities that would suggest they are limitless. We produce food, often artificially, without thinking about the impacts of the chemicals and processes we are using to produce those products, just so we can have limitless options to choose from. Then most of it gets thrown away, because NO ONE needs that much access to that much food. We tear down forests of all kinds for industrial and residential development, roadways, building supplies and many other things, without second-guessing what that means for other species living in those areas. We contaminate and overuse supplies of fresh, drinkable water in the same way we pump oil – oblivious to the fact that someday those quantities will cease.
Then, when all is said and done, what do we have to show for it? Our life comes to an end. We’re tired, unhappy, and all of those things – yes material things (!) – we’ve focussed on and placed at the centre of our being can’t come with us. And the generations to follow are left with the mess we’ve created. The boy is mankind and the tree is nature, our planet and all of the things that allow us to live, combined.
Yes, the fact that the tree is deemed as female presents an opportunity for feminist debate. I can see that link. But I can also assure you that I didn’t learn the ‘expectations’ of how I ‘should’ relate to a male’s demands, or ask ‘how high?’ anytime a man asks me to jump from The Giving Tree. I learned that from real life, from the world we currently live in.
What this book did teach me, is the gentle relationship between myself and nature. I learnt that if I constantly place unrealistic demands on ‘the tree’ when I need it most – to think, to rest, to spend my final moments, as the boy did – there will be no guarantee that it will be waiting for me. Perhaps the tree is female because ‘she’ is representing ‘Mother Nature’. Perhaps the boy is a boy, because he represents ‘HUmankind’. In a time with so many real challenges for ALL humans, I find critiques of innocent mediums frustrating. All too often we are faced with a political-correctness that tries unsatiably to find error in intention, be that in gender relations, differences in race, ethnicity or religious belief, or other socially-prescribed characteristics. Even my own argument to turn a classic children’s story into a pro-environment rant is disheartening.
Why can’t the boy just be a boy and the tree just be a tree? And why can’t the tree love the boy, for no other reason than because it wants to? And why should we look down on that tree for being happy because of it?
Emily Kennedy is a writer from Nova Scotia, Canada. She is currently completing a MA in Poverty, Conflict and Reconstruction at the University of Manchester. Read more by Emily at The Orange Canadian.