(This is a lightly edited re-post of something I wrote this time last year. I’m posting it again because it still feels relevant. I have added a few comments at the end)
“The days of childhood are short, but last forever” Jonathan Tulloch
Although it happened nearly three decades ago, I still remember the smugness with which the visiting professor announced to the class his op-ed had been published.
The Washington Post had printed a piece he wrote about how nobody should be cutting down Christmas trees for just a few weeks of holiday cheer. I remember his glee at the large number of people he imagined reading his post and I recall how mightily pleased he was to tell us about it.
The context was an upper division environmental ethics class, so it was not unreasonable to be talking about the value of trees. We had spent all semester discussing whether organisms and wild processes had moral worth. We had debated how to judge that worth against short-term human interests. Weighing the value of a tree and its role in the forest and contrasting it with the tree’s sacrifice for the holidays was fair game.
Even so, I have to admit this guy’s comments pissed me off then and they still piss me off today. Within this frustration, I suspect, lies a political lesson (which I will get to in a minute).
It is not surprising I’m thinking about the professor’s comments right now. We just took the ornaments off the subalpine fir in our living room and drove our Christmas tree to the collection point for recycling. I’m fifty now but I’m willing to confess that this act of closing out the holiday still brings a lump to my throat.
I don’t feel bad about cutting the tree from the woods. I would make the case to the smug professor about the ecological value of removing a few trees from the forests in western Montana. We are surrounded by millions of acres of over-crowded forest resulting from decades of fire suppression. A carefully selected tree taken from a dense clump of youngsters increases the growth of the surrounding trees while letting a bit more valuable light onto the forest floor. It may make the forest just a tiny bit more fire-proof. There is surely a good debate to be had there on ecological grounds. There are also plenty of good things Christmas trees can be used for after the holidays, ranging from creating mulch for urban parks, protecting over-wintering vegetables, feeding zoo animals, edging walkways and flower beds, and even helping to prevent beach erosion.
But enough of the utilitarian arguments. I’d rather dwell on the sentiment side of the equation, the matter of the joy the ritual of the tree provides over the holidays. Many people have their own account of this ritual, but here is a quick glimpse of ours.
My wife and I head up to the high country just as soon as we can in December. After a quick cross-country ski, we disappear into the forest with our gloves and bow saw and start sizing up trees for our living room. We never take the first good one we see because part of the point is to draw out the experience as much as we can. There is plenty of “humming” and “hawing” as we head progressively further into the forest. When we find a tree whose removal we think will both benefit us and the forest, we carefully cut and tag it with our $5 forest service permit before marching it back to the car.
The drive home includes plenty of speculating about how “this is the best tree ever” and not a little bit of anxiety about whether it will come flying off the roof before we make it back to town. Once the tree is set up in the living room we breath in the sweet smell of resin and take time anointing our home’s newest resident with white lights and glass balls. As darkness falls outside, we sit with a mug of tea in front of the newly bedecked tree and congratulate ourselves over and over for the success of our outing.
It is because this ritual is so meaningful to me that closing it out in early January almost always chokes me up. I’m sure there are plenty of other feelings wrapped in there too. These feelings are probably to do with Christmas’ vivid memories of childhood, echoes of the voices of long-dead family members, and the sense newer entanglements now maturing into strong vines.
Whatever it is, this time of year has seared its mark in my soul, a mark which every year feels tender again as it gets re-exposed to the light. The tree resides at the symbolic center of it all.
Beyond my own (admittedly) schmaltzy observations about Christmas trees the more general lesson for these contested political times is this. When you want to be preachy or moralizing about something – as that professor was three decades ago – be ready to recognize the layers of emotion that may be exposed by your pontificating. This is as true when the moralizing is appropriate as it is when it is completely unnecessary and annoying. Remember, it is not always obvious which it is going to be.
There is a person-to-person vulnerability that the desire to create serious political change must recognize. Laws to reduce carbon emissions, regulations around clean water, and efforts to protect wildlife bump up against hidden layers of emotion tied into memories and rituals on both sides. Surprising as it may seem, changes to taxation, gun control, and immigration policies can do the same. Even practices that are long overdue for change can come with a deep reservoir of fond memories.
We do not live in times that honor this tenderness. That is a shame. Talking heads vying for airtime on news channels and the general hunger for currencies like Twitter followers pull constantly in the opposite direction. When that tenderness is lost, the potential for smooth corrections in political direction is diminished.
What if this were the year such sensitivity found its way back into public life? If it did, you could probably persuade me to track down that professor from the past for a friendly chat before next year’s tree gets cut.
One year on and the feelings are almost identical. At fifty-one, I am still not free from my childish tenderness towards the Christmas tree. When putting the ornaments in their box on January 6th, I kept the lights burning till the last second, offering a silent wish that, when they next illuminated, those I love would still be well. Crawling into the storage cupboard under the stairs, I pushed the boxes as far back as they would go. Away from the boots and beneath a mess of jackets, I lingered a moment, squatting on my haunches in what felt like a comforting space.
For me this annual ritual marks the passage of time as well as anything else in the year, even better perhaps than a birthday. Christmases, and the shrinking years of my life, tick by.
There is no sign that the sensitivity to others in politics I wrote about a year ago is any closer. If anything, things have got worse. Twitter and TV talking-heads still reign. Scoring points counts more than building trust. What, I wonder, is left to bind us together anymore?
Meanwhile, Australia burns and our leaders (and theirs) seek to thwart any attempt to do something about it.
But it is the new year, and I have made no resolutions yet. So hear this…. I will work to create beauty and community in 2020.