Sunday, 13 December 2009

O Tannenbaum

Here is a piece about Christmas trees I wrote for the Guardian a couple of years ago:

Along with most other aspects of the modern Christmas, America has bequeathed us our secular version of the nativity, retold in every medium from the Peanuts comic strip to the sitcom Friends: the story of the sparse, misshapen little Christmas tree that is saved by a benevolent consumer so it can fulfil its seasonal destiny. You would be hard-pressed to find any such sad-looking specimen among today’s plantation-grown, designer trees, with their flawless foliage, evenly spaced branches and miraculous needle-retaining qualities. But the Christmas tree industry still exploits this idea that individual trees are there waiting to be pitied, rescued and redeemed.

Inspired by the slow-food movement’s emphasis on local sourcing and sustainability, this industry has turned tree-buying into an all-day, themed event. We are now invited to attend festivals at Christmas tree farms, where we can stroll through illuminated forests, pick our own tree straight from the field, watch as it is pulled out by Shire horses, and leave with elaborate instructions on how to care for it to ensure that it is not dehydrated, overheated or otherwise traumatised. If we really must have a non-biodegradable artificial tree, then Marks & Spencer will assuage our consciences by planting a tree in a Scottish woodland for every plastic one it sells. The poor Christmas tree is being forced to bear the burden of all our contemporary ecological anxieties.

This year saw the publication of books about trees by two of our most distinguished nature writers: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood and Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings. These books are united in their dislike of this tendency to infantilise individual trees, this refusal to think of trees as communal organisms with resilient, independent lives of their own. Christmas trees, in particular, are only loved in the singular. Softwood plantations have been hated in this country ever since the 1940s and 1950s, when scientific forestry wiped out countless acres of native oak and beech to clear the ground for faster-growing, more lucrative conifers. Writers at the time complained about “spruce slums, ruining the soil,” “gloomy regiments of dark spruce trees, all exactly alike,” and “impudent little spruce trees goose-stepping on the fells”. It is almost as though we have showered conifers with love in December because we feel guilty about hating them for the rest of the year.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t be nice to our Christmas trees, or that there is anything wrong with replanting schemes. But bringing a tree, even a container-grown one, into a centrally heated house is always going to be a fairly murderous act, so it seems a bit late by then to start treating the tree like a helpless child. Individually, trees are indeed vulnerable: the vast majority of them are killed off as saplings, not by human hands but by natural phenomena like canker, aphids and wet-rot. Collectively, though, trees are even hardier than us: an abandoned agricultural field will transform itself into a small wood in half a century, without any need for human intervention. “To care is a treacherous emotion,” writes Mabey, “apt to slip into a sense of custodianship, and then of possessiveness, into a habit of seeing the natural world as not just in need of protection, but unable to thrive without our help.” There is something self-centred about the way in which we cast ourselves alternately as the enemies and saviours of trees, pushing them to the centre of our own narratives and ignoring their tenacious otherness.

Even as the Christmas tree market increasingly demands consistency and uniformity in its products, the ritual of tree-buying still requires that we pick out our favourite and offer it a home. I must admit to feeling an anthropomorphic pang when I see the slightly lopsided, undersized trees left unwanted on the pavement outside florists. Since most Christmas trees are bought in the first two weeks of December, the ones that remain unsold now will probably finish up in the chipper. Their rejection just seems so palpable and public, like children not being picked for playground teams. This Christmas, however, I am trying not to feel too sorry for them.


Re my previous post about Hole in the Wall, Saturday night TV’s take on Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return. Last night while flipping channels I happened to catch a bit of the Hole in the Wall ‘highlights’ show, in which the host and the two team captains introduced clips of the ‘best bits’ from the series. For those intending to watch this later on iPlayer, I should perhaps offer a spoiler alert: these best bits consisted of celebrities trying to fit through oddly shaped holes in walls.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.’ – Henry Thoreau