Somewhere right about now there is a douglas fir being placed in a living room in Florida. There is a kind of strange indignity about an exotic dying specimen being used to celebrate something it is not about and then later unceremoniously tossed away on the sidewalk, usually covered with phony spray-on “snow.” There is something that just doesn’t sit well with me to know there are about 30 to 35 million so-called Christmas trees that are about to be sold this year in the U.S., and 60 to 70 million more in Europe, a continent with almost no remaining ancient forest.
I’m pretty fortunate to live in Northern California, where we have some lush forest. These are wonderful trees, among them redwoods, firs, spruces, and alders. Yet incredulously, in this town itself, there are folks selling little trees to bring home. It’s surrealism worthy of Salvador Dali and represents a kind of absurd and cultural injunction. We live in an age over run by simulations and falsehoods in the post-truth world. We have so many of these kinds of alienating experiences that insist on themselves, washing over us and usually passing through without any depth.
Our treatment of the so-called Christmas tree is a brilliant case in point. Bringing a tree in the home or making a wreath was really a folk craft of Pre-Christian Europe. The practice isn’t necessarily even Christian, but was appropriated by that tradition. Christians in Ethiopia, for example, have no cultural tradition of the types of coniferous fir tree forests, or, tannenbaum, these other folk traditions had.
But the use of the tree then became a kind of commercial icon, and having one became a consumerist injunction. Images of the tree then appear everywhere, and even so-called “artificial trees” become popular, stored in a cardboard box in the attic most of the year.
In the end, we have no idea really why we end up with an imitation tree, or have associated it with an alien religion that it has nothing to do with, and which may not even reflect anything that is real about the landbase in which we live. The only way that the Christmas tree can “feel like Christmas” is to the extent the cultural industry as outlined its hegemonic territory in our imagination. I mean, really, I’m ashamed to admit, I know more about lyrics to goofy Christmas songs than I do about my own landbase.
Our cultural treatment of trees in general reflects a culture that is dissociated from, and even hostile to, nature. We’ve long taken for granted trees, personified them as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, as some kind of sacrificial Other which sneakily apologizes for our own ecological narcissism. A new book called The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel and How they Communicate by Peter Wholleben, proposes that trees have a type of sentience that is only recently becoming re-understood.
If we can peel away these rampant calcified injunctions, bracketing them out as a kind of human-all-too-human trap of a human representational imagination run amok, we can begin to find the roots of renewal. We can use this tradition to take things to their origins. Opt instead for a Yule log to decorate and at Yule, heat your home. Or, do what I’m likely to do year round in various seasons. Collect already fallen branches and cones, make a wreath if you like. I’ve been known to pick up scraps, arrange some green in the home with cones, fruits, candles, or other keepsakes. Intertwine your memories with the textures, senses of your leaves and cones. It brings us to the purpose of placing ornaments on a living tree, connecting our families and our homes with nature. It can be a grounding practice.
Sometimes the icons of coniferous trees are really dissonant with your landbase. Deciduous trees may fit the bill better. Maybe you live in a tropical climate, or desert. Look around for what is at home near you. Is it Magnolia? Sage brush? Stones? Driftwood? Your home wreaths and décor, may feel better if they were not some alien creature to the local landscape, which is what a douglas fir is in Florida.
One other way is to make a little shrine to a living tree outside. And it doesn’t even have to be anything to do with Christmas time or Yule. In general, get to know a tree, let it communicate to you, try to dismiss any judgments or even language that come to mind, because it will generally be a trap of language and the human worries that pile in with hit. Feel it with your hands. Smell the tree. Remind yourself of all the relationships the tree has with what is around it. The birds, chipmunks, insects, the nuts, fruit, cones … whatever is there. Remind yourself that there is a reality beyond the narrow confines of human language and representation. There is a reality to this otherness, we just need to re-learn how to perceive it. I expect this to be a grounding experience, inviting us to grow deeper roots and affiliations with our environment. Give it a try and see notice how it feels.