Friday, 30 January 2015

"The Giving Tree": Anti-Feminist Propaganda or Metaphor for Man-Kind's Distance from Nature?

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.

Photo credit: Winkypetidia (Wikipedia)
One of the dominant arguments against this book is that it is believed to contain a (perhaps not-so) hidden message which suggests a very sexist, anti-feminist view. Each article and post I have read about this 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.

For me, a long time fan of this book, I have never identified with this opposing view. Sure, the tree is obviously identified as a 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 say definitively that yes, he did in fact intend to make sure little boys grew up to take advantage of important women in his life 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 think it goes without saying that I have a keen interest in the world in which we live in. It is likely that this story is part of what built the foundation of my environmental consciousness. Why or how you ask? Well, I've always believed, particularly as I got older, that this story was a metaphor for the relationship between humans and nature.

Reading this story 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 from of respect - in most cases to be appreciated, loved and for the boy to spend time with 'her' without asking for anything. Okay, now I can slightly see how some might take this as being '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 these things make the boy happy...but he never really seems happy. At the end of the boy's life, now an old man, he sits against the stump of the tree, tired and worn down.

Take a second to think about that relationship for a moment. I'll wait...

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 were were, we would imagine worlds or scenarios and play along with it. Unless it was raining (and even then we'd put on our bathing suits and run around in it!), we could only come in for pee breaks, sunscreen reapplications (so every 3 seconds for me!), snacks, and/or lunch - otherwise we didn't come in until supper time. 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 focuses were about maintaining grades, friendships and as an extremely self-conscious and insecure teenage girl, the never ending search for a high school sweet heart (which by the way, never came and has ultimately influenced my independence and, until last weekend, goal to become a cat lady...). The time spent outdoors, amongst the trees became less and less. Then graduation happened, college and work life set in, and there was a need for money.

Money. The root of most, but not all evil. Money becomes the focus of almost everything in the world we currently live in. Money defines our value in society, what we can and cannot achieve (although there are certainly always exceptions), and pretty much every aspect of our lives. In some cases, money 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 over-consumption. We're taught from an early age - far earlier nowadays than when I was a kid - 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. Now, maybe this is not true of all people and places, but that is how society wants us to perceive those around us...I think.

Let's get back to the task at hand here! So, we've got a story about a young boy who plays with a tree. This resembles my own, and many others' childhood experiences. Then 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 the ending of this 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 consideration of what he is doing to the tree 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 - most often of which 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 even second guessing what that means for any other species living within the area. 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. And, when all is said and done, what do we have to say for it? Our life comes to an end. We're tired, unhappy, and all of those things, yes material things (!) we've focused on and placed at the centre of our being can't come with us. And, the generations to follow us are the ones 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 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 this book. I learned that from real life, in the world we currently live in.

What this book taught me, is the gentle relationship between myself and nature. I learned 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 'MANkind.' In a time with so many possibilities, for ALL humans, I find it frustrating that so many are quick to find problems with seemingly innocent mediums. All too often we are faced with the political-correctness that is trying effortlessly to find an error in intention, be it gender-relations, differences in race, ethnicity, 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?

-the Orange Canadian

No comments:

Post a Comment