What a Christmas Tree Taught me about Politics

Although it happened nearly three decades ago, I still remember the smugness with which the visiting professor announced to the class that his op-ed had been published.

The Washington Post had printed a piece he wrote about how nobody should be cutting down Christmas trees in order to bring them into their living room 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 topics like the value of a tree’s life in relation to the value of Christmas sentiment. We had spent all semester talking about why wild organisms and wild processes had moral worth and how to judge that worth against short-term human interests. Weighing the value of a tree and the ecological services it provides over a couple of centuries and contrasting it with the trivial nature of the tree’s use at the holidays was fair game.

Even so, I have to admit that 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 later).

img_20181224_160640671_hdr (1)It is not surprising that I’m thinking about this 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 pretty much brings a lump to my throat. (Okay….I’m pathetic.)

I don’t feel bad about cutting the tree from the woods. I could probably make a case to the smug professor about the ecological value of removing a few trees from the forests around here. We are surrounded in western Montana 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 probably increases the growth of the surrounding trees while letting a bit more valuable light onto the forest floor and (incrementally) making the forest more fire-proof. There is surely a good debate to be had there on ecological grounds. There are also plenty of good things that Christmas trees can be used for after the holidays, ranging from creating mulch for urban parks, protecting over-wintering veggies, feeding zoo animals, edging walkways and flower beds, or 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 boots, 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 car roof before we make it back to town. Once home and set up in its stand of water 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 Christmas 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’ strangely accessible memories of childhood’s sweet innocence, powerful recollections of the voices of long-dead family members, and the ability to feel again the power of sibling entanglements now matured 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 and 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 directed at an ethically worthy end as it is when it is completely unnecessary and annoying. Remember, it is not always obvious initially which is going to be which.

There is a person-to-person tenderness that the desire to create serious political change must recognize. Laws to reduce carbon emissions, regulations around clean water, and efforts to protect wildlife can 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 should (and must) change can come with a deep reservoir of 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 much diminished.

What if 2019 were the year that this sort of 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.





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