The holiday season, when millions of families worldwide gather around Christmas trees, is a good time to reconsider our relation to the vegetal world. While many of the centerpieces for our festive celebrations are made of plastic and can be reused year after year, a mindboggling number of White Spruces, Fraser Firs, Scotch Pines, Noble Firs, and other evergreens are chopped down and transported (not transplanted!) into private houses. In the United States, the National Christmas Tree Association misleadingly uses the word harvesting to describe this process, undeterred by the fact that firs and pines do not really ripen and are neither cereals nor fruits to be plucked. They will have lived and grown for years on commercial estates so as to adorn living rooms for little more than a month and be discarded shortly thereafter.
The otherwise environmentally friendly state of Oregon leads the charge both in terms of the acreage devoted to growing Christmas trees and in terms of the total number of trees downed each year. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, in 2012 alone, nearly 6.5 million firs and pines were cut in that state, compared to the total of over 17 million trees nationwide. In the same year, Oregon devoted 53,605 acres to commercial Christmas tree cultivation. Clearly, this mass production and destruction of trees is unsustainable, regardless of the so-called recycling options recommended by the agro-industrial growers. More than that, it is a reflection of the prevalent attitudes and ways of treating vegetation as a whole.
A tree designated as an enormous Christmas decoration is cut from its roots, from the sources of its biological nourishment, and, thus mutilated, is handed over to the sphere of culture. Its actual evergreen quality is sacrificed to a symbolic representation of life everlasting, betrayed, in turn, by the decay that is about to set in. Soon enough, that White Spruce will start shedding its needles, quietly reminding us of our own encroaching mortality, which is when it will be “disposed of.” (The mechanisms of psychological repression are glaring here.) Bedecked in bright lights and fine ornaments, it is adored—perhaps, fetishized—until one fine moment, subsequent to the celebrations, it is reduced to a pile of garbage, together with fancy gift-wrappings that used, at once, to conceal and reveal the presents underneath it.
From St. Augustine to Hegel, philosophers have viewed everything to do with spirit (culture, religion, etc.) as infinitely superior to the natural domain of life. True life and genuine meaning resided exclusively in a world already transfigured by human activity or by spiritual works, for instance. The body of the text or of a plant had to perish, to shed their immediate existence, in order to be reborn in that higher realm, where the literal was subordinated to the symbolic. Although we do not give a second thought to this deep heritage of our customs, it presides even over such seemingly innocuous phenomena as the Christmas tree, inherited from pagan, pre-Christian celebrations, including the Roman Saturnalia.
Now, if a pine or a fir is but a symbol of eternal life, then what difference does it make whether it is “real” or a simulacrum? Does the symbolism of the symbol suffer a blow depending on the composition of the (in any case, devalued) body, which points toward it? Does wood have a more privileged relation to non-literal meaning than plastic? Obviously, the answer to all these questions is negative. What is disconcerting, nonetheless, is the implicit assumption that spiritual realities will not be full-blooded unless they sprout there where actual blood has been spilled or a sacrifice has been performed. As though the loss of lives or a life — be it as ambiguously understood as that of a tree — were necessary to imbue them with significance.
When I say that I am wishing for a green Christmas, I am fantasizing about a world where the existence of a tree is not attributed less value than the need to decorate one’s house for a month or so. A world, where the life of plants deserves human respect, as opposed to fetishized veneration followed by transformation into waste. One, where meaning and sense are located not only in our spiritual pursuits but also in the bodies of every human and non-human, animate and inanimate, being. Until such a world emerges, all our Christmases will be white, shrouded in the supposed purity of spirit allergic to life’s actual blossoming and rotting. This white of ostensible innocence conceals the bloodstains of sacrifice that made it possible. Even if those sacrificed are “only” trees.