Shel Silverstein’s classic The Giving Tree is a love story between a boy and a tree that turns dysfunctional in the end.
Like all the best children’s books, The Giving Tree isn’t just for kids. And given what industrial society is doing to the Earth, Silverstein’s story, which first came out in 1964, is more relevant for adults today than it ever was.
When the boy was little he spent his days climbing the tree, eating apples from it, and resting in the shade of the tree. As the boy gets older, he grows bored with the relationship, and starts demanding more. For the boy realizes that to live in the adult world, he needs money to make him happy. As a giver of unconditional love, the tree offers the boy her apples to take and sell so that he can have the money that will make him happy. So the boy gathers up all the trees apples and goes off to make some money.
It is a number of years before the boy goes back to visit his old love. He has gotten older, and realizes that it takes more than just money to be happy, he also needed a house so he could have a wife and children to make him happy. The tree was sorry, but she could not give him a house, but she offered her limbs to the boy that he could cut off and built a house from. The boy accepted her gift, cut off the limbs, gathered them and went away to build a house and have a family. And the tree was glad that she could once again make the boy happy.
The boy came back to the tree many years later, and again he was sad. He had worked hard, and his family had grown and left the house, and the man wanted a boat so he could sail away and be happy once again. The tree said she could not give the boy a boat, but she offered her trunk to the boy so he could build a boat. The boy again accepted the tree’s gift and proceeded to cut down her trunk and build a boat to make him happy. And the tree was glad that she could help the boy.
As the boy grew older and reached the end of his life, he came back once more to visit his childhood love. The man was tired and didn’t think the tree had anything left to offer him. But the tree seeing that the man was tired, offered what was left of her stump as a place for the man to sit and rest his tired body. And the tree once more was glad that she could bring some happiness to the boy.
This is story that I can relate to. When I was a boy, I spend many days climbing the trees that surrounded my neighborhood. I remember picking apples from the apple trees in our yard and eating them. When I started a family and bought a house, I made many wooden furnishings to fill the house. As my family grew, I made some wooden boats, to allow me to get away on days when the routines of the day grew old. And eventually, the trees in my old neighborhood were mostly cut down to make way for a new strip mall.
But in our world today, love affairs with trees are frowned upon – tree-huggers are seen as freaks. And the moral of the story is that we should love trees for the same reason the boy did – to use as a source of resources to meet our wants.
The Council for Economic Education even put out a lesson plan for elementary schools to use the story to teach kids all about natural resources, economic wants, scarcity and price. These are the very same loves the boy in the story spent his live chasing and, in the process, killing the tree and growing tired.
As I grow older, I hope I can find a deeper meaning behind the story, and not simply use it as an excuse to justify a meaningless life chasing after wants. I hope I can forget the dysfunctional lessons that our economy has taught me. And I hope that someday I will be able to show my love towards the trees I have known and give them the hug they deserve, without fearing what someone might think of me. And in the end, I hope I find this before I come to the end of my life, and before all the trees have died.
For more, watch the video where Shel Silverstein reads this great story.
This story originally ran on the author’s blog, Ecological Leadership.
— Tom Jablonski, Transition Voice