Do not pity the tiny pine

By Joe Moran, the author of Queuing for Beginners (THE GUARDIAN, 17/12/07):

Along with most other aspects of the modern Christmas, America has bequeathed us our secular version of the nativity, retold in every medium from the Peanuts comic strip to the sitcom Friends: the story of the misshapen little Christmas tree that is saved by a benevolent consumer so it can fulfil its seasonal destiny. You would be hard-pressed to find any such sad-looking specimen among today’s plantation-grown trees, with their flawless foliage, evenly spaced branches and miraculous needle-retaining qualities. But the Christmas tree industry still exploits this idea that trees are there waiting to be pitied, rescued and redeemed.

Inspired by the slow food movement’s emphasis on local sourcing and sustainability, the industry has turned tree-buying into an all-day, themed event. We are now invited to attend festivals at Christmas tree farms, where we can stroll through illuminated forests, pick our own tree, watch as it is pulled out by shire horses, and leave with instructions on how to care for it to ensure that it is not dehydrated or overheated. If we really must have a non-biodegradable artificial tree, Marks & Spencer will assuage our consciences by planting a tree for every plastic one it sells. The poor Christmas tree is being forced to bear the burden of all our contemporary ecological anxieties.

This year saw the publication of books about trees by two of our most distinguished nature writers: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood and Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings. These books are united in their dislike of this tendency to infantilise individual trees, this refusal to think of trees as communal organisms with resilient, independent lives of their own. Christmas trees, in particular, are only loved in the singular. Softwood plantations have been hated in this country ever since scientific forestry wiped out acres of native oak and beech to clear the ground for more lucrative conifers. Writers at the time complained about “spruce slums, ruining the soil” and “impudent little spruce trees goose-stepping on the fells”. It is almost as though we have showered conifers with love in December because we feel guilty about hating them the rest of the year.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t be nice to our Christmas trees, or that there is anything wrong with replanting schemes. But bringing a tree into a centrally heated house is always going to be a fairly murderous act, so it seems a bit late by then to start treating the tree like a helpless child. Individually, trees are indeed vulnerable: the vast majority of them are killed off as saplings by natural phenomena. Collectively, though, trees are hardier than us: an abandoned field will transform itself into a small wood in half a century, without any need for human intervention. “To care is a treacherous emotion,” writes Mabey, “apt to slip into a sense of custodianship, and then of possessiveness, into a habit of seeing the natural world as not just in need of protection, but unable to thrive without our help.” There is something self-centred about the way in which we cast ourselves alternately as the enemies and saviours of trees, pushing them to the centre of our own narratives and ignoring their otherness.

Even as the Christmas tree market increasingly demands uniformity in its products, the ritual of tree-buying still requires that we pick out our favourite and offer it a home. I must admit to feeling an anthropomorphic pang when I see the undersized trees left unwanted on the pavement outside florists. The ones that remain unsold now will probably finish up in the chipper. Their rejection just seems so palpable and public, like children not being picked for playground teams. But this Christmas I am trying not to feel too sorry for them.