Last week, as I watched my beloved Budweiser drinking, NASCAR tank top wearing neighbor across the road chainsaw a Christmas tree in half on the front of his bedraggled lawn, I couldn’t help but consider what miserable lives trees must lead.
Think about it: Dogs go to the bathroom on them, monkeys swing and tug on them, and woodpeckers thump on them all day like little feathered salesmen that won’t take no for an answer. Is there anything worse than being a tree? Indeed, if hell exists, trees are living in it. If reincarnation exists, humans better hope they don’t become trees.
Trees are immobile. The oldest tree known to scientists, a bristlecone pine named “Methuselah,” has been trapped in the same spot for nearly 5,000 years. Nestled in the White Mountains of Northern California, it has survived windstorms, rainstorms, snowstorms, droughts, and earthquakes. Its dense trunk shields it from hungry termites, and its limbs spiral into the hot sun like long, suntanned corkscrews.
The “Methuselah” signified longevity to the American Indians who once inhabited the same land. Other trees also had meaning. The beech tree signified tolerance, the cedar tree signified prosperity, and the ash tree signified peace. On the other hand, the willow tree cured inflammation, the aspen tree reduced stress, and the maple tree—still widely employed today whenever Ashton Kutcher makes a new movie—cured digestive problems.
Somewhere along the line, however, trees lost their allure. Rather than seek knowledge and wellbeing, humans turned on trees as if towering suspects in an unsolved crime. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” the forest became a haven for the wicked and depraved. In Frank Baum’s novel, “The Wizard of Oz,” the forest seized poor little Toto. And in fairytales across the world, parents warned children not to venture too far into the woods come sundown. After all, the woods are where all the lions and tigers and bears live, right? Oh my!
But are trees really that different from humans? There are tall ones, small ones, fat ones, even skinny ones. And like people, we even judge trees by how bald they are going. If anything, trees and humans are too much alike. Perhaps this explains why we are so eager to compete with them and cut them down. I mean, isn’t that what we do best as humans? Eliminate threats?
Sometimes the threat is ourselves, and in the past, we turned to trees for help. In the 19th century, for example, humans used trees to create makeshift prisons. Broad and hollowed out in the middle, the Adansonia gregorii—also known as the Boab Prison Tree—was so effective at trapping people inside that prison guards housed prisoners in the trunk overnight while transferring them to other prisons. Interesting, I must admit. But also disturbing. How much longer will our obsession with prisons continue?
Other times, trees have pushed the outer limits of our minds. In 1975, rumors spread across Toledo, Oregon that an alien spaceship had crash landed in the nearby forest. In response, dozens of men across town grabbed their shotguns and raced deep into the woods to hunt down the little green invaders which, according to legend, had cleverly disguised themselves as tree stumps.
Next came a week of indiscriminate gunfire in the general direction of every suspicious tree stump. Once the smoke cleared, however, no aliens were to be found—just old run-of-the-mill tree stumps (riddled with bullet holes, of course). Naturally, more than 40 years later, Toledo is too humble to take credit for saving the world from an extraterrestrial invasion. As patriotic citizens, they simply did what any small town would do.
And then there is Christmas, the most peculiar celebration of all, where each season we trek into the forest at the last minute in search of a “full” tree to lure back home. Once we find one, we usher it in out of the cold, give it warmth, dress it up, show it love, and lavish it with gifts—the kind of attention most trees could only dream about as saplings.
That is, until the next morning. Then, as if waking up from a bad hangover, we quickly come to our senses and realize we made a terrible mistake. We conclude it was never meant to last. And so we strip our trees bare, knock them back down, toss them off our porches, and pay for them to be hauled off to the wood chipper. What were we thinking in the first place? Too much eggnog.
Like most brightly lit flings, it was fun while it lasted. For the Christmas tree, however, it is just another day in a miserable life. Is there anything worse than being a tree? It’s a question worth considering.
Now if you’ll pardon me, I need to flip the wood in my fireplace.
Brandon Loran Maxwell is a Writer's Digest prize winning essayist, keynote speaker, and member of the Foundation for Economic Education Faculty Network.