“Once there was a tree….and she loved a little boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest. He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples. And they would play hide-and-go-seek. And when he was tired, he would sleep in her shade. And the boy loved the tree…. very much. And the tree was happy. But time went by.”
So begins Shel Silverstein’s ‘The Giving Tree’. Like many seemingly innocuous children’s stories, when reread at an adult age, this classic and much-loved mainstay reveals an ominous shift in tone and messaging. We soon realise that the story is perhaps less a love story and more a lament for our propensity to take advantage of, or at least take for granted, that which sustains and supports us.
This week we celebrated Tu B’Shevat across the School. This ancient, minor Jewish festival, the “birthday” of the trees, seems to have special resonance in contemporary times. It is a unique and wonderful feature of our tradition that we are encouraged to devote a day to acknowledge the magnificence of trees.
Tu B’Shevat is one of many ways that trees are honoured within Judaism. Embedded in our laws and texts is a profound respect for nature and instructions to care for the physical world around us. We see this in the notion of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and in the laws around the sabbatical year for fields where we are prohibited from planting to allow the land to replenish and renew. It also underscores the biblical prohibition on cutting down the trees of a people with whom one is battling.
Over the summer I visited a unique park in Maui which is home to a 150 year old banyan tree. This tree is comprised of a roof canopy that is supported by 12 trunks. This gives the illusion that the park is made up of 12 separate trees but, in reality, it is all one. This seems an obvious metaphor for our aspirations as a community – individuality feeding in to oneness – and of our interdependence with nature.
The mysteriousness of the banyan reminded me of the Richard Powers’ novel ‘The Overstory’ which tells the story of seven different trees across the United States. One of the fascinating subplots of the story relates to the destructive spread of blight – a disease that devastated the chestnut tree population of North America in the early 1900s. The story explains that in many areas the forest protected itself from the spread of the blight through the unseasonal shedding of leaves to prevent the disease’s transmission. What is most fascinating about this is it is an example of the now scientifically proven notion that trees are able to “communicate” to one another across species.
Like ‘The Giving Tree’ this novel encouraged me to value the trees around me. As our planet faces the reality of climate change, now is the time for us to collectively heed the message of Tu B’Shevat and to cease taking nature for granted.
The destruction wreaked by the recent wave of bushfires is unprecedented. We have seen lives and livelihoods lost, homes destroyed and estimates of a billion animals lost in the flames. A staggering 19 million hectares of land has been burnt and an inconceivable number of trees.
Our students are passionate about making a difference and responding effectively in the face of these global challenges. On Tu B’Shevat across the School, our students raised funds for the WWF to support the rehabilitation of lost habitats due to the Australian bushfires. This is one way that our students can feel helpful and hopeful in the face of the devastation.
Towards the conclusion of ‘The Giving Tree’ the tree feels it has nothing left to give: “I am sorry” sighed the tree. “I wish that I could give you something. . . but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry…”
I hope that we can take the ancient message of Tu B’Shevat and pay far greater respect for the miracles of our planet before it is likewise too late.