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.
And the tree loved the little boy, but the tree was a bit irritated. "King of the forest, my trunk," she thought. "Wherever did those human beings get such an attitude problem?"
Time went by, and the boy grew older, and the tree was often alone, which was nice and quiet, but she missed the boy.
Then one day the boy came to the tree and the tree called out to him, "Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat my apples and play in my shade and be happy."
"I am too big to climb and play," said the boy. I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money. Can you give me some money?"
"No chance," said the tree. "I have only leaves and apples. Why don't you go get a job if money's so important to you? I hear that the Nature Conservancy is looking for clerical staff. Why don't you apply?"
And so the boy applied for the job and stuffed many envelopes and processed many donations to the Nature Conservancy, and the tree was happy.
But the boy stayed away for a long time, and the tree was sad. And then one day the boy came back and the tree shook with joy and she said, "What took you so long? You don't call, you don't write, how's the job? And tell me, what do you think about the election? Is it just me, or do neither of these guys have anything to say about the environment!"
"I am too busy to talk politics with you," said the boy. "I want a house to keep me warm. I want a wife and I want children, so I need a house. Can you give me a house?"
"Of course I can't give you a house," replied the tree. "The forest is my house. But you're certainly welcome to pitch a tent on the ground here, and we'll have a great time."
"Thanks but no thanks, Tree," said the boy. "Maybe I'll start an intentional community with some of my friends."
"That's the ticket," cheered the tree. "You Americans already have far too many houses. Why build another?"
So the boy went off to start a co-op with a group of spiritually -centered liberal vegetarians who all embraced voluntary simplicity. And the tree was happy.
But the boy stayed away a very long time, and when he came back the tree was so happy she waved her branches excitedly. "Well would you look what the cat dragged in!! Look at you, Boy! Good Lord, you look awful. You humans just don't age as well as we trees do, do you, Boy?"
"You've got that right, dear Tree," replied the boy. "I wish I could stay and shoot the breeze with you, but I am too old and sad. I want a boat that will take me far away from here. Can you give me a boat?"
"Whoa," said the tree. "I don't like the way you're looking at my trunk there, buddy. You want to get far away from here? You've got legs. Walk. And on the way, why don't you take some of these seeds and plant some more trees? Make like Johnny Appleseed. It'll do us all good."
So the boy embraced the tree, took the seeds and started on his journey. And the tree was happy. Really.
After a long, long time, the boy came back again. "I'm sorry, Boy," said the tree. You have no more teeth to sink into my apples. You're too fragile to swing in my branches. Your friends and your intentional community are long gone, and your old legs can't take you around as they used to. We both know that you are at the end of your story, and that I will long outlast you. I just wish that I could give you something to comfort you. . . "
"I don't need very much," said the boy. "Just a quiet place to swing and rest."
"Well," said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could. "Well, this old tree is good for swinging and resting. Come, Boy, tie your hammock on this branch over here, and on this branch way over here. Come, Boy, swing from my arms, and rest."
And the boy did.
And the tree was very happy.
("The Demanding Tree," by Victoria Weinstein, © 1999. Apologies to Shel Silverstein)
What are the myths that shape our modern lives? This question has occupied my mind a lot lately, as I am engaged in a study of Greek and Roman mythologies once again, and as I look at our own culture and try to understand and expose its mythologies. The gods and goddesses are hidden but they're still there, often in the form of sacred cows, or should I say golden calves, we are urged to worship.
Over the next few weeks I will be bringing this interest in contemporary myth-making to you, and we start today with my irreverent re-telling of a children's classic which has achieved a kind of mythic status in the U.S.A. I certainly did not rewrite Shel Silverstein's tale as an act of rebellion or insult. I loved that book as a kid, and I have bought gift copies for many children in my adulthood. I never looked at it critically until five or six years ago, when I heard a speaker question our mythology of nature as benevolent mother, and it caused me to pull Silverstein's book back off my shelf and to ask myself, "Do I sentimentalize Nature? What are the myths and stories and teachings that have influenced how I experience Nature, and how responsible I feel for the fate of this planet?"
On this Earth Day weekend, I think we can be cautiously optimistic in saying that a significant population of Americans are questioning what mythologies got us into our current environmental crisis. You may or may not prefer to use the language of crisis to describe the combination of issues which include global warming and depletion of the ozone, deforestation, nuclear threat, destruction of species, acid rain, etc. etc. Some say the planet is in crisis, some believe the Earth has the capacity to withstand all that the unprecedented technological and industrial progress of the past 150 years or so hath wrought. Some, like naturalist Annie Dillard, poke gentle fun at our sense that we are special beings living in a special time:
"Are we not especially significant because our century is? our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarianism exterminations; our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes? No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other. who can bear to hear this, or who will consider it?" (For the Time Being, p 30)
I love Annie Dillard and I'm no expert but it still sounds like a crisis to me. I am willing to be persuaded otherwise. My point here this morning, however, is to affirm the liberal religious task of critically examining those mythologies that shape our understanding of the world, and to consider the possibility of changing them when they seem to need changing.
To state this yet more simply, I used to read The Giving Tree from the perspective of the Boy. These days I am more apt to want to understand the point of view of the Tree.
While there have always been those men and women in industrialized nations who walked carefully upon the earth and were good stewards of it and here you can insert the name of your favorite environmentally-minded hero or heroine (some of mine are Wendell Berry, John Muir, Henry Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and Bill McKibben) they have not usually been among the policy-makers of those nations who consume the vast majority of the earth's resources.
How people feel it is right and good to treat the planet and its resources depends very much on the mythologies they live by. Mythologies, remember, are not just collections of dear little stories that contain a message or moral about how the gods are gonna getcha. Mythologies are those stories and tales that weave within a culture an entire moral system. The important thing to remember about mythologies is that they are often held in the unconscious they are values and lessons we learned so young, or which are woven so subtly into our surroundings, that we often do not even know we are living by them. I would say that there are three prevalent mythologies held by distinctly non-environmentally-conscious individuals and institutions. All of these mythologies beg longer analysis, but I will give only brief thumbnail sketches of them this morning:
The first has religious origins, and hinges on the word "dominion" as found in the Adam and Eve story in the book of Genesis. In this mythology, which obviously has religious origins, it is thought that God Himself gave man dominion over the Earth; the authority to name all the critters, and the authority to rule over earth while expecting it to serve him and his progeny, world without end, amen. When considering this myth, I especially like to remember that the first source for all knowledge (in the primordial first perfect garden) was none other than a Tree.
The second prevalent mythology that drives exploitation of our planet is a mythology rooted in the market economy. The idea, simplistically put, is that in order to create resources we must use resources. For every depletion, there will be a renewal probably man-made, but just as acceptable as what Mother Nature provided in the first place. The idea is that we are an adaptable species living on a remarkably adaptable planet, and all will be well. This vision of unending progress and profit accepts that alteration of the planet is an inevitable consequence of history and is part of how evolution works. If we lose a few species along the way, that's sad but unavoidable.
The third mythology that influences unintentionally abusive treatment of our planet is a few centuries old by now, and was propagated by thinkers as brilliant as Isaac Newton and Renee Descartes, who regarded Nature as just so much "dead stuff moving obediently according to mathematical laws."1 On one hand, scientists like Newton can be assumed to have spent their life's genius in an admirable quest for scientific understanding. On the other hand, I wonder if Isaac Newton, who was born the year this congregation was founded, was familiar with the attitude of earlier proponent of the scientific method Sir Francis Bacon, who wrote that we must torture the secrets out of Nature as we torture the secrets out of a witch.
I'm not in close touch with that many scientists but I do know a few and I am happy to report that they are a far more reverent bunch than was Mr. Bacon. In fact, and this is a sermon for another time, most scientists of my acquaintance tend to be very spiritual people, if not necessarily religious. They have a sense of awe and wonder about their research and a great deal of concern when they find evidence of the degradation of the natural world on any level (for a wonderful example of such a scientist, I hope you will all come hear our Fogg Lecturer Chet Raymo on May 2nd). They are not strangers to the Gaia hypothesis, "a theory which conceives of Earth as a living spirit, a self-regulating organism - named after Gaia, goddess of the Earth."2
So the news is not all bad for scientists or for non-scientists who are worried about our blue planet. We have had called to our attention the pressing ecological concerns of our time. Jewish and Christian religious scholars have looked very carefully again at the book of Genesis and found good Biblical cause to embrace an ethic of stewardship which speaks to a sense of caregiving of the Earthover an ethic of dominion, which grants divine permission to humans to exploit the planet.
But I go back to that little story by Shel Silverstein, and because I think of this as the beginning of a longer conversation that I will continue next Sunday, I want to simply ask, "Is it enough?" Is it enough to love the Earth and its creatures and just do our best to recycle and drive responsible vehicles and think about our own patterns of consumption, and to be reverent? Will that be enough for even the most well-intentioned Americans, who are burning through this planet's resources at a far higher rate than any other nation, and in fact faster than several industrialized nations put together?
I told you earlier that I heard a speaker one evening who shocked me into questioning my own sentimental attitudes towards Mother Earth. That speaker was depth psychologist James Hillman and what he said was that perhaps we were all making a big mistake in regarding the Earth as, in his words, a "big-breasted mother." Maybe, he suggested, the Earth is an active principle of violence who doesn't even much like humans. To be honest, I thought the idea was extremely far-fetched, but it was provocative. What it suggested was something that Annie Dillard writes about so brilliantly in her great work For the Time Being. What both of these people are pointing out is, don't get cute about the Earth. Don't personify her and dress her up in a flower garland and put her in your margarine commercial and imagine she's your mommy and will love you no matter what. Why, in fact, must you imagine her as a "she?" What's going on with that?
So if you want to know why I went home and reworked The Giving Tree as I did, that's why. I was troubled. I was somewhat embarrassed, feeling I had failed to give due reverence and awe to this planet which is, in fact, clearly not my warm mommy but a complicated and unique organism upon which I and all my other human brothers and sisters are privileged to live. I don't believe the Earth is an active principle of violence. I am coming to accept, however, that this planet has its own creative destiny to live out, and is quite indifferent to human desire to exist and occupy and repopulate her forever. In other words, Mama Earth isn't going to save us. If anything, Earth and that includes the trees that have come to symbolize the union of the mundane and mystical, and the principle of constant regeneration has every reason to have developed quite an attitude about our species by now.
We said in our reading earlier, "The leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees, whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark . . All things belonging to the earth will never change."
If we heed the lesson of The Giving Tree, I fear that many things belonging to the earth will indeed change, and not in ways that will make the earth or its inhabitants very happy. As for myself, I think I'll see what else the Demanding Tree has to say, and heed her feisty wisdom. Thank you for receiving her so warmly. With apologies to the speechwriters of John F. Kennedy, I will close by saying, in the words of the Demanding Tree, "Ask not what your trees can do for you, but what you can do for your trees."
1 "Ecofeminism: Symbols and Social Connections of the Oppression of Women and the Domination of Nature," Rosemary Radforth Ruether in This Sacred Earth, 329.
2 "Earth First! From Primal Spirituality to Ecological Resistance," Bron Taylor. In Gottlieb, Roger, ed. This Sacred Earth: Religion Nature and Environment (New York: Routledge, 1996), 552. This anthology is invaluable for anyone wishing to delve into eco-theology.