Each year, millions of trees are sacrificed for the sake of Christmas — an ecological disaster and a denial of what trees represent for humanity. There are, however, some green alternatives to buying (and killing) your own private tree each year.
PARIS — In the street, on the sidewalks, the corpses pile up in the cold, stacked one above the other — victims of mutilation. Passers-by glance at them carelessly, sometimes fiddling with their broken limbs. The executioners stand guard around their victims, kicking them back into a pile.
The execution is recent: the bodies still wear their natural colors. But soon the last drops of life will recede. They will start to turn pale and decompose, leaving scorched flakes around them. A foul odor will take hold of the city.
This vision of horror is the Christmas spectacle, with its six million trees in France alone that are cut, sold, decorated for a few days and then discarded. In order to grasp the full extent of this massacre, we must first admit that trees are not simple pieces of wood, but individuals in their own right, who are leading unique lives.
This is not mysticism. German forest engineer Peter Wohlleben's bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees, a mix of empirical observation and scientific references, shows to amateurs the fascinating complexity of forest ecosystems.
Trees seem to have learning skills. They communicate with each other through mushroom networks and form real communities with their hierarchies and own survival strategies, protecting some members of the group and sacrificing others. During the mating season, they are able to avoid inbreeding (for example, the cherry blossom identifies and repels its own pollen by atrophying its tubes). Some researchers even believe that the tips of the trees’ roots are equipped with devices that are similar to a brain, and capable of transmitting signals.
Legal standing for trees
This is why it would actually make sense to grant rights to trees, as the lawyer Christopher Stone defended in a seminal article published in 1972. Being a subject of law doesn’t imply having a conscience: companies, let's remember, have a legal standing! On the other hand, the definition of rights reflects the way in which a human society sees itself.
Rights for trees doesn't mean a complete ban on cutting some down.
In this case, implementing rights for trees would express a form of minimal respect for our environment. Of course, Christopher Stone wasn’t suggesting applying the Penal Code to spruces, and in no way was he calling for a ban on their cutting. Like for all others, trees’ rights would be specific and limited. But perhaps it will at least make it possible to free up the 5,000 hectares of agricultural land that are now devoted to the completely pointless cultivation of Christmas trees.
At a time when everyone prides themselves on having an ecological conscience, can't we at the very least establish some kind of temporary morality to avoid unnecessary cutting?
Montaigne pleaded for a “general duty of mankind, not to animals only, which possess life and feeling, but also to trees and plants.” The current mayor of Bordeaux has decided to swap the traditional dead fir tree in the central square for a sculpture made from recycled materials — an amusing coincidence as Montaigne was also the mayor of the southwestern French city four centuries ago. This initiative is admittedly symbolic but legitimate, and there’s no doubt it would have pleased the mayor’s illustrious predecessor.
Pey Berland's recycled Christmas tree in Bordeaux, France.
It is true that traditions deserve to be respected. If we go back to its origins, we find that all the founding myths of the Christmas tree promote life, which carries on despite the winter weather. One says that in the 6th century, the Irish missionary Columbanus went to the Vosges Mountains to honor an ancient pine tree.
You can buy potted trees and replant them afterwards.
This is also the meaning of the famous song “O Christmas Tree” (“O Tannenbaum”): “Through summer’s heat and winter’s chill / Your leaves are green and blooming still. / O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, / How faithfully you blossom!” We must therefore decorate a living tree to celebrate it and not kill it to give ourselves presents!
So what can we do with our family after reading Peter Wohlleben?
You can of course buy potted trees and replant them afterward. My parents opted for this strategy throughout my childhood, gradually transforming our Normandy garden into a dark reserve of conifers.
But isn't it time to just finally put an end to the pagan idolatry of material goods that Christmas has become? I suggest replacing the unpacking of Chinese toys with a walk in the forest, where we will decorate fir trees with biodegradable garlands along the way. Merry Christmas!
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