Why I wrote this piece: When talking about sustainability, one of the first things that always comes to my mind is a story by Shel Silverstein called “The Giving Tree.” In the book, the tree selflessly provides for its human companion in any way it can, slowly sacrificing more and more of itself until it is just a stump. I was always taught the story embodies selflessness and altruism, but as I grew older, something felt amiss in the one-sided transactions. I thought the human companion in the story could represent the greed and disregard for nature that seems to go hand-in-hand with urban development, especially in modern times where the consequences of our actions are more apparent. With this in mind, I decided to portray a more exploitative perspective of another tree to reflect the unsustainable nature of modern development.
The tree stands alone in the backyard, fenced in from the rest of the world by the wooden posts erected around the house. Two lengths of rope weigh down one of its branches, suspending a crudely-made swing that has long been disregarded. The wooden board that was once decorated with paintings and stickers is now grey, flakes of dried bark peeling off the weathered surface. The tree stands there alone in the backyard, watching the world continue to progress beyond the boundaries, unable to join it in the passing of time.
Rays of sun were streaming through the canopy, peeking through the gaps between the leaves and casting a soft green ambience in the space where they couldn’t. The birds sang their morning songs, their soft notes echoing through the forest, bending around trees and rocks, announcing the beginning of a new day.
Somewhere in the forest stood a tree. It was smaller and weaker than the others, yet it stood against the seasons, surviving many winters despite its size and opened its branches every spring for new pairs of birds to build their home in. The tree waited patiently for the eggs to crack and welcomed the new lives as they emerged into the world. It provided shelter from the rain and wind while the hatchlings grew under the safety of the tree’s guardianship. When the day finally came, its branches waved gently under a soft breeze as the birds took their first flights towards their new lives. And thus, the tree stood alone again, waiting for the arrival of a new pair of birds.
The forest flourished over time with the tree, the ecosystem growing bigger while its roots dug deeper. Ants crawled around the tree’s lower trunks while squirrels scurried along its branches; the numerous lives of the forest molding around the tree’s existence like the final piece of a puzzle. It grew comfortably alongside the other trees, weathering storms and snow, emerging from the other end taller and stronger. The monotonous days fused together, hours turning into seconds, and the leaves transitioned through their colours unnoticed, falling onto the ground without a sound.
They came without warning. In the beginning, there were just a handful of humans. They would walk around in expensive suits, sizing the trees around the forests, indifferent to the wear and tear accumulated on the delicate fabrics. In their eyes, all resources were infinitely replaceable from the abundance of mother nature, including the linen that went into their clothing. As time passed, they began increasing in numbers, bringing cameras and scientific equipment, digging up dirt and rocks around the forest and transporting them away in airtight containers. Then just as suddenly as they came, the humans disappeared. Silence settled throughout the forest in their absence, but peace did not return. The air between the trees was different. It felt foul and disturbed, and signs of humans were scattered in the forms of candy wrappers and soda cans. When it felt like the world was returning to normal, a rumbling was heard approaching rapidly from a distance.
Squirrels and raccoons fled from the sound in waves, scurrying around the small tree as it awaited the horrors that were to come. Machines and contraptions spread across the forest like a plague, their functions rudimentary yet ruthless in their efficiency. The trees and plants fell all around the forest like a crumbling empire, leaving its residents stranded and desperately seeking refuge. A vast area opened up in front of the small tree where its predecessors used to stand. In their place, tents were raised for the humans to gather and hide away from the beating sun.
The logging continued relentlessly, expanding and pushing away the numerous lifeforms that used to populate the forest. Instead of the chittering squirrels and whistling birds, human machinery hummed through all hours of the day, pervading the silent spaces between the trees. The creaking and snapping of wood signalled the ensuing crash of a tree somewhere in the forest, followed by the cheers of men congratulating each other. Bit by bit, the forest’s borders receded, the modern world closing on all sides. All that was left of the forest was the small tree, a fragment of a past world.
It stood there alone in the barren land, bracing the wind and heat that came in all directions. The ground was uplifted by bulldozers, pipes, and wires laid in unnatural uniformity in the spaces where roots used to grow and sprawl. On the surface, the felled trees returned in smaller and thinner forms, stacked on top of each other and carried back by the same people that took them away. Human monuments were raised row after row using the wooden planks, frames of squares and triangles signalling the coming of a new era.
The soft dirt ground turned into solid concrete, and the same wood that used to populate the forest became homes for a different life form. Around the surviving tree, a fence was erected enclosing someone’s backyard, and there it stood on display as a remnant of a bygone time. The scarring on its branches, accumulated from years of nesting by countless birds, were the only remaining proof that a different world existed before the humans came and took over everything.
The once small tree grew by itself in the backyard, witnessing a couple becoming the first owners of the house it now belonged to. Its branches were taller and stronger when the couple became parents, introducing their newborn son to his new home. The toddler immediately grew attached to the singular tree that stood in the backyard, grand and steadfast next to the small life that stumbled and crawled around its trunks. The leaves rustled and swayed gently in the summer breeze, providing shelter once again to those who seek it.
The tree was right there by the child as it grew, providing the boy with whatever he needed: whether it was a strong branch to hang a swing or a quiet place to read a book, it continued to supply for the young boy without fail.
Instead of migrating seasons, the passing of time was marked by the aging of humans. Between the day the matured son left to start his own life and the day he returned to his childhood home, the tree witnessed the house changing countless different owners, just as it did with nesting birds years ago. Furniture came and went, and the walls were painted many times over, yet the tree continued to stand unmoving in the backyard, separated from the world on the other side of the fence.
The child the tree cared for is an adult now, starting his own family in the house where he grew up. The withered plank and frayed ropes of the swing are replaced with new ones, a new life continuing to flourish under the guardianship of the tree. It protected and provided for its new charge just as it did years ago, sheltering the newborn from the rain and sun. On a stormy night, it anchors into the ground unflinching watching the manmade structure bend and tear under the forces of nature. When the sky clears and the rain ends, all that remains is the fractured monument of those who once bent nature to their own will. Part of the roof has collapsed from stray debris, and the morning sun is streaming into the new hole.
The indifference humans hold towards their environment is fathomless, and despite the memories made and time spent beneath the tree, the adult approaches it with an axe in hand. Just like the delicate suits that were easily replaced without a second thought, the tree in the backyard is just another tree to him, and many more can be planted in its place. No matter how much was given, the adult continues to seek the benefits of the tree without hesitation, hoping to use its wood to repair the roof. And even in its final moments, the tree will continue to provide shelter for the family for years to come.