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The Giving Tree and the Not-Giving Boy

Last week, I encountered the idea of reciprocal relationships with the environment for what felt like the first time. I was reading “Restoration and Reciprocity: The Contributions of Traditional Ecological Knowledge,” Robin Kimmerer’s (scientist, professor, author of “Braiding Sweetgrass,” and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation) chapter in “Human Dimensions of Ecological Restoration: Integrating, Science, Nature, and Culture.” It begins with an Algonquin elder’s thoughts on sustainability. He says, “‘This idea of sustainability sounds to me like the same old formula by which people simply continue to take from the earth. They just want to keep taking. You can’t just take. Tell them, that among our people our concern is not what we can take from the land, but what we can give.’” This blew me away.

But it shouldn’t have. Many cultures, including many indigenous cultures in the United States, practice reciprocity with the environment. And it’s not that complex of an idea. We* value reciprocity in our relationships. And we have relationships with our environments. So, why aren’t we having more reciprocal relationships with our environments?

Answering that question in full is far beyond the scope of this blog post. But let’s get into one small part of the answer. The relationships between people and their environments portrayed in dominant media are so far from reciprocal.** Perhaps the furthest of all is the relationship between the boy and the tree in Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.”

“The Giving Tree” is a story about a tree that gives and a boy that takes. The boy takes the tree’s leaves, its apples, its branches, and its trunk. The tree expresses only one want: the boy’s happiness. The tree never gets that happiness.

There have been many criticisms of “The Giving Tree.” Some focus on the boy’s extractive and unsustainable relationship with the tree. But the problem is more than what he takes. It’s also what he doesn’t give.

“The Giving Tree” is described as “an affecting interpretation of the gift of giving and a serene acceptance of another's capacity to love in return.” But that love isn’t enough. And loving our environments isn’t enough. Our reciprocity must be more. In cultures of gratitude, Kimmerer explains that “people have a responsibility not only to be grateful for the gifts provided by Mother Earth, they are also responsible for playing a positive and active role in the well-being of the land. They are called not to be passive consumers, but to sustain the land that sustains them” (257). Only then will our relationships be reciprocal.

Portraying reciprocal relationships between people and their environments in dominant media would enable people to imagine such relationships in their own lives. We should have stories where, even if a boy harms a tree, he restores it. Heck, we should have stories where the boy then plants more trees! Let’s tell these stories. And let’s live them too.

* I use "we" throughout this blog post to mean people who follow the dominant, colonial culture in the United States, though I realize that many people do not.

** Please send me exceptions to this!

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