January 2016 scroll article

As we start the new secular year, we also have the observance of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year/Birthday/tax day of the trees. This is the day when our ancestors were counting the age and population of their trees so they could offer appreciation for the bounty of their resources and think about how to reinvest it for the future. As I start preparing for our observance of this day, I look to my shelf of garden and nature resources. One of the books I have is the Giving Tree by Shell Silverstein. This is a hauntingly beautiful story that I remember from childhood. It starts with a young boy playing in a tree. Over time, as the man grows, the tree offers more and more resources to help the man. The man clearly appreciates each gift from the tree, but he keeps on taking until the end, when both become withered and lost. Yes, they have each other, but an old man and a stump is not exactly a happy, satisfying ending.
I was thinking about the Giving Tree as I listened to a real life story of our time, the story of the American chestnut tree. Apparently, the American chestnut once dominated the eastern seaboard. Now it is almost extinct. I heard this and I thought, we humans lived out Shell Silverstein and cut it down and depopulated this tree. However, as the report continued, I learned that the disappearance of the American chestnut was not from the human action of cutting them all down and consuming the wood, but someone introduced a foreign blight that wiped them out. But, there is a twist. This is actually the sequel to the Giving Tree. Now in our day and age, folks are trying to undo the damage and restore something that is lost.
With the help of 6,000 devoted volunteers, the foundation has developed a complex breeding program to raise a hearty American chestnut that is resistant to the fungus and that can someday be reintroduced to the wild. (As The Salt has reported, separate efforts are also underway to create agenetically an engineered American chestnut that’s resistant to blight.)
Foundation president Lisa Thomson says the American chestnut is “an underdog.” You know, everybody loves an underdog. And they see hope in the future, real promise of the future to bring this species back.” http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/12/17/459203467/in-the-maine-woods-a-towering-giant-could-help-save-chesnuts
This feels like a Jewish response to the Giving Tree. We don’t just give up on the story or values. Yes, in the Giving Tree there is beauty and there is caring, but by the end, the man and the stump are just stuck in a proverbial Egypt, a narrow place. The end of the Giving Tree is a contraction. There is nowhere to go. As I weave in the story of the American chestnut tree, I can see that story, and take it to the next step… On January 24th we should take time to appreciate trees, care for them, or maybe plant a new one or two. (Can we really have too many trees in our day or in the future?) We should also go that step further. Every day, when we take a breath of clean air, appreciate the shade, or use a product made from wood in our daily life, we should stop to say a little thanks, a good morning or a hello. As the trees give to us, may we give to them. Partnership and cooperation lead us to Shalom.

Rabbi Michael Birnholz