“There once was a tree… and she loved a little boy.” The little boy played games in and with the tree, napped in her shade, and ate her apples. “And the Boy loved the tree… very much. And the tree was happy.” The boy grew and had different needs as he aged. The tree is always happy after giving, but the story never again mentions the boy’s love for the tree. Eventually “the boy,” now an old man, wants a boat to sail far away. The tree selflessly suggests he cut down her trunk to make a boat. (He has already taken her apples and her branches in his younger days.) Here the narrator admits, “And the tree [now a stump] was happy… but not really.” He eventually returns as a very old man, and lucky for the tree, all he wants is a place to rest.
Shel Silverstein clearly left the story open to interpretation. After my husband read the book to my children, my daughter said “It’s a mitzvah tree,” a tree doing good deeds. I had so many other ideas; I had to write some down. Maybe this story illustrates that we should do good deeds and charity work until it hurts a little, but stop before we have nothing else to give.
The story got me thinking about renewable resources. As soon as my daughter made that comment, I wanted to say, “Stupid tree! Had she quit after only giving her apples, she would have had more next year!”
I’m also left to wonder about the narrator. We only have narration when the boy interacts with the tree. We can only infer what happens during the boy’s long absences. While we feel for the tree, we are forced into a distinctly human point of view, as in, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” We can only know what the tree does when the boy is there. Here I would like to bring a new interpretation to the table: We are dealing with an unreliable narrator.
I would like to consider the possibility that the narrator is human and is giving us his narrow-minded side of the story; the tree is happy to give eternally and unconditionally of herself. The tree is at once a mother figure to the boy, the way she continues to give of herself and love him, and at the same time she is mother nature. It is only from the narrow minded narrator that we hear the tree is happy even when there is nothing left of her.
The boy is content to enjoy sitting on the stump at the end of the story, but what of his children? His children cannot benefit from the tree in all the ways their father did. They can not climb her trunk, swing from her branches, rest in her shade, or eat her apples. Had their father been content to only pick apples, generations to come could have climbed her trunk and enjoyed her apples.
After reading this book, it is clear what will happen to our planet if we take, and take, and allow ourselves to believe that the earth is happy. And yet, the intelligent consumer must also remember the unreliable narrator. We must look beyond labels and statistics to find out if the products we buy and the food we consume are leaving the world in a satisfactory state of being. Or are we taking too much?