Reflections on “The Giving Tree”

I have always been a fan of Shel Silverstein and his poetry.  My teachers are not likely to describe me as a good student because I was precocious and overly talkative in classes.  In my earlier days, when you finished your class assignment, students could visit the reading area in the back of the room.  There was only one copy of Shel Silverstein’s book, which was highly coveted. That motivated me to rush through my assignment and get to it first.

His strange illustrations and beautiful writing inspired me, and I still love reading it occasionally, especially now.  Recently, I picked up a copy of “The Giving Tree.” Rereading it, I felt the warmth and love of this poem.  It moves me still, a story of unconditional love bestowed by a tree upon a boy, which could be us.  Only days later, after my reading, an awareness began to form.  Yes, one side is loving, and yet there is heartbreak in this story.  I had only seen one side of it.

As a child, I witnessed the beauty of sacrifices and the love others gave me.  In this story, a beautiful being, the tree, bestows love and continually chooses to sacrifice for the child.  The tree’s gender is feminine, and it always evoked a reminder of how a mother, and many fathers for that matter, sacrifice so much for the well-being of their children.  I have always viewed this as a beautiful act and a biological necessity for one’s offspring or the species’ survival.

Recently, I read this poem again, and my understanding transformed entirely. It’s a story of a child who grows into a man, yet he continues to maintain a self-involved point of view. At best, he only gives back in an unconscious and indirect way when it serves him to do so. I think this is the heartbreak and the aspect of this story that I missed when I was younger.

I could only see the beauty in her giving but never questioned the implications of taking so much and the impacts of those costs.  I failed to see this in such a simple story.  No wonder it’s hard to see how our actions contribute significantly to the environmental challenges and cause such stress and imbalance.  If I could not see it in this simple poem, how can I see it through media messages and such a complex world?  How can I see the larger existential problem when I am working for today and stressed about survival into tomorrow? I imagine that stress compounds when you have children.

It gives me pause, and I feel thankful to those who are so giving and kind, willing to sacrifice. No doubt, those kind people will continue to forgive me for having taken so much. Perhaps now, I understand these offerings are sacred, and we should not take those gifts so lightly. Taking anything for granted leads to abuse.

To say thank you and ask what can be done to help. I realize that my wants are not my needs.  How can the other be left healthy and whole when we take so much?  To understand that when you are not whole, neither am I.

In the final line, we are told that the tree was happy. The idea of being and being with loved ones in a peaceful and beautiful world.  The simplest things are surely the best.

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The Giving Tree By Shel Silverstein

Once there was a tree….
and she loved a little boy.
And everyday the boy would come
and he would gather her leaves
and make them into crowns
and play king of the forest.
He would climb up her trunk
and swing from her branches
and eat apples.
And they would play hide-and-go-seek.
And when he was tired,
he would sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree….very much.

And the tree was happy.

But time went by.
And the boy grew older.
And the tree was often alone.

Then one day the boy came to the tree
and the tree said, “Come, Boy, come and
climb up my trunk and swing from my
branches and eat apples and play in my
shade and be happy.”
I am too big to climb and play” said the boy.
I want to buy things and have fun.
I want some money?”
I’m sorry, said the tree, but I have no money.
I have only leaves and apples.
Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in
the city. Then you will have money and
you will be happy.
And so the boy climbed up the
tree and gathered her apples
and carried them away.

And the tree was happy.

But the boy stayed away for a long time….
and the tree was sad.
And then one day the boy came back
and the tree shook with joy
and she said, “Come, Boy, climb up my trunk
and swing from my branches and be happy.
I am too busy to climb trees,” said the boy.
I want a house to keep me warm,” he said.
I want a wife and I want children, and so I need a house.
Can you give me a house ?”
I have no house, said the tree.
The forest is my house, but you may cut off
my branches and build a
house. Then you will be happy.
And so the boy cut off her branches
and carried them away
to build his house.

And the tree was happy.

But the boy stayed away for a long time.
And when he came back,
the tree was so happy
she could hardly speak.
Come, Boy, she whispered,
come and play.
I am too old and sad to play, said the boy.
I want a boat that will take me far away from here.
Can you give me a boat?
Cut down my trunk and make a boat, said the tree.
Then you can sail away…and be happy.
And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away.

And the tree was happy … but not really.

And after a long time
the boy came back again.
I am sorry, Boy, said the tree,
but I have nothing left to give you –
My apples are gone.
My teeth are too weak for apples,” said the boy.
My branches are gone, said the tree.
You cannot swing on them –
I am too old to swing on branches, said the boy.
My trunk is gone, said the tree.
You cannot climb –
I am too tired to climb, said the boy.
I am sorry,” sighed the tree.
I wish that I could give you something….
but I have nothing left.
I am just an old stump.
I am sorry….
I don’t need very much now,” said the boy.
just a quiet place to sit and rest.
I am very tired.

Well, said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could,
Well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting
Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.

And the boy did.

And the tree was happy.

About the author

Born in Texas, I'm presently living in the northwest.

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