This week, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was unfurled in all its floppy, haggard glory. As many a Twitter user were quick to point out, its appearance was a metaphor for this year of pandemic, a slapdash coup attempt, and a general drubbing of American exceptionalism.
This year’s tree is also perfectly poised to reflect something more than our national mood: It reflects the absolutely toxic relationship we have with the natural world and the need to rapidly reverse course. If this year’s tree sees any justice, it’s that it should be the last.
Everything about this tree tells a piece of the story of our past century-plus relationship with nature and extractive capitalism. The tree came from Oneonta, New York, located 170 miles outside New York City. It stood in someone’s yard, a 75-foot (23-meter) giant amid an otherwise entirely uninteresting, ecologically destructive swath of lawn. It’s not that this is some old growth, native tree or remnant of the forest that grew where Oneonta now stands. The tree is a Norway spruce, which, as you can likely guess from the name, is not native to the U.S. That in and of itself reflects how upended our relationship with nature is. In its previous home, though, it had an iota of dignity lost completely once it was transported to Midtown Manhattan. And in that home, it served as a veritable island for wildlife in a vast, biodiversity-poor sea of lawns.
As if to reinforce that, workers discovered an owl in the tree after transporting it to Rockefeller Center. The Northern saw-whet owl was “rescued” from the tree, which is, of course, being spun as a feel-good, cute story. NBC’s Today framed it that way, talking to Ravensbeard Wildlife Center founder Ellen Kalish who called the owl “the little gift in the tree this year.” Great, can’t wait for the children’s book to be optioned.
Today host Craig Melvin noted the owl “picked the right tree.” But me, personally, I’d call it picking exactly the wrong tree. (This is why I’m not a morning show host.) This poor owl was transported on a harrowing 170-mile (274-kilometer) journey on a flatbed and miraculously wasn’t crushed. Sure, it’s great the owl survived and will be released back into the wild. But that’s a pretty piss-poor definition of “right.”
To sum things up, the Rockefeller tree was cut down in a town itself carved out of what was, more than a century ago, an old growth forest. The tree itself was a pocket of cover for wildlife who happened to wander into said town. And an owl was scooped up in the process of cutting down the tree and transported to New York. All this reflects the ways in which we’ve subjugated nature to our whims. And really, the evolution of the Rockefeller Center tree tradition is a very apt stand-in for that in general.
The Rockefeller tree is an icon of American exceptionalism. Its story has humble roots in the Great Depression when workers building Rockefeller Center decorated a tree as a pick-me-up for a beleaguered city. It has since morphed into a made-for-TV spectacle to sell ads against and draw onlookers, wowed by a towering Norway spruce set at the center of the beating, concrete-and-steel heart of capitalism. Most years (but likely not this one), an estimated 125 million annual tree visitors crowd Rockefeller Plaza and then spread like red blood cells through the arteries of the underground mall in Rockefeller Center, the shops of Fifth Ave., and the booths of tchotchke-hockers in nearby Times Square, keeping the unnatural system alive.
After 9/11, the tree became a paean to patriotism, decked out in red, white, and blue lights. And in recent years, it’s gone “green” with LED lights instead of incandescent ones; and since 2007, the tree has been donated to Habitat for Humanity. This year’s tree was—like most Rockefeller Center trees, apparently—donated by an Oneonta resident to a multibillion-dollar corporation that then turns around and makes money off the tree. It’s a shiny veneer of corporate social responsibility and giving, but really it just illustrates our broken system and priorities that are also strangling the planet.
Even our adorable feathered stowaway is a symbol of our toxic relationship with nature. The Northern saw-whet owl is currently consider a low-concern species due to human pressures and has even managed to carve a niche out in human landscapes (clearly). But the climate crisis fueled by unending growth and fossil fuels will eventually come for it, too. Audubon Society research shows its habitat will contract in upstate New York, particularly sharply in summer, if the world warms 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius). Assuming the world follows through on its climate commitments so far, that’s the trajectory we’re currently on. Norway spruce, meanwhile, are hardiest in the colder, northern end of their natural range where they can live up to 400 years. Climate change, again, is putting that landscape at risk.
I know I’ll likely receive many a furious email cussing me out for being a tree hugger perpetrating the war on Christmas and a total killjoy. But my point isn’t that we should end joy and piss on Santa. It’s that now is the perfect moment to consider what we truly value. When I saw the Rockefeller Center tree propped up as it shed entire boughs to the cold plaza ground this year, I felt no elation. I just felt sad that we venerate the continued subjugation of nature at the expense of unfettered growth and consumption—or even simply because we, like those who suffered through the Great Depression, want to feel something like normal again. We need to protect nature and reinvigorate our connection to it, or else we risk losing the planet and fueling more pandemics like the one currently keeping 125 million from mobbing the tree. That isn’t something easily packaged into a flashy, two-hour TV special.
There is poetry in the notion that we could take this tradition, born in the shadow of the Great Depression, and end it for the right reasons in the midst of a new generation-defining catastrophe. We have, in this uniquely horrible moment, the opportunity to look beyond simply what makes us feel good and normal to what we can do to make our future normal truly good.