Imagine you were chosen from among millions of others to be the honorary guest and mascot of a city. Once great, this city is now largely forgotten. In covetous imitation of its exemplar city, the main criteria for the mascot contest is height. You are tall – almost freakishly so, and slightly ungainly, you stoop a bit and are prone to knocking things over because of your size.
You are delighted and honored to have been chosen. When you arrive in the city you are greeted by a team that dresses you up for the occasion. They have prepared a costume covered with advertising from the sponsor of the event, and even you, the country bumpkin, know it is tacky. Once revealed to the public, to your horror, you are mocked. People mutter insults and curl their lips when they see you. You long to be back at home where you are admired and respected for your size and strength, rather than mocked for not not living up to the false aspirations of these city dwellers.
When you read the saga of the Montreal Christmas Tree, you have to ask yourself “what were they thinking”? Someone had a not very well thought out idea. “Let’s get the tallest tree, let’s compete with New York City!” The tree, that in its own environment was spectacular and a genetic treasure of its species, once displayed in the city, is found to be an ungainly lopsided feature. This image is not enhanced with the paltry lights and hideous Canadian Tire logos it is festooned with.
Worse, the whole charade has exposed a counterfeit and poorly executed exercise in imitation. The tree is being mocked not only because of how it looks in its out of place context, but in the foolish pretension of Montreal to compete with New York City, and to fail spectacularly in the exercise.
What does this event tell us about ourselves and our relationship with nature?
We in the West see the world through the lens of “idealism”.
The ideal is better than the real and actual. This notion was first introduced by Plato and is referred to as the “Platonic ideal”. Robert Everett-Green in his insightful article about the Montreal Christmas Tree makes this point, noting also that we extend this lens most pointedly towards women. The Montreal Christmas Tree has been abhorred somewhat like a female news anchor who does not live up to certain ideals of female beauty. We need to remember that the ideal does not actually exist – even images of gorgeous models are airbrushed. (And the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center has been pruned to symmetry.)
Our insistence on perfection reflects an effort to control nature.
We want our celebrities to look gorgeous, our Christmas trees to be symmetrical, our hedges, fences and borders to be straight. This “anti-natural” aesthetic is epitomized in 17th century formal European gardens, coinciding with the beginning of the intellectual tradition known as “The Enlightenment” paving the way for the Industrial Revolution, a time of all out effort to control nature.
Perfectionism and the lens of the ideal blind us to the splendor of diversity, adaptation to unique environments and organic germination.
This goes not only for nature “out there”, but our own nature. Were it not saddled with this blinding perspective, the Montreal Christmas Tree saga would have gone very differently. It would have started with the question “Who are we and what makes our city unique and wonderful?” Next question; “How could we best represent and celebrate this uniqueness in a Christmas tree?” The process of answering these questions and resulting answers would have produced a different outcome.
We do relate to other species.
The Montreal Christmas Tree had the audacity to not reflect a preferred self-image. It is being responded to like an awkward kid arriving at a new school. Its nickname, Sapin Laid (Ugly Fir Tree) bespeaks its rejection. While many reactions are mocking and bullying, others stalwartly stand up for the tree, perhaps identifying with its underdog status.
One of the things I think we love about other species in the wild is that they just are themselves. Their lack of pretension. Perhaps we long for that too and feel trapped in our “Platonic ideals” of ourselves.