Friday, December 19, 2014

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

We stopped at the farmer’s market on the way home from a hike at Bent Creek and bought a freshly cut Christmas tree. The young fellow at the stand said his family owned a tree farm in Jackson County. He said the tree we chose had been cut that morning. He had a cheek full of tobacco. I never saw him spit.

He said his family had raised and sold Christmas trees since his grandfather started the business in his own youth. Now, he said, they were thinking of shifting to cattle. “There’s something beautiful about cows in a pasture,” he said. I'd have thought the same about a hillside of trees.

He and his father, who were working the stand together, were friendly in a way that seems rare these days. They threw in some berry-laden boughs of holly, no extra charge.

These days, people all over are cutting down fir trees, standing them in a corners of their living rooms, and decorating them with lights and tinsel.

The tree is obviously symbolic. I cannot think of a practical function, except that a fresh one perfumes a stale house.

It is, of course, a Christmas tradition, though not especially Christian. A crèche would be a more proximal image. Over the centuries, however, the tree has become a focus of attention at this time of year, a stand on which to drape lights, a place under which to display gifts, a spectacle to gaze upon and sing around and enjoy, if only for a few weeks. And then to discard.

I am aware of its European history, the notion that an evergreen in winter represents eternal life. A reminder, of sorts. Just as night seems to be winning its ordeal with day, a sign of light and life. But it’s not just a winter solstice tradition. I’m told the Romans hung fir trees in their halls, too. Isn't it a curious practice to chop down and kill the symbol of ongoing life?

The fact a fir tree is green even in darkest winter is no doubt significant. But more is involved than the greenery.

The tree is, I think, a bit of usually-excluded wilderness that is brought indoors as a metonymy of nature. It is an example of something. A token. At this time of year, when the house is meant to exclude the outside, keep the cold at bay, we bring a representative of what is banished, perhaps as a reminder.

We do the same with mistletoe.

Winter widens the opposition between inside and outside, so bringing the tree indoors strikes a middle way, resolves if only temporarily the real tension between the two locations.

Whence the tension? As much as we must keep the cold away, we must also do business with what is out there in the cold. We cannot after all exclude the outside altogether and live.

Yes, the tree is a symbol of life. But the tree does not so much represent itself – or the forest – as the life-sustaining exchange, or transgression, the interpenetration of outside and inside.

The act of bringing the tree indoors is the significant gesture. Not the tree. The act. That it stands there the corner in splendorous regalia is simply a reminder of that act.

Consider that the tree is not the only item from outside that is, at least in the United States and much of Europe, brought indoors.

The evening after decorating the tree was a cold one, so we built a fire in the fireplace. We sought to take the chill off. We have a functioning furnace. Indeed, truth be told, the chimney sucks more heat from the house than it imparts. The fire, like the tree, is decorative, an image of warmth more than warmth itself. It is symbolic.

Symbolic of what? “Nature” doesn’t quite get it. I suppose the fire is symbolic of a natural force, an element of nature that, safely placed within the hearth, is harnessed, domesticated.

It is our fire.

A fire, like the tree, is symbolic of the season, if not the holiday itself. The standard image on cards and in Coca-Cola advertisements and such includes not only a tree but also a crackling fireplace. With stockings.

Santa Claus after all extrudes himself into the house through the chimney. The fire place is doubly significant.

And the symbols, fire and tree, are antithetical to each other. One derives from a log, and this from a tree cut up to be consumed by the fire. The other, decked with tinsel, suggesting icicles, the cold forest outside, represents the very conditions against which the fire is kindled.

Something more complicated than the Christmas holiday is going on, even more than northern longings for warmth and light and springtime inspired by winter solstice.

The tree and fire are two examples of an array of elements from outside that people, at least in our society, routinely bring inside: house plants, for one, examples of forest, jungle, and bog. Dogs and cats, tropical fish, and gerbils. Paintings and photographs of landscapes, mountains, and seas.

Consider the taxidermied heads of trophy animals: moose, elk, antelope, and bear. Not everyone has one of these above the mantel but we recognize such as the sort of thing people do, the way they bring reminders of the outside into the living space.

An argument could be made that our national parks and forests (Bent Creek, where we hiked the other day, is in Pisgah National Forest) serve the same function as our Christmas trees and trophy heads: the inclusion (and enclosure) of wilderness within an otherwise civilized state.

It occurs to me that a road sign with a caricature of a fir tree and a fire would be as good a sign as any of a camp site, an example of our inserting ourselves into the wilderness. Camping is clearly the other side of the coin I’m describing, a related transgression of the domestic wall.

In the Euro-American house we might also note an aesthetic that is not universal but is nonetheless traditional as fires and trees: leather furniture, wool carpets, textured drapes, wooden floors and tables – all suggesting rough elements of out-of-doors now harnessed, preserved, domesticated, and brought inside.

Of course they are all domesticated or dead. But they are images of wildness – defined in a sense as anything beyond the doorway. They represent life on our planet that is dangerous to us when undomesticated but, once managed, is the necessary means of life. Perhaps that is the tension I spoke of above: the necessary relation between that which would kill us but also keep us alive.

These fixtures serve functions, yes. We sit on a couch. We pull the drapes. But they also signify. They remind us of our dependence on the life outside.

Perhaps there are several meanings: life, danger, wilderness. But also, it seems, and I am thinking here prototypically of the moose head and bear rug, they represent the successful subjugation of the wild. These symbols are reassuring at some primal level: they signal the possibility of a successful encounter with the dangerous but necessary wild.

Here is further indication that it is not the element, the object, that matters but the act: bringing the outdoor object inside – whether tree or fire or bear’s roaring mouth at the end of a rug – is sufficient sign that the wild has been vanquished. If only for a moment.

Tree and fire and wild animals are symbols that cut two ways: they represent danger and usefulness. The forest where we cut the tree is a source of wood to build shelter. The fire warms us against winter chill. But forest is also frightening, dark, and uncertain. The fire could destroy the house it warms. The fireplace is a space in which to “play with fire without being burnt” (as Clifford Geertz described the Balinese cockfight).

Such symbols are positive images only so long as they suggest control over the elements: the tree, felled and cornered; the fire, safely contained. Even a painting of a stormy sea is placed within a gilded frame, and in that way is tamed and reassuring.

In a way control itself (the act of bringing the tree in, or killing the trophy, or framing the dangerous image) becomes the significant image of life, of something sustainable, protected.

Yet even here the symbol (harnessed danger?) cuts two ways: too much control and safety is an image of death, loss of vitality. The house, walled off entirely from outside, might as well be a coffin sealed and buried.

The thing we forget, but our symbols remind us of, is life requires exchange. We want safety, insulation from the dangerous elements of life, but we also need those elements, require them to keep living. Life requires contact with the world, the wild, the dangerous otherness beyond the door.

In this Buddhists have got it right. Once inspected, there is no abiding difference between self and other, inside and out, for each is predicated on the other, requires the transaction. Shunryu Suzuki described our breathing as a swinging door in space, a door without surrounding wall. We breathe in and the door swings one way, we breathe out and the door swings another. But there is just space, no inside or outside.

We cannot easily fathom this lack of distinction. There must be a me, separate from all else, otherwise there would be no me. The reasoning is circular, but in the West apparently it is persuasive. It is one of the basic certainties: I think therefore I am. There is I, therefore there is not-I, and so on.

Here again an idea that cuts two ways but suggests the two are linked: there is I and Not I, life and death.

What do we do with these elements that cut both ways? We make symbols of them. We offer temporary compromises. We dwell in the threshold, a symbol itself that expresses both inside and outside.

We build walls around ourselves and then invite fires, pets, trees and such inside. These images suggest control over what lies beyond the doorway but also dependence on what lies beyond. These are images of safety and danger.

We asked the fellow who sold us the tree what they did with the spare boughs that they trimmed from the trees. There was a great pile of them on the ground.

“We take them home and burn them,” he said.

“Will they burn when they’re green like that?” I wondered.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “They burn right well.”


chris said...

I have an old .ppt about the symbolic meaning behind these symbols within a northern Siberian shamanistic context that I would love to email to you.

John Colman Wood said...

Love to read it!

Anonymous said...

Well seen, well written. I felt like I was sitting around a fire with you.