They have already shown up on New York City's streets; the Christmas tree sellers with their rows of fragrant fresh-cut pines and spruces. Early reports from around the nation indicate that these sidewalk entrepreneurs are doing well, with initial sales higher than during the last few years, perhaps reflecting increasing consumer confidence levels.
In the past, Christmas trees were harvested from wild forests. But, nowadays, they come from farms, where they are cut at the tender age of 9 to 12 years. Over half of Americans who put Christmas trees up use the artificial variety which do not shed needles and which many perceive to be an eco-friendly alternative to cutting living trees. Others dispute this, claiming that the industrial manufacture of the fake trees, which often contain lead and other chemicals in their PVC plastics, poses a greater environmental threat than growing the real ones.
Most artificial Christmas trees come from -- you guessed it -- China. In 2007, New York Senator Charles Schumer called on the Consumer Products Safety Commission to investigate lead levels in these imported products.
Some historians trace the origin of the Christmas tree to Egyptian and later, Roman festivals, where tree boughs were decorated to celebrate the return of the sun at the solstice. In many spiritual traditions worldwide trees symbolize the generativity and creativity of life itself, how new forms are continually branching out of the old and all that exists is an integral part of a single ancient yet self-renewing and living Reality.
From the material standpoint, we know that without trees, which create much of the oxygen that we breathe through photosynthesis, human life would not be possible. Yet forests are vanishing at an unprecedented rate, especially in tropical regions where population pressure and large scale commercial logging have, in the last fifty years, destroyed over half of the earth's rainforests. Given this growing threat, maybe it is time to adopt a new kind of Christmas tree, one that we plant rather than cut down.
Recently I received an update from my friend Marc Ian Barasch about the Green World Campaign which he founded in 2005. The Green World Campaign is a nonprofit organization which is engaged in community reforestation projects in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mexico and India. I have known Marc for many years as a spiritually-minded fellow wordsmith intent, as so many of us are, on saving the world with his pen. Over time, however, merely putting lofty sentiments on paper no longer seemed enough to Marc, who writes:
"Hanging out with the folks who do the heart's heavy lifting -- homeless shelter workers, kidney donors, people who forgave their mortal enemies -- had subtly changed me. Now I needed to get out from behind my desk, off the cushion, and actually do something for the world. But what?"
What indeed? Barasch, a lover of nature and global thinker, was drawn to do something which would have a positive impact on the environment and also help the growing legions of the desperately poor in Third World lands. In the process of writing his latest bestselling book, Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, he came up with the principles for "Green Compassion", which Barasch defines as:
"Environmentalism as if people mattered. 'Green' is not just saving biodiversity and boosting clean tech, but supporting sustainable rural economies, rights of women, indigenous culture... We need to do things that serve both people and planet."
Putting these principles into practice, my friend has discovered, is both exhilarating and also increasingly problematic in a financially stressed world where competition for philanthropic dollars has become fierce. But, in the past, support has always come in the nick of time for his shoestring projects on three continents.
The idea has been to involve local communities in the regeneration of their own ecosystems. In East Africa, for example, Green World Campaign is working with the Kenyan Forest Service to help farm families develop sustainable revenue-generating activities like beekeeping, herb-harvesting and ecotourism at the same time as they plant two million trees and build an elephant fence to discourage poaching and illegal tree felling in the imperiled Rumuruti Forest.
Barasch believes that restoring the ecology and the economy in places like Rumuruti go hand in hand. In addition to providing training and employment to hundreds, the Green World Campaign will be distributing five thousand fuel efficient cook stoves to local residents, which, it is hoped, will prevent one hundred thousand tons of carbon dioxide from being released in cook fires and cut the current rate of deforestation in the region in half.
It is not enough just to plant trees, Marc has found out -- you have to reseed communities and give them a stake in protecting and rejuvenating their own forest lands. In his view, the old divisions between helping people and protecting nature no longer make sense. We need projects in which these two goals are inextricably linked. Replanting forests in degraded regions like East Africa, according to Barasch, is the ecological equivalent of one-stop shopping.
"Trees restore degraded soil, increase crops, feed livestock, provide building materials and firewood, restore biodiversity, sustain villages and bring dormant springs back to life -- all the while sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere."
What better Christmas gift to give our imperiled planet than to plant a tree in a place that badly needs it? Please contact my friend Marc Barasch to find out how you can help.