One of my favorite trees collapsed the other day. It was a tall balsam fir that stood almost cylindrical on the steep hillside behind my house in Vermont, keeping post beside an old hemlock. The branches of the hemlock turn and twist in the breeze with joyous abandon. The fir tree, however, faced the harshest gale with stoic reserve, barely swaying. But last week it suddenly uprooted itself and fell like a wounded comrade into the embrace of its brother.
Arborcide, of course, has been in the news lately. On December 8, a man set fire to and destroyed the fifty-foot artificial tree outside News Corp headquarters in midtown Manhattan. Forty-nine-year old Craig Tamanaha was arrested on the spot and was naturally released without bail shortly afterwards. Tamamaha, who is homeless, has a long history of aberrant and criminal behavior. He admitted, “I have been thinking about lighting the tree on fire all day long,” but the denied he had done it. “The moms that want to rape their fucking daughters — they set it on fire.”
Tamanaha, however, is not alone in his obsession. Someone also torched the Christmas tree in Washington Park on the South Side of Chicago. This came after four volunteers who were decorating tree were robbed. Yet another firebug set aflame a fifty-two-foot Christmas tree in Oakland, California’s Jack London Park, the week before Tamanaha found his matches. Coast to coast it seems, this flamboyant form of misanthropy has found adherents. What is going on?
It occurred to me that the News Corp, Washington Park and Oakland conflagrations might be only the seasonal recurrence of an old tradition that has seldom attracted public attention. So I went looking. From 1970 to 2005, I could find no cases of an arsonist who targeted a Christmas tree. It was a tedious search because Christmas trees were implicated in hundreds of household catastrophes and arsonists appear eager to burn down all sorts of things. In any case, I am fairly confident that Mr. Tamanaha is not the first (or second or third) of his kind, but I leave to other forensic historians to discover his forebears.
Balsam firs are, incidentally, among the most favored on conifers in the annual Christmas tree market. Possibly my fir, that stoic sentinel, simply collapsed in grief as word spread of the new savagery. Setting light to even an artificial tree, after all, sends a message.
What darkness lies in the soul of Mr. Tamanaha I cannot say, but it is plain that those who attack Christmas trees operate within a realm of public shared meanings. To set fire to a public Christmas tree is to express destructive glee against the sentiments of the season. The joy of Christmas may seem banal to some; a good many adults suffer loneliness and regret and may grow irritated with the relentless summons to good cheer. Devout Christians are pained at the commercialization of Christ’s birth. But even among those who find no delight in glittering bulbs and millions of lights, a general respect holds sway. For one thing, Christmas trees entrance children. It takes some serious hardening of the heart to want to immolate that enchantment.
I’ll venture the guess that such hardening of the heart has now appeared because the doyens of our culture have decreed that our past — every bit of it — is combustible. The hoards that have ripped down public statues, and the only slightly more self-controlled public officials who have voted to send statues of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln into exile have enunciated a new creed. Nothing raised up to a place of honor by generations past need be respected. Indeed, the more respect something once held the more it stands in need of iconoclastic erasure. Somewhere in this picture we can cee the layers of the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory, and not just those scotched earth doctrines. We have now reached the point where the men who fought on the beaches of Normandy or in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge are being shrunk to the measure of ants. The great old trees are falling. The old palisade of military strictures that kept our generals from interfering in domestic politics; the great canopy of biomedical inquiry hollowed out by a combination of Big Pharma and Big Egos; the deep-rooted conviction that our elections are fairly conducted rotted away by absentee ballots, suspicious forms of counting, and vicious attacks on anyone who dared raise questions. A cheapening of our cultural currency, not to mention our actual currency, has drowned out our reserves of deference for our nobler traditions.
I don’t expect any mad arsonist to articulate such matters, but the permission is in the air and those of deranged mind and hateful temperament have absorbed it and made it their own. They may be heedless to the windfalls of border insecurity, our people left behind to languish if Afghanistan, the shameless tide of propaganda from our mainstream news outlets and all the rest of the folderol of American decline, but they catch the acrid whiff of something burning.
That is far too gloomy a way to end this Christmas missive. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining,” say the lyrics to “O Holy Night.” We have, despite a bleak prospect, reason to hope for a better one. My fir tree, I should add, belongs to a species that rapidly replenishes after it falls.