The Trees: More Than Meets the Eye?
[Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of essays that look at selections from Rush and Philosophy (Open Court Press: 2011), edited by Jim Berti and Durrell Bowman. The book came out in March 2011 and looks at Rush’s music through different philosophical lenses.]
Durrell Bowman in one of his pieces for Rush and Philosophy called “How is Rush Canadian?” assesses “The Trees” to determine whether the piece is just a comic book-like tale about trees acting like people, as Neil has said, or a thinly disguised critique of Canadian content laws.
Those laws, enacted in the 1970s, when “The Trees” was written and recorded, require Canadian broadcasters to include a certain percentage of Canadian content in their programming to maintain their license. Given the individualistic strain in the band’s music, especially at that time, it stands to reason that it would oppose that kind of governmental intervention in what should be a purely artistic and market-based matter.
Bowman makes a strong case for the piece as veiled criticism of the law. Lyrically, it stands as a clever metaphor for the kind of mediocrity that comes from any kind of “collectivist” effort. You have the large and powerful Oaks whose boughs overshadow the much smaller Maples. The Maple, of course, is the Canadian national symbol, and the American Oak has long been a subject of myth in American tall tales. Between these two symbols is the well-established tension between Canada and the United States, over the latter’s overpowering size and influence on its neighbor.
(“MAPL” is also the acronym for testing whether content qualifies as Canadian. “M” stands for music, “A” for artist, “P” for production, and “L” for lyrics.)
From an individualist point of view, the government’s requirement that Canadian broadcasters include a minimal amount of Canadian content in their programming is exactly the kind of “leveling” that makes libertarians and free-marketers apoplectic. Individuals should rise and fall on their own merit, not made equal by cutting the competition down to size.
But Bowman goes beyond lyrical analysis to look at what the song does musically to reinforce the idea that the piece is a critique of the content laws. The natural bird sounds in the opening vocal section, for example, speak to the idea that, before the law was enacted, the Oaks and Maples coexisted in a state of nature. When Geddy a little later sings “the Oaks ignore their pleas,” after the Maples have filed their complaint, he shifts his vocal emphasis to the first and third beats from the first and second and also fourth and sixth beats. This suggests the idea of taunting or laughing, Bowman says, or, as he puts it, it’s like Geddy saying, “nya nya nya.”
Bowman covers all sections of the song in this way. In his analysis of the closing section of the song, after the Oaks have been cut down to match the size of the Maples, he says the fading pitches of G#, C#, and B present an “ominous effect, encouraging us to mock the song’s sociopolitical ‘accomplishment.'”
Bowman acknowledges Neil’s contention that the song is nothing more than a quick creative dash that was sparked by a comic he saw in which trees were acting like people. But Bowman makes a plausible case for there being more than meets the eye when it comes to the song. In other words, Neil says it’s just a comic piece but he might be winking while he says it.
—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
NOTE: Canada’s National Post in February 2012 held a forum on the merits of the content laws and the participants were unanimous they’ve been a disaser. Access the National Post forum.
NOTE: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), when he was running for his seat in 2010, quoted from “The Trees” to illustrate the difference between laws that promote equality of opportunity vs. those that promote equality of outcome. He likes the former better than the latter. See the video below:
Read first essay first in this series: “Philosophy of Mind has a Headache; Cygnus has Aspirin.”
Read the second: “It’s Just Chemistry: Rush Try to Make Sense of Reality.”
Read the third: “Is Rush Helping Humanism Out-maneuver Religion?”
Read the fourth: “The ‘Rand’omness of Rush’s Libertarianism.”
Read the fifth: “Rush’s Table of Virtues.”
Read the sixth: “Rush’s Rosier Shade of Reality.”
Read the ninth: ‘Rush Music: Spontaneous as a Baroque Jam Session
Here’s a fun piece of satire on how Rush and other Canadians unleashed Ayn Rand on the United States in an effort to destabilize the country.