Essay: A tree with tales to tell and lessons to teach
The damaged beech looked fragile, but year after year it stood strong.
"Tree-huggers?"Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The first time I heard that term as a girl I was puzzled, then intrigued. Do people really hug trees? Were there really those who felt the compulsion to wrap their arms around a big, burly trunk, lean their heads against its rough surface, and give it a squeeze?
Soon I learned that "tree-huggers" was a term for environmentalists, particularly those who are passionate about preserving forested land. I read that it originated in the Uttarakhand region of India, where a group of villagers staunchly opposed commercial logging. The opponents, it is said, would literally wrap their arms around the trees to prevent loggers from cutting them down. Thus the apt appellation "tree-huggers."
But aside from political preferences, the image of an arboreal embrace was truly tantalizing. It evoked an individual's special relationship with an element of nature, a personal affection, perhaps even gratitude for the tree. I could easily picture someone joyfully, exuberantly spreading his or her arms wide to encircle the tall trunk of an enormous oak or a star-leaved maple. Or, perhaps, in some moment of great sorrow, leaning heavily against its sturdy form, allowing it to take the weight of one's troubles for a time, to absorb one's tears.
I have always loved and cherished trees. Growing up within the urban limits of New York City, I had often dreamed of living "in the country" where so much more of nature thrives. But even cities have some trees, lining streets and populating parks. (After all, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," as author Betty Smith proclaimed.) From our fifth-floor apartment window, I often gazed down at the lush leaf canopy of a single sturdy tree down below, a welcome bit of green amid all the concrete, brick, and stone.
Finally, to my great joy, we moved across the river to the suburbs of New Jersey, happily finding far more greenery there. And, in the company of a friend, I hugged a tree. The friend, though, (reasonably enough) thought that I was nuts – until I explained to him that my intent was to feel, firsthand, what an arboreal embrace was like. There was indeed, I could confirm, a simple satisfaction in sensing the massive maple's strength, its firmness, its dependability.
Then, one bright and frigid winter day while walking in the woods nearby, I found a special tree. It stood alone with only a rock for company. The tree, a beech, was not very tall, no more than nine or 10 feet high. Its trunk was thin and scrawny, less than 20 inches around its widest part. It certainly did not look strong enough to lean against or wide enough to hug.