Essay: A tree with tales to tell and lessons to teach

The damaged beech looked fragile, but year after year it stood strong.


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.

Thin branches fanned out asymmetrically like an umbrella missing a portion of its prongs. But the most outstanding feature of the tree was that the bottom half of its trunk was partially hollowed out, obviously injured and covered with a scar.

I stood looking sadly at the little beech, certain it would succumb, if not to parasitic invaders, then to a storm or ice or wind.

Each time I passed it on the trail, I paused to look and wonder when I would find it fallen on the ground. But as the winter months progressed – filled with snow, sleet, and slush – the little beech stood steadfast. Sometimes when storms came, I saw its boughs bending wildly in the wind. Yet through it all, "my special tree" remained resolutely rooted to its spot.

Finally, spring arrived and from the branches of the beech tissuey, light green leaves emerged. Its trunk, still scrawny, stood elegantly erect. Spring segued into summer, and the tissuelike leaves turned leathery. When summer flowed into fall, the emerald foliage changed to cinnamon and gold and the leather to parchment. Next spring's leaves-to-be had already formed, tightly furled in long, pointy buds, snug in their protective shells along each twig.

Then winter came, and the beech stood bare again, with its old lamentable look of vulnerability. But now I knew how deceiving that appearance was. Sure enough, the little tree remained alive and well throughout that vicious winter, as well as through all the following ones since we first had met. Its halfway hollowed trunk remains – halfway hollowed. Its umbrella-prong branches continue spreading tranquilly in their semioverhanging way. And right on schedule every year, its leaves change again from tissue to leather to parchment.

I never did discover how the little beech got damaged. But later on, I learned that the vital portion of a tree is its sapwood, a living layer surrounding the woody inner core (heartwood). Within the sapwood, special vessels carry nutrients up and down the tree. Above the sapwood an adjacent layer (called cambium) consists of cells forming wood for the tree's inside core and bark for its outside coat. If injury occurs to any portion of the cambium, surrounding cells form a protective scar, allowing arboreal life to carry on.

And so the fact remains: Just like "my" little damaged beech, a tree does not need perfection to survive. With vital force intact, it can calmly continue life and growth, weathering storms through every season, year after year.

Life sometimes strips away from all of us – plant, animal, and man – what may look like essential parts; it may deal what appears to be a mortal blow. Yet often just a thin, living layer somewhere within our depths can be enough.

My "special tree" is not an easily huggable one like its large, broad-barked companions. But it wears its lessons on its scarred and scrawny trunk, easily absorbable through an outstretched hand gently touching its rough bark, through wispy twigs that brush against an upturned face. It can tell its tales about unquenchable resilience, no matter what appearances may be.

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