Trees contribute much to our lives. We have so many uses for them. Their wood keeps us warm, yields us sustenance, shelter, furniture, and the raw material for products like paper, cork and rubber. They also absorb some of the carbon dioxide that scientists hold responsible for global warming.
In Morocco, argan trees that provide the fruit kernels for making argan oil have long been used for all these other purposes as well. Local people call the argan “The Tree of Life”. More recently, scientists have discovered that the fruit, leaves and bark of these trees have some magical, medicinal properties.
In the Mediterranean, olive groves and citrus trees provide an income for many, while in northern climes, orchards are cultivated for their fruit, to eat or make cider and calvados.
As the seasons take their turn, the changing trees add more beauty to our landscapes, and artists have been depicting them through the ages. The pigments of the fall provide a bonus for anyone dependent on the tourist industry.
People grow fond of the trees that surround them, and they often go to great lengths to protect these trees when they are threatened. You have probably heard stories of people who camp out in threatened US or other woodland areas for many months, often tying themselves to trees to prevent bulldozers or lumberjacks moving in.
Dictionary definitions of the joined up word, “tree-hugger”, usually give its meaning as: someone who is an environmentalist who supports the preservation of forested land. In the early 1970s an environmental movement was born in Uttarakhand, a region in northern India. Groups of villagers, mainly women, surrounded and hugged trees to prevent the authorities from felling them. As with the argan forest in parts of Morocco, their local forests provided much of what they needed to survive in their villages.
These protests spread across India and became known as The Chipko Movement – Chipko meaning “to hug” in Hindi. It was the start of an environmental movement which took on other green issues, and exists today as the Save the Seeds Movement. When news of The Chipko Movement crossed the world, the term “tree-hugger” became well known, but the Oxford English Dictionary notes an earlier usage in 1965, in Appleton, Wisconsin, when people opposed the city’s plans to fell some of its trees.
In the Second World War, GIs serving in France carved initials, love hearts, or the names of their home states, on beech trees in the area where they were billeted. Until recently, they remained a poignant reminder of how France was liberated by its allies. But the landowner has found it cheaper to fell the trees than maintain them. Many have already been lost. Locals are determined to save the remaining few “name trees”, as they call them.
After the tragedy of 9 year old Jimmy Beveridge, who became lost on California’s Palomar Mountain in 1981 and died of exposure only two miles from his family’s camp site, concerned individuals introduced the “Hug-a-Tree and Survive” program, which was later rolled out to both Canada and Sweden before being taken up by the The National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) in the US.
One of its recommendations for anyone who gets lost in a forest is to stay put and hug a tree until rescuers arrive. NASAR says that hugging a tree will make anyone feel less lonely. Some people even find it comforting to talk to the tree at the same time. By remaining with the tree, the lost person is not likely to fall and suffer injuries and he or she will be easier for rescuers to find.
Tree hugging is also recommended for therapeutic reasons under more normal circumstances. Many people make time for it daily or weekly, hugging their favorite trees regularly. It is their form of meditation, giving them a focus for their attention that is free from the usual anxieties and stress of everyday life. They come away feeling relaxed, recharged and ready for the fray.
Unfortunately, because of the lengths that people go to save trees, the term “tree-hugger” has become synonymous with words intended to be derogatory, like “hippy” and “looney”. This can be off-putting for aspiring tree-huggers, who therefore try to get away from other people to indulge their inclination.
But the more public tree hugging becomes, the more it will be accepted as something people do with their leisure time. In time, it could be listed along with interests like fishing, running, swimming, or reading. And perhaps, as more people make friends with trees, more of them will be saved to the benefit of the rest of our environment.