Many of us know about as much about trees as the neighbors down at the end of the block…even though they may be out in the yard every day, and like regular fixtures along the path we have beaten to our own door, they may not have ever inspired a second glance. We may appreciate on some level that they keep their weeds at bay, or the edging done each week, but knowing what they really do all day, or their hopes and dreams is as likely as the weatherman being right in his predictions for the weekend after next. There are such a variety and mix of species that very little can be said about any individual that would make sense for all trees. Much like people, trees each have their own personality. This being said, there are things they all hold in common. Need for light, or a certain quality of light, soil moisture characteristics, soil types, etc. Most of this information is well documented and can be reasoned out if we pay attention to their structure, habitat and form or the other trees that we frequently see in association with a certain kind. There are traits that are more individual to specific specimens that science has a harder time recognizing or pinning down. These should probably wait for an installment described as “Tree Hugging 307” or perhaps even a higher number.
The most important thing to remember is that trees, like humans require sensitivity and different kinds of touch depending on their specific needs. Even though trees give infinitely, and take only what they need to survive, they cannot abide certain treatment or types of attack. A tiny seedling, or sprout cannot thrive when confronted with a full body hug that a five year old, thriving tree might accept readily. It certainly couldn’t survive a full body weight tug on their lowest branch! These plants must be understood on their own terms. Much like any other life form, change is the only thing that remains constant throughout their lives. If you have ever seen children climbing young trees, you know that there are limits to what trees should be expected to do. Respecting the tree and it’s specific needs is important to the first time hugger.
Certain trees have often overlooked consequences for the oblivious human. Pines, especially, may be covered in pitch. Some, like Black Locust have spines so sharp, that they were used in days of old as needles! Very old specimens, that have come to the end of their lives, may be rife with insects or fungi that could slime you or cover you with a teeming mass of critters. Certain trees are best hugged after a rain, while others would be at their worst when covered with droplets or early morning dew. Timing hugs appropriately, then, becomes critical. I’m sure that there are people that you just wouldn’t hug for one reason or another, why should trees be any different? It’s never a bad idea to look a tree, that you are thinking of hugging over carefully, selecting a place and time that suit you both.
Regarding appropriate touch, this could be expanded into a whole discussion all by itself. In the interest of time I will limit my discussion to just a few ideas. I think the average reader can come up with a few stories of their own once I get the ball rolling. My father was convinced that certain trees needed to have their bark “loosened”. I can’t say if this is true or not, but the mature tree (I’m almost positive it was an ash) that he always chose to whip with a section of hose seemed to take the beating in stride. What seems more likely to me is that he felt the need to hit something and it was the one thing he owned that wouldn’t be hurt by a good flogging. The likelihood of any species evolving to require a good beating with a hose seems extremely improbable. Trees are quite forgiving, but cannot always put up with abuse. Once, when waiting for school to let out, I witnessed a shaman, concerned about a specific tree that had been planted in a harsh place, but that was vigorously trying to get away from the bad conditions. Though it was still relatively young, it was looking top heavy and stressed. The shaman spent about twenty minutes just breathing under it’s canopy, reaching up as far as he could and then gently pulling each branch down while doing a sort of slow Tai chi dance around the base. It reminded me of how a massage can get your lymph flowing and re-energize the body, leading to better health. My work with ECO-Tours of Wisconsin has allowed me to plant many thousands of trees. The loving care that goes into each one, making sure the roots fan out into the soil, and that the root collar will end up flush with the surface or just slightly higher, needs to be gentle yet firm. The delicate root hairs need to be in contact with the soil, but not crushed. The first, and most basic hug requires a desire to know the tree, accept what it has to offer and to honor what it has to say to us, as well as revere it. After all, it has been making the very oxygen that we need to survive since it was a wee sprout!
If you have never read it, Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” is a great book to help understand the place of abundance that trees are coming from. In a good year, a single mature Oak might release tens of thousands of acorns. A giant Maple might release a million seeds, each spinning down to Earth with one spiritual quest programmed into it’s DNA, to repopulate the planet. The various expressions of their form are as individual as a finger print, reflecting in a little understood language various bucolic or catastrophic weather conditions, the specific wind rose that they live with, nearby trees or absence of them, buildings, or even their animal neighbors. Once we begin to actually see and study our sylvan friends, we develop a language with which to communicate with them.
As much as we might like to think that we are in charge, when we start to respect and honor the trees, we see clearly that we are just one form of life among many. Occasionally there are those who try to hug a tree so self consciously that even the tree gets offended. Though they are magnanimous enough to not make a big deal about it, it just makes the person look foolish and the tree mundane. A good hug for trees as with people has to come from the heart and benefits from the honesty and compassion that drives the act. Some people will try to diminish the act of hugging trees, but it only points out their own lack of understanding and compassion for these normally gentle giants that give their all for a moment in the sun. Those who have given since the dawn of time, for our warmth, protection, sustenance, and intellectual development deserve our respect. Reflecting on the many gifts we have received from all trees is a great place to start, but when you begin to develop deeper relationships with our rooted kin, acknowledging the depth of association with each individual greatly magnifies the benefits to both us and the tree.