Tree Hugging: without a doubt considered to be the hippy dippiest, airy fairiest, yogurt weavery, sun and dirt worshipping, let’s all skinny dip in the loch then dance around naked on a hillside activity of them all, right? It will probably come as no surprise to you that I am a massive fan of throwing my arms around our fir-ry friends; yep, I am an unashamed trunk toucher, fern fondler and canopy canoodler.
By sharing a run down of my ‘Top Ten of Tree Hugging‘ it is my intention to provide a playful introduction, manual and defense of this wholesome yet oft ridiculed activity. By a hug I don’t mean one of those reluctant two-second long hugs you give to people you don’t like very much just to be polite, where you barely touch (and if you do it’s only upper body, you try to keep your pelvis as far away as humanly possible) and you give a swift couple of awkward pats on the back, as your grit your teeth, counting down the milliseconds until you can pull away, phew! No, I mean a full on bear hug, the kind of full body contact cuddles you save for the people you really like, where time stops for a second and you momentarily fuse with the other person, you feel your whole body relax and sink into it; it is just the most satisfying experience there is. These are the kinds of hugs trees give: your body registers it on a cellular level and you feel so soothed you could just melt into a blissful puddle on the floor. Tree hugging is not in fact all about ‘I just love the Earth, man, and I want to spread the peace and love, and express it by embracing my leafy bretheren.’ No, the real reason people hug trees is because it just FEELS SO GOOD. And it is HEALING. When you hug a tree (the bigger and older the better) you can feel as if every cell in your body is being recharged with energy direct from Mother Nature… because it is. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise though as the reason we hug is to feel safe and protected, right? Hugs are stabilising and comforting, they make us breathe more deeply and feel more alive; they are an expression of love. And what could provide more stability and comfort that these native giants which happen to be the biggest, strongest and wisest things growing on our planet? Trees can weigh up to 30 tonnes, be over 200ft tall, cover up to 2,000 square yards, include ten miles worth of twigs and branches and can be up to 4,000 years old, and they constantly renew themselves growing up to 100,000 new leaves every year. Oh, and of course not to mention, they help us BREATHE.
Hugging is healing. What is that saying about hugs? That every day we need ‘4 for survival, 8 for maintenance, and 12 for growth.’ Living in the city I had regular access to several ‘human’ hugs a day, which was nice (apart from the two second, bum sticky-out awkward ones, those I do not miss, and superficial air kisses… don’t miss them one jot either). I didn’t have much access to those of the tree variety, it would have had to be at the local park, where there would likely be onlookers (but please don’t let this stop you, there’s no way I would let it stop me these days!) When I was becoming very unwell, being progressively crushed under the weight of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome far from home on the other side of the world, and away from all my closest friends and family, I would sneak out of the house everyday (it was proper East Coast US suburbia) and go to the nearest park and desperately hug every tree I could get my arms round like they were the only things that were keeping me alive… in some ways I think they really were! And they were stunning at the time, the burnt yellows, oranges and reds of Fall in upstate New York. I didn’t consciously decide to do this, it just kind of happened, it was like an unconscious gravitational pull towards nature. Now, as I live a bit of a hermit lifestyle in the countryside in the Scottish Highlands I don’t often get to see that many people to hug these days, but there are certainly plenty of trees, so I get my regulation 12 easy, and now it’s not so much out of desperation, but rather out of pure joy. Sure, people hugs are wonderful, I love a good hug and I look forward to the day I can fill my quota of 12 with embraces of the bear hug variety, but tree hugs just take it to an entirely new level, and I am a fully converted conifer cuddler.
Before I count down my top ten, permit me a little anecdotal preamble… I was not always such an unashamed tree worshipper, I had just as many inhibitions as the next person and definitely harboured a scepticism towards hippy-dippy tree huggers. This all started to change a few years ago however, things started happening like: I started collecting pine cones, I found myself being moved to tears by the beauty of the last remaining Caledonian Pine forests and I went to California to meet and dance with my free movement idol, Anna Halprin, on her sun-dappled outdoor dance deck situated under the towering Californian Redwoods; I think this might have been the best day of my life so far.
It was whilst on my first Vipassana meditation retreat last year that I realised that, there was no longer any denying it, I now was one of the hippy-dippy tree huggers. The retreat was 10 days long and completely silent. We were not allowed to talk, gesture towards, or even so much as make eye contact with the other people on the course (and there were about 200 of us in total, although men and women were kept strictly segregated). Our meals and basic needs were all completely catered for so we were absolved of any need to interact with others whatsoever and had no obligations apart from meditating, eating and sleeping, and being with ourselves, which any committed meditator will tell you, can be the most challenging thing you have ever attempted at points. When you don’t have to worry about doing anything for anyone else or having others judge or question, or comment upon your choices, you find that you actually start to let go of any inhibitions you might have and simply meet your own needs. I discovered that I needed to do regular yoga stretches. If we hadn’t have been silent I would have perhaps felt self-conscious about bending and stretching all over the place or twisting my torso about in public, but as no one was looking at me I just went for it, adjusting my limbs whenever necessary, you know, doing huge lunges while going up stairs, that kind of thing. The other main craving I found that I had was that I needed to be in direct contact with nature. When we weren’t in meditation (which we were for 10 hours a day!) we had short breaks where we could wander around the grounds or lie on the grass, and that was about it as activities like reading and writing were also strictly prohibited. In fact all external stimulation was removed in order to support the journey inwards, and although the major part of the experience focused on getting acquainted with, and penetrating deep into layer after layer of our own mental conditioning and suffering, when our eyes were open and we weren’t on the meditation cushion everything in nature seemed much more alive and vibrant than usual. I would often spend ages watching a bee pollinating, or be fascinated to examine the intricate detail of a fly that had landed on my sleeve. After particularly strong meditations, where my whole body was literally vibrating I was buzzing with so much positive energy, it was all I could manage to stumble out of the meditation hall, kick off my shoes, and fall face first onto the grass, stretching my entire body flat out along the earth so I could ‘vibe in harmony with the cosmos’, I know, it sounds totally ridiculous, but it was complete bliss! Interestingly though, after really challenging meditations, where I felt like I’d gone ten rounds in a boxing ring, I’d come out of the meditation hall all tense, riled up, and often on the edge of tears, dissonantly vibrating with SO much negativity I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had steam rising out of my ears. I would, as if on auto-pilot, march my frazzled self up behind the meditation hall and into the woods where I’d search out the biggest, most comforting tree to hug, like a child who’s fallen over and hurt herself running to her Mum to kiss it and make it better. Usually I’d go from majorly stressed out to zen in under a minute. After a really bad meditation I’d need to hug a few trees, and as I did, with each hug, I would gradually feel myself come back into my body, and eventually would feel like my feet were back on the ground again. I’d make sure to do this only when no one else was around. This secret tree tryst lasted a few days until one afternoon I was getting intimate with a tree and I noticed another girl coming along the path, so I quickly extricated myself and nonchalantly walked past her, hoping that she didn’t catch me at it. It wasn’t until I’d walked a few metres past her that I realised I had a huge branch sticking right out of my hair which despite the lack of direct eye contact there was no way she could have missed…! I could only laugh (silently of course). It made me realise that by hiding my arbory affection I was the only one judging; I was judging myself, she probably didn’t even give it a second thought, and I decided that if I want to hug a tree I should just jolly well go ahead and hug a damn tree, who cares if anyone is watching? If I want to do it and it feels good then that’s all there is to it: no shame! (This realisation applies to MUCH more than tree hugging, obvs). And I hoped that maybe my actions would even inspire others to try it out for themselves. And so I proceeded to do just that for the rest of the retreat. On the final day, when the silence was lifted and we were finally allowed to talk, a lovely middle-aged red-headed Welsh woman came up to me (her accent was such a shock to me, I had built up this idea in my head where she had a posh London accent) and told me that she had been watching me hug trees for several days and had longed to try it herself but had felt too embarrassed… but she faced her fear and one day, towards the end of the course, she finally managed to pluck up the courage, and it was so beautiful that she cried! I love that story.
So, drum roll please… here is the count down of my top ten huggable trees! These are mostly based on the trees available to me on my doorstep in the Highlands of Scotland, so it’s not a comprehensive list by any means, they are perhaps a few noticeable omissions: like the Yew, for example, one of Britian’s oldest (and no doubt therefore most hug-tastic) tree species, but we don’t really have these nearby. However, I do hope one day to take a campervan round the UK on a bit of a tree pilgrimage, maybe even further afield! So this list will undoubtedly sprout new branches over time…
I like touching the leaves of Lime trees. They are large, a vibrant green, spade shaped and feel quite moist to the touch. The tricky thing about hugging a Lime is that often they ‘lower whiskers’- branches that grow right down to the bottom of the trunk meaning that it is quite a mission to even get near the thing. I had to jump a fence, make my way through some Elephant Rhubarb (you know the leaves that look like dinosaur food?) and battle my way through the undergrowth to reach the trunk. When I got there I found it was multi-trunked and so I went in to embrace a section, two parts rising together, and I felt exactly like a whiny little child desperately grabbing onto its mother’s legs to try and get her attention… Not what I was looking for. I decided instead to push my way through all the whiskers, and it was a pretty hairy specimen, and clamber right inside so I could get a good leg around. The sensation of hugging a Lime isn’t that powerful as they are pretty young trees but it was the fun of the climbing mission, and being completely ‘inside’ the tree, that made it all worthwhile.
9. Douglas Fir
Last year my friend and I took a pilgrimage to see the Douglas Fir at Dunkeld, which is the tallest tree in Britain at around 212ft, and it is young, it is very much still growing. It sits across from the Hermitage which is a famous viewing hall the Duke of Atholl had built deep within the beautiful forest in the 18th Century to showcase the grandeur of the gigantic Braan waterfall to tourists on the ‘Grand Tour’. It was originally called ‘Ossian’s Hall’- you enter a dark room where there is a dimly lit painting of Ossian- a legendary Gothic poet, who in the end turned out to be a literary spoof. But the visitors would be lulled into a false sense of calm before the painting would SPRING back into the wall and the RAGING waterfall, which is deafeningly loud and really quite terrifying, would be revealed, causing the tourists to gasp in sublime delight at the epic drop into the gushing water almost immediately beneath their feet. The Douglas Fir in question is across the water and so I didn’t get to hug that one, but we have some in the woods by my house, and they are a treat to hug. They are very tall and skinny which means you can easily get your arms round, you just have to watch out for low spiky branches. There is a definite soothing sensation despite these trees not being that old. I find the Douglas Firs quite amusing as my Dad’s name is Douglas and as they are so tall and thin (as he is) and so it can feel like hugging a person… and if my Dad were a tree he would definitely be one of these!
This is another ‘climb inside’ job. I call this Cedar ‘weird tree’ as it sticks out like a sore thumb within the forest of old, dead, spindly fir trees near my house. Within the tree graveyard the Cedar is an anomaly as it is luscious and the bark looks almost like animal fur and is soft and pleasant to stroke, reminiscent of the bark of Californian Redwoods. Despite being a fern this tree looks and feels decidedly exotic, and when I go to hug this guy I feel like I have momentarily been transported into the Amazonian rainforest and expect a Shaman to come and offer me Ayahuasca any minute or something. Again, like the Lime, the fun of this hugging experience is that you have to climb inside, but the perk of this one is that the trunks are so close together that you can easily hug one part while leaning your entire weight on the other, and you receive a lovely calming, healing sensation from it… maybe there is a medicine man lurking somewhere in those woods!
Birch trees are so elegant. They have slim trunks and thousands of small leaves which when they flutter in the wind like a huge swarm of moths. Silver Birches in particular are as far as I’m concerned, the most elegant ladies of the tree world. In Winter their white spindly trunks rise up into bare purply branches that glisten against the snow; they are like ballerinas. This Birch is not of the silver variety, but it is still incredibly elegant and grows in my garden. Hugging it is again like hugging a person, but it is not without an energetic pulse, far from it. This tree is particularly special to me as it was planted here before I was born, transported from my late Grandmother’s garden, and as such reminds me of her, and she was also a very elegant lady, if an undeniably crazy one; seems it run in the family!
Ash trees usually grow near water and are fairly young so can have quite thin trunks. A young, thin trunk does not for a good tree hug make. The older and bigger the better. Ash have beautiful sets of leaves, ranging up to 13 on each stem and this huge Ash actually made for a magnificent hug. What happens with a good tree hug is that you feel a pulse of soothing, relaxing energy buzz right up your body and it can travel right up to the very top of your head. You feel completely grounded but also as if you are being lifted up by the energy. It is a beautiful feeling. As I was hugging this particular tree, blissing out on this feeling, I could hear someone pottering about in their garden (the tree grows right next to someone’s driveway, although we are still in the middle of nowhere in the countryside) and I was half expecting them to venture out and see me and get a bit of a shock!
5. Scots Pine
Scots Pine are my equivalent of Anna Halprin’s Californian Redwoods. I hope one day to build a retreat centre with an outdoor deck for dance and yoga, just like hers, but mine will be built using Scots Pine. I even have the site picked out, it’s two minutes walk from where I live right now, a piece of land that has lain abandoned for as long as I have been alive, complete with a beautiful stone ruin, and the the most stunning Scots Pine forest behind it. It just calls out to be used as a place of healing, ritual and interaction with nature. All I need is the money in order to convince the landowner to sell it to me, and spookily enough, even the wood for the deck is there already as several of the trees fell due to the 100mph+ winds during some crazy storms we had this Winter. I like to think that they willingly sacrificed themselves for my deck. Time will tell if this dream will become a reality- I imagine lots of people simultaneously hugging a tree each. They are tall and thin and elegant, and quintessentially Scottish. Hugging one of these feels like hugging a person, but they are very strong energetically, you almost feel the history of the landscape as you hug them.
The trees that I would go and hug on the Vipassana meditation retreat when I needed to be soothed and brought right back down into my body were Sycamore trees. The woods next to my house is also full of them, and as such I am very attached to them. You will definitely get a nice buzz from hugging a Sycamore. Also, have a look at one sometime, if there is a light breeze often just one solo leaf will be waving about like crazy, it sometimes seems as if it is trying to get your attention. In the Autumn all the leaves will start to develop hundreds of black spots. Worry not, they have not contracted the tree plague… this it completely natural and in fact the higher the air quality is, the more black spots there will be, so ironically, the more diseased they appear at this time, the healthier they are, and likewise their surrounding environment.
Big beeches tower over you, this one in the woods next to my house is an absolute beaut. Hugging this mammoth Mother tree would calm you straight down after any argument or upset, no matter how bad. You can quite literally feel its stoic power, stability and peace permeating your entire body, simply by wrapping your arms around its trunk. Enough said- just go hug a Beech, they are one of the most common species of tree in the UK, and they actually only tend to live for around 250 years before they disintegrate completely, which is quite young, for trees of this size, so, GO! What are you waiting for?!
Now we are getting to the big Daddies of the tree hugging world. The mighty Oak. So old and wise, and gives a bloody good comforting hug. This one grows under a minute’s walk from my house and its trunk is so thick that I think it would probably take five of me to be able to stretch right the way round it. And this makes it tree hugging gold- the simple checklist being: the older the better, the bigger the trunk the better. When I hug this tree I do feel like I could just melt into a puddle of bliss at its roots. You can see the sheer scale of this by looking at the teensy weensy farm buildings to the right, it’s a freakin’ giant!
1. Caledonian Pine
And my number one is without a shadow of a doubt is this particular Caledonian Pine, trident in shape, which sits perched on top of the hill that rises majestically across the road from my house, which is called Knockfarrel. It is my favourite tree, and I highly doubt anything will ever pip it off the top spot. This tree is quite literally ‘King of the Hill’ and when I hug it, like the Scots Pine, I somehow feel that I am imbued with the history of the landscape. In fact, when I hug this tree I often have visualisations of a Stag! This is quite honestly the most powerful tree I have ever come into contact with, and it is surrounded by six other trees and they form a circle of 7, which is a very powerful number for ritual. I foresee one day taking my troops of yoga/meditation and dance retreatants up to the top of this hill, yes, to dance about, yes, probably naked, but also to hug these remarkable trees. They have an infinite amount of energy to pass on, they are just waiting to give it to us.
So my verdict on ‘The Way Through the Woods’ when it comes to tree hugging is really quite simple- hug as many trees as possible! City or country be damned, who cares if anyone is looking, deep down inside they want to do it too! I hope that some of this has tempted you to hug a Hawthorn, embrace an Elm, cradle a Cedar, pounce on a Pine, or get your leg over a Larch. So what are you waiting for? GO AND HUG A TREE!
And let’s face it… Sometimes no matter how pure the intention is, it will just look down-right indecent!