Tree Hugging, or Poems about Trees
I register it as a painful irony that, when I study environmental literature, I usually do so from within the confines of some indoor place. I open up, say, Wordsworth’s poetry and find myself surrounded not by the majesty of running waters and soft-rolling hills but a square foot of desk, usually located in a Carrboro coffee shop or a quiet-as-death corner of Davis library.
In these moments, I worry that I am contracting late-onset nature deficit disorder. Through small gestures, I try to build immunity against this debilitating disease: I set a potted plant next to my desk at home, Bonsai-style; I crack open the blinds to let some light through; I consider downloading nature sounds on iTunes. I try, in small ways, to keep nature close. When I pause briefly in the midst of essay-writing, I look out from my well-positioned seat and sympathize with the pine tree in my front yard. I have developed a kind of familial bond with it, the likes of which Robert Frost describes in the first stanza of his poem “Tree at My Window”:
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
The first time I read this poem, it struck me as particularly beautiful. The second time, I found it even more beautiful. But ever since I’ve gone Into the Woods for our class, some of the poem’s charm has worn off. I now wonder, what is the species of Frost’s window-tree? Why does he neglect to tell us? I realize, too, that the poem is self-contradicting: there is already a kind of “curtain drawn" between Frost and the tree, and that is the window itself. This barrier mediates Frost’s experience of the tree just as my bedroom window keeps me from physically interacting with the pine tree outside.
Most of the trees we see on a daily basis have curtains around them. Whether by a sidewalk, a fence, or actual red tape, trees – especially ones in urban areas – often get siphoned off from people. We drive past millions of them on the highway and they're all a blur. If drivers even notice them, they likely can’t identify them, nor do most people care to try. Oak? Hickory? Maple? Ash? How should I know? The fact that we often have to put plaques on trees so we don’t forget their names suggests that our collective memory of tree species is fading out of view.
Before this class, I knew very little about different types of trees and was horrible at identifying them. (To be honest, I’m still somewhat shabby at it.) But at least now I can identify some of the main local trees and am extremely interested in learning about others. By “learn about,” though, I do not mean merely “read about.” I want to get to know other trees in the same way that I’ve come to know the ones in Battle Park. And this kind of knowing requires more than just Wikipedia-ing tree species and looking at google images of them: it requires up-close observation.
It requires, in other words, “tree hugging.”
That’s right, I'll admit it: I've become a tree hugger. And I'm proud of it. OK, so maybe I’ll never take it to the same extreme as some of the first tree-huggers – that is, the 300+ Hindu men and women who died trying to save their sacred trees from being cut by the king of Jodhpur, or the women of the 1970s Chipko movement who refused to let their native trees get chopped down (“Myth and History of ‘Tree Hugging’"). And no, I’m not out to break the Guinness world record for tree hugging (yes that is a thing, apparently). But I have certainly come to appreciate trees more after having interacted with them in Battle Park and having read about the supposed health benefits of tree hugging.
You heard me right: some people suggest that hugging trees can actually be good for your health. One study shows, for example, that health benefits can be derived from the vibrational properties of trees (“Tree Hugging Now Scientifically Validated”), while others suggest that interactions with trees can lead to decreased levels of stress and increased creativity (“Trees Linked with Human Health, Study Suggests”). Maybe this explains why tree appreciation is so common among creative writers: tree-hugging makes for great literature. Already we’ve seen countless examples of this -- simply recall Janisse Ray celebrating her native longleaf pines, Aldo Leopold mourning the loss of a tree, or Thoreau travelling a long distance to visit a tree as though it’s an age-old friend.
These writers remind us of the importance of touching trees. They remind us, like David Sobel does, that the “Look, Don’t Touch” model of current environmental programs is problematic. However, they also remind us that there is a danger to touch, or rather, to too much touch. There is of course something hazardous about the heavy touch of the bulldozer and the chainsaw, but there is also a danger in the slow violence of herbicide sprayers. Even the touch of a child can be dangerous. This latter idea is expressed by Wordsworth in his poem “Nutting,' in which he describes how an impulse suddenly came over him one day while he was walking through the woods as a young boy. Wordsworth recollects having “dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash / And merciless ravage” (44-5), leaving the trees “silent” (53) with reproach.
Wordsworth’s poem reminds us that, when we come into contact with trees, we must do so with a sense of extreme reverence. Even gestures intended to help them, such as “topping” trees (i.e., cutting down their main branches), can prove lethal (Bayer). If you’re unconvinced about the whole 'danger of touch' thing, just take a look at the town of Wake Forest's list of the “Top 10 Ways to Kill a Tree with Kindness" (hint: the title gives it away). Even the seemingly innocuous gesture of carving initials into a tree is damaging since carvings “leave the tree open to disease” (Greb). [Which means that, the next time you see a couple drawing hearts and arrows into the bark of an aspen, you'll have more than one reason to want to vomit.]
But I don't mean to sound apocalyptic here. In fact, when done with care, handling trees promotes their health as well as our own. As arborists from “Tree Resources” advise, if you’re wondering whether a tree in your backyard is healthy you should:
Look up. How do the leaves and branches look? Is something amiss?
Have you touched your tree lately? That’s right – touch trees...
It’s easy to forget in this modern world that the little bit of the planet
we have in our own yards is alive and growing. (“Touch Trees”)
There you go, advice from the specialists. Touching trees can be a way to measure their health. It can also help us advocate for them better. Trees may not have a voice, but they certainly have things to say to us, and they have a body that we can study for signs of disturbance. In this way we can all take up the Lorax’s mantra - that is, we can all “speak for the trees....speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.” So go on, be a tree advocate. Write a poem about a tree (but make sure you identify it!). Hug one, or two, or ten. I promise - it will hug back.
Class of 2014
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
Bayer. “9 Things You Should Know About Trees.” http://www.bayerus.com/msms/web_docs/9_things_you_should_know_about_trees.pdf
Frost, Robert. "Tree at My Window." Robert Frost's Poems. New York: St. Martin's, 2002. 187.
Greb, Ruth. “Save a Tree’s Life Don’t Peel Bark.” 5 June 2007. http://www.sciences360.com/index.php/save-a-trees-life-dont-peel-bark-24731/
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.
“Myth and History of ‘Tree Hugging.” Machimo (blog). 7 January 2012. http://machimon.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/myth-and-history-of-tree-hugging/
Ray, Janisse. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1999.
Sobel, David. "Look, Don’t Touch–The Problem with Environmental Education." Orion (July/August 2012): 65-71.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; Or, Life in the Woods. 1854. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1995.
“Touch Trees.” Tree Resources. 2013. http://treeresource.com/touch-trees/
Town of Wake Forest. “Top 10 Ways to Kill a Tree with Kindness.” http://www.wakeforestnc.gov/data/sites/1/media/urban%20forestry/top_10_ways_to_kill _a_tree.pdf
“Tree Hugging Now Scientifically Validated.” The Mind Unleashed (blog). July 2013. http://www.themindunleashed.org/2013/07/tree-hugging-now-scientifically.htm
“Trees Linked with Human Health, Study Suggests.” Huffington Post. 21 Jan. 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/21/trees-linked-with-human-h_n_2505267.html