On Sunday (21 July), I am doing free tree hugging lessons at 3pm and 4pm in the Edinburgh Botanics. Combined with the promise of more lovely weather, lots of you seem to like the idea of doing something a bit silly in the gardens. Do come along!
Why learn to hug trees? It’s not just for weirdies, honest. For one thing, our national reputation is at stake. For the past few years, the UK has held the world record for tree huggers (702 simultaneous huggers), but this is due to be challenged in Portland, Oregon, USA, tomorrow (Saturday 20 July). If they succeed, we will need to organise a counter-challenge, and even if not, surely the world tree-hugger record should be in Scotland? (Andy Murray, do you hug trees?)
As well as patriotic zeal, you can hug trees because it’s good for you. I’ve had no doubt of this for years, but there are now people claiming ‘scientific’ evidence (see, for example this) that hugging a tree can calm you down. It certainly feels good to get up close with big old trees. A hug is a way to express wonder – it is a wordless poem.
A hug is also a way to use more senses than we normally do – most people tend to stroll around the garden not touching anything, yet the sense of touch is powerful. It is rare to be able to lock onto another living thing and allow your body to really feel it. A big tree demands nothing from us, expects nothing of us, but it is solid, steadying and strong.
Getting up close with a tree also makes it likely the other senses will get involved – you’ll smell the scent of its bark, feel its cool pool of shade, hear the rustle or swish of leaves, look up through green to blue. This awakening of the senses is a vital first ingredient of poetry. Another is imagination, and when hugging a tree, you might find it becomes easier to picture the vast extent of its roots underground, to visualise what might be happening within the trunk, to imagine what it might be like to be another living being. Or, to act out and imagine a hug with the living being you really wish you were cuddling.
What qualifies me to lead tree hugging lessons?As well as decades of practice, I’ve studied bears intensively, and written two books (Bear Witness and The Last Bear) about them. Some of what I’ve learned about bears will feed into the lessons. Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to hug a tree, and everyone develops their own style. But sometimes it’s good to try something new, so on Sunday I’m going to be offering a range of tree hugging options. These will include:
- The tentative or introductory ‘listening hug’ – two hands and the side of a cheek only in contact with the tree, no risk of crumpling your clothes but still establishing real contact.
- The full body clasp, or bear hug.
- The bear back scratch- giving it laldy, Balloo style, with your back to the tree.
- The ivy twine – doing without shame what you might feel embarrassed doing, or don’t have the opportunity to do, with another human.
- The group, or collaborative, hug – when the tree’s too big for one, you can join with others and stretch around the tree, experiencing the joy of being a small animal making contact with one of nature’s gentle giants.
So, if you can’t make it along to the Botanics in Edinburgh, please join me in celebrating ivy, our woodland’s great tree hugger, by getting close up and bear-like with a tree near you. Please feel free to post pictures and poems here, on the Walking with Poets facebook page or on twitter, with the hashtag #gardenpoet.
If you’re still in doubt, remember you can consider Sunday’s lessons as your first step in training for a world record-breaking tree-hug challenge.