It was way past midnight in Montreal and on Rue Saint Hubert a blind-drunk man was weaving his way past my friends Marie-Josée and Diego as they waited for a taxi last week.
They told me the next day how the man had staggered up to a large tree and then hugged it intensely for a few seconds before meandering off into the night, unaware that anyone had seen him.
As we laughed about this private nocturnal meeting between man and nature, I thought about the phrase tree-hugger and the way people tend to use it to denigrate anyone who advocates a more sustainable way of living.
People who use the phrase seem to imply that a tree-hugger would value nature ahead of humanity — and that therefore their views are immediately worthless. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The first recorded tree-huggers were villagers in Rajasthan, India who sacrificed themselves in 1730 to protect khejri trees (Prosopis cineraria, shown below) that their community depended on.
The trees were materially important to the villagers in their dry desert landscape. They provided fodder for livestock and firewood for cooking. Their leaves and bark, flowers and sap were used in traditional medicines. The shade they created was a welcome haven for farmers who toiled in the blistering heat.
Maharaja Abhay Singh, the ruler of Jodhpur, had sent men to fell the trees but a brave woman called Amrita Devi offered to sacrifice her life if it would spare one tree. When the axe-men took her up on her offer and severed her head, her three daughters pleaded for the men to kill them too in place of the trees. They paid the same price.
These four deaths did not deter the tree-fellers, so many other villagers began to offer their own lives in exchange for the survival of a tree. Some hugged the trees, putting their bodies directly between the axe and its target.
In the bloodbath that followed some 363 men, women and children were slaughtered, but when the Maharajah heard of the villagers’ bravery and devotion he banned any tree-felling from their areas.
Nearly 250 years later tree-hugging became well-known worldwide when, once again, Indian villagers took on more powerful opponents to protect trees their community had long nurtured and benefited from.
The Indian government had permitted private companies to log areas of forest that local communities had managed the forests in a sustainable way for generations, and in the 1970s villagers in the highlands of northern India began peaceful protests against the deforestation.
A turning point came on 26 March 1974, when Gaura Devi and 27 other women from a village in what is now Uttarakhand state confronted loggers who had come to take their trees.
When the loggers began to abuse and threaten the women, they hugged the trees to prevent them being axed (see image below from The Hindu newspaper). More villagers joined the protest and after four days the loggers left empty-handed.
When news reached the state capital, the chief minister investigated and ruled in favour of the villagers. The Chipko movement, as it became known, spread across India and inspired people around the world to take a stand against destruction of the environment.
Tree-hugging, then, is as pro-human as it is pro-tree. Its originators knew intimately that humanity is a part of nature not apart from it.
Since the time of Gaura Devi though, people have increasingly revealed their own detachment from the natural world by labelling others “tree-huggers” in an effort to belittle their environmental ethos.
Worse, the label is often used to gather peaceful humanitarians, rational scientists and many other people with a concern for the environment, and lump them together with misanthropic — and in some cases violent — eco-extremists.
This happened this week, when a gun-toting American called James Lee took staff at the Discovery Channel hostage in a protest about the state of our planet. Sections of the media and blogosphere quickly branded Lee a “crazed tree-hugger” (here, for instance).
Lee may have been crazed but he was no tree-hugger. His list of demands showed that his opinions of humanity were a million miles away from what Amrita Devi or any genuine modern-day environmentalist would subscribe to.
But by using the term “tree-hugger”, journalists and bloggers directly linked Lee’s reprehensible extremism with the behaviour and motives of mainstream environmental organisations, academics and communities around the world that live in close contact with nature.
So I guess it is time to reclaim the tree-hugger title, explain that tree-hugging is really a powerful expression of humanity’s interdependence with nature — and to get outside and do some tree-hugging for real.
Until last week I had never done this myself, but when I heard the story of the drunk guy on Rue Saint Hubert I decided it was time to find out what it was like.
The next night I was on the same street and there in the dark, for just a few seconds, I embraced a big tree. It was not a life-changing event but it was an intensely different to anything I had ever felt before.
To connect physically with that other life form was a very humbling experience.
I was aware that its roots were embedded deep in the ground beneath my feet, and that its leaves that danced in the breeze far above my head were pumping out molecules of oxygen that I might one day inhale. I recommend the experience highly and would do it again.
So here is my challenge to anyone who has ever thrown the word tree-hugger around for a laugh or in spite… Go out and hug a big old tree.
You can’t possibly regret it, unless — like the tree — you have a heart of wood.