By Bill Diem
Last weekend we were invited to see our friends’ new house in a country village, about an hour’s drive from Paris. Philippe barbecued chicken, lamb chops, and sausage to go with the roast potatoes and vegetables he had prepared, and nine of us sat around the table for a happy post-Covid moment.
We toured the house, of course, and also their yard.
We admired the tall, century-old oaks in the yard, and Philippe suggested we hug them. Some of us did. “Feel the tree’s energy,” he said, and in the warm sunlight, with the scratchy bark against my cheek, I could.
I also felt the soles of my feet. I imagined that the tree was telling me about roots.
Tree hugging has a reputation. There was a time when ecologists were accused of tree hugging, as if it was something bad. Today, even timber companies essentially are tree huggers. They need to put new trees in the ground so they can cut again later.
It’s not the same greed, grab, and run of the 19th century. Investors in the cities hired our forefathers as lumberjacks, and when they had more or less clear-cut the white pines from the U.P., they watched the slash burn the topsoil, tried to sell the land to suckers down south, or just let the land go back to the state directly for unpaid taxes.
Besides tree hugging, there is a thing called forest bathing. You don’t hug the trees, you just go amongst them and feel their energy and let your worries wash away. This is a thing that sounds very new age but of course it makes sense.
A friend is reading a book by a neurosurgeon, Shane O’Mara, called In Praise of Walking. The author argues that walking helps the brain as well as the body. When you take a walk, your eyes are seeing things, your brain is working, and it is hard to be depressed.
In a forest, you have to watch your footing, you hear the birds, you might see a bear like Madison Yale did. Seeing a bear during a forest bath might be like getting a jolt of cold water in the shower when the washing machine goes on, but Madison seemed to handle it just fine.
Then there are the books we read, like The Hidden Life of Trees by the German forester Peter Wohlleben, about research showing that trees communicate with each other through their roots and the millions of miles of mushroom filaments in the soil.
In France, some cities have rules protecting trees in your yard. You can’t cut them down just because you own them: the trees are part of the community too. Other people can see them, and they might shade the public sidewalk. You need to ask permission if you want to chop one down, as my friends did so they could build a house.
The upshot is that trees are good, forests are good, and even if we love 2x4s and working at LP, we can also love the trees.
Our friends kept all they could on their lot, and Philippe and another Philippe and Barbara and I all hugged those old oak trees with their tall trunks that rise 30 feet or more before the first branches. We felt good about it.