I'm a tree-hugger.
I make no bones about it.
Call me a tree-hugger and I'll thank you for the compliment.
I once hugged a tree in California that was alive during the time of Christ. I couldn't resist. I had to get next to such ancient life. To walk among that grove of redwoods was to walk in the hush of a cathedral, only one more ancient, more holy, than any church. One still alive with flowing juices. One busy sucking moisture from the ground and giving it back to the sky. One busy drawing energy down from the sun and giving it to the earth. I couldn't help looking up in the presence of such trees.
Naturally, I had to take their measure. Even with the help of my wife, Jeanne, and my sister, Kathleen, we couldn't reach all the way around those trees, but it was awesome—in the original sense of that devalued word—to try.
Tennessee isn't California, but we too have trees that are worthy of hugging. If you've ever hiked to Ramsey Cascades in the Smoky Mountains, you've walked between a matched set of world-class tulip poplars, ancient and gigantic. Usually, when I make that hike I stop and take the measure of those two trees, arms stretched wide.
You too have hugged trees, admit it or not. When you were a child, you hugged lots of trees if you were a climber, like me, or if you used trees as home base during hide-and-seek. Carrying a load of firewood is a way of tree hugging, if done with a certain attitude. And when cutting down the Christmas tree, an annual tradition in our family, here where scrub cedars sprout like whiskers, I've on occasion taken hold of trees in ways that could be described as hugging.
On the other hand, I've been known to wrap both arms around a scruffy old oak and utter thanks and blessings for what it's meant to the scenery and the air and the critters of this garden-spot of the universe. It's a way of giving thanks, and as Garrison Keillor said Saturday on “A Prairie Home Companion,” giving thanks is the key to happiness.
Amen, Brother. It may be impossible to say anything truer than that about happiness, so let's say it again.
Giving thanks is the key to happiness.
It's a way of affirming life, of choosing hope over despair, faith over cynicism, if you'll pardon a detour. I promise to bring this round again, so bear with me.
Abe Lincoln, a man who sometimes suffered what we'd call clinical depression--a man who suffered cataclysms and personal tragedies and incredible stress, said, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
It's true. To assess life by starting with your misfortunes is a sucker's game. There's no end to the misery you can catalogue. The first great principle of Buddhism is that “All is Suffering.” While recognizing there's some truth there, I don't embrace that philosophy. I know it must seem true to some, but I've been blessed in so many ways, it would be chintzy and dishonest to pretend otherwise. For the privilege of being alive, I start each day with an attitude of gratitude. How lucky am I?
I would say, let me count the ways, but it would be impossible. Life is such a crapshoot, it's like winning 50 million lotteries in a row to have existence at all. That's how much luck is required. It took all the crazy detours of history to bring my parents together. If a million different ancestors over thousands or millions of years hadn't done exactly as they did most every day of their lives—and partook of the blessings and curses of life in just the right order, down to feeling romantic or lusty in the right moments, I wouldn't be here now. If a billion bits of space debris hadn't interacted in just the right ways to send a giant meteor crashing into the earth about 65 million years ago, eradicating the dinosaurs—making way for us mammals--none of us would be here. If the Big Bang (“Let there be light?”) had occurred with just a fraction of one percent more velocity, the planets and stars could not have formed. A fraction of a percent less velocity, and the whole universe would have collapsed back on itself. If seawater were a little saltier, if the earth weren't tilted on its axis just so, if the sun were a few miles farther off or closer in. If gravity were a few degrees stronger, we wouldn't exist. All of these so-called coincidences don't scratch the surface of things that had to go just right to make our lives possible. We are incredibly blessed to be alive and riding this silken beast called breathing—inhale, exhale--from the moment of birth until the instant of death.
And those trees, exhaling oxygen and inhaling the poisonous carbon dioxide from our own breath, exist in a relationship to us that is at once symbolic of the fragile web of life and a crucial part of it. That fantastic web of life is a feature of this awesome universe we must love and adore. It is reason enough to thank God in this season of thanks. And reason enough to hug a tree.