Tree-Hugging and Forest-Bathing
‘Tree-hugger’ is a vaguely insulting term for those perceived as hippy environmentalists, used fairly indiscriminately to describe pretty much anyone from an animal rights activist to a bypass protester. It’s also an epithet that has come to be associated with Prince Charles following his mid-1980s confessions about talking to his trees and plants to encourage them to grow… And it’s something, dear reader, that I have recently become. A tree-hugger. A hugger of trees.
Much of my babbling on Homesick and Heatstruck refers to nature – and those aspects of British nature that I particularly miss whilst living abroad – but last year, these yearnings must have reached some sort of critical pitch as, whilst on a summer ramble in the Cotswolds, I felt an overwhelming urge to wrap my arms around an oak tree.
I can report that it was quite a nice feeling. Solid, rough, a bit scratchy. But I did feel what I was hoping to feel – close to something living and breathing and benign and ancient. It was very comforting and peaceful.
And – this is particularly reassuring for those concerned about the state of my mental health – it may not be quite as bonkers as it sounds (fairly bonkers, admittedly, but perhaps not certifiably so). Research has shown that proximity to trees is actively good for the health. Plants release phytoncides or wood essential oils – antimicrobial organic compounds which help to defend against bacteria, fungi and other nasty things. When inhaled, they can help to slow our breathing, reduce our anxiety and even strengthen the immune system. Oak trees, pine trees and tea trees are particularly good for us, apparently. In parts of Japan and Korea, shinrin-yoku – or ‘forest-bathing’ is an established practice to reap the relaxing and health-giving properties of these phytoncides.
Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many forests for me to bathe in out here in Dubai, and, sadly, many of the more mature trees that lived in and around my beloved Safa Park have recently been uprooted to make way for a glamorous new canal-side
development (heaven knows we desperately need more upmarket boutiques and restaurants here…). There are other parks nearby though. Mushrif Park is big and green and has some pleasingly wild bits – it’s a good spot for bird-watching, and Zabeel Park is just a twenty minute walk away from our apartment. Last Saturday morning, before it got too hot, we set off to explore Zabeel Park properly. It’s very much a park of two halves – the footbridge that adjoins them straddling a multi-lane motorway. One half of the park is filled with exciting rides and activities for children and permanent barbecue and picnic spots. It hosts the wonderful Ripe Market every weekend; the other half (a hop and a skip over the footbridge) is much quieter. It’s green and peaceful and full of lovely trees.
We walked a full circuit of the park and sat down for a while in the shade. The trees were very pleasant company, but I didn’t feel particularly moved to hug anything. On reflection, that may have been for the best, given the attitude to public displays of affection in this part of the world… The forest-bathing will have to wait for my next trip home; until then, a spot of park-paddling will just have to suffice.
Homesick and Heatstruck’s Top Tips for Tree Hugging:
- The best tree hugging is to be had with big, old, wise trees. Young trees have very little to say for themselves. Oak trees give particularly good hugs.
- Ensure you are alone and not observed. People will laugh at you. Or maybe call the police. Alternatively, hug trees with lots of friends – there’s safety (and, indeed, dignity) in numbers.
- Select your tree very wisely – and be sure to choose a friendly-looking one. Avoid anything prickly, rotten or potentially poisonous.
- Beware of insect nests, territorial squirrels or burly men with axes shouting, ‘Timber!’
Further reading on this topic: