Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SocietyAugust 29, 2020

How lockdown made me a tree hugger

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

For some, the loss of even fleeting touch heightened a sense of distance and dislocation far beyond the effects of the official isolation imposed on us. Jennifer Little looked to nature for a remedy.

You couldn’t even pay anyone to touch you. Codified connection with another human through professional massage was banned. 

With so many losing jobs and businesses, and our collective sense of security and certainty unravelling after two months in lockdown, it might have sounded absurd, trivial even, to talk of suffering a lack of human touch during the peak of the pandemic. The main weapon against the dreaded virus was, after all, precisely not to touch anyone outside your bubble of self-isolation. For loners and singletons – to have a roof, rent paid and food in the fridge was enough to be grateful for, surely?  Friendship, via cyberspace and smartphones, guaranteed we could still find connection and feel cared for, at least in a non-embodied way.

Not having a hug won’t kill you. Not having any human touch for an extended period won’t either, but it does things to your mind and how you feel. Long term, lack of touch can have dire consequences for mental and physical health, as research has shown. For anyone grieving a loved one before and/or during lockdown, this loss of even fleeting touch might have heightened a sense of distance and dislocation far beyond the effects of the official isolation imposed on us, even if we accepted it was necessary. 

If you’re alone – whether through choice, rejection or bereavement – paid-for intimate touch (hairdresser, masseur, dance coach) can fulfil a vital aspect of human existence. Of course, grief encompasses far more than the loss of irreplaceable physical touch and intimacy you once shared with a particular person, and its flow-on sensual and psychological affirmation. But in a time of heightened isolation, with no prospect of even hugging a friend or holding a dance class partner in ritualised but nonetheless palpably pleasurable contact, the absence of touch amplified a deeper loss.

So, halfway through lockdown, I started hugging trees. Most days I’d spend time in their company at my nearby park, a 50-hectare haven of native bush established in the late 1800s and threaded with tracks. A patch of wilderness in the urban heart. There, in a parallel universe to the pandemic, no sound but the flap of hefty kererū wings, jazzy tūī riffs, chittering pīwakawaka. 

The author’s tree (Photo: Jennifer Little)

Among trees you can experience solitude and solidarity with living beings. To feel both grounded and elevated by the intoxicating musky moistness of foliage, bark and earth that fill the morning air was my brief nirvana in a fragile, imperilled world.

One day I climbed a steep track to a grove of kauri, rimu, flax and exotic pines – a little private coterie of trees. I stopped to luxuriate in the presence of their silent grace. The Japanese call it “forest bathing”, or shinrin-yoku – taking in the forest atmosphere through the senses in order to relax and feel calm and connected to nature. 

Next minute I had my arms around a kauri, nuzzling the flaky, pale green lichen with my lips and nose – it was purely instinctive. Lumber lust! Sure, I’d dressed like a hippy in my youth, but I’d never been a compulsive tree-hugger. 

A tree is the opposite of soft, fleshy warmth. Instead – rigid, static, seemingly uncommunicative and indifferent. But I was assured this penchant to wrap my arms around a tree trunk of rough bark was not completely inexplicable or weird – TVNZ featured a news story from Iceland on that nation’s forestry service exhorting people to go hug a tree to help them feel better during lockdown. It’s made headlines all over the world – if you can’t hug a person, hug a tree! 

Closer to home, a “touch therapist” interviewed on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp extolled the blissful benefits of a good, long human-to-human hug for mental health and wellbeing, stipulating a 20-second hold for optimal oxytocin vibes. “Hug a tree” was her last-resort recommendation – for the truly desperate. 

Impossible to convey the transformative experience, the otherworldliness of living with deep grief. What do you do, with no shoulder to cry on in lockdown? I wept with my tree, no longer alone. There was no need to find words for the infinite pain. For the lack of grief’s parameters. The never, never, never, never ache – that gut-wrenchingly profound expression of loss uttered by the inconsolable King Lear as he holds his dead daughter Cordelia in disbelief (admittedly, the easiest line in all of Shakespeare to remember – it is the stark emotion that’s stayed with me since high school English).  

No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?

Photo: Jennifer Little

A tree gives its silently accommodating strength, a vitality in its ancient woody scent, without permission or negotiation. You can lean on that tree and it will not buckle, break or retreat. It will stay right there, holding you up for as long as you need. It will not tell you everything will be all right or don’t cry. But you will feel all right, if you just stay a while, keeping your face, fingers, your own trunk connected to this natural totem, a child of Tāne Mahuta.

You might discover a new form of intimacy just by contemplating and sensing the mysteries of its inner life force and outward features. The slow dreamtime surge of sap, of energy rising from buried roots through its solid, stoic trunk and along every branch, shoot, leaf, bud or bloom. You can think of how patiently and without complaint it endures and embraces the changing seasons, the shift from day to night, the harshness of weather and extreme temperatures. The seasonal losses – of foliage, fruit, flowers. Cycles of life and death playing out in relentless rhythm.

You can enter a world described in The Hidden Life of Treesthe best-seller by Peter Wohlleben, who reveals wondrous tree and forest facts (detailing their social networks and “wood-wide web”) that seem more like magical fabrications. In Aotearoa, we dwell in walls of wood – most of our homes and furniture are made from timber. Trees shelter and protect us all our lives, giving us safety, warmth and solid floors to stand on. 

They call it skin hunger, touch deprivation. Psychologists say touch is a basic human need and that without it we can’t flourish. Romanian orphans abandoned and never given any physical affection notoriously failed to thrive. It is indicative but perhaps not surprising that the 21st century’s loneliness epidemic has spawned “cuddle therapists” to combat the chronic isolation and alienation suffered, ironically, in our densely populated world. 

I was no tree-hugger but always a lover of nature, and words about nature. Both provide a retreat – a place to escape, to just be. One of the few lines of poetry I’ve always remembered by heart (and I mean, heart) is an ode to “tree love” by New Zealand celebrity/raconteur/radio host and poet Gary McCormick. It is from his second collection published in 1976, which won a Pen Poetry Award. 

And if I was talking to you in person instead of writing this, I would reel off these lines that I’ve carried in my head like my personal mantra since first reading them nearly four decades ago…

Naked and Nameless

I like to wander from the path, barefoot in the garden

And let my toes take root,

My ankles soak in deep, rich earth

Hoping that I might become

The very spirit of a tree 

Tall and no longer alone.

Thank you, after all these years, for this poem, Gary. It captures something so true – both personal and universal, and it made even more “sense”, especially in lockdown.

Weighted blankets, warm baths and furry pets are among the suggested alternatives for the sensually deprived, the untouched. I’ll keep to my tryst with the trees.

Keep going!