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Everybody Is Born as a Tree Hugger - Musings and Meditations

Updated: Apr 11

Three hundred year old rowan near the village Teleki, Hungary. Photo: Filip Van Kerckhoven

Someone like Julia Butterfly Hill, whom I talked about in two previous musings, and who took extraordinary action to protect an ancient redwood, is often referred to as a ‘treehugger’.

And the term ‘treehugger’ is often used to label ányone who has a more than average interest in protecting nature, or who demonstrates a more than average love for it.

The expression is therefore meant pejoratively: such a person is quickly seen as 'naive', 'unworldly', 'silly', and simply unable to face reality: nature is nice as a decorative element, pleasant background on a holiday, but what really matters is the economy, our material prosperity, the endless chain of production and consumption, and the real world of money and power and growth. The rest is for dreamers, over-age hippies and childish idealists. It's the economy, stupid!

Those who adhere to this vision conveniently ignore the fact that without trees there would be no such thing as 'economy', and that we ourselves would not exist without trees - or without bacteria or algae or kelp forests or ...or...

If you doubt that, try holding your breath for ten minutes.

At the bottom of this blog post I'll treat you to a four-minute video in which an Australian writer and an actor take you on a journey through various forests and unabashedly promote 'treehugging', but first I'd like to introduce a different, counter-argument to the pejorative view of treehuggers..

That other thesis I would like to defend is this: being a treehugger is not a naive deviation or weakness, it is our natural state of being and everyone is born a treehugger.

I have arrived at this thesis from empirical research and objective observation.

Admittedly this observation only applies to one subject, my eldest son Elias who is now an adult but who was about one and a half at the time of observation.

The empirical observation occurred during a winter walk.

For part of the time he was in a buggy since he could already walk but not yet great distances of course. We were in an area near our home where there are many old, large trees. It was late fall or winter, I don't remember exactly, but it was cold and Elias was well wrapped up in warm clothes and had a thick woolen cap on his head.

Halfway through the walk I took him out of the buggy and set him down on the ground so he could run around a bit. He stepped around exuberantly with the funny, somewhat clumsy hopping jumps typical for a toddler learning to walk, also encumbered by the very thick clothing, which produced a picture reminiscent of the movements of astronauts on the moon, but without the slow-motion effect (and he couldn't jump that high either of course, gravity being what it is on our home planet).

Elias soon stepped up to one of the big old trees that stood along the path. Undaunted, he made an attempt to hug the tree: he stretched out against the bark with his arms spread wide, and looked up along the trunk to the crown of the big, stately old tree with big eyes.

He stammered rapturously the word.... "BEAUTIFUL..."

So there he stood for a moment, gazing upward with his little arms firmly spread against the gnarled trunk, and all his little being was truly touched. It was the felt recognition of the splendor of that part of ourselves beyond our skin, which we usually call ‘nature’.

What I got to witness here was the ‘un-mediated experience of reality’ that philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger talked about in last week's musing. An experience of feeling (‘sensing’) directly in reality, not mediated by mental models or systems, the direct experience that, according to Schmachtenberger (and others), is seen as the most reliable guide through the convergence of ecological and other crises we are going through.

Children, of course, initially have only that kind of experience, and so for children everything is magical, wonderful, sometimes overwhelming or frightening. Initially there is only the unmediated experience, and the accompanying intensity of experience. And also the accompanying joy and wonder at the beauty, which they very definitely recognize in that experience.

When Elias embraced the tree, it was not from a learned emotion or an idea that we ‘should’ love nature. It was not a behavior created by some form of conditioning. And it was a reaction that had not been modified by some form of knowledge or categorization or internalization of imposed moral codes. It was the spontaneous response of human consciousness to the majestic, mysterious, and penetrating splendor of nature and of that ancient tree in particular.

Admittedly, for most practitioners of empirical science, one observation is far from sufficient to arrive at a conclusion or thesis. I am going to allow myself the poetic freedom to do so anyway, not least because the subject in the observation was none other than my own son.

Children are not limited in their perceptions by models, that is clear, but the process of indoctrination into models and systems begins very early. I call it indoctrination because no alternative is ever offered: there is no escape unless a child is taught in a very free way at home, like philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger himself, who was actually allowed to decide for himself throughout his childhood what, when and how he would learn. Possibly one of the reasons Schmachtenberger became such a free thinker, with an exceptional understanding of the complexities of the metacrisis: his introduction to concepts was done freely, and conditioning by existing models was very limited.

So by the time children are twelve, most of them have come a long way in that regard. They have then already been immersed in a particular view of the world for nine years of school, and have had to conform willingly or unwillingly to the concept of the transmission of knowledge through models, systems and representations. By then they have already been partially weaned off experiencing, and their development at school begins to take place more and more only from the neck up: cognition and analytical thinking become most important, and the ‘direct unmediated experience’ of reality is increasingly repressed. The way we subject our children to 'knowledge transfer' in school education appeals almost exclusively to the left hemisphere of our brain, that part of us that perceives everything as 'pieces', that analyzes and subdivides, the 'engineer mind', that part that is much less good at seeing or sensing connections and meaning. (I will talk about this many times in the blog, because in my opinion, the one-sided development of children's consciousness is one of the root causes of the problems we find ourselves in today - thesis brilliantly defended by prominent neuropsychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of 'The Master and His Emissary'.)

You won't hear me say that we don't need models, concepts or systems, but the balance is completely off. We live by now within models and systems, and our direct experience of the world as a magnificent whole filled with meaning and coherence and intrinsic value has shriveled for most of us to a shadow of what it can be. We confuse the map with the terrain.

The way that process plays out in our current system of education is something that has long concerned me and was also the starting point for the last series of works I created as a visual artist, ‘Thinking Out Loud’.

In school, children learn that the world can be adequately represented by models, diagrams and maps. They learn which are the countries, rivers and capitals on the map, they study world maps that are supposed to give an accurate representation of that world, and they internalize the idea that what they see on a globe is an accurate representation of reality ‘Earth’.

The children learn, for example, that plants can be depicted and can be understood through diagrams that represent the structure of plants as we know them. Everyone remembers them, the pictures in biology textbooks that list all the parts of a flower or a tree, with accompanying text about each part. This constant immersion in the analytical representation of nature in models and maps leads to the mistaken idea that these images are accurate representations of reality, something philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’. And by the time they reach adulthood, most children have reached the point where interpretations of reality in models occupy a more important place in their consciousness than the ‘direct, unmediated experience’ of that reality. The tree, like everything in nature, is then seen as a kind of 'machine' that you can accurately represent in models, that is also very useful in capturing CO2, consisting of parts that can also be manipulated and as a whole something that you don't really want to hug. Beautiful, yes, but not something to get into mystical rapture over. After all, we know that a tree is ‘only’ a system, a machine made up of parts. We have come to see the tree through our model, that of scientific reductionism, which is the basis of the worldview we pass on to our children in our education.

But I will talk about that another time because that would take me way too far while musing and we were going to talk about tree hugging as a natural state of mankind.

What I would argue above all is that we are born with an intuitive sense of what nature actually is, and with a sense of our connection to it. Children love nature, that is obvious. We don't paint cell phones, game consoles or laptops on the walls of children's rooms, but dolphins or giraffes or elephants. Children's books are populated mostly by animals, and even the stuffed animals we give our children are not plush versions of cars or computers, but animals large and small. Plush whales, elephants, octopuses, bears, foxes, tigers, and so on populate the toy stores and children's rooms of our modern industrial world, which is responsible for most of these toy animals being threatened with extinction in the real world.

But we lose our connection to and direct experience of reality because of the whole process we undergo in the system we call ‘education’, which in its present form is mainly aimed at allowing the economic system that is devouring our planet to continue functioning.

The convergence of ecological and other crises is also a crisis in our conception of education, and our idea of how we teach children something. Can we get our children to develop in such a way that they do not begin to confuse the map with the terrain, that their sense of reality in direct experience remains more important than its interpretation in models, and that they begin to see the world not as a simple and meaningless heap of parts but as the indivisible splendor of which we are an indivisible part? Children who grow up in this way will be less willing to be enlisted in our economic machine, but will perhaps (probably) be much better equipped to explore new ways of bringing our existence here into harmony with that part of ourselves which is outside our skin, and which we usually call ‘nature’. And perhaps in this way children can grow up to be adults who can hug trees unabashedly and for whom the word ‘treehugger’ is a compliment and not an insult.

In one of the forthcoming musings, I will feature Sir Ken Robinson (1950-2020), a renowned expert on education, who was able to elucidate very lucidly many of the flaws of our current education system, in a generally very playful style - in a way, he was also a stand-up comedian.

But next week first something about what trees can mean for us and in particular for the coming revolution in our agriculture: the food forest.

And then below is the video I promised you: Australian writer Holly Ringland takes actor Aaron Pedersen ánd us on a trip through various forests and makes a plea for unabashed treehugging. Throughout the video, Holly tries to get Aaron to hug a tree as well, but he finds it a bit too embarrassing, sticking to 'tree-leaning' rather than treehugging. Men can be so bland.

This clip is an excerpt from the Australian documentary series ‘Back to Nature’ on the Australian channel iView, which unfortunately cannot currently be viewed outside of Australia.

And finally a piece of good advice for the week ahead: try hugging or embracing a tree. You can do it when no one is looking, if you find it too embarrassing. But try it. Elias was right back then, it feels really good. 

Thanks for reading, until the next installment,

All the best,



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