Arms around a tree

Sumana Roy | Updated on August 16, 2019 Published on August 16, 2019

Saving grace: Hugging has almost come to be institutionalised as a non-violent weapon in environmental activism   -  ISTOCK.COM

Hugging a tree is different from humans hugging because a tree-hugger is hugging without being hugged; that is, there is no claim or expectation of reciprocity. Why do humans hug trees then?

It all began with my nephew trying to draw a hug. The seven-year-old had so long managed with drawing disproportionate arms of the huggers, taking far greater liberty than French sculptor [Auguste] Rodin could’ve imagined. The arms in these drawings were almost as long as the bodies — it is possible that the little boy had seen arms gaining elasticity during a hug. It was all right as long as one was drawing humans hugging each other. He’d chanced upon the phrase ‘tree huggers’ in some cartoon show, and now wanted to draw them. His problem was simple — how was one to draw huggers when one of them didn’t have arms?

The child’s question goes deeper than the obvious, of course — it is different from humans hugging because a tree-hugger is hugging without being hugged; that is, there is no claim or expectation of reciprocity. Why do humans hug trees then?

Humans will hug anything — pillows, books, toys, and give hugs weird names, sometimes after animals, such as the bear. The recorded history of tree-hugging movement in India takes us to the middle of the 18th century — 1734, to be specific — when people from approximately 84 villages and belonging to the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan managed to prevent trees from being cut as per the order of the king of Jodhpur. These villagers, said to be led by a woman called Amrita Devi, hugged the trees that had been ordered for felling — 363 of them died while trying to save khejri trees.

I have always been filled with wonder and admiration for these anonymous people, not just their act of solidarity but of their imagination — the immense leap of empathy that made them think of themselves as no different from the trees they were hugging. The more I think of the ancients, particularly the imagination of the pre-modern man, the more I become aware of this imagination, one that thought of the human as one among the many constituents of natural and metaphysical life and not as the centre of the world.

Hugging has almost come to be institutionalised as a non-violent weapon in environmental activism. ‘Chipko’, Hindi for hugging — the word has more rush and press — became the name of a tree-protectionist satyagraha movement in India (many environmental historians tell us that the original word used was ‘angalwaltha’, the Garhwali word for embrace). As is now well-known, the Chipko movement of the 1970s was led by Sundarlal Bahuguna, Bachni Devi, Gaura Devi, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Ghanasyam Raturi, Shamsher Singh Bisht, Dhoom Singh Neji, Govind Singh Rawat, and many others (it is impossible to name everyone in this short space), many of whom were poets and singers. Such was the impact of their non-violent protests (an adjective I have to use, given the violent temper of our times) that the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi issued a ban on felling trees in the Himalayas for 15 years, beginning from 1980.

I live close to the Himalayas though it is not this region where the Chipko movement was born. Frustrated — and sad — about the receding tree cover of this region, exacerbated by the felling of trees for the construction of the Asian Highway, I began to wonder why there had never been such a movement here. It turned out that I was wrong. Krishnopriyo Bhattacharya, a journalist and researcher who’s been writing about the life of ‘tribals’ in the Dooars, tells us of a modern protest movement before 1974. In his column ‘Tribal Land’ (in the local Bangla newspaper Uttar Banga Sambad), Bhattacharya questions the bias of the subaltern studies project and asks why the protests of the North Bengal forest workers and Jagir Cultivators Union (now Uttarbanga Bonjon Sromjibi Mancha) in 1968 have been ignored by India’s environmental historians. Led by Prem Prakash Gautam, among others, the Tangiya movement mobilised support in 72 forest settlements in the Dooars region between 1968 and 1971. Bhattacharya records the movement with great affection, meeting the tribal leaders and aged participants, recording the memories of the practitioners of shifting cultivation. This is oral history, of course; only government responses of leases and agreements are recorded in documents. Reading his essay, I was reminded, again, of how forgetting our history is part of our national heritage.

I find myself thinking of the tree huggers often, particularly as I hope for the revival of such feelings among my contemporaries. Occasionally, words from Margaret Atwood’s novel Surface come to me — ‘I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning’. What kind of contagion is this? Does hugging a tree make us more tree-like? I doubt hugging trees would save them in a world where humans are chopped like trees. And yet, as I see corpses of trees almost every day, lying by the road, drying, dying, killed for obstructing ‘development’, being ‘collateral damage’, these words causing no sting in our conscience, I also think of the young girls in Delhi and Manipur who recently saved trees by hugging them.

When sleep comes and I am allowed passage into dreams, I see that there are no trees left to hug.




Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree

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Published on August 16, 2019
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