“You need to hug more trees,” my friend of forty years said to me as we prepare to ski through the woods. “It’s good for all sorts of things.”
“Really?” I ask, thinking about the suggestion in new terms. the book The Hidden Life of Trees sitting unread on my night stand for months before Mary finally says, “if you’re not going to read it, give it up.”
Mary reads books the way I used to drink beer — one a day, which for me became one or two, beers not books, until I fell off my bike and made the decision to stop, drinking not reading, just to see the result.
“Wet brain,” my doctor called it. “Takes about thirty days to feel the benefit, but then everything gets sharper.” Mary’s still reading. “Smart brain,” I call it.
“Hugging trees and spending time in the woods like this are the best thing for your health,” another friend adds. “A healing energy permeates the place in ways that are unmatched anywhere else.”
“We’re ocean people,” I say. “There’s got to be just as much goodness going on in those waters.” I say with no evidence other than the many swims Mary and I have enjoyed, living the positivity of being in open water, salt water, swimming with the dolphins.
‘Fish like swimming,’ the tagline of our particular swim technique, which will be of no use in these woods today. We wind our way around conservation land. Protected woods, given up as generational farms sell off parts of their acreage. Given to keep development from overtaking prized homesteads. My friends talk as if they know some of the people whose houses we pass along our way.
Maybe I’ve hugged a tree before, but not like this. Not with the intention of tapping into the energy of the forest, stopping long enough to feel the spirit of the universe course up from the earth, through a web of roots surrounding the base and up into a trunk about twice the width of my own core. This hug more like a prayer, eyes closed, breath slowed, senses heightened if for a few seconds. A part of something bigger than myself. Praying for the health of the people I’m with, for my family. All of us. I feel it as I did when I put my hand on the Western Wall in Jerusalem, something much deeper going on here than just skiing in the woods.
This past fall, a row of Ginkgo trees caught my attention, not to hug, but because of the wonder of their leaves. Mary and I watch attentively knowing that one day, in about twenty-four hours, these trees will drop a blanket of yellow green leaves on to the ground that will create a beautiful ring perfectly surrounding the trunk. Leaves will rain down the way snow sometimes falls, in big balls, making the world feel a bit more like a snow globe than urban landscape.
We’d been called tree huggers once before, when we first met Ben’s birth-mother for the sonogram test. Ben still in her womb. His birth mother on her back, belly exposed, Red Sox hat pushed back slightly. She didn’t call Mary a tree hugger until later, once we cleared whatever final test she might have been calculating in her head before the gift of life, her child, soon to be ours.
“I couldn’t tell from the picture book that Mary was a tree hugger,” she said. Rather, she was talking now about the sentiment we conveyed in person as opposed to in an album created to impress birth-mothers making the biggest decisions of their lives.
“But you’re both great.” She’d finally say when the time came to part with her new born, four days after birth in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Memories flood back as I ski with friends and contemplate our fate, moving together on a thin layer of fresh snow, more on the way, recounting past adventures into the mountains of Vermont, Utah and Wyoming.
“Second story viewing,” I say as we pass through short pines that make-up a kind of magical tunnel you’d imagine in an animated film about an enchanted forest. We spend too much time looking down instead of up at the wonders of the world around us. In this case, up at snow-covered branches of trees ofthis particular wood.
“Look up and look around,” I say to myself on this day. “Take it in like the very breath that enters my lungs.”
Read that book. Hug that tree. Take it all in.