Reclaiming ‘tree hugger’

Tree hugging has a proud history and provides mental health benefits, environmental benefits, and even reduces crime in urban areas. The post Reclaiming ‘tree hugger’ appeared first on Dallas Examiner.

Reclaiming ‘tree hugger’

(Sierra Club) – Most people think of “tree hugger” as a casual insult for a certain kind of environmentalist. The term actually has a proud history. It is time to take it back.

In 1730, 363 members of Bishnois branch of Hinduism in India clung to – or “hugged” – the trees in their village to stop them from being cut down to build a palace. The protesters were killed for their cause. But the incident led to a royal decree that outlawed any more trees being cut down in Bishnoi villages. More than 200 years later, a group of peasant women inspired by the Bishnoi “hugged” trees to stop them from being cut down in Uttar Pradesh, India. That action led to the Chipko movement, which saved countless trees in the Himalayan region from reckless deforestation. Chipko means “to cling” and that evolved into “tree hugging.”

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Dr. Daniela Shebitz, an ecologist and ethnobotanist at Kean University says, “you get a sense of connection with nature through that physical contact but it also helps emotional wellbeing … even just taking a few seconds, whether it’s smelling flowers or hugging trees. Just finding a moment to connect with nature as you go about your daily routine is so helpful, especially in places where you know that tree is connecting to other organisms like other trees, animals like birds and insects, or the moss and lichen that could be growing on it.”

The mental health benefits and the connections people can form with nature through just being around trees – and, yes, even hugging them – are very real. The act of literally hugging a tree has been shown to cause an increase in the hormone oxytocin, which reduces stress and improves one’s mood.

And why not hug a tree? Trees do so much for us.

“You can make so many observations and become a scientist just by looking at a tree outside your window,” says Shebitz.

“We can learn so much about nature and environmental interaction just by seeing what comes to the tree to get nectar from the flowers, build nests or collect nuts. And what it provides in food and habitat is just what we can see. We know that tree is also providing health benefits like making the air cleaner by pulling out carbon and particulate matter and producing oxygen. That’s part of the reason that asthma rates go up in areas without trees.”

Trees also absorb and slow runoff to protect against flooding during storms. From 1970 to 2012, 38% of the natural disasters in the world were caused by floods. Among natural disasters, floods have generated the worst economic losses. And flood threats are increasing with climate change.

Trees even reduce crime. They are like superheroes. A review of 45 papers by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that the presence of green spaces, including parks and trees, reduces crime in urban areas. Some studies have shown a 10% increase in tree canopy can lead to a 12% decrease in crime. A 2001 study of public housing projects in Chicago by researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign compared buildings that had trees close by with those surrounded only by pavement. It found the buildings surrounded by trees and vegetation had 52% fewer total crimes and 56% fewer violent crimes. This phenomenon is due in part to more residents coming outside to enjoy the shade and cooler temperatures provided by the trees – adding more “eyes on the street.”

Shebitz says her students at New Jersey’s Kean University are mostly from underserved, urban communities and do not come to her classes with an existing connection to nature.

“Many of them don’t realize why New Jersey’s called the Garden State. So a big part of my work is reconnecting people to their natural environment, even if it’s just right outside of their house or apartment.”

That sense of connection can’t be overstated. In the Civil Rights Movement – as in every movement for social change – it is no secret that building connections is the way to build movements. But it is not just connections to other human beings that are important. We understand the importance of protecting our neighbors and communities by building connections with them and we understand the importance of protecting nature through connections as well.

Part of why trees provide such a good way to connect with nature is they have their own kind of “heartbeat,” as Shebitz points out. Their circulation system for the water, food and nutrients pumping through their bodies mirrors our own in some ways.

With Arbor Day coming up, it is a good time to reclaim “tree hugger.” Trees deserve a hug. And you deserve the benefits you will get from that hug.

Ben Jealous is the executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in the country. He is a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free.”

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