Tree Hugger!

Here’s a statement I hear rather frequently where I live and work: “Well, of course, I’m no ‘tree hugger,’ but…” and then follows a mild expression of concern about some part of the creation. For many people in my part of the country, being known as a “tree hugger” is a shameful thing.

I’m not sure why they feel this way, but I suspect it grows out of a fear of being identified with people–“radicals”–who have chained themselves to old growth trees in an effort to prevent them from being cut down. Apparently this kind of behavior seems extravagant, all out of proportion, especially since the trees are owned by a company that seems to have the right to do with them whatever it wishes. Or maybe they believe, as one of my students told me, tree-hugging can lead to pantheism.

Whatever the reason, “tree hugger” seems to have negative connotations. Wikipedia tells me it is “slang, a sometimes derogatory term for environmentalist.” But most environmentalists are proud to be known as tree huggers. So they have turned the derogatory epithet into a badge of honor. (I have heard that Christians in Antioch did the same thing when they were scornfully called “Christians.”)

As a Christian deeply concerned about the care of creation, I am proud to be called “tree hugger.” I recognize that “tree hugger” is a synecdoche, a figure of speech where a part of something is used to represent the whole. So, someone who shows extravagant concern for trees represents all people who exhibit a strong and active concern for any part of the creation. I would call myself a tree hugger in that broad, general sense. But I would call myself a tree hugger in a very literal sense as well. I care, quite specifically, about trees, especially large old trees.

When my wife and I traveled to California to see the sequoias in California’s Sequoia National Park a couple of years ago, our first response when we saw them was silence. They took our breath away. Some of them, we realized, had been there before Christ was born. But after standing beneath them for a while, we started to feel a kind of joy bubbling up in our hearts and began to chatter and exclaim to one another in what we later called High Sierra Sequoia Glossolalia. Even though we felt something like love for the trees, we didn’t try to hug them. They were simply too huge to hug. But we left the park with a profound sense of the majesty of the Creator.

From the sequoias, we continued north to several of the well-known redwood forests. Ronald Reagan said famously that “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” We disagree. We couldn’t get enough of them. We drove (with numerous pull-offs) the Avenue of the Giants. We went to Redwood National Park, and we got lost briefly in a county park full of redwoods. We lay on the ground at the base of a redwood to try to get pictures of the top. We noticed how the sunlight streaming through the branches of another changed it, and again we became giddy in the presence of these graceful giants.

Another of our favorite trees is the Angel Tree, a live oak near Charleston, South Carolina. Over 1,500 years old, the tree has a diameter reaching 160 feet and covers over 1,700 square feet of ground. And we have favorites right here in Northwest Iowa, even though few of them are native to our prairie landscape. For years I was able to observe from my office window at Dordt College a splendid maple tree, over a hundred years old and with a trunk that has a circumference of twenty-three feet. And then there’s our community’s grandest tree, the cottonwood in Central Park, and a particular willow that is veiled in sheer gold all winter long while the rest of the trees languish in dull gray, and the maple on our block that is the first to remind us every year that it’s almost time to go back to school. As our eyes move up the trunks of these giants, our hearts lift in praise to the one who said after each day of creation, “That’s good!”

God loves the world. He loves his creation. In Genesis 9 we read of the covenant God made never to send another flood. It was not a covenant made exclusively with humans, but with “all living creatures.”

How should we love the world? Is it enough to throw off a “Thank you, Lord, for your wonderful creation,” if we never notice the particulars–like a first-grade teacher who says, “I just love my class” but never bothers to get to know any of her students?

Surely trees are some of the most remarkable non-human creatures in all creation. They are unique, each one different from every other–a great blessing in our world of mass produced similitude. In their beauty, variety, and grandeur, they elicit our praise of the Maker. And they serve the earth and humans in hundreds of different ways, perhaps most importantly, by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and returning oxygen into the air. If trees were not performing this vital function, the earth could not sustain human life.

Why would anyone–especially any Christian–be ashamed to love them? Of course we must love God above all. Of course we may not worship trees–though it’s true that the grandeur of trees has evoked worship in many pagan cultures. But to care deeply about trees and other aspects of the natural world, to act (radically, if necessary) in ways that protect and preserve the natural world, is part of our obedience to the Creator.

When our two-year-old granddaughter walks home from church with her parents, she stops sometimes to hug three trees along the way. Her parents don’t know how this started, but they think it’s cute, as do her grandparents. We hope she remains a tree hugger. We can imagine her as a young woman talking about some significant aspect of creation care, saying, “Well, of course, I’m a “tree hugger” and then follows a passionate expression of concern about some aspect of creation.

David Schelhaas teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.