When I was very small, my grandfather used to wheel me in a pram through the local park on the way to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Looking up at the trees helped me get to sleep. So maybe I’ve always been on a wooden wavelength.
I’ve spent all my adult life working with trees, and the past 14 years working at the RBGE as a curator. Recently, our fundraising team was looking for novel suggestions to raise money to help save the giant redwood avenue at our site in Benmore. Some of the staff suggested I do a sponsored tree huggathon.
They knew I’d been a tree hugger since a very early age. When I was small, it was enough to be hugging a birch tree or something pretty tiny that I could reach around with my wee arms. As I grew up, the trees I hugged grew bigger, too.
Still, I wasn’t sure people would be interested enough in an old man hugging trees to donate money. But my colleagues thought it was inspired. So I agreed to hug 350 trees, of as many different varieties as I could find, in a year.
My approach to the challenge was improvised. I wouldn’t plan what to hug – it was just cometh the hour, cometh the tree. Weather was not a factor – in the winter months there were some fantastic trees to hug: paperbark maples, Tibetan cherries with glossy sheens, dogwoods with their signature, fiery red bark. Hugging trees in the snow is especially enriching: you’re acutely aware of the life coursing through them, a sense of them withstanding the elements. In summer, I’d find a scenic spot and lock my arms around one, with the sun streaming through the branches and backlighting the bark.
My tree hugging technique is based on a simple principle: making maximum contact. This means wrapping my arms as far round as they’ll go (sometimes a stern stretch for a man my age), and then leaning into the tree. To fit the challenge in every day, I had to give up some meetings, but that was a welcome development. Whenever I got the itch, I’d head out with my colleague, a photographer. It was practically a tree-hugging fashion shoot, with us going on a trek in search of the next tree that spoke to us. At points my colleague, who usually takes serious scientific photographs, struggled to keep a straight face, and I couldn’t help feeling self-conscious – but I just got on with it.
I was struck by how different the experience was with each tree. The most tactile ones stood out, particularly the small giant redwoods. That was in June, when we’d had weeks and weeks of dry weather. You were getting an almost Californian scent from the resin. That transported me. Another highlight was a hybrid wingnut. If you’re familiar with Lord Of The Rings, it looks a bit like an Ent, the talking tree of Middle-earth, because of its craggy features, which are like faces in the bark.
Admittedly, there were a few raised eyebrows from passersby. Some people had a quiet chuckle; maybe they thought it was a quaint Scottish custom. I was the butt of a fair few tree jokes among my family, regularly being called barking mad, but everyone understood it was for a good cause.