‘I can’t speak for the tree…’

On greeting the quiet relatives all around us.

Good Morning. Earlier in the week several tabloid newspapers reported on a breakfast TV feature in which presenters Holly Willoughby and Philip Schofield undertook an exercise in… tree hugging.

The programme introduced a hypnotherapist who claims that in working with people to alleviate lockdown loneliness, trees are the perfect prescription. While nothing, he said, can compensate for the absence of human contact, inviting people to share a moment with a tree is helping his clients.

So… on my daily pandemic perambulation yesterday… I stopped, several times, to greet a tree.

At first I was just reaching out to tentatively handshake a branch but, eventually, once I was sure no-one was looking, I went in for the full hug.

How surreal to hold one of these great silent living beings.

And yet, in these days when nothing seems strange anymore, also surprisingly reassuring.

I can’t speak for the tree… but I would be quite keen to meet again.

I was reminded of Prince Charles and how, in the 1980’s, he’d been widely derided for an interview in which he described how he talks to his trees — and also listens to them.

Plants, respond when addressed, he said, and it’s important we engage with them.

In the intervening years the science has caught up and it looks like Prince Charles was right.

Thanks to the work of forest ecologists like Professor Suzanne Simard there’s a growing consensus that trees communicate — that they co-operate with each other through hidden subterranean networks.

We also understand their role in sustaining our eco-system — how they absorb the carbon dioxide emissions that are warming the planet.

One of last year’s unlikely best sellers was Braiding Sweetgrass by the botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. Drawing on her years in academia and her family roots among Native American people, Wall Kimmerer believes that we are now rediscovering what she calls the ‘grammar of animacy’ — that we are seeing nature less as a resource and more as a relative.

And as this latest lockdown once again decelerates our lives by several gears, many of us have noticed the discrete voice of nature in ways we’d previously missed — from the conversation of birds to the consolation of gardening.

That chimes with some strange ancient lines in the Bible about how the trees of the field clap their hands with joy — the idea that nature sings her own song of praise.

And also with that C13th eco-saint, Francis of Assisi, who talked of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, of Brother Fire and Sister Water.

So while we can’t hug most of our human kin for the foreseeable future, what about a quiet moment today with one of these other serene relatives?

If not embracing a horse chestnut… maybe just returning a gentle greeting, from the year’s first daffodil or snowdrop.

(The (slightly extended) text of ‘Thought For The Day’ delivered on BBC Radio 4 on January 16th)

‘Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.’