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A Defiant Embrace: The Origins of Tree Hugging

Originally published in Wilder Quarterly

If ever you reach Level 4 in The Simpsons Game, the eponymous video game of America’s favorite cartoon family, take note of the opening vignette: Mr. Burns announces to Smithers plans to “cut down all the forests in Springfield and turn each tree into a single luxury toothpick.” Your mission, in the role of Lisa, is to stop Mr. Burns’ logging company from fomenting environmental disaster. You are now Lisa the Tree Hugger, as the level’s title attests.

It’s difficult to remember the days before 'going green' was de rigueur; before actress Daryl Hannah was thrown into jail for tree-sitting and Wal-Mart’s senior executives were guest blogging for Yet look up the phrase in any dictionary. It reeks with pejorative connotations. Tree huggers, cartoon or otherwise, have not always enjoyed such heroic status.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the term was in a 1965 article in Wisconsin’s Appleton Post Crescent. It describes protests in Chicago over plans to expand a highway through a leafy section of Jackson Park. As the chainsaws advanced, activists—mostly women—responded by throwing their arms around tree trunks, resulting in several arrests. About the standoff the Crescent quipped, “The battle was between the tree huggers and the city. The city won, 100-0.”

It was not in Jackson Park, however, that the story of tree hugging begins. The roots of the practice go back nearly 300 years to India. To a place where nature is so revered that trees are considered sacred and protected at any cost. It is a place where going green is not merely fashion, but religion.

So, who were these original tree huggers? And what inspired their defiant embrace?

The tale begins on the outskirts of Jodhpur in the village of Jalnadi, home of the Bishnoi people. The year was 1730, give or take. Servants of the Maharajah, or king, traveled there looking for timber to build his new palace. That they arrived in Jalnadi was no coincidence. They knew that the Bishnoi, a religious sect that worshipped nature, forbade the felling of trees. Consequently, their village stood out on the desert landscape for its lush abundance of timber.

And not just any timber, but Khejri trees. So valuable in the Thar desert region that the species, Prosopis cineraria, is sometimes called a ‘wonder tree or ‘king of the desert.' Not only are these trees scarce, but they play an essential role in daily life. They enrich the soil with nitrogen and other nutrients necessary for growing crops, and provide shade, shelter and fodder for livestock.

As the legend goes, a villager named Amrita Devi noticed the men wander onto her land and start cutting down precious Khejri trees. Outraged, she wedged herself between the axmen and a tree, hugging it with all her might. She is remembered as saying, “First my head, then the tree.”[I] The men were not impressed. Devi was decapitated in front of her daughters and trees continued to fall.

Rather than retreat, Devi’s daughters followed suit and clung valiantly to two trunks . Within moments they too were beheaded by the maharajah’s men. It was not long before the whole village rose up in revolt. Men, women and children joined in, embracing the sacred trees upon which their survival depended. Heads continued to roll.

Bishnois from nearby villages joined the fight. An astonishing 363 people were slaughtered by the time the Maharajah intervened. He immediately issued a decree protecting their land from any future harm. Today, that statute is still in place. Logging and hunting in Bishnoi villages is strictly prohibited.

The Bishnoi martyrs paid a heavy price, but over the next three centuries such commitment to conservation would prove invaluable to their descendants. Living in a region with crippling droughts and limited natural resources, the Bishnoi have favored far better than other communities. They have staved off famine and avoided migration, thanks to a sacred code that treats plant and animal life with supreme respect. Their rugged self-sufficiency has made it possible to live richly in the desert for hundreds of years. That's a way of life worth defending, arguably, by any means necessary.

The legend of the Bishnois inspired other environmentalist groups in the 20th century, from the Chipko anti-logging movement in the Himalayas to tree-sitting protests on America’s Pacific Coast. But a video game? The Maharaja himself could not have pictured that.

Tree hugging, it turns out, is pretty badass. With a long history characterized by unwavering acts of bravery that today continues to inspire even our least suspecting heroes, the act hardly seems cause for insult. Clearly, whoever deemed hugging trees the domain of wimps, slackers and spoiled college students did not do his homework.

[i]Amrita Devi’s quote—“Sir santhe rooke rahe to bhi sasto jaan“—can be translated in several ways, including “A chopped head is cheaper than a felled tree” and “If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.”

Illustration: Cari Vander Yact