There are three ways to hug a tree, in case you’ve ever wondered.
First, you must stand with your legs wide open, instructs self-declared ‘forest fairy’ Margherita De Carli. Wrapping her arms around a larch tree in the Coler area of Trentino’s Val di Rabbi, she closes her eyes and breathes deeply as if in a yogic trance, pressing her solar plexus against the scaly bark.
The other two options?
Reversing the pose, strap yourself to the evergreen – reminiscent of an Eighties environmental protester, or simply lean against its towering trunk, arms neatly folded into the small of your back.
The choice, explains Margherita, is completely personal. “It depends whether you like it from the front or from behind,” she whispers, naively unaware of the innuendo igniting playground snickers with the speed and ferocity of a woodland wildfire.
Jokes aside, making love to nature has frequently been proposed as a tonic for troubled times. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Icelandic Forest Service urged people to go out and hug trees as a curative for social distancing blues. Tree crushers worldwide were invited to unite with the hashtag #knusumtre, posting their clinches with conifers on social media.
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In this time of social distancing the Icelandic Forest Service has some good advice: can’t hug a person? Hug a tree! Trees are probably the best friends the human race has ever had, and hugging one can (probably) relieve stress and loneliness. Our advice? Avoid the spiky bits. ⠀ ⠀ Picture via skogur.is⠀ ⠀ #knusumtre #hugatree #treehugging
Embracing the theme further, Finnish community HaliPuu held the world’s first TreeHugging World Championships in August, with competitors performing remotely in three different events: speed hugging, dedication, and freestyle. The winner, referred to as Italian Stefania D, was applauded by judges for her “convincingly caring and insightfully profound” way of “encountering the trees”.
It might all sound barking mad, but it’s far from it.
When the world feels destabilized and unpredictable, there’s something solid, comforting, and reliable about a living organism that’s been rooted to the same spot for decades, its welcoming boughs providing a safe habitat for creatures large and small.
Hard science also underpins the appeal of forest bathing.
“This area has a large amount of negative ions in the atmosphere, thanks to the presence of a waterfall,” explains Margherita, pointing to the nearby Saent cascade, a torrent of pure mountain water, tearing down the steep, forested valley like a white lightening bolt.
It’s a theory explained by Italian bio-researcher Marco Nieri in his book, The Secret Therapy of Trees, where he credits negative ionization for “cleaning the atmosphere” and having a beneficial impact on “psychological well-being”. The effect is more acutely felt in mountainous areas, due to the altitude and abundance of peaks.
Margherita’s tree hugging tuition is the culmination of a new forest trail, where hikers are encouraged to walk barefoot over a bed of bouncy pinecones to improve posture and wade through refreshing streams to boost circulation. “That’s how I got my Brazilian bum,” smirks the naturopath, who claims she practices tree-hugging daily.
Historically, these forests have always been a valuable commodity. A network of medieval castles and fortresses is testimony to fierce battles fought over the region, when armies from the Republic of Venice would come to steal timber for building ships.
Lying at the heart of the Italian Alps, sandwiched between the Dolomites and Lake Garda, Trentino is one of Italy’s five semi-autonomous states; a 2.5-hour drive from the closest airport in Verona, it feels pleasingly remote.
Wooden chalets with flower-filled window boxes wind around frescoed stone churches in the Val di Sole at the entrance to Stelvio National Park. Cow bells peel from valleys bristling with conifers and sunbeams strike sawtooth peaks like roving spotlights. But even more dramatic is the air – so clean, fresh, and pure, it’s a shock to breathe.
Although charming in warm weather, the region is best known for its ski resorts. Yet a question mark still hangs over what the future might hold. Europe’s coronavirus outbreak supposedly started in neighboring Lombardy, decimating Italy and resulting in a lockdown so fiercely policed, residents were unable to leave their homes for several weeks.
Given both the financial and mental health implications, the idea of a repeat performance is unthinkable. “You may as well line everyone up against a wall and shoot them,” sighs young mountain guide Giacomo Bertololini, who – like everyone – is relieved to be back outdoors.
Fears for the winter season have, however, been softened by a successful summer. Giacomo adds that many Italians have discovered the mountains for the first time this year – hiking along trails scented with wild thyme, waking up in 3,500m-high cabins as the sun paints ranges pink, or searching for ibex between forests and clouds.
A world away from big bad wolves and grumpy bears, there’s a reason fairytales are set in forests; in the rustling of leaves and the swaying of boughs, this is where the magic happens.
It’s a notion too big, bold, and overwhelming to grasp.