Getting back to nature

How does it feel to hug a tree? I seem to know exactly: arms stretched out around a trunk too impossibly big to encompass; cheek…

How does it feel to hug a tree? I seem to know exactly: arms stretched out around a trunk too impossibly big to encompass; cheek and thighs pressed up against bark that is smooth and satiny, yet fiercely hard.

That suggests a beech tree, perhaps one of those muscular columns, gleaming like pewter in a winter sun, that grew at Chanctonbury Ring, high on the South Downs in Sussex, county of Belloc and my youth. I seem to know the shock of the tree's surging substance, its towering weight and mass.

Half a century on from a teenager's randy impulse, tree-hugging is given other implications, most of them still nobly pagan. As a sensual, revelatory connection with the living earth, it has much to commend it. The eco-warriors of the Glen of the Downs borrowed their strength from the leafy embrace of oaks.

Thinking like a mountain is a ritual I find easier, having Mweelrea within sight of my armchair. I can fly to the summit and watch the ghosts of eagles sailing out to the islands. I can think my way in through the mountain's sandstone folds to the spectacular volcanoes of the Iapetus, the ocean before this one. Or, in a fit of SAD, I can share the pain of Mweelrea, stripped of its heather, skinned and scarred by overgrazing and erosion.


"Thinking like a mountain" should sound familiar. The phrase has been around since the 1980s, when John Seed, the Australian ecologist, published a book with this title - one of the more potent products of the deep ecology movement. What, to take this first, is the shallower kind? It is the virtuous idea that we should be stewards of nature - well-meaning, broadly benevolent, but still very much the anthropocentric boss.

Deep ecology was fathered by Arne Naess, an Oslo philosophy professor. It reinstates us firmly within nature, living as one species among many. It wants to reduce human populations to the point where our real needs are in balance with the ecosystems in which we live, and where we can use and recycle energy in the ways that nature does. These principles sustain the new field of eco-ethics.

The other half of deep ecology is about the human benefit, the feelgood factor that comes from connecting with the planet. It is about discovering a self that exists apart from air-conditioning, mobile phones and bottled water and that responds to the idea of Gaia, the Earth as superorganism.

Human drives to bigness are all oppressive: big cities, buildings and dams, transnational corporations, monolithic political parties. Deep ecology looks to nature for diversity and the human scale, and for realities of feeling that have been swamped by the fictions of a technological culture. What it values in the Internet is its communal anarchy, its moist, underground threads of resistance to the world of corporate boardrooms.

Heady stuff, perhaps, for modest organic gardeners, but deep ecology types come in all sizes, from Californian poets to Russian physicists: even some of Ireland's environmental scientists. Comparatively few of them, however, will have been through the rituals devised by John Seed in the name of "ecotherapy". His weekend workshops feature a "Council of All Beings", a psychodrama which may, indeed, involve hugging a tree. Participants choose an ally in the natural world, make a mask to represent it, and give voice to "the sounds of the Earth crying".

When Seed began these workshops in 1987, he says, "they tended to fill with hippies, pagans and witches". Now, especially in the US (where else?), more and more therapists and psychologists join in to explore "a deep longing for reconnection with the Earth". How, I wonder, will the Irish respond to his coming workshop in Tullow, Co Carlow (March 24th-26th: £70, plus accommodation - details below) and to an evening of "Conversations on Deep Ecology with John Seed" in the Walton Theatre Arts Building in Trinity College, Dublin, on Monday, March 27th?

Meanwhile, there are many good vibes to be felt just now in the Irish world of trees and timber. Seed's credentials as rainforest conservationist (the Australian government gave him a medal in 1995) will strike a chord with Just Forests, the campaigning conservation organisation based in Co Offaly. Its first 10 years, described in an anniversary publication (details below) have done wonders in getting people to care more about where our hardwood timber comes from.

Just Forests was founded by Tom Roche, a much-travelled cabinet-maker who settled in Tullamore. It started life as Irish Woodworkers for Africa, concerned about our imports of iroko and other hardwoods from fragile ecosystems - helping to undo, very often, just the sort of local development that Irish missionaries and aid agencies have helped to build. We still import the equivalent of 25 acres of African forests every day, but a new Irish timber buyers' group now seeks its wood from ecologically managed and independently certified sources.

Our own forestry comes into this, too. Just Forests is linked with the international Forest Stewardship Council, which sets standards for good forest management. An FSC Irish standard, prepared after wide consultation by Tony Mannion, president of the Society of Irish Foresters, is now in its final draft, and Coillte has announced that it intends to seek FSC certification. Soon, all the wood we use, hardwood or soft, should have a protective pedigree.

High on the check-list of certification is concern for biodiversity. This applies even to plantation forestry, once thought of as synonymous with the needs of monocultures. Protecting important species and habitats and diverse wildlife communities is one of the main principles of the new FSC Irish standard, and "Enhancing Biodiversity in Plantation Forests" is the theme of the annual symposium of the Society of Irish Foresters, in the Stand Hotel on the Curragh, Co Kildare, on March 31st.

For details on John Seed's workshop contact Dolores Whelan, Ravensdale, Dundalk (042-9371901;

Just Forests News is available from Just Forests, Bury Quay, Tullamore, Co Offaly, price £3.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author