Tree-Hugging Is About Trees and So Much More Than Trees by Carol P. Christ

Not too long ago I heard someone deride members of a seminar who were building labyrinths in the olive groves of Greece as “a bunch of tree-huggers.”  I bristled! I probably first heard of the Chipko tree-hugging movement which is led by women in the 1970s and 1980s. Because I love nature, I naturally assumed hugging trees is a good thing. Originally, I had no idea that the tree-hugging movement was about much more than saving trees from being felled in the interests of short-term profit.

I did not know that the deeper purpose of the movement is to save a way of life based on forest-culture that is being threatened by the imposition of western ideas and practices promoted by colonialism and its successor, the green revolution. Nor did I know that the traditional forest-culture of India is the provenance of women: more than 4000 years of observing and experimenting created a “women’s knowledge” passed down from mother to daughter.

I have long known that women invented agriculture 10,000 years ago in the middle east. (From there it spread north into Europe and east into South Asia.) I believe that the fact that women developed and controlled agriculture is the material basis for what have been called the Goddess cultures of the ancient world(s). Some say that the fact that women give birth is their root. Surely this was a factor, but in the Neolithic period (defined by the invention of agriculture), the powers of the female body were understood to mirror the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life.

In early agricultural societies, women not only gave birth to and nurtured children, they also “gave birth to and nurtured” plant life. Women understood the secrets of when and how to plant seeds, how to nurture young plants, how to keep plants alive, when to harvest, how to process and preserve vegetable products, and how to save and store seeds for the next year. In the Neolithic era, women were not only revered as birth-givers but as the nurturers and sustainers of life in virtue of their agricultural knowledge. It thus is not remarkable that Goddess “figurines” from the Neolithic are rarely pregnant or holding children. They are not fertility symbols in any limited sense: they represent the Source of Life.

Recent studies of egalitarian matriarchal societies reveal that they are matrilineal, with family identification and status being passed down through the female line, from mother to daughter. These societies are generally at the early stages of agriculture with small plots and most of the labor being done by hand or with simple tools. Property is held in common by the matrilineal clans: women’s ownership of land and extended family homes is at the heart of traditions of matrilineal descent; women’s traditional knowledge of how to nurture life in all of its forms is the other half of the equation. These societies tend to view the earth as a great and giving mother.

In her ground-breaking Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Survival in India (1988), nuclear physicist turned ecofeminist Vandana Shiva explains that the deep purpose of the tree-hugging movement is to save the traditional forest-culture of India which is controlled by women and has sustained life for more than forty centuries. While western environmentalism has often focused on saving “wild nature,” the trees being hugged in the Chipko movement are not wild in the western sense. Rather they have been tended and interacted with by Indian women. For example in Madhya Pradesh:

Although rice … and lesser millets… form the staple diet of the tribals, almost all of them supplement with seeds, grains, roots, rhizomes, leaves, and fruits of numerous wild plants which abound in the forests. …famine has never been a problem. (59)

Trees are lopped to provide firewood and wood for building, while manure from domestic animals is spread in the forests. Shiva notes that in addition to providing sustenance, forests help to conserve soil and water. Shiva states that forest management was in an evolved state when the British arrived. (60-61) She tells us that Indian women express and work in conjunction with a “feminine principle” called Prakriti, the creative and active source of all life.

Traditional forest-culture in India is both sustainable and bioregional, two goals of the environmental movement. People living in traditional villages are poor, but not impoverished because they have what they need to live and continue life. These villages are not profitable if profit is defined as having a product to sell or money to purchase products from outside sources.

Shiva explains further that as western economies have been driven by profit in the past several hundred years, westerners fail to see that sustainable economies do not need to be changed or developed. But if left as they are, they will not provide opportunities for colonizers and big businesses to profit from their resources or their labor or to sell them things they do not need.

Moreover, as Shiva shows, the western scientific paradigm by definition cannot appreciate the traditional knowledge of women working in conjunction with nature. The western scientific paradigm, which is rooted in classical dualisms derived from ancient Greece, defines rationality and knowledge as male capacities that stand in opposition to women and nature. As neither women nor nature are defined as having intelligence or value, modern science cannot recognize the intelligence and value in women’s traditional interactions with nature. This inability or unwillingness to see is underscored by the capitalist economic model which defines value in terms of profit.

The results are catastrophic. Traditional forests are cleared in order to plant mono-crops, including non-native trees such as the eucalyptus which require watering and deplete the water table. In order to provide water for irrigation, rivers are dammed and lands that were once fed by them become deserts. Women have to travel farther to collect water to sustain life for their families. Mono-crops are susceptible to insect predation and pesticides are applied. Land is poisoned. Traditional species that are resistant to insects because of selection and crop rotation are lost. Environmental disaster is created by programs designed to produce profit, profits are short-term, the sustainable economy can no longer be sustained, people become impoverished, and the cycle of death continues. Shiva has coined a word for this process: maldevelopment.

Next time you hear someone male and western laugh smugly at women who hug trees, please inform him of the errors in his thinking that make it impossible for him to understand the destruction that western models of knowledge and value are inflicting on women and nature and the ecosystems of the world.


Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Lasithi, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.



Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

15 thoughts on “Tree-Hugging Is About Trees and So Much More Than Trees by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Fantastic post, Carol. Thank you for reminding us of Vandana Shiva’s groundbreaking work. By coincidence, before I read your post this morning I was reading this article about some of the ways trees help their neighbours:
    and what happens when monoculture puts trees into plantations which ‘are not communities but crowds of mute, factory-farmed individuals’ with no ‘mother trees’, and with the natural bonds between trees broken. This seems like a metaphor for what has happened to human society, in Shiva’s India and elsewhere…

    As you know, I have been inspired by the ways that trees interact to build community and see in them a model we can follow in our dance communities, when we too work on a basis of mutual respect and support.

    Your post today puts this natural system of community-building into the larger perspective of human history and women’s rarely-acknowledged role as developers of agriculture. It is so important now that we learn about the options open to us as we seek new ways to live in harmony with the earth and with one another. We can learn so much from the egalitarian matriarchal and matrilineal societies you mention, and their ancient yet sophisticated ways of respecting and sustainably caring for the land. Thank you (and Vandana Shiva) for helping us remember and rediscover this wisdom.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Carol, thank you for this essay. I had no idea of the forest culture sustained by women. This has opened up new areas of thought for me. I wish women could reclaim our place in the natural order. It seems that men have done nothing but oppress us.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Carol, thank you for this beautiful article which is not onlybinformative, but gives us much to reflect on. The arrogance of westerners thinking we have superior knowledge and a bettercway has caused great harm.

    In a conversation with a doctor, who came here from India, we have also given them our western diseases by importing our SAD and fast food businesses. Prior to that, they ate a principally plant based diet, which would seem to align with what you see saying about the women’s agriculture.


  4. Brava! Thanks for your clear and persuasive thinking and writing about the importance of trees and the importance of women’s connection to trees and agriculture as a whole. We all know about the recent fires in California (not close to where I live, thank Goddess) and how lack of care of the forests leads to overgrowth, which gave the fires more fuel. California–and the whole world–needs women like Shiva to study and care for our forests. And men need to stop clear-cutting whole forests (as, possibly most famously, in Brazil) to plant mono-crops!


  5. On tree-hugging, I always wonder if the trees can feel themselves being hugged with love. They probably can, because the energy of our loving could easily pass through to the tree.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been hugging trees my whole life and I can say from experience that they are truly sentient beings. It’s hard to put into words just how much I love and respect these largest members of the plant kingdom. Thank you for sharing that I am not alone in this love affair with them.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Treetalker52, great comment. We know there are all sorts of mysteries out there in nature. Even in ancient Greek philosophy — there is this delightful saying too — “Nature loves to hide.”


  7. Great post, Carol. I’m reminded of Alice Walker’s character, Shug, in THE COLOR PURPLE who re-images God. Shug tells Celie, “My first step from the old white man was TREES (emphasis mine). Then air. Then birds. Then other people.” Can’t help but think that Walker was tapping into some ancestral wisdom here!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. What an extraordinary post Carol. For a woman who has always loved trees and plants, and whose life has been sustained by both physically, spiritually, and emotionally, reading this essay was pure joy. I did know about the forest culture and I think that women who are sensitive to nuance do feel that ancient connection/ relationship to trees. I never had trouble owning that I was a “tree hugger” although the phrase was clearly dismissive and dis -respectful – it’s intent to humilaite. Thank you so much!


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