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"Tree-Hugger": Where'd the Word Come From?

4 mins

“Tree-Hugger” is rarely (never) offered as a compliment. The term is generally intended to lightly mock someone as laughably naive, irrational, and blindly devoted to “nature”. On this Indigenous People's Day, let's look at the actual history of the term.

Table of Contents

“Tree-Hugger” is rarely (never) offered as a compliment. The term is intended to mock someone as laughably naive, irrational, uninformed, and blindly devoted to “nature”. Yes, we can call it broad-brush name-calling.

What’s more, the celebrity environmentalist — an energized spokesperson of some renown from the entertainment industry (and arguably an inadvertent American invention) — tends to increase the ire of people who already think conservancy and ecological activism are the fussy, phony, and hollow posturings of single-issue attention-seekers. 

So it is that the commendable efforts of our celebrities to draw attention to environmental crises can sometimes make the activism itself seem like a component of the celebrity ecosytem, however genuine the motivation. 

As counterpoint, indigenous spokespersons speaking out on our increasingly ravaged ecology rarely make the evening news or People magazine, though they may be assumed to have a deeper cultural embrace of the issue, and an understanding whose particulars may suggest remedies.

Environmentalism We Can all Laugh At

“Brazil’s national space research institute says forest clearing in the Amazon in the first two months of 2022 comes to about 166 square miles. That’s more than twice the January-February average over the past ten years.”

“Okay, tree-hugger.”

Tree Hugger, usually proffered with a high-minded chuckle, generally means an ineffectual dope lost in a cause that is itself meaningless and effete. The term’s origins say otherwise.

Whatever one's position on mitigating the damage being done to "nature" in this industrialized day and age, the discussion is not an easy one and the issues are not easily parsed. 

The battle between the Tennessee Valley Authority and the endangered Snail Darter (Percina tanasi) perfectly encapsulates how ambiguous, legally and ethically, are the outcomes of certain aspects of environmental activism. There are no easy answers.

On this Indigenous People's Day, let's take a look at the derivation of the term "Tree Hugger" and see just how playful the original tree huggers were. The term did not arise from Hollywood's A-list.

The Khejarli Massacre

On September 12, 1730, a crowd of soldiers arrived at a village in northern India called Khejarli. The Bishnoi People lived there, practitioners of the teachings of a guy named Guru Jambheshwar.

Some 250 years before, Guru Jambheshwar had founded a sub-sect of one of Hinduism’s major denominations, calling his guided series of teachings the Bishnoi Panth.

The sect comprised 29 principles,  chief among them a prohibition agains killing animals or cutting down trees.

The Khejri tree was considered particularly sacred to the Bishnoi.

Wanted: One Palace

As can happen, the regional ruler — a palace enthusiast named Maharaja Abhai Singh — set his sights on the heavily wooded Khejarli district, where the Khejri trees grew in abundance. He wanted the trees for their wood, and he wanted many of the trees to be burned for production of lime, which could be mixed with rice to make a strong mortar.

memorial commemorating 363 Bishnois who died near Khejarli Village, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

Maharaja Abhai Singh dispatched a small army of soldiers to the area and they got to work chopping down the Khejri trees. The Bishnoi were aghast and begged the soldiers to stop, but they had their orders.

"Okay, Tree-Hugger"

It was then that a Bishnoi woman named Amrita Devi sprinted into the middle of the commotion and threw her arms around a Khejri tree, at which point a solder removed the tree-hugger's head with a sword. Her three daughters ran forward and followed suit, and were likewise decapitated.

Soon enough, Bishnoi people from 84 surrounding villages flooded into Khejarli, wrapping their arms around the threatened Khejri trees and being summarily killed by the soldiers.

These original tree-huggers were not going to make it easy on Maharaja Abhai Singh and his soldiers, and by the time the killing stopped 362 Bishnoi “tree-huggers” had given their lives.

As Amrita Devi said in the moments before her own life was taken, "If a tree is saved even at the cost of one's head, it's worth it.”

Regional Sultan Scales Back His Architectural Ambitions

Word of the ongoing massacre got back to Maharaja Abhai Singh -- for whose palace all the killing was being done -- and he immediately canceled his orders for the soldiery and decreed that no more Khejri trees be cut down. 

Today a Bishnoi Temple stands near Khejarli Village, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.

Tree Hugging

Today’s tree huggers come with a variety of motivations, strategies, and philosophical leanings. But know that if someone calls you out as a “tree hugger”, there is an historical antecedent that gives the intended insult gravity beyond what the accuser intends.

The debate must continue, and it is an endlessly nuanced one, with statistical "certainty" provided by both sides. May opposing viewpoints find sufficient common ground to protect our planet-sized lifeboat from irreparable damage. There's a lot riding on it.


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