The Wanderer – Dr. Ruvik Rosenthal on Tree-huggers

Where does the term ‘tree-huggers’ come from? Ruvik Rosenthal, author and linguist, Israel Prize Laureate in journalism, and writer of Comprehensive Dictionary of Slang, Speaking in the Language of the Bible, The Veteran’s Song, The Linguistic Arena, and more… on the term that unnerves many nature lovers

Photo by pixabay

The term ‘tree-huggers’ has been present for over 50 years in many languages, particularly English. According to Webster’s Dictionary it first appeared in the press in 1965, with a limited definition: a person who supports forest conservation. However, its origin lies in an Indian movement that acted in the early 1970s, in the Gopeshwar township, against the intention to uproot trees in the district’s forests. In the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, the activists initiated non-violent resistance, by hugging trees, and were called ‘chipko’ in Hindi – ‘embracers’. Chipko is also the name of this resistance movement, which achieved much success. The movement spread throughout India and inspired opponents of environmental damage throughout the world, through ceremonies involving tree-hugging as a symbol of their protection.

From this point onwards, the custom, and the term that gave birth to it, took on a life of its own. On one hand, it was adopted by different movements that fought against attempts to cause harm to nature and against large industrial corporations. On the other hand, it became a negative symbol attributed to those who acknowledge only nature conservation, and ignore economic needs and progress. In the day, they were also identified with the ‘flower children’, and the custom of hugging trees was ridiculed. To a certain extent, this custom had a negative impact on the fight for conservation and sustainability in the past, due to its ridiculed, negative association.

And how are things in Israel? In the general discourse one still hears the stigma being used by opponents of the sustainability movement.


In the past, tree-huggers were considered weird people crazy about the environment. More and more it seems that activists for environmental quality are adopting the term ‘tree-huggers’ as a brand and symbol of the battle.

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Dr. Ruvik Rosenthal. Photo by Eric Sultan

A senior municipal employee of the Tel-Aviv Municipality said the following to cyclists who proposed paving cycling trails in the city: ‘You’re cute tree-huggers, but we won’t let you take us back to the jolly Stone Age’. The year: 1994. The said employee went underground.

An opponent of the Shalit Deal defines the supporters of his release as ‘The State of Mitzpe Hila’ and in his opinion, ‘This group of tree-huggers from the Galillee has the country wrapped around its little finger’. The year: 2010.

A response in the media: ‘Pig-huggers in Haifa, tree-huggers in Tel Aviv: Local craziness has apparently never seen better days’. The year: 2021.

The attitude is actually more complex among those who transitioned to supporting sustainability and are concerned about the stigma attached to ‘tree-huggers’.

The oldest tree-hugger in nature is the koala. Photo by Pixabay

The Minister for Environmental Protection, Gilad Arden, used to describe the change occurring with regard to environmental issues with the following words: ‘Tree-huggers no longer’ (2011).

The introduction to a publication by the Heschel Center dealing with ‘environmental thinking’: ‘Those who desire to take nature seriously are considered ‘tree-huggers’ who prefer insects over humans and their really important problems’.

The director of the regional unit for environmental quality asks: ‘Are the employees of the environmental units… considered ‘tree-huggers’ who hinder development, or an essential factor influencing the quality of life of the residents?’ The year: 2015.

More and more it seems that activists for environmental quality are adopting the term ‘tree-huggers’ as a brand and symbol of the battle.

‘In the past, tree-huggers were considered weird people crazy about the environment; today the Ministry of Agriculture and the Da-Gan Center are launching a special project in preschools: ‘Hug a Tree – Preschool Children Acting for Trees’ (Epoch Times in Hebrew, 2011).

The members of ‘The Green Network’: ‘We’re tree-huggers and proud of it!’

Here’s a zoological anecdote to end with. The oldest tree-hugger in nature is the koala, that Australian animal that customarily hugs trees. Researchers claim the reason is that in the heavy heat of the Australian summer, the tree, whose temperature is far lower than that of the air, serves as a source of cooling for the koala. One of the researchers recounts: ‘If we had thermal vision, we would be able to see the koalas sitting on the coolest part of the trunk, while their backside is located at exactly the coolest point.’

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