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The City Journals

Can't hug your friends? Hug a tree

May 15, 2020 11:12AM ● By Katy Whittingham

Sage Wahlen of Cottonwood Heights hugs a tree at Flat Iron Mesa Park in Sandy. (Photo courtesy Starr Wahlen)

By Katy Whittingham | [email protected]

For teens, many accustomed to spending time in groups with peers, social distancing can feel like torture. Season Wahlen, a 13-year-old Butler Middle School student, put in bluntly. “Not being able to see my friends is super hard.”

While she can FaceTime and text friends, it just isn’t the same. “Before the pandemic, I would see them almost every day.” Her 15-year-old brother, Sage Wahlen, a student at Brighton High School, agrees that nothing compares to spending time in person with friends. “Every weekend before this my friends and I would go hang out, spend the night at each other’s houses and go skateboarding in the morning.” He says FaceTiming with his girlfriend helps and “is fun” but is “way different than actually being there.”

The Icelandic Forest Service has one unique solution for teens and others seeking more direct contact during this time: hug a tree. The Service is encouraging people to hug trees while maintaining safe distances from loved ones and friends. Forest rangers at Hallormsstaður National Forest have been clearing paths for safe access to trees and, similar to the lines in grocery stores here, marking spacing of 6 feet distance between waiting tree huggers. 

Luckily, with the abundance of parks and trails in our backyard, there are many opportunities for tree hugging and other outdoor activities during social distancing with perhaps a little less regulation than Iceland has in place. While increased screen time is one way teens may be coping as they try to keep in touch with friends and continue their education during school closures, educators and professionals warn this should be balanced with time outside to unplug. A generally accepted 30-60 minutes of outside activity is recommended for teens and adolescents every day.

At over 30 acres, Flat Iron Mesa Park in Sandy has many opportunities for those looking to get outside while staying at a safe distance including three different walking/jogging trails ranging from 1/3 to 1 mile in length and many aligning trees, some donated and labeled by variety. However, of all the trees in the park, the one most “huggable” could be the tree near the start of the upper walking path and parking area that has been given a voice of sorts through an accompanying plaque with the poem titled, “Friends In A New Light.”

The poem, written according to the plaque by Thomas Silvertree, in the voice of the tree making comparisons between human friends and trees and ends with a last line that is particularly fitting. The poem begins, “I wouldn’t blame you for thinking/I’m only a tree/But, in truth I’m the best friend/somebody can be.” The speaker goes on to explain the support and love it wants to provide the reader and invites them to continue to visit. “And whenever you visit/I’ll savor the grin/Each time you realize, /I’m the air you breathe in.” The poem then concludes with a direct request for an embrace. “P.S. Let’s not brush this under the rug/If we are friends now, can’t I have a hug?”

Of course “tree hugging” and the power of nature has been studied and practiced for centuries before our current pandemic. The Japanese practice of “shinrin-yoku,” translated as forest bathing, has provided evidence of the benefits for mind and body. For Sage and Season, who live with their mother Starr Wahlen in Cottonwood Heights, finding time to be outside together as a family and individually even if just in their backyard has helped, although their mother says it has been difficult to deny them time with friends, some of whom are not social distancing.

However, for Starr, a nurse at Intermountain Medical Care on the Medical/Telemetry unit (currently the acute care designated COVID-19 unit), there’s no other choice. “We have been social distancing since day one and have eliminated all activities with the public. I know that I am keeping them safe,” she said.

According to Starr, her teens understand and are even positively influencing the actions of their friends. “Working on the frontlines has allowed me to share the reality of it with them,” she said. Daughter Season agrees and offers words of advice for other teens struggling with social distancing.

“Get some fresh air and sun and keep in contact with family and friends the best you can,” Season said. “Just remember that this will all be over soon, and we'll be able to see (and hug) each other again.”