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Thoreau is sometimes taken to be a "tree-hugging dreamer". While I understand this is meant to be somewhat of a metaphor, the notion of him hugging trees in Walden is persistent and recurring in the literature.

However, I cannot find him describing such hugging in Walden. Would anyone know where he describes such an act (or a similar one) in the book or elsewhere?

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  • "Tree hugging" was not a thing until the 1970's Chipko movement. Before then the only occurrence of the words was in contexts like "She sat under her tree , hugging her sunwarmed arms"; after then it was an adjectival epithet of the environmental movement. Jul 10, 2022 at 19:09
  • Thank you! Although I did hear in a Podcast that Thoureau's physical affection to trees was some sort of sublimation for his (lack of?) physical affection to people (adding to the debate about his possible homosexuality etc.) - so I took it that he does indicate some sort of tree hugging (more poetically, of course!) somewhere in his work?
    – Bernd
    Jul 10, 2022 at 19:50
  • Ah, a podcast!! Jul 10, 2022 at 19:54
  • @kimchilover - in my defense, it was not just some snippet in a random podcast, but from an interview within the podcast, stated by the author of a recent biography on Thoreau (Frank Schäfer). But Tsundoku's reply below was immensly helpful!
    – Bernd
    Jul 14, 2022 at 10:56

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"Tree-hugging" is probably intended metaphorically. Thoreau wrote a lot about trees, not just in Walden but also in other writings. Below are a few examples.

On felling trees for his cabin (Walden: chapter 1, "Economy"):

Before I had done I was more the friend than the foe of the pine tree, though I had cut down some of them, having become better acquainted with it.

In the chapter "Baker Farm" (in Walden):

I know but one small grove of sizable trees left in the township, supposed by some to have been planted by the pigeons that were once baited with beech nuts near by; it is worth the while to see the silver grain sparkle when you split this wood; the bass; the hornbeam; the Celtis occidentalis, or false elm, of which we have but one well-grown; some taller mast of a pine, a shingle tree, or a more perfect hemlock than usual, standing like a pagoda in the midst of the woods; and many others I could mention. These were the shrines I visited both summer and winter.

In the chapter "The Ponds" (in Walden):

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. (...) The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.

In the chapter "House-Warming" (in Walden):

Occasionally I climbed and shook the trees.

And there are other writings that are relevant. Autumnal Tints is a long ode to trees.

In The Maine Woods, for example:

Is it the lumberman, then, who is the friend and lover of the pine, stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? (...) No! no! it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine, who does not fondle it with an axe, nor tickle it with a saw, nor stroke it with a plane, who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it, who has not bought the stumpage of the township on which it stands. All the pines shudder and heave a sigh when that man steps on the forest floor. No, it is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand.

In Walking:

We hug the earth,--how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more. We might climb a tree, at least. I found my account in climbing a tree once. It was a tall white pine, on the top of a hill; and though I got well pitched, I was well paid for it, for I discovered new mountains in the horizon which I had never seen before,—so much more of the earth and the heavens. I might have walked about the foot of the tree for threescore years and ten, and yet I certainly should never have seen them. (...)

In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:

There is something indescribably inspiriting and beautiful in the aspect of the forest skirting and occasionally jutting into the midst of new towns, which, like the sand-heaps of fresh fox-burrows, have sprung up in their midst. The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature.

In his journal, on 21 January 1852:

This winter they are cutting down our woods more seriously than ever,—Fair Haven Hill, Walden, Linnaea Borealis Wood, etc., etc. Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!

In short, there are many passages that testify to Thoreau's love for trees and that may lead critics to the judgement that he was (metaphorically) a "tree hugger".

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