“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.”
- Kahlil Gibran
My first real job was at a tiny magical creative outdoor centre called Chakola. That special place, Derek the Director, the amazing people who worked there and the encounters with thousands of people changed my life. I was young, headstrong and wide eyed, like a dry sponge ready absorb so much knowledge about people. At the time I started, I thought it was about me teaching rock climbing, my passion at the time, but it turned out to ignite my passion for teaching and facilitating groups. Teaching leadership and teamwork, environmental values, art and even teaching people to teach. It was a very special step in my journey.
On the hand drawn map of Chakola there was marked a very magical tree, the ‘hugging tree’. The map was hand drawn and featured many references to Winnie the Poo which was a popular series to read to the young children. Particularly the story about Poo Sticks that always had them giggling at the cheeky innuendo of Christopher Robyn and Winnie the Poo racing poo sticks under the bridge.
Chakola was an outdoor adventure centre that was being run by Derek Lucas in Kangaroo Valley at the time. Thousands of children passed through its doors in a bid to introduce them to life skills and the environment through education in the Australian bush. Outdoor Education became my first real educational speciality.
There were many magical places such as Sacred Gorge and Hidden Valley, which was my favourite. It had a seemingly hidden entrance that was in the middle of a dry piece of Australian bush. We would crawl down a hole and with some scrambling we would come out in a small wonderland of rainforest in a sandstone slot bellow. I must dig up and scan my photography of that spot. Taken well before I understood that photography is about light.
We used to run an activity with the young kids called ‘Xploring’, if my memory serves me correctly. I would take my group of eight to ten year old children out into the bush, and spin a stick, just like spining a roulette wheel, except we would head in the direction of the stick for our exploration. An xpodition if you may. You see a stick has two ends, and I carefully wouldn’t specify which end to follow until I picked the direction that would help our journey. The area was full of cliffs so we would eventually hit the top of one and then follow it along always leading us the the same entrances. The entrances to magical worlds, of dark caves and miniature slot canyons. We would pull a torch out from our pack and start our journey into the unknown bellow. It felt like a true exploration for the kids.
We would always pretend it was the first visit ever into these magical places. No signs of our visits were ever left. We had stories to tell at particular locations, invented by outdoor leaders before us and handed down through a process of apprenticeships.
With these stories and planned discoveries it would be easy to have the children enchanted in the magic of the forest. How special a place it is, how it is full of magic and it’s importance in our lives. We would sit silently and let the magic envelope our whole beings as we listened to Mother Nature that held the space softly all around us. Often lyrebirds would oblige and sing beautiful songs just for us. You could hear the river and the rustle of leaves in the gentle breeze.
We felt connected.
Afterwards we would walk along the river bank and pass the magical hugging tree. It was one particular tree. It was small enough I could put my arms around it, but larger than the arms of the children. The bark was smooth and cuddly. Gentle and almost soft. We would tell the kids that by stopping and giving it a huge long hug filled with love, they would be blessed with good luck provided by the appreaciating tree. That the tree would suck up our negative energy and replace it with positive.
The children one by one would take turns for thier hug. They would close thier eyes and fully embrace that gorgeous tree. You could see them taking a deep breath, sigh with relaxation and a letting go. For a short time the tree embraced them with comfort and love.
Despite what you may believe, I witnessed the power of that tree, of beautiful hugs and hugging trees, hundreds of times over. It was so special and each hug filled with magic. Yes, there were those that didn’t commit to the hug and therefore got little, but that’s life isn’t it. You only get what you put in. Those that put in the biggest hugs got the biggest rewards.
Hugs were special at that place. Very, very special.
I can only guess how many children hugged that tree, hundreds, thousands, perhaps a couple of thousand. It was a tradition, one that had been passed along for years, perhaps twenty or thirty years. I don’t know when it started or when it stopped. I doubt the tradition survives today, or even survived the years the centre specialised in corporate training. But I do hope that tree has, imagine the stories it can tell of the countless people who hugged it.
Hugging Tree, not the original one for me, but one highly suited for a good long hug. Something I still do regularly. The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2019
Artist | Writer | Photographer | Educator | Adventurer