Cook: Does a hug falling in the forest make a sound?

Cook: Does a hug falling in the forest make a sound?

December 14th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

When I was a teacher, every so often I'd invite my students to leave the classroom, go outside, find a tree and hug it.

Not a sideways hug. But a Christmas morning, welcome-to-grandma's-house-embrace. I might have even used the words "bear hug."

I don't remember for sure, but the tree-hugging lesson may have come when we were reading Anne Frank's diary. (Do you remember the chestnut tree outside the attic window?)

Or maybe it was when I realized the students could -- ho-hum -- identify any corporate logo I projected on the screen (the Nike swoosh, McDonald's yellow arches, the Apple apple) but couldn't do the same with an elm tree, a nuthatch or the leaves on a strawberry plant.

So they went hugging.

It was a sneaky trick. Really, I did it because I wanted them to fall in love.

Why? Because when we love something, we are humble before it.

Over the next few weeks, more and more arguments will emerge surrounding the proposed Chattanooga Village: a commercial and residential development planned over 190 acres of Hixson forest.

Opponents will talk about the increase in storm water runoff, Boy Scout Road traffic and a decrease in property values. Proponents of the development will respond. Politicians will make promises and claims.

(And the trees on the hilltop ... will just be silent).

Regardless of who wins, I fear that one question will remain unanswered. And it's a vital question. We ignore it at our peril.

What is at the center of things?

Is it us? Humans? The triumphant Homo sapiens?

Or is it something ... larger?

Drive down Highway 153 and you encounter two worlds. The first, navigable with a debit card, is full of wild buffalo wings, patio furniture and 15-minute oil changes.

It's where I shop for Christmas. Six lanes of traffic. Every material need is met here. Part of me is so happy there.

The second world is represented -- literally and symbolically -- by that 190-acre forest. Not just that forest, but every forest. The woods where no commerce occurs. Owls and grubs and sleeping snakes and fallen trees. The untouched land before the traffic lights. Where the wild things roam.

Thursday morning, as I drove by, the sunlight was coming through the empty trees, pale and thin like uncovered arms in the winter.

No one was there.

"What brought me fully to life as a child was the natural world," the writer Barry Lopez once told Bill Moyers.

Isn't that true? There are ways of knowing and understanding that can only happen by spending time in the natural world. The woods season us, giving us a backdrop or palate onto which we can make sense of the mysteries of our spirit and soul.

It's like they speak to us on a wavelength or frequency nothing else can.

(Jesus did not call himself the iPad of life. He did not fast for 30 days inside Best Buy. Muhammad had his revelation in a cave, Siddhartha found enlightenment under a tree, Jonah was reborn in a whale, Moses went barefoot before the burning bush, not a Burger King.)

We have mastered an understanding of the land that is utilitarian. Economic. Practical. It has brought us to some amazing places. It is miraculous, in a way, to stand in the middle of a Walmart store.

And every day, I benefit from this. Greatly. Comfortably. I prop my feet up each night in the name of progress and development.

But that's not the whole story. Remember, there are two worlds. We have embraced one. And I'm afraid we're losing the other.

The largest work of this 21st century is for us to remember and relearn that we are not at the center of things. This world is not ours to ... control.

"You can't direct the play,'' Lopez said. "The play is not directable.''

This play is Creation. The grand and mad symphony that is Life and every single ounce within it. It is the inherent and immeasurably valuable beauty and sacredness within that Hixson hilltop and within any hilltop.

The folks behind the Chattanooga Village proposal may cook up one of the most sustainable, visionary plans ever seen. They may decide not to develop. They may wreck the place.

What matters most is whether we -- all of us -- can summon the humility and reverence needed to balance both worlds. To embrace both worlds.

It's been some years, but I could swear that each time those students came back to the classroom from hugging those trees, they were smiling.

Like they remembered some sweet and grand thing that they had forgotten.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.