As of late August, the world has a brand-new champion in tree hugging: Stefania D from Italy. At a tree-hugging competition held by HaliPuu in Levi, in the Finnish Lapland, she emerged the winner by giving her all to the woody embrace.
We have been forced into physical distancing and social isolation by the threat of the coronavirus; masks are mandatory and hugs are avoided. But if we cannot hug our friends and family with happy abandon, how about hugging a tree instead? And if we cannot step out of homes to do this, how about experiencing it online instead? Enter, HaliPuu.
The Raekallio family that own the HaliPuu forest are avid tree huggers. They are also passionate evangelists of tree hugging, eager to tell the world to go hug a tree today.
The family runs the HaliPuu tree adoption website — adopt a Lappish pine tree for life, and virtually experience the sounds and sights of a Finnish forest in the Arctic region. Tree lovers can visit the HaliPuu forest to meet their tree, gift their trees to others, or experience it through the Forest in Your Pocket smartphone app.
The story of HaliPuu started at the time of the Second World War, when the patriarch Kaarle Raekallio’s family were forced to flee their home in Pechenga (now in Russia) to Finland. The Finnish government gave them a piece of the forest to help them settle into their new life. And the forest has been their source of income and shelter, pride and joy ever since.
As a lumberjack, Kaarle Raekallio, known fondly as Pappa, always had a symbiotic relationship with the forest. He knew he had to cut the trees for timber to make a living. But he also knew it took a long time for trees to grow in this part of the world. So, a few years ago, he decided to save his beloved forest by sharing it with the world. And that is how HaliPuu — literally meaning “a tree to hug” — was born.
Pappa’s daughter Riitta Raekallio-Wunderink, who manages the company, says over Skype, “My father grew up in this forest and worked there all his life. He knew how to use the forest to revive himself — he would lean against a tree to relax or drink the sap from the birch tree for energy. And hugging trees was a lesson he learned from his mother.”
This year, for the first time, the family conducted a Tree Hugging Championship, where competitors were judged in three different events — speed hugging (the most trees hugged in 90 seconds, with a minimum for 5 seconds for each tree), dedication (the most passionate hug, lasting at least one minute) and freestyle (most creative hug, for a maximum of 30 seconds).
The fun event was planned before the pandemic hit, but it was still held on a smaller scale. Tree huggers representing ten countries, including Australia, Malaysia, Russia, Estonia, the UK and of course Finland, took part — all of them are residents of Levi and did not need to travel for the event. The contest was judged by three experts and was viewed by over 12,000 people globally on social media.
Following this, an online contest was held, which people all over the world joined by sharing a photo of themselves hugging their favourite tree. Riitta has been posting the entries on a world map of trees, and she hopes to build a large collection from many more countries.
Riitta claims from her own experience that hugging trees creates a feeling of mental well-being and a strong connection between the body and mind. “When I hug a tree, I can feel all the worries and stress just flushing away,” she says.
The HaliPuu family’s claim is backed up by science. Research has shown that tree hugging can be a therapeutic wellness experience, with the release of the hormones serotonin and dopamine making you feel happier and calmer, while giving you a natural high.
Just being connected with nature has been proven to be better for physical and mental health. Hugging trees deepens this connection, while sending a rush of the love hormone oxytocin coursing through the body. Tree hugging may just be the eco-wellness activity we never knew we needed until now.