I am currently reading Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary by Henry Hitchings. He remarked that Samuel Johnson liked to hug a lime tree.
“… there were more immediately analgesic rewards to be had from visiting the Strahans’ home. In the courtyard stood a lime tree which Johnson, in moments of abstraction, liked to hug.”
Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary
Hug a lime tree?
I Googled and found this very old newspaper article;
“Dr. Johnson’s Tree.
“We esteem it highly creditable to this country that the name of Dr. Johnson still retains its freshness. Notwithstanding his faults of manner, his literary and moral qualities command respect. Everything published respecting him attracts attention. The house in which a great man has lived and the tree which he planted are acknowledged objects of veneration. When all this is exhausted we may perhaps be excused for going a step further. In New-street, Shoe-lane, until within a few weeks stood an old house, the property of Mr. William Spottiswoods, formerly the residence of his great-grandfather, Mr. Strahan, the great friend of Dr. Johnson. Its removal has exposed to public view an old lime-tree, known by the name of “Dr. Johnson’s Tree;” not that it was planted by him, as it appears to have been a full-grown tree in his time, but from the peculiar notice he seems to have taken of it. The Doctor was a frequent visitor at the house. It is related that in some of his particular fits of abstraction the Doctor would go out, regardless of weather and even without his hat, and would hug this tree for a considerable time, apparently absorbed in his own thoughts and heeding nothing around him. There were then and for half a century after his death several other trees in the same garden, but they have all given way to time and the atmosphere of an increasing town. The house itself, which was built immediately after the Great Fire of London, worn out with hard work, has been obliged to give way to one more vigorous and better suited to the requirements of the day and even “Dr. Johnson’s Tree,” although it has outlived its former association is not destined to survive long, its top being decayed and showing every year less vitality. ”
Dr. Johnson’s Tree.
The Illustrated London News Saturday, March 16, 1861
Samuel Johnson died in December of 1784. He started work on the Dictionary in 1746. It was first published in 1755, but he continued to work on revisions and an abridged edition for years. (One of the assistants, Alexander Macbean, seems to have sneaked a bit of his own poetry in without Johnson noticing. It was removed in the fourth edition.)
So, this newspaper article was about a hundred years after the tree hugging.
Why Did Dr. Johnson Hug a Lime Tree?
I looked in his dictionary to see if that might give me some reason.
Here is his definition of tree. It seems very complete, although by vegetable it seems the definition comes from “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.”
It isn’t an animal of a mineral, so a tree is a “large vegetable.”
However, I detect no affection.
A large vegetable rising, with one woody stem, to a considerable height.
Trees and shrubs, of our native growth in England, are distinguished by Ray. 1. Such as have their flowers disjointed and remote from the fruit; and these are, 1. Nuciferous ones; as, the walnut tree, the hazel-nut tree, the beach, the chesnut, and the common oak. 2. Coniferous ones; of this kind are the Scotch firs, male and female; the pine, the common alder tree, and the birch tree. 3. Bacciferous; as, the juniper and yew trees. 4. Lanigerous ones; as, the black, white, and trembling poplar, willows, and osiers of all kinds. 5. Such as bear their seeds, having an imperfect flower, in leafy membranes; as, the horse-bean. 6. Such as have their fruits and flowers contiguous; of these some are pomiferous; as, apples and pears: and some bacciferous; as, the sorb or service tree, the white or hawthorn, the wild rose, sweet brier, currants, the great bilbery bush, honeysuckle, joy. Pruniferous ones, whose fruit is pretty large and soft, with a stone in the middle; as, the black-thorn or sloe tree, the black and white bullace tree, the black cherry, &c. Bacciferous ones; as, the strawberry tree in the west of Ireland, mistletoe, water elder, the dwarf, a large laurel, the viburnum or way-fairing tree, the dog-berry tree, the sea black thorn, the berry-bearing elder, the privet barberry, common elder, the holy, the buckthorn, the berry-bearing heath, the bramble, and spindle tree or prickwood. Such as have their fruit dry when ripe; as, the bladder nut tree, the box tree, the common elm and ash, the maple, the gaule or sweet willow, common heath, broom, dryers wood, furze or gorse, the lime tree, &c. Miller.
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air. Shakesp. Ant. and Cleopatra.
Who can bid the tree unfix his earth-bound root. Shak.
It is pleasant to look upon a tree in Summer covered with green leaves, decked with blossoms, or laden with fruit, and casting a pleasant shade: but to consider how this tree sprang from a little seed, how nature shaped and fed it till it came to this greatness, is a more rational pleasure. Burnet.
Trees shoot up in one great stem, and at a good distance from the earth, spread into branches: thus gooseberries are shrubs, and oaks are trees. Locke.
Any thing branched out.
Vain are their hopes who fancy to inherit,
By trees of pedigrees, or fame or merit:
Though plodding heralds through each branch may trace
Old captains and dictators of their race. Dryden.
Definition of Tree, A Dictionary of the English language in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers: to which are prefixed, a history of the language, and an English grammar, Volume 4
By Samuel Johnson
OCD or Tourette’s?
The newspaper article says; “in some of his particular fits of abstraction the Doctor would… hug this tree for a considerable time, apparently absorbed in his own thoughts and heeding nothing around him.” The book I’m reading that started this whole thing, Defining the World, by Henry Hitchings says that the current view is that Samuel Johnson likely had Tourette’s syndrome.
Johnson’s friends noted that he had constant and uncontrollable tics and gesticulations and additionally, he used to vocalize grunting, groaning and whistling sounds which startled them. He had compulsive habits like, touching each and every lamp post in London while walking and in case he overlooked one, he used to stop all conversations with his fellow-travellers and rush back in order to feel it, as if to get rid of some kind of inner urge. He also seemed to measure his footsteps while leaving the room. All these features almost compellingly suggest that he was a victim of Tourette syndrome.
Fanny Burney, a contemporary diarist who saw him from close quarters, described him in the following way.
‘His mouth is almost constantly opening and shutting as if he were chewing. He has a strange method of frequently twirling his fingers and twisting his hands. His body is in continual agitation seesawing up and down; his feet are never a moment quiet; and in short, his whole person is in continuous motion.’
And furthermore, Frances Reynolds, the sister of Sir Joshua Reynolds, wrote, that the gesticulations were so curious that “men, women, and children gathered around him, laughing”.
Famous people with Tourette’s syndrome
Dr. Samuel Johnson (yes) & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (maybe) Victims of Tourette’s syndrome?
Kalyan B. Bhattacharyya and Saurabh Rai
Sounds like Monk and then some.
I can’t find anything about people with Tourette’s hugging trees. A lot of the articles that I read seem to suggest that rough textures would be really irritating. Lime tree bark is “smooth and grey in saplings; more grooved with age.” (www.discoverwildlife.com/plant-facts/plant-id/how-to-identify-a-tree-from-its-bark/)
So, was it smooth?
Perhaps it was calming, like a weighted blanket. I have zero expertise. My total knowledge comes from a Google search and watching all eight seasons of Monk more than once.
While I am writing this, we are under a mandatory stay at home order because of Covid 19. Social distancing means no handshakes. No hugs. Not even your pets. (Although I can’t see how my dog is going to catch anything. He leaves even less than I do now.)
So, if you need to hug, why not hug a tree?
This painting from 1914 shows a lot of people not social distancing.
The same painting looks much different just four years or so later during the 1918 Flu Pandemic.*
I’m not the first person to have thought of this. I found a lot of photos of people hugging trees.
This girl is learning young.
This boy takes tree hugging to new heights.
I found a lot of photos that seem to indicate that people prefer to hug very large trees.
Men, women and children can hug trees if they really need to hug a living thing.
Koalas hug trees all the time. I found very few photos of koalas not hugging a tree.
Trees even hug trees.
How to Hug a Tree
Want to know how to get started? I found a handy diagram on how to hug a tree.
You can practice anywhere.
Then, when you go outside, someone six feet away will never guess that you are an inexperienced tree hugger.
*This is not a real painting. I photoshopped it.
** This is actually a diagram showing how to do a tree hug exercise after breast reconstruction surgery.
Author Cancer Research UK from Wikimedia Commons.
Cancer Research UK / Wikimedia Commons
Tree hug with deep breath
Imagine that you are hugging a tree in front of you. Clasp your hands together at the front on either side of the tree. Take a deep breath to stretch the muscles around your shoulder blades.
***This is not a real diagram. I photoshopped it.
I mean absolutely no disrespect toward anyone whose life has been touched by cancer.