People gather around the Children's Tree of Life, a 15-year-old New Zealand Christmas Tree, to give it a hug during Tree Hugging Day at Palisades Park on Tuesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

PALISADES PARK — Marcy Miller rested her head gently on the California palm tree, tears welling in her eyes as she embraced the trunk, memories of her now deceased father, once a worker in a lumber yard, flooding back.

“I have hugged trees before but it did not have the same impact,” she said.

The environmentalist drove to Santa Monica from Redondo Beach on Tuesday for the inaugural Tree Hugging Day, gathering at Palisades Park with about two dozen other locals in front of the Children’s Tree of Life for a group hug.

The event was organized by local peace activists Jerry and Marissa Rubin, the former cofounded and led the Santa Monica Treesavers, which famously made national headlines last year for its campaign to save 54 ficus trees in Downtown Santa Monica from being destroyed or relocated as part of a city-backed streetscape project.

That movement kicked off in the spring of 2007 when a group of tree activists rallied against the plan to remove 23 structurally deficient trees from Second and Fourth streets, nominating the group of ficuses for landmark designation and filing a lawsuit. Rubin even chained himself to one of the trees and was subsequently arrested. The 23 trees were eventually destroyed when the court ruled in City Hall’s favor in May 2008.

Rubin, who resigned from the Treesavers earlier this year, said the event has nothing to do with the battle with City Hall.

“This seems like it would be a positive way to show caring and appreciation for the trees as a community,” he said. “I’m tired of people that use the word ‘tree hugger’ in a disparaging way to demean an environmentalist.”

Regardless of the past, City Hall has endorsed Tree Hugging Day, issuing a commendation in which Mayor Ken Genser urged the community to join the Rubins by “hugging a tree to express love and appreciation for our urban forest and the benefits it provides to our city and our planet.”

The Board of Education with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees have also written letters in support, though there were no planned activities on either campuses.

Rubin even practiced hugging trees in preparation for the event, a feeling that he described as “wonderful.”

He set the celebration at the Children’s Tree of Life where a New Zealand Christmas tree was planted and dedicated on April 22, 1983. It’s also where the Rubins married 26 years ago and renewed their vows on their 25th anniversary.

“It’s more than an event, it’s a wonderful tree-loving endeavor,” Rubin said.

The Rubins read several poems to the crowd that had gathered around the tree, which included several tourists who had unknowingly wandered in, some leaving once they realized the purpose of the event. Others stayed to join the group hug, including a pair of tourists from Japan, who remarked “It’s a tree hug, they also have this in Japan.”

The group then dispersed, hugging trees all over Palisades Park before returning to talk about their feelings.

Rubin said he has already set the date for the second annual Tree Hugging Day, scheduled for the vernal equinox in 2010.

Absent from the celebration were several key leaders of the Treesavers, including Susan Hartley, who serves on the steering committee with Cosmo Bua, Linda Piera-Avila and Herb Silverstein.

Hartley, who co-founded Treesavers, said she’s busy saving trees.

“I don’t think we need a Tree Hugging Day,” she said. “We have Arbor Day and that’s a nationwide event.

“I just think people’s efforts would be better spent saving trees.”

The group has continued since Rubin resigned in June following a meeting when the Treesavers voted to formalize the organization with a new structure. Rubin said at the time that his decision to leave was not based on the restructuring of the group but rather a desire to work more cooperatively with city officials.

Hartley said the group has been successful in saving the New Zealand Christmas trees from the Big Blue Bus maintenance yard renovation and the Australian bunya bunya tree at Douglas Park. There’s another unspecified project in the works, she added.

She said that City Hall’s support of Tree Hugging Day points to a giant leap.

“It’s a great step in the right direction and we’re just hoping that they walk like they’re hugging,” Hartley said.

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