Why Build a Treehouse?
If you have found your way here, you must have, at some point in your life, contemplated building a treehouse. Perhaps on a trip to DIsney, or the Bronx Zoo the thought struck you of how compelling the tree-dwellings at those places or others like them are. You may be a parent whose child has begun a relentless campaign to convince you to build one for them. Maybe it was when you were young yourself, and some TV show, movie, or book, like Tarzan or The Swiss Family Robinson placed the thought in your mind that a refuge in the branches of that big tree in your backyard was exactly what you needed.
I personally had the experience of my closest childhood friend having a terrific open air platform some 20 feet up in a mighty oak tree in his small backyard. I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island NY, which, for those of you who know the area, know that it is a place covered in concrete and blacktop. Most of the hardwoods there, which could cradle the perfect treehouse in there majestic limbs, were on town- or city- owned property, and the private property owners who had good trees were not as inclined to subject themselves to the possible liability of building a treehouse as my freind's father was. We spent many an afternoon tossing waterballoons over the rails of that small deck at his older brothers, and occasionally we would be allowed to clambor up the 2x4 ladder with our sleeping bags and flashlights to spend the night in open air suspened high above the neighborhood. Sadly, by the time we were 10, my freind's father decided to put a swimming pool in their small backyard, and the millions of leaves that giant oak produced were not going to be welcome in that pool. The tree and its dwelling were removed shortly thereafter.
Thankfully, my time in the trees didn't end there. In my teenage years, I had the good fortune of convincing my Grandfather to let me build my very own arboreal cabin on the land behind his country home. When he agreed to help me, I began a most vigorous search for the perfect tree. I spent days wandering throught the forest with my neck craned, peering up into the branches, eyes squinting in the sun, looking for the perfect tree to hold the elaborate structure I had constructed in my mind. I found a stand of oak trees, which I now know to be well over a century old, towering some sixty to eighty feet into the sky. The branches I picked to build on were at least forty-five feet up, which at that age may as well have been a mile high. When I brought my grandfather there to show him this clearly excellent location to begin construction, I'll never forget what he said to me. He turned, and looked me square in my thirteen year old eyes and said, "Are you nuts? Your mother would kill me if we built something that high up and you fall out of it! Come on I've got the perfect tree for you. Let's get out of here."
My grandfather must have been secretly harboring his own desire to build that treehouse for quite some time, because he knew right where he wanted us to build. He brought me to a lone maple tree, standing in the middle of an open field on a hillside behind the house. It was a mighty tree whose limbs were strong and shaped in a way that was perfect to cradle the small fortress I had invisioned. Those limbs were also approvingly closer to the ground, at only about sixteen feet up. My grandfather and I spent the next three days with chainsaws, handtools, and lumber we had salveged from old sheep stalls in his barn, building that treehouse.
I was fervently committed to having a roof and walls which would let us spend our days there in the most inclement of weather conditions. He obliged me by laying down a plastic tarp on the plywood roof, and subsequently layering aluminum above that. My freinds and I spent many years enjoying that structure in rain, sleet, and snow, and it was only when the thunderstorms came in the summer that my grandfathers voice would come across the walkie-talkies we kept there calling us back to the house, for fear of lightning strikes on that metal roof.
The old wood from those sheep stalls was transformed from some musty, dusty old barn lumber to small palace for us. My freind, who now had a pool in his backyard, spent many summers with me at my grandfather's house. We went through many of the rituals of teenage boys there. Our waterballons graduated to fireworks, our slingshots to air rifles. The nites we spent in that building no longer heard discussions of G.I. Joes and Transformers, but of girls and dirtbikes. We collected all manner of small treasures from street signs we found in old barns to furniture we picked from the curbs of our Long Island neighboors when they discarded it, for furnishing. The walls were decorated with MAD magazines, and other unmentionably illicit magazine photographs!
To say that place was a refuge for us would be an understatement. The time spent high above the ground was time away from the mundane and borish tedium of the evereryday. We grew courageous climbing in the branches, and in the dark nights alone on that hillside. The sounds the forest would make around us in the dark were terrifying when we were fourteen, but there are few things as comforting to me now as those sounds. We found confidence, and self assurance when we would break out hacksaws and hammers to add to our fort. Streetsigns were notched and hung as tables, windows were cut out and installed. We learned, as countless before us have, that we could build and create what we saw in our minds if we were willing to work hard. On the days when the wind would buffet the little house we would revel in the movement of the tree around us, and the sense of freedom and exhilaration it brought to us.
So, Why Build a Treehouse?
When i was in my early twenties I was in bookstore one afternoon, and I happened to stumble across a book on treehouses. Before I realized it, I was on my way home with it, and a receipt for $19.99 in a bag on my passenger seat. I had ended up attending a college not far from my grandfather's, and had a home surrounded by an expanse of forest. I spent a great deal of time in the woods, and after a few days with that book I couldn't help but to spend most of it once again, neck craned upwards searching for that perfect combination of height and strength to hold something even a fraction as impressive as some of the buildings I had seen in it. Despite my status as a broke college student, I knew it was only a matter of time before I succumbed to the nagging voice in my mind saying, "Just think of what you could build now. You could make an actual house if you decided to."
I found myself nearly a year later with four of my closest friends, including the one with the pool and his older brother, in a man-hunt style line hiking along a cliff-side behind my house, searching again. I was not alone in my mission and we found not one tree, but four. They were placed perfectly, as though sixty years ago, someone had taken four pine cones and planted them in a perfect square with the goal of us building a four hundred square foot deck between them. The slope of the ground was dramatic, nearly vertical cliffs in places around us, and provided a magnificent view of the valley beneath us.
We spent nearly three years collectively working on our creation, and I can say its still not really finished. The steep cliff-side made every detail, from the simple act of carrying in tools and building materials, to the more demanding setting a level frame for the floor, excruciatingly slow work. First the frame for our floor, than the deck itself, and in the final summer of major construction, the walls and roof of our two story cabin. None of us having any real background in construction, we learned from anyone and anything we could find how to lay floor joists and frame walls, always trying to improvise with what we learned, and find ways to cut weight, and cost for that matter, to a minimum.
It was quite the daunting task for us, but we all relished the challenge. We spent many days hauling lumber down that cliff, hanging pulleys, securing ladders, and even running from inadvertantly disturbed bee hives, but when the time came where we completed our work, the pride and admiration we felt for one another made it well worth it. When we brought our friends and family there for barbecue dinners and overnights, they were universally awed. That we had built this was amazing to them, but it was the majesty of the forest around us, the fossils on the steep shale beneath us, and the sunset view of the valley before us that brought a breathless wonderment to them. When the wind would gust through the leaves and branches around us, and the trees cradling our shelter would bend and sway, we were comforted in the assurance that we had built something strong and lasting, and we would be be safe and protected here.
Like most trivial pursuits, there are a plethora of reasons with which people come up to not do something so time-consuming as building a treehouse. People would ask me, "So, what have you been up to?", and when I would respond with, " I've been building a treehouse." I was consistently amazed at the responses I got. More often than not, people would look at me with an expression of total incomprehension and say, "You are building what? Really? Why?". Time and time again, I got the same reaction, and every time I would ask myself if I was really that crazy. Sure it was a lot of time and money and certainly plenty of hard work, but it seemed so obviously worth it to me. The refuge, whether in a small suburban backyard, or a vast expanse of wilderness of those lofty dwellings, seemed tangible.
So many man-made constructions stand in stark contrast to their surroundings, but the treehouse, by it's very nature is much more connected with the natural world. The tree itself provides the cues as to where supports will lay, and how the building will unfold. Working always with the goal in mind of not killing the tree, we are able to create as only human-kind can, the most elaborate of structures, while embracing the often chaotic design of nature. I've read before that some part of the human brain is biologically reassured by dwelling in high places. The idea that instinctively we feel more secure resting above the ground, where so many dangerous predators are found in nature. In our modern world, cell-phones, and emails often do not allow for very much down time. One can't understate the value of the peace and tranquility found in creating a small fortress of solitude.
I know I am not alone in taking such great joy from the time I have been able to spend in the many different treehouses I've worked on and played in. There is something about the human soul that rejoices at the perspective we can find far above the ground, whether from the top of the Empire State Building, on the peaks of Mt. Rainier, or from the window of an airplane. Whether it's a meeting place for friends, a playhouse for children, a hunting cabin, a clubhouse, a lover's nest, or just someplace to retreat for the weekend, building your own treehouse will be it's own reward. My head has been in the clouds since i was a kid, and my heart had stayed in the trees.