Three years ago, my family moved from city to suburbs and — with grass instead of gravel out back — it was time to build a treehouse.
It started with a doodle in my office: an A-frame on a branch; basically a plywood tent from a book of amateur weekend projects.
At the time, my daughters still missed the city, and the idea was presented to them as a compensatory gift. But it didn’t suffice. The children did not want a tree-tent, they wanted a treehouse. The real thing, with crow’s nest, rope ladder, skylight, telescope, slide …
All this was obvious even to the 3-year-old, nodding along to her sisters’ specifications. How are kids automatic treehouse experts? There’s a theory that humans are born with ancient archetypes pre-coded in the mind. Maybe it’s right — Kind Mother; Wise Old Man; Great Flood; Treehouse with Standard Add-Ons.
Needless to say, the next sketch was more elaborate. Designing done, I started planning the building process. But wait: step one would be two posts, each sunk in concrete at a precise right angle from the ground? And if I got that part wrong, the whole cockeyed thing might capsize with all aboard?
Here, research on building turned to research on builders. Needed was someone with the skill to construct a sturdy structure, and the generosity to let a lawyer help. Thankfully I found that indulgent expert, and the apprenticeship was great, even at 6:30 a.m. Perusing the paper with a sun-warmed coffee is good, but try it in a tree, amidst the creak of branches, the scent of new lumber, and the certainty of a productive day to come.
We had only one rainout. Maybe the nature gods of Concord, Mass., liked something about this project — a humble handmade dwelling. The only other obstacle was a solar eclipse. We hammered through it, propelled by the natural momentum of many tough-but-satisfying physical activities.
Novelist Mark Helprin writes about this phenomenon in describing displaced city-dwellers, mesmerized by the entrancing toil of cross-country skiing: “The activity was self-justifying, far better than anything they had ever done, or ever would do …”
Too soon we were finished, and there it floated. I boosted my 3-year-old onto the front deck. Palms pressed to the wall, looking backward over her shoulder, she seemed like a person who went to bed and inexplicably awoke on a cliff-face. Suddenly she wasn’t so sure about treehouses.
Once everyone got comfortable with the 10-foot altitude, all was well. Through binoculars one evening, I spied an excellent scene: hanging lantern aglow, and cross-legged youngsters aglow too, thrilled by the at-home adventure of an elevated clubhouse at the fringe of the yard. Whether in treehouse, tent or attic, on rowboat or silent ski trail, I think that feeling — amidst but alone, on the near edge of freedom — is one of the classic experiences of childhood.
I knew the treehouse was a hit for sure one wet afternoon. A living-room clamor went suddenly silent. What happened to the kids? Where would they have gone in the rain? I looked out the window and saw a line of small bright umbrellas jostling up the rope ladder.
The treehouse had an impact on larger folk, too. Our neighbor is the formidable Farmer Frank — born in the Great Depression, and growing more powerful every year. In October I was buying a pumpkin and he looked at me hard, eyes alight like the great Daniel Webster. Uh-oh: Had I built too close to his field?
“YOU HAVE DONE A WONDERFUL THING,” he rumbled, startling me with the substance and sincerity of his message. “YOU DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH SOMETHING LIKE THAT WOULD HAVE MEANT TO ME AS A CHILD.” The something in question was small, beyond the fence, and bolted in place, but it moved him.
Recently I came upon a card my grandmother sent me from Florida in 1978, not long before she died. “How goes the treehouse?” she asks. “Wish I was there. I’d climb up with you.” I was briefly startled, but she was referring of course to a different treehouse — one my dad built for me and my sisters 40 years ago.
Which lead to a random thought. Dad’s father built sailboats, and his forebears built fishing skiffs. A treehouse isn’t a boat, but, if you strain a bit, there is some kinship between them: Both take you away from land, into a fresher breeze. Unsurprisingly, people have crafted such craft, and dreamed of them, for a long time.
Despite the technological drift of modern life, this tendency seems secure. My 11-year-old has an iPad on her bedroom desk, but also a handwritten treehouse to-do list. My structure was a good start, but she has some improvements in mind.
From sketch to shingles, the project took quite a while. Yet I still don’t know how to build a treehouse, at least not a good one. Making structures — posts and joists, windows and rafters — is a hard-earned skill, its practitioners unfairly unheralded. Nor can I report any major life lessons. This isn’t one of those What I Learned articles, about revelations in a Costa Rican rain forest or a Manhattan tai chi session. I Spent Three Weeks In A Tree And Learned Little.
One thing I can say has to do with a family-favorite children’s book, published in 1957. There isn’t much to it. On each page, it states something simple about a tree. It fills up the sky; you can hang a swing from it; you can nap in its shade; it’s “good to have around.” The book is called “A Tree Is Nice.” So is a treehouse.
David S. Clancy of Concord, Mass., is a part-time resident of Stowe. He is a lawyer in Massachusetts.