Looking up through the branches
It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
I took one look at the picture in the do-it-yourself book my wife brought home from the library and immediately fell in love.
Doesn’t every kid want a tree house? I certainly did. However, we had no suitable trees in our yard, so the idea was a non-starter.
But now it was different. With my own children just old enough to enjoy it, that big elm tree in the center of our yard seemed heaven-sent for such a purpose. The creative design cried out to be turned into reality, and I made up my mind on the spot. My wife didn’t even try to talk me out of it.
The illustration showed how the tree house would seemingly grow right out of the elm’s trunk, the base hovering six feet above the ground and the top about as far beneath the lowest branches. Four sturdy beams would angle down from the corners of the floor, secured into notches cut out of the hoary bark and held in place by railroad spikes. Beams on the top would mirror those on the bottom, over which panels would form a sloping roof.
It looked simple enough. After all, my father was an amateur carpenter and a professional contractor. I had grown up with a garage full of hand tools and had used them to build soapbox racers, bicycle jumping ramps, and every kind of contrivance my youthful imagination could conjure up. With a clear set of instructions, a treehouse would be child’s play.
Well, it might have proven a jauntier undertaking if I hadn’t chosen midsummer to get started. The midwestern heat, humidity, and buzzing insect life made the outdoors unpleasant enough without the added exertion of sawing and hefting and hammering. And with my father’s workshop 2000 miles away, I had to improvise for want of the tools that would have made the job easier.
I did have the foresight to buy treated beams that would resist rotting and warping. But they also resisted the blade of my hand saw and the bite of my chisel as I labored to cut the pieces down to size and carve out interlocking notches to form the structure’s skeleton. Even more challenging was the adventure of trying to saw a semicircular hole in each half of the floor, discovering to my dismay that a tree trunk does not define a perfect circle.
My friend Jerry volunteered to be my wingman. His expertise as an engineer for Boeing seemed like a valuable credential, but the application of aerodynamics to airborne construction turned out to be quite limited.
Nevertheless, we managed to get the skeleton up in an afternoon. From that point forward it became a one-man job, and Jerry gratefully returned to his airconditioned living room.
After cutting and re-cutting, I finally secured the floor panels, after which I finally hit my stride. The slatted walls went up easily, and building the ladder was actually fun. After all, when do you ever get to build a ladder?
A major whoops! awaited me the first time I climbed up onto the base: my neighbors. Their fence had not been designed for privacy from birds, squirrels, or little children whose father just gave them a squirrels-eye-view into their backyard windows.
I laid out the situation to my children, explained to them the concept of privacy, then modified the southern wall with a single sheet of plywood.
The roof never quite took shape. Measuring four triangular panels with perfectly rounded tops to match the arc of the tree proved more challenging than I had imagined. We tried a piece of fabric on one side, which worked reasonable well. But without enough material for the other three sides, that’s as far as we got.
As it turned out, my kids didn’t care. They only played outside in good weather, and the canopy of leaves and branches over their heads was roof enough for them.
The children liked their tree house. Their friends may have liked it more than they did, spending afternoons high off the ground, almost touching the clouds. Only the children knew how their imaginations ran free with the big, wide world made bigger and wider from their castle in the sky.
Yes, they liked their tree house. But they didn’t love it.
It’s a strange kind of disappointment, and one of the many challenges of being a parent. You want your children to have everything you didn’t. Sometimes you’re able to give it to them. And when you do, you discover that it doesn’t mean as much to them as you believe it would have meant to you.
What if I had actually had a tree house of my own? Would I have spent hours every summer day aloft in the company of friends real and imagined? Or would the novelty have worn quickly off until it became just another familiar diversion that I took for granted?
And isn’t it much the same as we get older? We spend so much time missing the things we don’t have, even after a lifetime of experience teaches us that we rarely enjoy our dreams half as much as we enjoy dreaming them.
The children grew up and went off to make their own lives. Perhaps one day my grandchildren would delight in the tree house. That’s what I thought, or hoped.
The tree house showed remarkable resilience. A wicked storm uprooted a neighboring elm, which dealt a glancing blow as it crashed to the ground.
The structure remained intact, but not entirely undamaged. The back panel was no match for even a brush with the falling giant. The base and support posts stood firm, but the railings were slightly skewed and twisted, like wax figurines left out in the summer sun.
But then a more subtle enemy beset the tree house: the old elm itself.
The instructions had said that, over time, the bark of the tree would grow out and around the support posts, which it did. What the instructions did not say was that the tree would grow to fill in the gap around the center hole in the floor, which it also did.
And then it kept growing.
Ever so slightly, one millimeter at a time, the floor began to buckle. You could never see it happening, any more than you can see glaciers forming, sand dunes shifting, or the motion of the stars. It took years, but inexorably the floorboards separated and warped and the frame convulsed as if made of putty.
Every so often, we found a slat or rail laying lifeless on the grass. We removed the ladder, since the tree house was no longer safe. Children visiting with their parents looked wistfully upward.
Eventually, the tree house was reduced to a mess of timber splayed at all angles and in all directions. My wife demanded repeatedly that I take it down, and I answered repeatedly that there was no reason, since the tree itself would take care of the job in good time. In truth, I didn’t want to let it go. But when it’s time, it’s time, and it’s a man’s job to shoot his own dog and put down his own horse.
So I went out last month with my chainsaw and started the beginning of the end.
The divestiture went much faster than I would have had imagined. It takes so much more effort to build than to destroy. In scarcely half an hour, there was nothing left.
Well, not quite nothing. The four support beams were fixed into the bark. I could cut them back, but there was no way to get them out completely. A section of the floor board was embedded in the trunk as well. It looked as if the tree had taken a bite out of the tree house and, like a stubborn terrier, wouldn’t let it go.
Or perhaps the tree house wouldn’t let go of the tree. If you used your imagination, it looked almost like the tree was smiling.
And within that Mona Lisa smile resides a gentle reminder.
For nearly two decades the tree house ruled the tree. But time and slow, steady pressure gradually displaced beams and nails. Like a river coursing through the canyon and the waves lapping upon the sand, the relentless beat of time and nature inevitably relegated the work of my hands to memory.
As the Talmud says: Nothing can stand before a person’s will.
We can’t stop the steady advance of time. But we can turn it to our own advantage with the proper measure of determination and perseverance.
And so, with the wisdom of hindsight, I have to say that building the tree house was a good idea after all.
Published in The Wagon Magazine