»  The Straggler, No. 21

June 28, 2004

  Splinter Party


Memorial Day marked the completion of the treehouse project. My eight-year-old son had been asking for a treehouse for at least three years. I had been putting him off by telling him he was too young, an excuse which of course became less tenable with passing time. Concurrently with the dwindling force of this excuse grew the conviction that anything, anything that got the lad away from TV and the computer would be worth a little effort and expense. So one day in early April I scrutinized the two larger trees in my back yard, made some rough calculations, picked my tree, and headed for The Home Depot.

Building a treehouse falls into the creative category of human endeavor. There can be no all-purpose detailed plan, no follow-the-book instruction set, trees are too different from one another. The treehouse builder is therefore faced with a small number of general rules that he must apply to a unique tree. There is, for example, the rule that says you may drill a hole right through your tree if necessary. The tree will adapt and survive. However, if you were to drill two such holes closer than a couple of feet together, the wood between them would not be able to get nourishment, and would rot. Another rule reminds you that trees move with the wind. If a tree forks into two large boles, the boles will move relative to each other. The movement may be less than a quarter of an inch, but the forces are none the less tremendous. If you were to put a bolt through each bole, and fix a piece of wood to the bolts, the movement would rip your wood, or damage the tree, or possibly even shear off your bolts.

My tree is a black maple of the kind found all over the northeastern United States, and south as far as Tennessee. It is perhaps sixty or seventy years old — a fine, sturdy, mature tree with a tough dark-gray bark. Six feet above the ground its trunk bifurcates; eight feet higher still, the south fork bifurcates again. In the crotch of this upper bifurcation I rested, without fixing it, a ten-foot length of two by six timber. That was one point of support. For the other, I bolted it to the north fork with a ¾-inch steel bolt right through the tree. This single beam, rigidly fixed, yet tolerant of relative movement of the two forks, was the foundation for all that followed.

The particular tree to which the treehouse builder must apply his general principles becomes an object of intense interest, even affection, to him. Working with my tree, I often found myself talking to it. I did not quite reach the point of giving it a name, as Tom Hanks did with his volleyball in Cast Away, but I don't think it is too much to say that a relationship developed. I wounded the tree no more than I could help, and carefully treated all wounds with a black viscous substance I bought from a local garden-supplies store, murmuring soothing words as I did so. To simplify my task, and as a matter of cosmetic improvement, I cut off dead branches as I encountered them, and coated the amputation scars with that same protective substance. I don't believe my tree bears any resentment towards me for the disruption of its slow rhythms, or for the burden — five or six hundred pounds of lumber, bolts and nails — I have placed on it.

Working so closely with a tree, in fact, you develop a respect for trees in general. What wonderful, mysterious things they are! We have been sharing the natural realm with these creatures since the very beginnings of human consciousness, yet they are still as strange to us as, if they had any sentience, we would be to them. One is not surprised to recall the quantity of lore and superstition our remote ancestors attached to trees, much of it gathered up in Sir James Frazer's vast book named, significantly, The Golden Bough. The historian Paul Johnson, who is also a weekend artist, has written somewhere of the great difficulty of painting trees — a thing that, after several decades of trying, he still does not feel he has got right. One of the best-known (and most-parodied) American poems is titled simply "Trees." Passing from the sublime to the ridiculous, trees have even been the subject of an erotic novel, John Fortune's A Melon for Ecstasy, whose hero goes out prowling at night with a brace and bit looking for tender young saplings on which to slake his dendrophiliac lust.

Now our treehouse is complete. As with all works of civil engineering, there are social problems close behind the technical ones. A neighbor does not wish to be overlooked, so that wall of the treehouse was made windowless. Other neighbors are nervous about their kids shinnying up a 14-foot rope ladder, yet are at the same time unwilling to have them left out of the fun. Some concessions to safety have therefore been made. Feminism has marched onto the scene in the person of my daughter, claiming equal treehouse rights for herself and her friends. My son reacts with: "But it was my idea." This is perfectly true; and an essential component of a treehouse, in my imagination, has always been a sign saying NO GIRLS ALLOWED!, preferably with the "S" written wrong way round. The Zeitgeist must be served, however, so some kind of time-sharing arrangement will be worked out.

A cynical friend remarked, when viewing the completed structure: "Kids today don't want this outdoor stuff. The flickering screens are more real to them. They'll go up there a few times, then drift back to their computer games and forget about it." Possibly he is right. We have a splendid treehouse, though, and I have quite taken to it myself. I had my breakfast up there this morning, in the dappled green shade among the leaves and branches and 6 a.m. birdsong. Now I am thinking I may paint a sign of my own: NO KIDS ALLOWED!