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Treehouses Take a Bough

Client: Smithsonian, August 1997

Treehouses Take a Bough

It used to be kid stuff, but these days more and more adults
are building in trees to get high.

I remember looking up. It is summer, and my father is kneeling on a platform pounding nails, each hammer blow echoing in the silent woods. Overhead, branches and twigs, needles and leaves weave a tangled tapestry. When it is finished, our tree house is perfect, snug in the giant “V” of two leaning hemlocks, feathery boughs sweeping close on all sides.

On clear days, we sprawl on our backs or lean against the rough trunk that comes up through the floor, telling stories, trying to imagine the future, watching the shift and play of shadows and light. On cloudy days, we huddle inside with flashlights, listening to the uneven percussion of rain on the canvas roof. When the neighborhood Bad Guys are after us, the tree house is our only hope. We scramble up the ladder, butt the trap door open with our heads, and haul ourselves to safety in the nick of time.

Many of us fall in love with tree houses as children, but leave them behind when grow up. These days, though, more and more adults are rediscovering the joys of arboreal hide-aways. Tree houses, it seems, are in – and branching out. They’re the subjects of best-selling books and popular exhibitions. Some people enjoy their lofty living rooms as weekend retreats; others use them as offices, or even as full-time residences. When you construct a house in a tree, suspended between earth and sky, there are no rules. Tree house architects design their own dreams – and then climb up to savor the view.

Businessman Albert Green uses his tree house as a blind for watching the elk and moose on his 30-acre Montana ranch. The two-room cedar-shingled cottage is built around the trunk of a giant ponderosa pine 30 feet off the ground. “You sit with these massive red limbs surrounding you and the animals pass by right underneath,” Green says. Sunset is the best time of all. The red of the boughs deepens, the bark glows. Everything’s ablaze.

Ed McBee and Randy Geiger use their tiny pentagonal cabin in Duvall, Washington, as a private retreat. It’s equipped with everything two 40-ish guys could want. There’s a stereo and, of course, a TV, so they can cheer on the Mariners during baseball season. There are two fold-out bunks, each with its own reading light. A Dutch door makes it easy to haul up groceries, beer, and children. On the roof, McBee and Geiger are adding their newest fantasy – a golf tee.

Linda Beech built her screened-in sanctuary in an ancient monkeypod tree in Hawaii’s Waipi’o Valley 25 years ago. Since then, it has sometimes served as a guest house, and dozens of visitors have recorded their impressions in the registry. For some, spending the night in a tree house sparked dramatic personal transformations. Those individuals left resolving to change careers, get married, follow long-forgotten dreams. Beech herself visits often, to contemplate the plunging waterfall that roars just yards away.

Arborist Jonathan Fairoaks placed his tree house 90 feet up a tulip polar on the ridge behind his Glenmore, Pennsylvania, home because he wanted a view and a quiet place to read his favorite poet, Walt Whitman. Fairoaks makes the ascent with ropes and climbing gear, but his dog, Theodacious, rides to the top in a winch-driven “elevator,” rigged from a rope and barrel.

Tree house enthusiasts are perched in all sorts of trees for all sorts of reasons. But there was never a “tree house central”until Peter Nelson came along. Thanks to his book, Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb (Houghton Mifflin), the arboreally inclined are starting to discover each other. Since it was published three years ago, the book has sold more than 50,000 copies. “Pete is ‘Mr. Treehouse,’” says Wendy Wolf, senior editor at Viking Penguin, which will publish Nelson’s second book this year. “He’s one of the few people who take tree houses seriously as shelter for adults.”

The 35-year-old contractor, who lives in Fall City, Washington, with his wife and three young children, has built more than a dozen tree houses in the past few years, ranging from a pint-size cottage in an apple tree to a graceful round house with French doors that floats 35 feet up in a Douglas fir.

“They’re magical little structures,” says Nelson, who lives in a conventional house, but climbs a tree to go to work. “No good person doesn’t like them.” From the outside, his neatly shingled office looks like the prow of a ship cutting a wake through green waves of fir. Nelson, whose great grandfather was, in fact, a ship captain, tells of riding out violent storms in his tree house. He points to the tight grain in the massive recycled fir timbers that support the structure. “They’re the kind shipbuilders would kill for,” he says.

One reason Nelson has become such a fan is that tree houses are the antithesis of sameness. Each one is a small statement of opposition to subdivision blandness and high-rise monotony. Tree houses surprise us.

Nelson flips the pages of his book, pointing out some favorites. Two tiny houses of driftwood, designed by a California crabber as a memorial to his drowned son, rise like Dr. Seuss sculptures above neighborhood rooftops(p. 103). One man built his tree house in a giant live oak next to a Florida river (p. 95, 102), but had to move it to a nearby cotton field when a new landowner evicted him from the tree.

Another Nelson favorite, located not far from where he lives, is fashioned entirely of mullioned doors and windows. The closet-size dwelling was built at the Pilchuck Glass School in the early 1970s when the place was new and artists and students had to supply their own housing.

Nelson has definite opinions about the esthetics of tree dwellings. “Proportion is everything,” he says, turning to a picture of a three-story “high-rise” built by a Minnesota man his backyard. “You don’t want the house to overwhelm the tree like this one does.”

Nelson’s business has grown along with his passion for tree houses. Projects have ranged from a few thousand dollars up to $30,000. He has built tree houses for single guys like Albert Green and for families like Paul and Susie Wyckoff and their four daughters, who insist that “tree houses are not just for boys.” Nelson’s even been to Japan, where he helped a group of outdoor enthusiasts build a tree house to be used as an ovenight campsite.

Two years ago, Nelson built a tree house for Gus Guenther, a fisherman and sled-dog racer in Clam Gulch, Alaska. “It’s a work of art,” says Guenther, who lives in it year-round. “Definitely the best looking shack in Clam Gulch.” With some creative wheeling and dealing and plenty of help from his friends, Guenther’s 12- by 16-foot palace in the trees cost only about $2,000 and took eight days to build. It has big bay windows and tongue-and-groove pine paneling. Outside it’s covered with cedar siding and features a little veranda with a birch railing on one end. You can almost picture it in the real-estate pages: “Cozy starter home” – except that it’s anchored to four fir trees and sways noticeably when stiff westerly winds sweep across Cook Inlet.

Last fall, Nelson, who thinks anyone can learn to build a house in a tree, conducted a workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. When I arrived, his friend and fellow workshop leader Jonathan Fairoaks was dangling in the air, 40 feet up. Suspended with ropes from an oak tree, he reached for the chainsaw swinging from his hip, wedged his foot against the trunk, and started lopping off dead branches.

In another cluster of trees, Nelson stood on a loose plank shouting instructions. On the ground below, more than two-dozen people were at work, including a data analyst, an architect, a truck driver and an artist. All of us were toting lumber, lifting ladders, passing tools, hammering. Our object was to build two small Adirondack-style tree houses in five days, one high, one low.

By the end of the workshop’s second day, the platforms for both houses were close to finished. Each beam was bolted to the tree only on one end; the other end was suspended from a steel cable so it would be free to sway. “Bolt it too securely and the house will twist and maybe snap,” says Nelson, who estimates the average adult tree house, about 250 square feet, weighs around 5,000 pounds. Proper building techniques are important for the trees, too. “Go about building a tree house poorly,” says Fairoaks, “and you can kill the tree.”

Some builders are reluctant to drive so much as a single nail into a tree for fear of injuring it, but Nelson says a few carefully placed fasteners will do no harm. The real danger is cutting through the bark into the cambium layer, which conveys the flow fo nutrients. If the cambium is cut more than halfway around a branch or trunk, it can kill that branch or the whole tree. For this reason, Nelson always makes sure to wrap cables in garden hose or use wooden blocks as buffers where cables pass across the bark.

Of course, the best way to ensure the health of the tree is to pick the right one to begin with. Some trees are sturdier than others. Nelson prefers maple, oak, fir and hemlock. He believes load-bearing branches should be at least six inches in diameter – even thicker on weaker species.

Fairoaks says it’s a good idea to have the tree in which you intend to build a house exmained by a certified arborist, and then follow his recommendations. If the arborist says the tree you’ve selected is unsuitable, perhaps he can help you find a better one. After making an initial assessment, Fairoaks gets rid of weak, damaged or diseased branches. He also sometimes removes live branches in order to thin the crown and lower the center of gravity. In this way, he reduces wind resistance and compensates for the added weight of the structure.

Day Three: I buckled into a safety harness and climbed to check the progress on the 30-foot tree house. Ropes and safety lines are everywhere. Ned Leavitt, a literary agent from New York City, was inching to the end of a support beam to retrieve a tool and trying not to look down. Lia Prentiss, a childcare worker from Colorado, was singing “Rock-a-bye-baby, in the tree tops.” Someone handed me a bunch of nails. Four hammers were going at once as floorboards were pounded into place.

On the ground, Nelson was explaining the difference between headers and cripples, jack studs and king studs. He grabbed two-by-twos as he spoke, checked for warp, casted some aside, saved others. Pulling a pencil from behind his ear, he marked dimensions. Before long, everyone was huddled in clusters, measuring and hammering, and wall frames were taking shape.

Finally we were ready to hoist the first wall. Fairoaks and his “sky crew” looked down from the high platform. Nelson tightened knots on the ropes securing the waiting wall. “Ready? Go!” Suddenly the ground crew was hauling. The wall dipped and spun, an unwieldy burden. “Let it down a foot or two,” Fairoaks yelled. A few more pulls and the wall was up, many hands reaching to steady it.

Late on the last day of the workshop, Nelson sank the final screws into the roof of the lower tree house. The sky was darkening. Hammers stopped one by one as the light began to fade. Someone fetched a lantern to hang inside, and suddenly the lumber we’ve been measuring, cutting and nailing was transformed into a tree house, a glowing space suspended in the night.

The notion of building shelters in treetops is not new. Old engravings depict treetop dwellers in the South Pacific living in thatched nests, riding up and down in baskets. In New Guinea tree houses offered protection from enemy attack. Even today, some inhabitants of Irian Jaya, in the western part of New Guinea, live high above the forest floor in houses built of palm fronds.

But throughout history, tree houses have been inspired by more than necessity. People have long been inclined to build them simply because they are so much fun. Anthony Huxley’s Illustrated History of Gardening notes that the Romans seem to have gone in for tree seats, and that, from the Middle Ages on, tree arbors were popular. One famous specimen, built into a giant lime tree in England, rose for three stories – leafy rooms of bent branches one on top of the other, “the goodliest spectacle mine eyes ever beheld for one tree to carry,” wrote John Parkinson in his Paradisi in Sole of 1629. Parkinson also marveled at the second floor, “wherein might bee placed halfe a hundred men at the least. . . . ” Apparently this tree house attracted royal attention. It is thought that Queen Elizabeth I herself once stopped for dinner in the second-floor banquet hall, joined perhaps by “halfe a hundred men.”

During the Italian Renaissance, the Medicis seem to have been driven by a sort of architectural family rivalry to see who could pack the most marble into a tree. One of their extravaganzas included a marble table, seats and fountains, and two marble stairways that spiraled up on opposite sides of the three. This marvel was depicted in a 17th-century engraving by Stephano della Bella, And in his travel writings of 1580, Montaigne recorded his visit to a Medici tree house.

In England, a half-timber cottage originially built in the late 17th century on the grounds of Pitchford Hall in Shropshire is still perched in the garden lime tree. A 13-year-old princess who grew up to be Queen Victoria visited this one-room Tudor tree house on October 28, 1832, noting the occasion in her journal: “At a little past one we came home and walked about the grounds, and I went up a staircase to a little house in a tree.”

In France a chestnut-lined street in a town just west of Paris became known in the mid-19th century for its arboreal restaurants. While musicians and dancers made merry on the ground, diners climbed into small gazebo-style dining rooms among the branches and were served elaborate meals, hauled up by means of ropes and pulleys. Advertising their “Magnifique point de vue,” those restaurants flourished for more than a century.

Two historic French tree houses still stand. Tiny twin chapels in the trunk of a venerable oak in Normandy have survived lightning, as well as the wrath of revolutionaries. In daily use for more than 300 years, the landmark rises from the churchyard in Allouville-Bellefosse. Though it’s lost many branches, the tree lives on, a topped with a cross.

Early in this century the American novelist Mary Austin secured her reputation as an eccentric when she constructed a rustic tree house among the gnarled pines in Carmel, California. Austin was visited in her “wick-i-up,” as she called it, by friends and fellow writers Robinson Jeffers and Jack London. A yellowed photograph in the Carmel library archives depicts Austin in her open-air writing room, pen in hand, pine tree at her back. She spent mornings there, according to local lore, reviewing proofs of her work.

Some of history’s most memorable tree houses exist only in the imagination. Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch’s “Tree-man” from his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, depicts a sort of surreal tree-house-from- hell peopled with strange half-human creatures. In A. A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood, Owl’s tree house, which boasts both a knocker and a bellpull, is the site of frequent visits from Pooh and other forest friends. Nowadays many newspaper readers across the country keep tabs on the treetop world of Shoe, a comic strip character created by Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly.

The most famous tree house of all time, designed by writer Johann David Wyss, was home to the Swiss Family Robinson. Literature’s shipwrecked clan lives happily ever after at Falconhurst, high in a mangrove tree. The Disneyland version of this treetop address is perched in a 150-ton Disneydendron semperflorens grandis in Anaheim, California. The “everblooming Disney tree” is constructed of 110 cubic yards of concrete and six tons of reinforced steel. In keeping with the novel, a water wheel at the base of the tree sends water to the rooms overhead, carrying more than 200 gallons per hour in bamboo buckets.

One recent innovation in arboreal architecture might surprise even the resourceful Swiss Family Robinson. It’s a portable tree house that’s held in place with an ingenious system of metal anchor blocks, chains, cables, and L-frames. Manufactured by Treecamp Developments Ltd. Of Victoria, British Columbia, the two-story tipi-shaped abode mounts onto a single trunk and can be assembled in six hours. “At first, I thought the guy who designed it must have beeen a mad scientist,” says Vancouver Island forester Ron Adair, who spent about $5,000 for a prototype. “But the thing is so nice, I’d have a mutiny on my hands if I ever suggested going back to our old tents.”

Adair and his crew work in forests so remote they have to be flown in by helicopter. They used to camp on the ground, but these days, they live in the portable. “Putting it up is fun,” says Adair. “We always try to position it so we have the best view of the mountains or river.”

After a long day in the woods, the men return to Bush Condo, as they call it, where Dan the cook is making dinner 14 feet off the ground. The first-floor kitchen is simple – a sink and a couple of three-burner propane stoves – but the dinners are spectacular. Adair’s favorite reads like a fine restaurant menu: baked brie with pesto, chicken Kiev, steamed carrots, Caesar salad, plus a big slab of cheesecake for dessert. After dinner, Adair climbs a ladder to the second-floor sleeping quarters and relaxes with a book. On clear nights, the guys sometimes zip the roof wide open and fall asleep with nothing overhead but evergreen branches laced against the dark sky.

Nights in the tree house can be fitful. “We’re sitting on a powder keg of food,” says Adair. “That’s nerve-wracking when you have grizzlies with behinds the size of Volkswagons in camp all the time. We can’t afford to lose our food supply.” The men are usually able to scare the bears away by yelling and banging on pots and pans. But on particularly bad nights the cook improvises “bear grenades” – bacon-wrapped cans of mace. Tossed to the ground, they become effective deterrents as soon as a bear takes a bite. Grizzly duty’s still nerve wracking, but thanks to the tree house it’s safer than it used to be.

For geologists Judy and Campbell Bridges, who have conventional homes in Nairobi and Virginia, it was the marching, munching ants that inspired their tree house. “It took them more than an hour to pass our tent,” says Judy, recalling a night in the wilds of Kenya surrounded by marauding siafu. The stinging ants are known to eat everything in their path. “You could hear them the whole time,” she says.” Suddenly a tree house seemed like a really good idea.”

The lion experience clinched it. “He was roaring a foot from our tent,” remembers Judy, “trying to flush us out. We were hidden, thank goodness, so he didn’t realize he could get at us with a swipe of his paw.” These days the Bridges are still jolted from sleep by lions roaring just feet from their sleeping quarters, but they’re no longer afraid because they are safe in their tree house.

In the years since they staked their mining claim near Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, the Bridges have entertained some of the world’s most famous gem dealers. Their guests, who come for the tsavorite, a rare green garnet, conduct their business 15 feet up in a “gambol flam” tree. The tree house is open at both ends so breezes can blow through. Decor is sparse – mining gear, Coleman lanterns, and foam mattresses. “But these big industry people, some of the most influential in the world, love to stay with us,” says Judy. “It reminds them of their boyhood.”

For those who are not faced with threats of grizzly bears or marching ants, tree houses offer escape from less deadly pressures.

Doug Thron’s get-away in northern California (p. 99) serves as a base-camp getaway for office-weary adults and city kids who have never seen an eagle fly. Big enough to sleep 15, the solar-powered house sits 20 feet up in the “palm” of an ancient madrone tree, which grows out of the ground like an open hand. After a day of river rafting or mountain climbing, Thron and his campers fall asleep in their tree-house bunks listening to night sounds never heard on city streets or in suburban neighborhoods.

People without a tree house of their own can plan the perfect escape to one at the Out ‘n’ About Treesort in Takilma, Oregon. om and Joan Walsh, for example, didn’t want another beachfront hotel, for their 40th wedding anniversary. Instead they booked a treehouse. “When we got married, they told us it would never last,” says Joan. “So we decided to do something special.” What better place to celebrate the impossible than a house suspended in the branches – one with a clawfoot tub and French doors that open to a mountain view.

Owner Michael Garnier has enjoyed a steady business there since he built the first of his four elaborate tree houses in 1990. “He’s unbelievably dedicated,” says Peter Nelson, who admires Garnier’s craftsmanship. Nelson, who admires Garnier’s craftsmanship. Nelson, along with Jonathan Fairoaks and a host of other tree-house enthusiasts, will gather at the Treesort in October for the first meeting of the World Treehouse Association (WTA).

Attendees will share advice on tree house design and tree care. Garnier, WTA’s president, will offer a building-permit workshop based on his own experience doing battle with the local authorities, whom he refers to as the Tree Stooges. Mostly, though, WTA participants will sit around swapping stories of arboreal adventure. Garnier will probably tell about the time he piled 66 people, three dogs, one cat – 10,488 pounds – into one of his tree houses to demonstrate how well it was built. Nelson might tell about his first tree house, a shingled cottage that came crashing out of the tree (no one was inside) because of a couple of poorly conceived architectural details: the heavy brick fireplace and chimney.

Some tree houses are becoming legendary. Llike the saga of Bob Redman who managed in the 1980s to build 12 different tree houses in New York City’s Central Park before authorities finally tracked him down. And then there’s the famous elevator tree house, designed by a 70-year-old New Jersey man who was wary of climbing the 80-foot oak in his back yard. He built his tree house to rest on the ground. On nights when he hankered to enjoy a view, he just stepped inside and pumped the foot pedals. Lift off! In a few seconds he was high enough to enjoye a panoramic vista of city lights winking below.

These stories illustrate the extreme lengths to which some tree-house aficionados will go to create their getaways. Sometimes their schemes are meticulously designed. Other times they just happen. Rick brown’s story about his tree house outside Greensboro, North Carolina, starts like a confession. “It was only supposed to be a small, one-story tree house for my son Kenny,” he says. “But I couldn’t stop.” It took six years, three stories, a crow’s nest, and a 24-foot flagpole – plus $10,000 to repair a torn knee ligament – but Brown finally broke through the top of the 75-foot chestnut oak.

Tree-house people are usually are rewarded for their persistence. Take me, for example. Recently, I spent a long night huddled alone inside a swaying suite at the Treesort, listening to the wind and rain, and the bursts of acorns peppering the roof. The next morning, before leaving, I became an official Tree Musketeer, a special honor bestowed on all Treesort guests. “I pledge to do all in my power to protect tree houses and trees,” I repeated after Michael Garnier. His voice was solemn as he administered The Oath, but his eyes twinkled. “All for trees and trees for all!”

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