Life and Limb
My cabins in the sky
By Jim Dodson
One of my secret pleasures is a mind-candy house program on Animal Planet called Treehouse Masters, in which an infectiously enthusiastic house designer and self-described “tree whisperer” named Pete Nelson and his merry band of workers create mind-boggling treehouse retreats for clients. His stated mission is to help customers get back to nature and in touch with their inner kid.
It’s a pure fantasy show that combines three of my favorite things — houses, trees and memories of climbing them during my childhood. It was probably inevitable for a kid who grew up on a diet of adventure books, and camping and hiking forests all over the western portions of this state and neighboring Virginia, that I would eventually get around to building a treehouse, especially after I saw Disney’s 1960 version of Swiss Family Robinson. The shipwrecked but enterprising Robinson clan lashed together a furnished treehouse palace that featured running water from a turning wheel, thatch-roofed bedrooms, a full-service kitchen and salvaged ship’s wheel that raised the ladder each evening to protect against wild animals or unwelcome visitors. They lived with a pair of large friendly dogs and a parrot, and even had a piano that somehow survived the shipwreck.
In my opinion, those lucky Robinsons had the perfect life.
Of course, I was only 7, a kid who’d had a happy but fairly solitary life building forts in the woods and reading adventure books, the son of a Southern newspaperman who hauled his young family across the Deep South to his various posts before coming permanently home to Greensboro in 1959 — shortly before the shipwrecked Robinsons showed up in Cinemascope on the big screen.
My first treehouse was a distinctly modest platform affair — more lookout stand that actual shelter. Perched in a patch of hardwoods in a public park across the street from the apartment we rented while our first house was being built in a rural subdivision, it was probably illegal. But so were the Robinsons. You reached the platform by inching up a thick-knotted rope. The platform was probably only 10 feet off the ground but it felt amazingly close to heaven in the trees, the ideal place for me to sit and read and keep an eye out for wild animals or unwanted visitors.
At the rear of our new property, my father knocked together an impressive one-room treehouse he furnished with a second-hand dining room table, four mismatched chairs and an old rickety bookcase. I spent a year furnishing that rustic pied-à-terre in the sky with my favorite childhood books and “interesting” stuff I found all over creation until one regrettable summer afternoon I found three girls from the neighborhood having an unauthorized tea party with their dolls in my cherished aerie. Without thinking of the consequences, I fetched a garden hose to cool off the party and quickly felt the wrath of several outraged mothers, hastening the demise of my beloved place on high.
That’s why, when I stumbled across Treehouse Masters, my inner child was set loose from detention.
The New Age treehouses Pete Nelson and his crew create are elaborate affairs that make the industrious Robinsons look like rank beginners. They typically include all the creature comforts of the modern Earth-bound home and then some: fancy woodstoves and electric lights; flush toilets and outdoor showers; kitted-out gourmet kitchens and decks with breathtaking views from high in the trees, rivaling anything you would find in a swanky vacation home.
My favorite segment of the show, however, is when the host calls on fellow treehouse nuts who have created their own unique handcrafted cabins in the sky, retreats that display incredible craftsmanship, artistry and ecological harmony.
One I particularly enjoyed involved a bearded chap who built himself a gorgeous treehouse that was more like a storybook chapel over a stony brook in the Connecticut woods. It was essentially a meditation and reading room with large windows, a simple desk, woodstove, small functioning kitchen and a room where he could sit for hours watching nature through the seasons, forgetting the rest of the world.
His was a slightly more elaborate version of the treehouse I fully intended to someday create above a vernal pool in the forest behind the post-and-beam house I helped build with my own hands on a forested hill in Maine.
The spot — on a beautiful hillside deep among hemlock and birch and proximate to geologic kettles left by the receding ice age — overlooked a seasonal stream and vernal pool dominated by a large lichen-covered stone that I named my “Thinking Rock.” This is where the transcendental kid in me often escaped with my dogs to read, think, smoke a pipe and get right with God and nature.
The bittersweet irony is that the forested retreat I long had in mind never got off the ground, so to speak, because, in the blink of an eye, my own kids were grown and heading off to college, and I was feeling an unexpected gravitational pull of my old Carolina home.
Impossible as it once seemed, I said goodbye to the rugged timbered house and English garden-in-the-woods that I spent nearly two decades building and cultivating, a place where I fully expected to end my days and eventually become part of the landscape when who I am moved on, leaving only a trail of ashes behind.
But life, to paraphrase Emerson, is full of compensations. A few years back, my wife and I purchased a lovely old bungalow that once upon a time was my favorite house in the heavily forested neighborhood where I grew up — two doors away, in fact, from the house where my family lived for almost 40 years.
I joke that I’ve all but completed the Sacred Redneck Circle of Life.
A large part of the place’s allure, I must admit, was the two-car and workshop garage in back that featured a funky little second-floor apartment you reach by climbing a set of rickety wooden steps that take you to rooftop height amidst century-old white oak trees.
Because the house sits on perhaps the highest point in the entire neighborhood, the first time I climbed those steps and turned around to check out the view, my heart leapt like a kid up a tree.
From just under the white oak canopy that reminded me of the arched ceiling of a Medieval cathedral — providing wonderful cooling shade all summer — I could see the world with a bird’s-eye-view: vaulting trees and rooftops across the neighborhood, not to mention birds and squirrels galore, passing clouds, a huge patch of sky by day, a glorious quilt of stars by night.
Suddenly I had the treehouse I’d always dreamed of owning, this one equipped with electric power and heat, small kitchenette and bathroom with fully functioning toilet and shower. The cheap dark-wood paneling gives it a perfect rustic air and a couple of overhead fans keeps the place cool in summer. If it isn’t quite worthy of Treehouse Masters, it fits me like lichens on a thinking rock.
Just outside the door, I hung a large set of Canterbury chimes from a stout limb of the massive white oak at the foot of the steps. When the wind blows a certain way, I swear I hear the first five notes of “Amazing Grace.”
These days, if you visit my “treehouse,” you will find a pair of comfortable reading chairs (one of which my dog Mulligan occupies when she’s officially on duty), several bookcases filled with favorite books, a French baker’s table where I write, a wicker daybed where I sometimes seek horizontal inspiration on late afternoons, various vintage posters and prints I’ve collected from four decades of journalism and travel, a cabinet case filled with some of my own books and a few awards, a second cabinet that holds “Uncle Jimmy’s Genuine Real Stuff Museum,” framed photos of my children and a pair of large rare portraits of Walter Hagen and young Fidel Castro, themed lamps (a blue coat soldier, a Bengali elephant, a monkey climbing a palm tree), several busts (Ben Franklin, Alexander the Great, a Templar knight), three sets of old golf clubs, a full golf library, several checkered golf flags, and a large replica of the first American flag with thirteen stars in a circle of blue.
Nobody in their right mind would want all this stuff in their real house. But like the Swiss Family Robinson, this oddball collection from a long journey home has finally found the perfect place in my cabin in the sky.
Contact Editor Jim Dodson at firstname.lastname@example.org.