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Thursday, January 22, 2015

In the Trees, Please

Treehouses. Small. Fun. Fanciful. An excellent setting for an imaginary adventure.

A few days ago I happened upon a treehouse while I was out walking and I took this photo of it. It’s fairly basic. There’s no roof, but it’s a place to sit among the leaves, and it’s charming. It is a more imaginative version of a deck. I love how it is built on top of two neighboring trees.

Later that day I spent an hour hunting for photos of other treehouses I’d seen in the last few years. I found one other photo but I know there are more. Here’s a treehouse I spotted near my parents’ house. This one has stairs that lead up to the entrance. There are windows, walls and a roof. Someone put a lot of time into creating it.

This last photo shows a remarkable treehouse. It’s octagonal, and many details were added to make it amazing. Even the window panes are painted an accent color (window panes? Windows? Now you know you’re dealing with an unusual treehouse. Still, in my book, simple is good enough…)

Treehouses automatically set the stage for excitement. They are designed for kids. Some even have signs barring grownups. This must be so thrilling for kids. It’s their space, their rules, their turf, their world. Are they pirates in their fort? Or people living a secret life in the jungle? Is the treehouse a Barbie village? So many possibilities…

If it’s a true treehouse, built high up among the branches, kids can look down at the world, and things do look different when you’re off the ground. I’m thinking about tree houses, but the idea also applies to playhouses, club houses, lofts, forts—anything that is a small, cozy space created just for a child. Even the upper level of a bunk bed has a touch of magic. Tents made from kitchen chairs and sheets are also wonderful. They are private spaces, separate from the grown ups’ world. Something kid-sized must feel just right to a child—after all, kids live in homes that are built for grownup proportions—chairs that feel too big, countertops they can’t reach, sinks that require a step stool to reach. Something kid-sized is fun. I remember a play space under someone’s stairs. It was a house I visited only once, as a young child. I can’t remember the faces of the owners but I remember that small room, a hideout, a nest just for kids. These things make a big impression.

When I was very young we had a book called “A Little House of your Own,” by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers (1954). It was about children making cozy spaces both indoors and out. The charming illustrations were in pen and ink. There were many kid-sized mini houses depicted in the book—ideas to get a child’s imagination going. Here is a page from it:

When I think of tree houses, I think of the simple construction of a building. Windows would be open spaces in the walls, perhaps with a curtain to keep adult eyes out. But simple is good. There are fascinating tv shows about treehouses built with the intention that people will live in them. They have plumbing and electricity. They have stairs up to them. There are bathrooms and appliances. The shows are intriguing, and the concept catches my attention. But for me, glamming up a treehouse actually takes the fun out of it. A tree house should feel a bit rustic, I think. It shouldn’t feel like a four-star resort. I love that the treehouses I’ve found were made by homeowners, not architects. You can see the human touch in them. They aren’t super fancy. Each one is different, built according to how the tree grew. And each shows that someone saw the potential in a tree, and valued spending the time to make something for a child. I love it.

One fond memory I have from my youngest years involves a tree and a house, but not what you’d call a treehouse. We had a Juniper tree near our front door. The back of it was cut away so that it wouldn’t push into the house. There was a kid-sized gap between the tree and the house and I could climb the branches like a ladder. I’d sit on a shallow ledge on the house, and just be tucked away in my own private world. It was hidden, and that gave it magic. Small spaces between the branches were like windows. I could see out but no one could see me.

I’ll keep looking for those photos I took of other treehouses. And I’ll keep on the lookout for more treehouses. Unlike so many toys of today, treehouses don’t require a game console or electricity—they just require some imagination. Treehouses bring you back to childhood and days of dreaming up a make-believe land to visit. They get you outside, among the leaves and birds. It’s a place to talk or just to be, an oasis set away from real life. Tree houses are get-away spots. And all of us—kids, grownups, all of us—need a cozy spot to get away…

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