Sky Clouds

Time for a Tree House

ACTUALLY, HANNAH AND CAROLINE never really asked me to build them a tree house. I came up with that idea myself, got them attached to it, and then pretended that my efforts were strictly for their benefit. But their spontaneous enthusiasm provided the necessary cover for me to do what every grown man secretly wants to do: construct an arboreal retreat, far from unpaid bills and truck repairs, uncertainty about the future, inescapable news of gun violence or environmental catastrophe and the grief these unthinkable losses engender. Never mind a long weekend in the mountains or going to a baseball game. What I really needed was to climb up into a tree house and pull the rope ladder up behind me, leaving my worldly woes behind.

The problem with building a tree house in the Great Basin is that we have so few trees, and even fewer that provide tolerable support for any kind of structure. Because Ranting Hill sits at almost 6,000 feet, we are high enough to have Utah junipers here, but they are tangled, tight, scratchy trees that are uninviting for inhabitation. As a result, the girls and I devised a plan to build a platform house that would stand on stilts amid a dense grove of junipers. Construction began only once I had persuaded the kids that a platform house in the trees does officially count as a real tree house. Because my main goal was to make the thing so tall that it would produce an exhilarating feeling of being in the treetops, I chose for my main structural timbers four sixteen-foot-long 4 x 6 posts, which I balanced carefully on my shoulder, hauled to the juniper grove, and set up in concrete. This would not only produce inspiring height, but also allow a design featuring both a lower and upper platform, making the structure resemble the bunk beds of a desert giant. Next came horizontal 2 x 6 supports, then 2 x 4 cross ribbing, and finally the two floors themselves, each consisting of a full 4 x 8 sheet of marine plywood. After adding an upper safety railing and buccaneer-style swinging rope ladder, the retreat was complete: a thirteen-foot-tall, two-story, sixty-four-square-foot platform house nestled into a thick copse of aromatic Utah juniper.

There is no point in pretending that my desire to build a tree house was not driven by nostalgia. It all began with the 1960 Disney film, The Swiss Family Robinson, based on Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel of the same title. As a kid, I loved that movie, which fueled the pastoral fantasy that I could not only escape school, but even leave the earth, clambering up into a treetop hideaway from which no grownup could make me descend—not even to wash up for supper. And I was not alone. The popularity of that crappy movie bankrolled the “Swiss Family Treehouse” replicas that sprouted up at Disney parks not only in southern California, but in Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong as well. So popular were these reproductions of the movie’s elaborate tree house that the Anaheim version lasted from 1962 until 1999, when it was converted into “Tarzan’s Treehouse” as a tie-in with the Disney Tarzan film released that year. The big-screen Swiss Family Robinson was itself influenced by the immensely profitable Tarzan film franchise that began during the early 1930s. In fact, any kind of tree-house movie provides a quick way of separating a guy from his money.

The contemporary version of this fantasy is evident in the passion the ultra-rich have developed for tree houses. This opulent fad has gained so much traction that there are now more than thirty luxury tree house design and construction firms in the U.S. and U.K. alone, and many of the tree houses they build are not only nicer, but also larger than the houses most of us live in. Who, you might ask, would be crazy enough to pay six figures for a tree house? The answer is simple: any guy with a ton of scratch who saw The Swiss Family Robinson when he was eight years old.

This bizarre indulgence has led, inevitably, to Finca Bellavista, an upscale tree house development, built high in the jungle canopy of Costa Rica. The Animal Planet network now features a reality TV show called Treehouse Masters, in which tree-house guru Pete Nelson exposes us to pornographically lavish tree houses while simultaneously pretending that a tree house with running water, air conditioning, stained-glass windows, and a martini bar qualifies as a minimalist sanctuary enabling a Thoreauvian reconnection with nature. But while Nelson’s claim is patent horseshit, it is irresistible horseshit of the kind few of us can live a single day without. You might object that tree houses are meant for kids and that the adult longing for one is nothing more than a puerile expression of a desperate desire to escape, momentarily, the pressures of adult responsibility. To which I reply, exactly! That is what makes a tree house so cool, even and especially after one grows to adulthood, realizes that The Swiss Family Robinson is total crap, and then wants to watch it again anyway.

Hannah (left) and Caroline Branch hanging out.

Believe it or not, there is historical precedent for the luxury tree-house craze, as some sixteenth-century Italian aristocrats constructed arboreal retreats in their elaborate gardens—you know, just to provide them an escape from the pressures of the main mansion. In other cultures, tree houses have more practical uses. The Korowai, a Papuan people of southeastern Irian Jaya, live in virtually unassailable tree houses at least 100 feet up; this is a precaution they take against their neighbors, the Citak, who are reputed to be headhunters. There is even some argument that a desire to inhabit trees is braided into the double helix that preconditions human behavior. Roughly six million years ago, we hominids parted ways from the evolutionary ancestor we share with chimpanzees and bonobos, but there could still be some deep-time muscle memory at play here. After all, we share more than ninety-five percent of our DNA with chimps—and nearly the same amount with bonobos, the central African dwarf chimpanzees whose DNA is even closer to human DNA than it is to the DNA of gorillas. To judge by Caroline, the human-chimp genetic convergence appears to be closer to 99.99 percent. Could it be that there is just something in us that wants to climb trees—and, once up there, wants to build a nest, skip school or work, and hang out peeling bananas or shaking martinis?

There is one other cultural context in which tree houses have figured prominently, and that is the amazing tree-sitting protests that have been used to save old-growth forests from logging and also to protest mining, protect Native American property rights, and preserve urban green space. A daring variation on civil rights-era sit ins, protest tree-sits began in New Zealand during the late 1970s but spread to Australia, Tasmania, Canada, and the U.S., where they have occurred in California, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia (where they were used to protest and delay mountaintop removal coal mining). One urban tree-sit in Berkeley, California, lasted twenty-one months, and even the mainstream media covered the protest of Humboldt County activist Julia “Butterfly” Hill, who spent a remarkable 738 consecutive days in “Luna,” a fifteen-hundred-year old coast redwood, from 1997 to 1999. Once in the trees, activists not only build tree houses—where they live for weeks, months, or even years—but also connect those houses from tree to tree, creating a webbed network of cables and rappel lines throughout the canopy. One anti-logging protest tree village in central Oregon’s Willamette National Forest had more than a thousand activists in the trees at various times, and included such practical amenities as composting toilets, hydroponic sprout farms, and lock-on points for activists to chain themselves to during forced evictions.

In his beautiful 1972 book Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes Baucis, an imaginary city that exists in the sky, rests upon slender stilts, and is populated by people who never descend to the ground. “There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis,” writes Calvino. “That they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence.” It strikes me as ironic that our children are so anxious to grow up, because they desire the freedom from authority they imagine adulthood will bring, while at the same time we grownups crave a return to childhood in order to evade the burdens adulthood actually entails. I wonder if there will be some magic day on which my beautiful daughters and I will pass each other, they rushing forward in a desire for adult responsibility, I rushing backward through memory and imagination in an attempt to escape it.

Our tree house on Ranting Hill, though modest in comparison to the one depicted in the old Disney film, is well concealed among the juniper and seems perfectly exotic to us. It satisfies our innate craving to retreat to a secret hideaway, one whose stilts lift us into the trees from which we clambered down so long ago. While our tree house is only about 250 feet from home, it remains invisible, secret, always ready to become a pirate galleon, desert island, lunar module, raven’s nest, hot-air balloon, or undiscovered planet—whatever we need it to be. Maybe a sanctuary for a too-grownup writer, engaged in a one-man, tree-sit protest against adulthood. Our tree house provides a place to climb above the weary earth for a moment, if only to gaze back down at that earth and contemplate with fascination our own absence from it.

Michael P. Branch is a writer, environmentalist, father, desert rat, and curmudgeon who lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the remote western Great Basin Desert. He is professor of literature and environment in the English department at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he cofounded the nation’s first graduate program in literature and environment studies. Branch is the author of more than two hundred essays, articles, and five books, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated John Muir’s Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa and Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness.  His creative nonfiction includes pieces that have received Honorable Mention for the Pushcart Prize and have been recognized as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays, The Best Creative Nonfiction, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. When not ranting or writing, he plays blues harmonica, drinks sour mash, curses at baseball on the radio, cuts stovewood, and walks at least 1,200 miles each year in the surrounding hills, canyons, ridges, arroyos, and playas.

From Rants from the Hill by Michael P. Branch © 2017 by Michael P. Branch. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.