• Build a little tree house in your soul
    August 18,2013
    Stefan Hard / Staff File Photo

    Willie Docto and Greg Trulson stand on the deck of a two-story tree house at the Moose Meadow Lodge in Waterbury.

    “Daddy, can you build me a tree house?”

    I looked up from my work of finishing our actual house before the coming winter. “Sure, honey,” I said.

    My 10-year-old pointed to a nearby stand of pines and explained her vision of three pods, 25 feet in the air, built around separate trees but connected by a web of rope bridges and zip lines — with a “simple” spiral staircase encircling the trunk of the largest tree. “And,” she continued, “Can it have electricity too?”

    Ten years later my daughter still wistfully reminds me that I never did build her that tree house — or the balcony off her bedroom, for that matter. And I too feel wistful about the tree house-that-never-was.

    What is it about tree houses that so captures our imagination? A browse through any independent bookstore will reveal a spate of tree house books: coffee table tomes with gorgeous glossy photographs of arboreal mini-mansions, funky hobbit-hole inspired retreats, and how-to guides for those lacking confidence or skills.

    But within the dizzying variety there is common ground, a unifying element — they all inspire a yearning for simplicity, independence and innocence.

    All right, but what does this have to do with the environment, with green building — or with sustainability for that matter?

    I say, “Everything.”

    Sustainability is often approached as a set of metrics: measurements, standards, and performance thresholds; toxicity levels and health effects; resource depletion and recycling rates. And of course sustainability is all of these, but it is more.

    Sustainability has an intangible component, an emotional and sometimes spiritual aspect that is not about sustaining the Earth but about sustaining us.

    What recharges our psychic batteries when they are depleted? What gives us the hope and the courage to keep going, to keep fighting an overwhelming battle?

    In 1854 Henry David Thoreau published a little-noticed book called “Walden.” The initial printing of 2,000 copies took five years to sell, while Thoreau’s little 10-by-15 cabin crumbled in the woods.

    No one, especially Thoreau, would have predicted that little cabin’s immortality. In the last century and a half it has been rebuilt hundreds, if not thousands of times. Replicas are hewn and raised by students, by conservation groups, by hermits, activists, anarchists, back-to-the-landers and seekers of all stripes. 

    Thoreau’s words are still a call to arms, a template for those wishing to “live deliberately,” a manifesto on independence, and an inspirational fountain from which to recharge our own depleted batteries.

    The simple facts — those inconvenient truths — differ from our projected mythology: Walden Pond was not deep in the wilderness but perched on the edge of town, a mere two miles from Thoreau’s mother’s house where he dined most Sundays.

    He wrote at length about the sounds of wagons rumbling by, of cows lowing and roosters crowing. He had frequent and extensive interactions with other people on a daily basis, and the whole experiment, for experiment it was, lasted only two years, two months and two days.

    In a delicious ironic twist the actual site of this grand experiment in autonomy is now a state-run park.

    But the details really don’t matter because Walden has moved from an actual physical experience to a metaphor. It has become a metaphor for simplicity, independence and innocence. This brings us right back to tree houses.

    Tree houses are not ultimately about the physical space enclosed. They become a metaphor for the space within us. There is something primal and magical about that lofty perch, gazing down on the scurry and the tasks of everyday life, where we can breathe deeply and regain our wider perspective on the relative importance of our private and public worries.

    So maybe, just maybe, when my daughter comes home from college next time, we’ll grab a couple of hammers and an armload of boards and head out to the pines.

    Robin Chesnut-Tangerman is a green builder specializing in renovations and innovations, and a longtime organizer of SolarFest. He can be reached at talisman@vermontel.net.

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