I spent much of my childhood playing in the trees. And that is no insignificant matter because our childhood playgrounds, like the Universe itself, are the very goop from which our hearts and minds are created. Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams that “the deeper we go into the analysis of dreams, the more often are we put on the track of childish experiences which play the part of dream-sources in the latent dream-content.” The trees, tree houses, and my father, were the dark forests, castles and giants of my youth.
My very first memory of my father, also the most touching and poignant, is watching him build me a tree house. I couldn’t have been more than three years old. His inner kid must have compelled him to build it because of the squarish grouping of four cherry trees that lay in wait behind our humble home. Completed, it was a sweet little ticket booth in the trees, entrance fees waived in perpetuity.
He always wore white, my dad, when he worked at carpentry. I don’t know why. I see him now in the midst of a sweltering Connecticut summer, his thin lips pursed with determination, the underarms of his faded-white T-shirt shadowed in sweat, his white painter’s pants all gummed up with sawdust and dried glue and splatters of creosote, contrasting wildly to his nappy black hair, while his skinny arms hammered and sawed, hammered and sawed. I can visualize the tree house, too, like a one-eyed little domi-smile, proudly gleaming under the dappled summer rays: two-by-four-by-six-inch incline ladder, wide vertical-length pine siding, paneled front door with a thumb-latch doorknob, two glassless windows—one in the front and one in the back—and a pitched roof. But the most powerful memory of all, is the ubiquitous smell of creosote. She exuded its essence forever more. He really loved that creosote, my dad.
A few years after my own tree house had been built, and, alas all aspects of its endless possibilities had been fully exploited, I discovered another tree house in the neighborhood. But this was no ordinary tree house. This was of psycho-mythic proportions. I found it high up among the scaly branches of a gigantic silver maple, in the midst of a dark wood in an out-of-the-way corner of my little suburban sphere. I almost couldn’t see it for the trees. Painted dark blue, it was an odd rhombus shape, with two distinct levels. The problem was, I couldn’t get inside her. There were no windows, and the only point of entry was a small trapdoor, but it was padlocked.
Then one day, while passing by, lo and behold, the trapdoor lay agape. My heart raced. I don’t know how they normally entered the place because there were no two-by-four slabs nailed to the tree trunk, no rope ladder handy, just the thick bole itself misshapen by a an odd assortment of knots and burls, enough for a kid my size to get a few precious toe-holds on. My eight-year-old agility proved equal to the task, and just like that I was up and in.
Crawling around in the gloaming, I found a veritable treasure trove of wonderalia. There were sleeping bags piled high on all bunks, with pillows and blankets and empty soda bottles and cans and books strewn about, with international flags on the walls, and board games galore stuffed under the bunks. I stayed inside that tree house for hours, weltering in the ecstatic joy of childhood fantasy.
When I grew up, I did not build a tree house for my two daughters because I am not handy like my dad was. He will always have that advantage over me, which is as it should be—fathers and sons both benefit from one another’s advantages. And even though now I do not climb and sleep and build ticket booths in the trees, I continue to walk and imagine among them.
With the national Arbor and Earth Days both coming at the end of April this year, we need to be mindful, and look up. Because in and among the trees, we are all of us children at play.
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