On a break today, I talked with one of my fellow American coworkers and, as conversations are wont to wend, we got onto the topic of treehouses. When I stop and play back the mental films I have of my childhood, some of the fondest memories I have are of times spent in the forests around my homes and my friends’ homes. When I would read fantasy novels, the smells of leaves, of vineflowers in the evening, of moldering leaves, of a fresh creek were pervasive and real for me, because I could close the pages and go out to experience them firsthand.
But what struck me today more than the bucolic nostalgia of the rambling paths and rays of leafy sunlight dappling buzzing Virginia afternoons was something that my coworker pointed out. I had described to him how even as a very small boy, my biggest dream was not to mystically melt into the trees and live like a forest spirit, or to preserve the stately trunks for all time. Instead, my friends and I would endlessly talk of building things – creating a kingdom in the wood of forts, treehouses, platforms, stone walls, crayfish weirs, catapults, clifftop towers, bridges, tunnels, and every conceivable other architectural feature we could think of, besides houses, schools, or shops. What struck me today was my friend’s comment that “it’s in man’s nature to homestead.”
That was really, at the core, what we all wanted to do as kids. It is a different instinct than “playing house” or simply wanting to go on adventures. There was this almost fundamental drive to enjoy the landscape, to be sure – I could and did wax poetic about the beauties of nature. But what I most loved was mapping the creeks and paths, forts and rock cairns, and naming things. There is a kind of plant, fern-like, that I have never learned the name of, but it carpeted the forest floor in a wide swath in the woods with broad, star-shaped fronds. That area I named “the Valley of the Stars.” The small cascades that bubbled with drifting sticks each got a name, as did the earthworks we dug into the creek banks. It was thrilling to give names to these landforms and imagine that they were part of a larger world we could build and inhabit without authorities and without the sense of overweening responsibility that crept in as we got older.
Again, I am not writing a long enough piece tonight to go into all of the likely significances of this drive to tame the wilds and make a frontier, but it still pervades my life and my imagination, even after long journeys through the halls of college and the streets of hundreds of cities and towns. The world has shrunk for me even as the possibilities within it continue to multiply, and I am not sure what all I have lost in growing up and growing old. Somewhere under the new subdivision that they built on that vast swath of forest there is still the land that used to be the Valley of the Stars. Somewhere in those leafy afternoons there is a world that I will search for a way back to for the rest of my life.