Reposted from Orion
What if the collision between ecology and modern civilization isn’t an environmental problem but a spiritual one?
THIS SUMMER, I built my children a tree house. Adults build tree houses because they always wanted one when they were young, or because they can remember their own childhood tree house fondly. The actual children are secondary concerns. I deliberately built my tree house large enough so that adults could sleep in it. When the kids grow up and get bored with it, my wife and I plan to claim it for ourselves. Maybe we’ll sit up there as the sun goes down and listen to the birds, or watch the foxes emerge from the hedge bank and go looking for the neighbor’s ducks again.
I built the tree house in a sycamore that grows in a hedgerow in our field. We don’t have many mature trees on our land, and this one attracted the kids as soon as we moved here, to the west of Ireland. It has a personality of its own: it leans out into the field as if it were bending over to inspect the ground. They used to call it the fairy tree and leave offerings in a little hole in the trunk. Sometimes they got replies.
I’d been promising them a tree house for a couple of years before I got round to building one. I wanted to get it right. When you’re building something for your children, you want to be pretty sure it’s not going to collapse on top of them or send them catapulting from the tree eight feet down to the ground. That kind of thing tends to decrease their confidence in your fatherly construction skills.
But there was something else I wanted to get right. A lot of tree-house designs I saw involved putting the thing right at the heart of the tree, and that in turn involved a lot of what is euphemistically known as “tree surgery,” which in everyday English means “hacking a lot of branches off the tree.” The shape of our sycamore meant that if the tree house were to sit in the tree itself, a lot of the big branches would have to come off. Something in me balked strongly at this. I like this tree: it has a wholeness about it. I don’t suppose it’s very old, and it’s not even a native species (as if that should matter—neither am I), but it’s definitely some kind of being. I didn’t want to hack it about for the sake of providing yet another space for humans.
So I ended up building a tree house on stilts, the back of which is attached to the trunk, which also acts as a ladder up into a small door. The tree house has windows and a clear roof, so you can see that you’re up in the branches, and the light filters through the leaves into the space. You can’t get in without climbing up the hedge bank and scaling the trunk, but the house is really attached to the tree rather than sitting in it. I only had to saw off one small branch. The kids love it, and I’m proud that it hasn’t fallen down. But I feel as though I’ve done a strange service to the tree as well, and that seems as important, somehow, as anything else.
Before I started writing this essay, I went up into the tree house and sat there above the frost-coated field. I enjoyed building it: building jobs are usually more stressful than peaceful, but this was an exception. I get a sense of peace up in a tree that I never quite feel anywhere else. I’m sure this must go back millions of years and run in my primate blood. Our primate ancestors spent much longer in the trees than our relatively young species has spent on the ground, and building a tree house has given new life to my preexisting dark suspicion that we should never have come down from the branches in the first place. We are primates built for trees, and the branches still welcome us. Maybe all of our ecological crimes are a result of some madness sparked by leaving the canopy. Maybe we can’t function properly down here. Or perhaps it’s just harder to cause trouble in a tree. There’s no fire up there, no sword. That’s where Eden was: up in the branches, with the birds and the bracket fungi. Once you come down, all your troubles begin.
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