The Treehouse: An Essay Reflecting on Life, Family, Neighborhood, and Memories

Confronting a dying tree and a derelict structure forces this writer to reflect.
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Back in the mid-1980s, when my wife, Viki, and I had been living in downtown Orange for 10 years, I decided to build a treehouse out of redwood fence lumber in a Fuerte avocado tree that sat in the corner of our backyard. I was well past 30 at the time, and the tree was probably twice my age and 40 feet high. We had two young sons, John and Danny, and so it might seem that I wanted to build the treehouse for them—and I did—but I also wanted to build it for me. Anything worth doing has a number of solidly good reasons for getting done. And in any event, a treehouse is its own excuse.

Illustration by Meream Pacayra

One thing I discovered is that the tree and the treehouse are in some sense the same thing. Like essays, no two treehouses are alike. The differences have everything to do with the trees (or minds) they’re built in, and so this essay has as much to do with the tree as with the house.

I’ll take a moment to point out that avocado trees work like cold storage; the fruit on a Fuerte lasts so long on the tree that you can be fooled into believing that the crop is perpetual, which, like other passing fancies, is momentarily heartening. And the Fuerte avocado is simply the best-tasting avocado grown in Southern California. It’s less common these days than the Hass avocado, partly because Hass trees tend to be low growing. You can get at most of the fruit with a picker. A Fuerte is a larger tree, growing toward the sun for reasons of its own rather than the practical purpose of pickability. We had a 15-foot fiberglass picker with a canvas bag on the end and an ancient fruit-picking ladder that was 12 feet high. Standing on the third rung from the top, with my knees braced against the top rung and my feet planted at the outer edges so that I was less likely to break through the weather-beaten dowel that I stood on, I couldn’t get anywhere near the avocados in the top half of the tree. Sooner or later they would come down of their own accord, and I can tell you from experience that a one-pound avocado falling from 30 or 40 feet onto the top of your head can be a shocking thing.

I like to build things out of redwood—that was part of why I wanted to build the treehouse: I envisioned a sort of Craftsman bungalow in the branches. The thing about avocado trees, however, is that the limbs won’t hold much weight, comparatively speaking. Since the treehouse was likely to be inhabited by a tribe of neighborhood children from time to time, I decided to build it on posts bolted to concrete piers on the ground so that it appeared to be a treehouse but wasn’t dependent on limbs for support. The structure would be two stories: the bottom story a garden shed, the treehouse above it accessible by a three-tiered staircase leading to a veranda. I built the bottom story first and topped it with plywood to make a floor for the house that would sit on top. Then I climbed onto the plywood to figure out what the house itself might look like.

From that vantage point I discovered there was a heavy, U-shaped limb growing out horizontally some six feet above the level of the floor, call it 14 or 15 feet off the ground. That limb, I could see now, would restrict both the height and the width of the house. I could have foreseen this problem by climbing our rickety old ladder and measuring the height of the limb with a tape measure, but I hadn’t done so.

It came to me that the limb might weave in and out of the house through holes in the walls. Except that the limb alone would pretty much occupy the house, which wasn’t ideal. After muddling around with it for a while, I settled on a split-level roof—two feet of its width built lower down so that a section of the limb loomed a few inches above it. The rest of the roof was high enough to accommodate grown humans if they were inclined to stand up inside (if grown humans were allowed into the treehouse at all). The artfully hooked limb would seem to embrace the top of the house, passing above the top of the door like a floating lintel. A couple of other heavy limbs angled away from what would be the veranda—ascending avenues for anyone who wanted to venture into the upper realms. 

Over the following weeks and months, I built and installed windows that opened inward, and I set a trap door low in the back wall with toeholds and handles outside that would allow someone to creep up and down unseen like Dracula on the wall of his castle. The whole structure was clad with vertical fence boards with wood lath for battens. I put on a shingle roof and hung a swag lamp in a corner and another lamp over the stairs outside to accommodate the possums and raccoons that would make use of the place at night. And so it was finished.

The christening of the treehouse nearly coincided with the death of one of our neighbors, Bill Mitchell. Back when we first moved into the house in 1977, the Mitchell family two doors down had already lived there for years. Their backyard was an immense garden where Bill, who was well past 80, grew lettuce, onions, and rows and rows of black-eyed peas. He was fond of those peas. From time to time in the summer months, we’d find a paper bag full of them on our front porch. When they stopped appearing, we knew that black-eyed pea season was over, taking summer with it. There came a time when Bill was too old to tend to his garden, and they stopped appearing altogether.

One year we had a bumper crop of avocados. Thinking about Bill’s generosity and neighborliness, I loaded our son John into the coaster wagon (built up with oak slats on the sides) and heaped in avocados and paper sacks until John was pretty well buried. We went off down the sidewalk, filling bags with avocados and leaving them on front porches. John’s 37 now. I’ll have to ask him whether he remembers that adventure, but probably what he’ll remember is my talking about it. It’s true that most of our recollections change subtly each time we recall them, the essence ideally getting better with age. It occurred to Viki and me recently that the Mitchells had been the reigning old-timers when we moved into the neighborhood, the two of us being in our mid-20s. Now somehow we’ve become the old-timers. Funny how that happens.

It’s a fact that neither Viki nor I could eat avocados when we were kids. We grew up in Anaheim, where many of the houses in the neighborhoods came with mature avocado trees. My family had two of them. The avocados were slimy things to my mind, and it was a sort of horror to watch my parents eating them with salt and pepper or smashing them onto toast. I tried to pick around them in salads, but it was nearly impossible because they share their wealth with every shred of lettuce.

Later, as a freshman in college, I wrote an essay about the horrors of the avocado, which baffled the teacher, not because she was a fan of avocados but because she had asked us to write an essay on a novel we’d been studying in class. That avocado essay was the first time in my life I’d ignored a teacher’s assignment and had written a finished essay entirely on a whim. I got a D- on the paper, which I no doubt deserved. When I think back on it now, I realize that her comment, which began with “This is funny, but …” probably did as much to encourage my writing as any previous teachers’ comments, and to heck with the lousy grade. That’s another debt I owe to avocados, which were useful to me even while I was insulting them.

The treehouse is still standing, unlike the tree itself. It has been around for 30-odd years now and has led to considerations about the life of a tree and about life in general. In the years after the treehouse was open for business, that U-shaped limb got heavier and heavier, the healthy tree growing in bulk and weight. In time, the limb settled onto the corner of the roof, and in heavy Santa Ana winds it shifted ominously, the treehouse along with it. Viki and I managed to raise the limb a couple of inches, and I braced it with a vertical 4-by-4 post fixed to the floor of the veranda so that the limb sat happily and solidly on a scooped-out perch padded with leather.

Ten years went by, and one day the post under that limb started to tilt, as if it were no longer bearing any weight. The limb was getting lighter, we discovered, slowly levitating. I removed the no-longer-useful post and hoped for the best, although there was no best outcome to account for the phenomenon. The tree was drying out, which is to say dying. The avocados on the tree began to shrink in size as the tree declined, and the top of the fruit was deformed. The once glossy surfaces of the leaves dimmed, the edges turning brown. The tree stopped bearing fruit of any sort. We called an arborist, who looked hard at the tree, shook his head, and told us that it couldn’t be saved. Its problem was that it was old and simply passing away. The unhappy day finally came when we had no choice but to have the tree cut down, one limb at a time, the stump ground out, and the remnants hauled to the dump. The treehouse, bereft of its tree, stood there exposed to the elements, looking old and worn out.

The glory years of the treehouse had passed away, of course, even while the tree was still alive and thriving. Our sons and their friends simply found less and less time to spend in trees. The treehouse became a storage shed—old surfboards and water skis, bins of junk, theater props, falling-apart pieces of antique furniture that wanted to be repaired but somehow hadn’t been. In that era, a swarm of bees got into the treehouse and set up housekeeping in the corner, creating honey-filled combs between the wall studs and coming and going past termite-eaten battens. After the bees finally vacated the premises, the inside of the treehouse smelled like honey, and still does in its ghostly way.

Thirty years of wind and rain and insects took a grim toll. The stairs are nearly hollowed out by termites, and climbing them is a real thrill. Roof shingles blew off in a recent Santa Ana wind. Our list of projects includes a family day on which we’ll take the last stuff out of there, most of it bound for The Salvation Army, and then the treehouse will be good for nothing—except, perhaps, as a reminder of how things change.

A few years before the avocado tree declined, we had put a half-dead ficus tree in a wooden keg out back. A little bit of watering perked it up, and over time its roots grew through the bottom of the keg. Once the avocado was gone and the ficus got some sunlight, it began to grow as if it had been waiting for its chance. Now it’s 25 feet high, and its limbs are reaching over and around the lonesome treehouse. There’s something interesting in that: a treehouse that needed a tree rather than the other way around.

The other day, Viki and I were out back looking at the garden shed and thinking about all this. The shed still stands solidly on its concrete piers and has a few good years left in it, more than a few if we were to yank out termite-eaten boards and replace them. What if, we thought, we pruned the ficus tree in order to make it fit a new treehouse, a treehouse that was bigger and better than ever? We could easily picture it—a few extra square feet for elbow room, a couple of easy chairs and a table, reading lamps, a carpet on the floor, a shelf of books, wood-paneled walls, windows on two sides, a wider veranda. We would enlist our sons and make it a family affair—all in all an optimistic adventure and a temporary victory over time and the weather.

There’s a poem that tells us that nothing gold can stay, and another that tells us that the world is always turning toward the morning. Both are true. I’m reminded of the spectacular view of the sunrise out the east-facing treehouse window, the brief blaze of color in the dawn sky over Old Saddleback—a constant element of beauty in a world of change. 

And that’s the unfinished story of a tree, a treehouse, and 30 years in the life of a family. I’m not sure whether to call it a celebration or the blink of an eye.

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