The other requests Katie and her 7-year-old brother Ian made for the treehouse were all doable: a place to play board games, eat snacks and read books. A tire swing and a flagpole. A ladder and a bucket on a rope and pulley. I had worked with their parents, Sue and Kevin Concannon, on their landscape before. Now Sue had called me in to help make the back yard into a thoroughgoing Romper Room for the kids' minds and bodies.
I never had a treehouse as a kid, but being military brats, my buds and I had built forts from branches and dug foxholes to hide in. We'd dammed up creeks with rocks and climbed trees to hang tire swings. What I remembered from those days was that our imaginations could transform nothing into something. Looking back, I've seen that any boredom we felt was largely a symptom of not engaging our imaginations.
I try to keep those thoughts in mind when putting treehouses together. Fortunately, the parents I've worked with had specific goals of getting their kids out of the house, away from the video screens and into their own imaginations.
Not surprisingly, some of those parents could imagine themselves getting a little use from that treehouse, too. One mom hoped the finished project would be suitable for her to have a friend over for "a beer and a burrito." Another parent uses the treehouse as a meditation space when the kids aren't around.
In order to save money, several parents showed me their troves of scrap lumber. Scrap plywood became a roof for one, spare 2x6 planks became a diagonal floor in another, and rough-sawn 1x12s became board and batten siding on a third. Some parts came from my own inventory of odd and ends. Two small cedar trunks--all that remained of a bit of "landscape by subtraction"--became posts for a front porch. Old brass spigots have been threaded into trees to tap imaginary water, maple syrup or "root" beer.
OK, now I was getting somewhere. After asking around, one colleague suggested the style of balcony found on Swiss chalets with cutouts of tulips. Going that one better, I asked Katie to draw me some pictures of animals, which I transferred to the panels of the balcony and cut out with a jigsaw. The balcony/forecastle was now a step up from the main deck and enclosed on three sides by planks with cutouts of an owl, a butterfly, flowers and a cat with a curvy tail. The balcony also sported a plank in the floor that could be lifted to reveal a secret chamber for hiding jewels and coded messages.
To my eyes the results looked fabulous. But would they survive the acid test?
On the first day the treeboat was "launched," both kids scaled the Swiss Family Robinson-style ladder carved from a log and played there heartily with their friends. Katie stayed in it all day asking that her meals be brought to her and wanting to sleep in it overnight. The princess did get her meals catered, but that night she cuddled with her blankie and animals in her own bed.