Uppermost House: How small boys see the world

PeterLewisTreehouseCMYKBy S. Peter Lewis

BN Columnist

Autumn was nearly all on the ground now, summer’s green leaves now red and yellow and golden and blown loose by late October winds to settle haphazardly below in raspy piles. Soon to dampen and molder and dissolve in the cold rains of November.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was where all small boys should be on the last of the good warm days of fall, 40 feet up a beech tree. Sitting in the spreading crown, scanning the horizon.

I had found the tree earlier in the year, had told my dad that I needed a climbing tree, had said every small boy needed a climbing tree. Together, he and I had wandered the nearby woods and hills, peering skyward, considering, comparing, and coming up empty until we trudged back to the house and there it was — just 10 feet off the northwest corner of dad’s workshop.

It was perfect except for one thing: I couldn’t reach the lowest branch. Dad boosted me, holding my little feet against the grey bark in his big palms until I could latch on and pull. Then up I went, my dad watching from below, encouraging, coaching. “Grab close to the trunk. Pick living branches. Don’t go for the small stuff. Not too high, now.”

Nearing the top, I found a spot where I could lounge in protective comfort, held firm and safe by a boy-shaped tangle of branches. I was higher than dad’s shop, higher than our house, high enough to look out over the pond, nearly high enough to look beyond the tall ridge that held back the long view to the east and the far-off glistening sea.

“What do you see?” my father shouted from down on the earth.

“I see the whole world, dad” I shouted back.

I spent the summer in the top of that tree. Learned the branch pattern by heart. Read books. Daydreamed. Carved my initials in the smooth bark at the top.

Evenings were best. Flashlight in hand. Up there amidst the cicadas and tree frogs. My tree eerily lighted pale yellow by the glow through the workshop windows. The sounds of my dad tinkering away on some project: lathes and milling machines spinning, drill presses drilling. Pungence of pipe smoke wafting out through the open windows and filtering up through the leaves. Clattering of dishes from my mom’s distant kitchen. Whispers of wind. Twinkles of stars. A dog way off, yelping.

Years later, I returned from college and took a walk out behind dad’s old workshop. Found my tree dismembered, cut into stove-length pieces, but left irreverently on the ground to rot. My tree had died, mom said. Had become dangerous. Had to come down.

I kicked at one piece in the leaves and when it rolled over I saw my initials.

A decade later, my own small son desired a climbing tree of his own and so off we searched. Finding a likely candidate, I boosted him up, holding his little shoes against the trunk while he stretched upward. He was able to grasp the first branch, but was scared, unwilling to commit. I felt his feet shaking in my palms. Tree a bit too big. Boy a bit too small. I set him gently back on the ground. Knelt down and softly brushed away his tears. He pointed up toward the sky. “You climb it, dad” he sniffled.

I reached the first branch without a boost and was soon nestled in the crown, scanning the horizon.

“What do you see, dad?” my boy shouted from down on the earth.

“I see the whole world, son.”

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