Tree House

One book carried me through my childhood. It sustained my spirit, fed my growing need to inhabit a world of make-believe, and on a practical level gave me material to write book reports over several years. Book reports are more fun to write second, third and fourth time around. They give you an excuse to read the book again; they get easier to write as you become more and more familiar with the material. Then, too, there's the excitement one feels in apparently putting one over on the teachers. The book was Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss.

I discovered it around age 11 browsing the shelves in the Keene Public Library. The books I enjoy most seem to be ones I find myself. Even at an early age I never read the book everybody was talking about; still don't. My policy is never a read a book when it's hot. Wait a few years. The first thing I liked about Swiss Family Robinson was that one of the characters had my name, Ernest. Second thing, dogs that acted as protectors. In my real world, I was constantly being chased by dogs as I biked down streets. Third thing, tree house.

After reading Swiss Family Robinson I decided I would build a tree house and live in it forever, but of course I never did. I teased myself with the idea, though. Decades later as a man in his thirties I built a tree house on property I owned in Sullivan, New Hampshire. It was very crude, just a platform with floor joists nailed to five trees and a slanted roof but no sides, and it was only eight feet or so off the ground because I had (and still have) a fear of heights.

I used to go to the tree house to read, but the experience was never quite right. Sometimes it was too cold, and in the summer I would be attacked by mosquitos or the evil ones, black flies. I never gave up the idea of building a more elaborate tree house and living in it. I just built them in my imaginary world. The first virtual tree house appears in Mad Boys, published in 1993.

A tree house pops up in I Love u, which is a sort of sequel to Mad Boys but has never found a book publisher. (Mad Boys and I Love U are available as ebooks through Amazon Kindle.) I have an idea in my head of a future novel where almost all the action takes place in a tree house that is a thousand years old. Such a structure would have to be located in a very old tree indeed, perhaps a Sequoia in a remote California grove. Or maybe a freak White Oak tree in the Salmon Trust lands in Darby, New Hampshire. I dunno.

!110 Ernest Hebert Darby Chronicles

In Spoonwood, the sixth novel of the Darby Chronicles, Birch Latour and his friends Missy Mendelson and Bez Woodward build a tree house. Most trees houses built by kids are eventually abandoned when the kids mature. Not Birch's tree house. In the next book, Howard Elman's Farewell, Birch converts the early version into an elaborate, expensive high-tech structure for grownups. In my mind it represents my own dream come true. Birch Latour is me at 25 but greatly improved over the original model. I've projected my childhood dreams and desires upon him. I do something like that with all my characters, but Birch is a special character. Now that I am past seventy it's comforting to inhabit, if virtually, the persona of a youthful character.

The appeal of a tree house is universal and obvious. It's visually exciting; it's a get away; it gives the illusion of privacy and safety. And, hey, humans once lived in trees (supposedly), so the tree house is a virtual resort representing our primal past. For Birch and his lover, Tess Jordan, the tree house is a honeymoon cottage. It's also a beta project tied in with the couple's business, Geek Chorus Software, creators of the video game Darby Doomsday.

Birch and his friends are attempting to invent a workable way of life for their century, by ignoring the 20th century, embracing previous centuries, especially the 19th, but at the same time staying on the edge of technology and new discoveries of their own time period. This time-convergence idea gets played out in the tree house. Its design and location cups an ear to the whispered echoes of the past, but it has been built to take advantage of the 21st century version of the Spike Jones band. Birch will take what he learns from this experiment in the woods and use the knowledge to remodel the Salmon Estate. Which for me, the creator, is a future project. Wonder if it'll ever get done.