Leave me alone in my tree house

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I’ve got an idea for a tree house. It’s going to take a while to complete it, but I have a while because I’ve decided to grow the tree from seed. That decision came about because I’ve built two tree houses in recent years, both of them in a bit of a deadline rush, feeling stressed to perform and produce. Therefore, I figure that if I set about to build a tree house in a tree that is at the time of this writing (August 9, 2016, early morning) only 15.4 inches high, no one for the next thirty years is going to ask me if I’m done with the tree house yet, and thus I will be free to go about the planning and building of it as leisurely as I please.

I will baptize this tree house the “Leave Me Alone Tree House.” I know already that this is not going to be a very popular name. I feel as though I should be relentlessly big on collaborating, being social, forming alliances and collectives instead of working by myself, removing my name from the authorship of a project, etc. But I do plenty of all of that already, and so in this project I am giving myself two prerogatives that I don’t generally allow in my work: I want to build this tree house all by myself, and I want you to leave me alone in it.

I have memories of needing to be left alone stretching back to the very beginning of my memories, and so we can only assume that this need accompanied me into the world the moment I was born. As a toddler I dabbled in being left alone in my everyday life – for instance, by building mini abodes of boxes and bed sheets inspired by medieval castles, like the one David Macaulay drew in his book Castle, where the outer and inner gates don’t line up and so the enemy is forced to run around inside the castle walls directly in the cross hairs of the royal archers. I always built my castles inside closets, which provided an extra layer of protection because my mother first had to guess which closet to search before getting down to the work of unearthing me from beneath my multilayered construction if she wanted to have a talk. My brother had the much simpler tactic of spontaneously falling asleep whenever he wanted to be alone, but I’ve been a fairly difficult sleeper my whole life so that never worked for me. Small-scale construction projects and hiding generally did.

Later on, in elementary school, I amused myself by drawing detailed architectural plans for my future house, and each new and progressively more outlandish plan had two common denominators with the ones that preceded it: a spiral staircase leading to a tower, and a small atelier detached from the rest of the house in which to practice my various artistic pursuits. Both of these building features say one thing: Leave me alone.

My desire to be left alone on occasion doesn’t mean I’m a misanthrope. Despite what you may be thinking right now as you read this, I am a very social person. My default attitude toward the rest of the human species is a feeling of like or love, depending on the person, with very few exceptions. I love my family and friends in particular. In fact, I might even invite you to the Leave Me Alone Tree House if you ask, although I’m wary that bending the rules this early on could lead very quickly to that private space becoming the headquarters for my friends. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, for example, ostensibly built so that he could get away from people, was actually a bit of a social hub. (As a side note, Walden was published 162 years ago today. Happy birthday Walden!) In addition to only being about two miles outside of Concord, Mass., Thoreau also had plenty of friends over on a regular basis, reportedly dozens at a time. I’ve never been able to figure that one out, because this is what the cabin (in its reconstructed version) looks like on the inside:

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It seems cozy and the winters in Concord do get cold, but it seems like that would be a bit cramped for two dozen people by anyone’s definition. I may consider building a second tree house to accommodate my social circle. But then again, everyone’s probably still going to want into the LMATH because people are like cats in that respect: they always want to get into spaces that clearly say Do Not Enter, like your cat who scratches at the bathroom door while you pee.

Part of my wish to be alone sometimes is because one of my favorite pastimes is to sit or walk quietly with nothing but my thoughts as company, and this can be difficult to do when you’re with other people. It is also seemingly a pastime that is not universally appreciated: a University of Virginia study published in 2014 in the journal Science reported that many of its subjects preferred to self-administer an electric shock rather than be left alone with their thoughts.[1] During a 15-minute period of alone time with nothing to occupy them but their minds, 12 out of 18 male subjects and 6 out of 24 female subjects opted to give themselves mild shocks with the push of a button that had been made available for that purpose. The boredom had gotten to them, and they looked for stimulation anywhere they could get it. I was surprised when I read this. Did these subjects not realize the value of boredom, the value of sitting down on a riverbank and listening for “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience” (says Walter Benjamin)?

Thought — to call it by a prouder name than it deserved — had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until — you know the little tug — the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out. Alas, laid on the grass, how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. … But however small it was, it had, nevertheless, the myterious property of its kind — put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting, and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither, sent up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still.[2]

This is how my thinking will go, alone, in my tree house.

I will of course have neighbors in my tree house, and that’s fine. I don’t believe that the peace that comes from voluntary isolation demands an isolation that is physically far-removed from others. It could just be a door with a lock, like Virginia Woolf said. Or not even that: for instance, I am at this moment alone in my apartment, closed off from the world by a door with a weak lock that could easily be picked. On the other side of our apartments’ adjoining wall there is my neighbor. He’s playing FIFA World Cup for Playstation; I can hear the announcer. And yet, I feel quite isolated. Sometimes I think and write at the dining room table while my husband is noodling around with a project or talking to his sister on the phone. Sometimes I’ll even think and write in full view of a television, and I still somehow manage to feel isolated. I’m not someone who needs to have all my ducks in a row in order to think and write, so my plans for the LMATH should not be read as a complaint that I can’t get anything done with all these people around, nor as an excuse for waiting for the perfect moment to get down to thinking and writing. I can think and write just about anywhere, zone out into my private world no matter where I am. My desire to build a tree house and be left alone in it comes from a lifetime of thinking and writing in the midst of it all and occasionally looking up to see what’s going on and being surprised that I am not in fact in my story world, but rather in my real world. I like my real world quite a lot, but passing from one to the other is jarring, and sometimes annoying. In those moments I feel like a toddler asleep in her car seat who wakes up to find that she’s suddenly at grandma’s house 300 miles away; she likes grandma’s house, but is irritated at having been moved without her consent. Since I can’t inhabit my story world, the next best thing I can do is to inhabit a tree.

One of my favorite books is Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. In it, a twelve-year-old boy named Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo bolts from the family lunch table in the garden and climbs up a tree, declaring with prepubescent anger that he would never again set foot on the ground as long as he lived. He keeps this promise, living out the rest of his days hopping like a squirrel from branch to branch, navigating from one tree to the next all throughout the forests of Italy’s Ligurian Coast. He had plenty of company despite his lifestyle choice. Throughout the book, he runs with a band of child thieves, fights pirates, has love affairs, helps his ground dwelling neighbors with their farming, pens a treatise on political theory (which he never manages to get published, but not for lack of trying), and later on gets involved in local government. Calvino calls a person like this a “solitary who does not avoid people.”

Personally, I don’t care to go to Cosimo’s extreme lengths, though I admire the stubbornness and ingenuity he shows in constructing his alternative existence. For me, though, it would be enough to just have my Leave Me Alone Tree House, secluded in a shady grove of fig trees – fig, because that’s my favorite tree – and have that be my own personal space that I could retreat to as needed.

To date, the LMATH’s blueprints are mere outlines – really more of a wish list than an actual blueprint at this point. I know with certainty, however, that it will feature a rope ladder, trap door, zip line (to where? I haven’t yet decided), a bookshelf in the Cosimo style (“sheltered as best he could from the rain and nibbling mouths”[3]), and a solar powered hot plate so I can heat water for tea and coffee.

1. Fariss Samarrai, “Doing Something is Better Than Doing Nothing for Most People, Study Shows,” UVAToday, 3 July 2014, https://news.virginia.edu/content/doing-something-better-doing-nothing-most-people-study-shows.

2. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” http://ada.evergreen.edu/~arunc/texts/frankfurt/storyteller.pdf.

3. “But he would continuously change them around, according to his studies and tastes of the moment, for he considered his books as rather like birds and it saddened him to see them caged or still.” Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees.

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