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Looking up through the branches

An unexpected lesson in perseverance

My children's tree house, in happier days

Doesn’t every kid want a tree house? I certainly did. But we had no suitable trees in our yard, so the idea was a non-starter.

Now it was different. With my own children just the perfect age, that big elm tree in the center of our yard seemed heaven-sent for such a purpose. When I happened upon a creative design that cried out to be turned into reality, I made up my mind on the spot. My wife didn’t even try to talk me out of it.

I conscripted my friend Jerry into service one Sunday, and together we managed to get the skeleton up in an afternoon. From that point forward it became a one-man job, and Jerry gratefully returned to his air-conditioned living room.

Cutting and re-cutting, I finally secured the floor panels, after which I finally hit my stride. The slatted walls went up easily, and building the ladder was actually fun. After all, when do you ever get to build a ladder?

​The illustration showed how the tree house would seemingly grow right out of the elm’s trunk, the base hovering six feet above the ground and the top about as far beneath the lowest branches. Four sturdy beams would angle down from the corners of the floor, secured into notches cut out of the hoary bark and held in place by railroad spikes. Beams on the top would mirror those on the bottom, over which panels would form a sloping roof.

The roof never quite took shape. Measuring four triangular panels with perfectly rounded tops to match the arc of the tree proved more challenging than I had imagined. We tried a piece of fabric on one side, which worked reasonable well. But without enough material for the other three sides, that’s as far as we got.

As it turned out, my kids didn’t care. They only played outside in good weather, and the canopy of leaves and branches over their heads was roof enough for them.

​To my dismay, their friends seemed to like the tree house more than they did.  A steady stream of pre-adolescents burbled in to spend their afternoons high off the ground, almost touching the clouds. Only the children knew how their imaginations ran free with the big, wide world made bigger and wider from their castle in the sky.

​​Time slipped away and, seemingly overnight, my children grew up and went off to make their own lives. Perhaps one day my grandchildren would delight in the tree house. That’s what I thought, or hoped.

​Indeed, the tree house showed remarkable resilience, holding firm even when a neighboring elm, uprooted by a wicked storm, dealt a glancing blow as it crashed to the ground.

​​But as the years passed, a more subtle enemy beset the tree house: the old elm itself.

​The directions had said that, over time, the bark of the tree would grow out and around the support posts, which it did. What the directions did not say was that the tree would grow to fill in the gap around the center hole in the floor, which it also did.

​And then it kept growing.

​Ever so slightly, one millimeter at a time, the floor began to buckle. You could never see it happening, any more than you can see glaciers forming, sand dunes shifting, or the motion of the stars. It took years, but inexorably the floorboards separated and warped, and the frame convulsed as if made of putty.

​Eventually, the tree house was reduced to a mess of timber splayed at all angles and in all directions. My wife demanded repeatedly that I take it down.  I answered repeatedly that there was no reason, since the tree itself would finish the job in good time. In truth, I didn’t want to let it go. But when it’s time, it’s time; and it’s a man’s job to shoot his own dog and put down his own horse.

So I went out one afternoon with my chainsaw and started the beginning of the end.

​The divestiture went much faster than I would have had imagined. It takes so much more effort to build than to destroy. In scarcely half an hour, there was nothing left.

​Well, not quite nothing. The four support beams were fixed into the bark. I could cut them back, but there was no way to get them out completely. A section of the floor board was embedded in the trunk as well. It looked as if the tree had taken a bite out of the tree house and, like a stubborn terrier, wouldn’t let it go.

​Or perhaps the tree house wouldn’t let go of the tree. If you used your imagination, it looked almost like the tree was smiling.

​And within that Mona Lisa smile resides a gentle reminder.

For nearly two decades the tree house ruled the tree. But time and slow, steady pressure gradually displaced beams and nails. Like a river coursing through a canyon and the waves lapping upon the sand, the relentless beat of time and nature inevitably relegated the work of my hands to memory.

​The Talmud says: Nothing can stand against the force of will.

​We can’t stop the steady advance of time. But we can turn it to our own advantage by directing our own will, by applying the full weight of our determination and perseverance to build rather than to destroy.

​Whenever I look into the yard and notice the tree grinning back at me, I have to smile myself.  Building the tree house was a good idea after all.

Adapted from an essay originally published in The Wagon Magazine

© 2018 by Ethical Imperatives.

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