At home in the Carmel Valley, I enjoy a view of the steep ridge that holds the flood plain that the Carmel River (only truly a fast-flowing river in springtime) has cut into the rock. At points the shale is so friable you can dig into it with your bare fingers. The geologic past is not always easily readable in this valley; layers of sandstone, soft shale, sandstone, decomposed granite, and big stream rounded boulders in conglomerate residues piled helter-skelter along its valley leave a record along its 37-mile path. I have long been interested in delving into the mind and the emotions—the heart and the brain—and my places of abode and hikes along the river enrich my interest in two states of being: play and solace.
The telephone pole-supported, window-enshrined quarters I inhabit are built like a sailing ship, designed almost as nautical architecture to ride undamaged the waves of promised California earthquakes. In an episode of high inspiration, the builder of the house (a friend and a man of restless imagination) also appended a more premeditated refuge that floats on its own shock-absorbers. In the splayed trunks of two live oak trees that grow in close, he added a tree house—a real live tree house.
Perhaps you recall a tree house you played in as a child—a few scrap boards nailed vertically as a ladder and a few wedged more or less horizontally in a crook to form a platform. My older brother built one like that in a box elder in our back yard. If you had a tree house, did you recruit the carpentry skills of dads, uncles, or neighbors to build something more elaborate and less ephemeral? Or were you one of those dads, uncles, or neighbors who helped build one, enabling arboreal play and thrilling vicariously at the new, private space? Did the tree house become a clubhouse guarded from outsiders? (As the youngest among the neighborhood gang, it took me some time to gain entrance to my older brother’s fort.) Did you spin stories of jungle dwellings pitched high in the canopy as protection from headhunters and predators? Did you disappear into the tree house until the gathering dark and your mother’s call or your father’s whistle obliged you to come back inside?
Did the tree house launch you higher into the branches? As cautious adults we forget the keen pleasures of swinging, leaping, and climbing, testing our bodies and strength in three dimensions. I liked the feel of limbs in my hands, and would climb as high as I could go to ride the branches that would bend and creak with the wind. In fact, I enjoy the remove, the sense of safety, the observation that high places afford; I climbed Harney Peak at 18, Kilimanjaro at 60. We shouldn’t forget physical pleasures like these; they lay deep within our bodies and ourselves in our evolutionary memories.
My tree house, unlike most, features electric lights and a king-size platform bed, and most of my grandchildren have enjoyed playing and sleeping in it. When friends come to visit, some stay over after hinting bashfully or brazenly. Sometimes they’re hard to pry out—I’m thinking of a six-year-old, my cousin’s daughter. Couples who venture to stay in the tree house usually say, “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” as they disappear aloft, snickering. There’s even a stout rope to climb and swing on. A friend made sleepless by the thought of spending the night up a tree looked down some 30 feet at the leaf litter turned silvery and surreal by moonshine and dubbed my arboreal loft “the Tree House of the August Moon.”
Play smoothes my interior landscape, evens out the bumps, invites physical and mental challenges, and bolsters the spirit. Whether I’m hiking the Carmel Valley’s rolling trails for stamina or plunging down the steep local terrain on a mountain bike for fun, I’m at play. For solace I pick up a novel and head for the Tree House of the August Moon.