From pubs in trees to childhood dens, Jonathan now concludes his arboreal notes with a treehouse for the old…
In my last post, I mused on the fierce comfort that children take from their tree houses and brooded on what these knocked together and wholly gratuitous structures could mean to us, the more-or-less middle aged (chiefly through this fine poem by Kathleen Jamie).
My final tree house is one for the later stages of life, and not only because it took its author some twenty years to create. Poignantly, the ‘ash dome’ or pleached bower erected by Roger Deakin in the grounds of his Suffolk farm has become a kind of memorial; by the time he came to describe it, in the closing pages of his Wildwood, Deakin was already terminally ill (although apparently unaware of this). In the book’s final sentence, he prophetically looks to a time “when the bower eventually comes of age, long after I am gone.”
As he proudly tells us, Deakin created his dome, a sort of natural folly or living sculpture, by planting a double row of ash trees, letting them grow to man’s height, and then grappling them together and grafting them each to each. The result of all this “wood-welding” – or ‘pleaching’ as it is properly known – is a sort of “composite pollard, or … laid hedge on stilts” in which the bent ashes have “the pent-up power of strongbows”.
In the summer heat it is a cool, green room roofed with … the flickering shadows of ash leaves. I sometimes sling a hammock inside. I even installed a bed last year …
As described by Deakin, it is a refuge for all seasons:
The bower is floored in lords and ladies, ground ivy and mosses, and its eight trunks cross-gartered with wild hops, our English vines. They thatch its roof with their big cool leaves, dangling bunches of the aromatic, soporific female flowers from the green ceiling like grapes. As spring comes on, the bower fills like a bath with frothy white Queen Anne’s lace … Even at the age of twenty the trunks of the bower are beginning to show some of the early signs of what will accrue with age: they are green with algae and lichens are beginning to form around their damp feet. They are putting on ankle socks of moss. There is something goat-footed about ash trees: the shaggy signs of Pan.
If there is something uncanny about this creation, Deakin is also at pains to emphasize its solid practicality: it is, he assures us, “a remarkably stable structure, engineered in exactly the same way as a timber-framed house”. And indeed, there are clear continuities between Deakin’s ash den and the famously eccentric timber-framed house in which he chose to live for almost 40 years – described here by Robert Macfarlane, in a piece written shortly after the death of his friend:
Walnut Tree Farm … is made largely of wood. It is as close to a living thing as a building can be. When big easterlies blow, its timbers creak and groan “like a ship in a storm”, as Deakin put it … He kept the doors and the windows open, in order to let air and animals circulate. Leaves gusted in through one door and out of another. Swallows flew to and from their nest in the main chimney. It was a house which breathed. Spiders slung swags and trusses of silk in every corner. As I sat with Deakin, 10 days before his death, a brown cricket with long spindly antennae clicked along the edge of an old biscuit tin … Walnut Tree Farm was a settlement in three senses: a habitation, an agreement with the land, and a slow subsidence into intimacy with a chosen place.
Both house and bower rejoice in a blurring of indoors and out, a wholesale rejection of boundaries and thresholds. Nothing could be further from the modern hygenic attitude, as noted by Toby Ferris in the post that first set me off on these tree-house maunderings: “We return stray wildlife to the outside (wasps, small birds, flies if they’re lucky), and potter around with draught excluder and sealants, and set up systems of quarantine (doormats, porches, terraces) to manage the transition from one to the other.” Still more provocatively, perhaps, Deakin’s long, deep, burrowing habitation – his “settlement in three senses” – feels like a challenge to our phobia of ‘settling down’, as imagined in the Kathleen Jamie poem and endemic to the culture. Contrary to that favourite aphorism of Jonathan Meades, not only vegetables have roots.
So, etymologist of roots and graftings,
I fall back to my tree-house and would crouch
Where small buds shoot and flourish in the hush.
(Seamus Heaney, ‘The Boortree’)