Many of us remember the horrifying images from ten years ago as a tsunami resulted from the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake which occurred December 26, 2004. The Indian Ocean earthquake set off a series of deadly tsunamis which killed more than 230,000 people in fourteen countries. Waves reached thirty meters or one hundred feet high. The event has gone down in natural history as one of the most deadly disasters. Evidence of prior deadly tsunamis, however, is found in the living abodes of the native people of the area and other South Pacific countries. For centuries, these people had an epiphany of how to survive the climate and geographical characteristics of their homelands and have taken to the trees to live.
The high-living abodes of the South Pacific islanders and people from Southeast Asia were also featured in such literary works as “Swiss Family Robinson” and “Peter Pan”. A number one Beatles song is even said to be named for a supposed tree house that John Lennon played in when he went with his aunt to a garden party each year. The nearby orphanage run by the Salvation Army held a fund-raising/thank you garden party for its benefactors and local neighbors. Lennon would play in the gardens surrounding the orphanage and immortalized it in his song “Strawberry Fields Forever”. There are debating opinions whether the tree house was actually on the orphanage’s property or overlooked it. What is not debated is that it was enjoyed.
Tree houses can be simply point where two or three large branches form a resting place or they can be elaborate structures of architectural marvel. For those living in the trees to escape floods and tsunamis, the tree house was simple and provided security. Thatched baskets would be lowered up and down with a very rudimentary pulley system and carried both supplies and people. Tree houses have had religious and spiritual purposes as well. Franciscan monks used very bare-bones tree houses for meditation and prayer as did Hindu monks who felt they enabled them to escape the more earthly and distracting aspects of human living.
Tree houses became “trendy” during the renaissance period in the sixteenth century and were considered a must-have for any well-dressed garden. The mid-1900’s found Frenchmen and women dining in tree houses. The town of Plessy Robinson constructed restaurants in chestnut trees and adorned them with roses. At the height of popularity there were over two hundred tables in use for dining in the trees.
Queen Elizabeth I is said to have dined in a huge linden tree. Certainly tree houses were a part of living in Tudor England. The English tree houses were perhaps the first to truly respect their location. English tree houses were attached to the tree via a rope. In summer they would be tied to the tree but in winter they would be untied to allow for the tree to grow. The “Tree with a house in it” is the name given to one of the oldest English tree houses. Located in Pitchford, England, a five-hundred-year-old lime tree boasts the Tudor style tree house. First mentioned in 1682, the tree house has hosted at least two prime ministers and a very young Queen Victoria even held a tea party there.
A lime tree in Chartwell Manor was the home of another tree house in England. The six hundred centimeters or twenty foot high tree house was owned by none other than Sir Winston Churchill. A prominent tree house in use today in England is the Treehouse Restaurant at Alnwick Gardens. The visit begins with their advertising: “Step into another world of wobbly rope bridges, wooden walkways and a treetop restaurant…” The huge tree house is beautifully built from sustainable cedar obtained from Canada. It also contains Scandinavian redwood and pine from both England and Scotland. Amid a copse of lime trees, the restaurant is accessible to all, including those in wheelchairs and baby buggies. There is even a large log fireplace found in the center of the restaurant and an education and film room known as the Roost. Furniture and screens are made from the branches which, through natural evolution, fall from the tree.
Tree houses are both a bright idea that saved early civilizations living in flood-prone areas and works of art and whimsy. Like the trees which host them, they are also a wonderful metaphor for how we live our lives. We must take care not to harm our host bodies, just as the tree houses needed to do. Attaching a tree house to its host tree could, after a number of years, prevent the tree from growing and would lead to its death. Poor lifestyle choices do the same for us. Our lives must have a utilitarian component. After all, we require food, sleep, shelter, and clothing which protect our bodies in a number of ways as well as providing cultural identity. Nonetheless, a life without fancy, a life without imagination leads to an unbalanced individual. Life cannot be lived completely in whimsical dreams but they do provide purpose.
Aspiring to reach greater heights is healthy. What we should not do is let our egos take us to thinking we are better than the person standing next to us at the bust stop or metro station. Just as the tsunamis have never been selective in only affecting people of a certain stature, neither is life only valuable for certain people. Whether they are a lime tree or chestnut, maple, or redwood, all trees have their basic purpose and value. All trees and people have value. When we recognized and live that basic truth, then we truly are living a higher life.