Three successive, heavy winter storms have blanketed us here in Maine. As I look out the kitchen window into the backyard, the expanse of unbroken whiteness spreads into the distance and over the river.
It's hard to imagine that only a couple months ago all was green and mild. The river was still flowing, and a few frost-burned tomatoes stubbornly hung onto their vines. But the true focal point of activity in the backyard has been, for a couple of years now, the treehouse that I built for my son Anton.
How best to describe what a treehouse means to a boy? It's a place away from home, yet securely within its orbit. It's a castle in the air where a kid can feel like a king, surveying his realm below to his heart's content (at least until suppertime, when the monarch comes home to his macaroni and cheese). It's a world where the child can make his own rules and test them out on a small, arboreal scale. And, in this age of hand-held electronics and flashy computer imagery, it's a way to keep these indulgences at a manageable level by empowering the child, rather than a device, to be creative. Most of all, a treehouse is a secret place – something all kids have a need for.
There have been days when the treehouse was crawling with Anton and his friends. They seemed less manic, less inclined to do mischief, when they were in the treehouse, as opposed to roaming the streets. And why not? Kids tend to behave themselves in a treehouse because the boundaries are so clearly apparent and the sense of embrace palpable. There is also the understanding that should they not act responsibly, the thing could be placed off limits.
A treehouse is also a bittersweet affair, because with the first snowfall it's abruptly abandoned. I gaze out at it now. Cloaked in white and adorned with icicles, it looks suspended in space and time. The uninitiated observer might not even be able to tell what it is.
The interesting thing, to me, is that Anton seems to have simply removed it from both his visual field and conscious thoughts for the duration of cold weather. As a result, I feel very much alone in my estimation of the treehouse. I don't see a shrouded and frozen thing out there. I can't seem to look at it without also seeing my son and his friends climbing about, laying plans, throwing a line down to me so I can attach a bag of snacks for them to haul onboard.
When I look out at the arctic scene in the backyard, the treehouse isn't part of the monotonous whiteness. To my eyes it is still warm and inviting, alive with activity. So it would seem that I am also suspended in time and place: In this winter landscape, I don't see the treehouse for what it is at the moment, but rather for what it was and what it will become again with the advent of spring.
I broached this point with Anton the other day. When he returned home from school, I asked if he ever thought about playing in the treehouse during the winter. He looked at me as if he had not correctly understood the question. And then, gaining his bearings, he said, "You can't have fun in it in the winter."
And that was that. But Anton had given me food for thought. I wondered if this proposition had ever been tested – that a treehouse was strictly a fair-weather deal. I considered that, over the years, many sports had broken free of their intended seasons or venues. For example, there was field hockey, ice sailing, and snow softball. Why not, then, a treehouse as a winter redoubt?
I immediately put on my boots and warm clothing. And then, girding myself, I went out into the frigid weather, tramping through the knee-high drifts. By the time I arrived at the treehouse, I was warm from my exertions. I cleared the ladder of snow and ascended.
Then I curled up in one of its corners and listened. The intense silence was broken only by the occasional song of a chickadee and the scratching about of a squirrel in the high branches. In the distance I could see where the frozen river opened up and an osprey was swooping about the rapids. What a satisfying place to be. The only things I lacked were a book and a mug of hot chocolate. Anton didn't know what he was missing, and, for the moment, I had no intention of telling him.
A treehouse in winter is a thing of wonder. In it, I discovered that children do not have dibs on secret places. Adults harbor the same need. We just have to look a little harder sometimes.