What was your childhood dream house? Mine was a string of graceful pavilions and bridges high among the crowns of a forest of mallorn trees (of the eternally golden leaves, for “on the land of Lórien no shadow lay.”)
My children lean toward Shire dwellings, with their cozy circles and arches and welcoming old wing chairs drawn close to warm hearths.
Well, long live imagination. But what do you do when one of those would-be shire-dwellers asks if we can build our own Bag End? It’s all very well for shire-folk to tackle earthworks, earthworms, and a lot of earth overhead. Airy elven tree dwellings perched at dizzying heights seemed equally beyond our grasp. I’m not as good as I was with ladders. Also, mallorns don’t grow here.
Frodo unexpectedly solved our dilemma when he arrived at Rivendell, and felt safe in “the Last Homely House east of the Sea.”
Homely House! My fellow Americans, here at least our dictionary can’t stand up to Tolkien’s Oxfordian tome, where homely means “simple but cosy and comfortable, as in one’s own home.” Even Noah Webster thought that description better than “not attractive or good-looking.” Such a definition gives us license to build something both airy and cozy, and maybe twelve feet off the ground.
Thank goodness for people who live in the real world and build real houses. My husband is one. Jason maps out a building that sounds plenty real: human-scale, structurally sound, weatherproof. We don’t actually see any plans; they’re in his head, where they can be altered at will. Round window in the door? Could be fun. A fanlight set into the curve of the half-moon roof? Let’s see if it works.
Oldest daughter asks about a built-in bookshelf. Youngest daughter longs for a swing. Son just wants to get out the hammer already.
The scouts find the perfect location: just past the edge of a meadow, “through the merry flowers of June, over grass and over stone,” the hillside drops steeply through a grove of sugar maples. They can’t find four trees close enough to create a platform base. But they do find three, so they dig a hole and plant a locust log for a fourth point.
Then the rainiest summer in living memory begins. We’ve got lumber, decking, shingles, collected remnants from carpentry projects. The big picture window has been leaning at a perilous angle in a ramshackle barn for untold years. Everything, in fact, is in that barn, waiting for a sunny weekend which refuses to materialize.
So we make our own fate: Homely House is going to be pre-fab, built wall by wall in the old barn half a mile from its trees.
Everybody pitches in to assemble and stain and hammer; “No, not there! Here!” For some of the higher carpentry, the rest of us watch and ask too many questions. But the walls rise, the arched rafters line up patiently, and the door gets its round window. Youngest daughter goes through the door-window several times, just because we can’t.
On the first sunny Saturday in July, friends join us on the hillside to bolt together the platform and run it onto its base. Since we stood here last, the locust log has become a tree again, with fans of bright leaves shooting out on all sides. Thanks, rain.
It’s been a family-and-friends project; roof-raising happened last week. Now we’re applying finishing touches and scheming up plans for the immediate surroundings. Hobbit-sized picnic tables? A fire-pit? Somebody practical suggests an outhouse. Maybe others will add their visions.
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair.”
We hope Homely House becomes a camping spot for families and a destination for children from the nearby school. It’s also a few hundred yards from our Plough offices, and my colleague Nancy plans to proofread there in uninterrupted solitude. We may need a store of pipe-weed.
The Summer of the Tree House has been lively. Less swimming, more sweating. Encounters with wasp nests and boards dropped on toes. All for a visit to Tolkien-land? It’s not for that, but I’m at a loss to say what it is for. Perhaps I may quote JRR: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair.” If a child learns that fact, even from a tree house, maybe she’ll be less likely to answer: “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water.”
Of course, we know how that worked out for Bilbo.