It’s full-on summer in Georgia, and I’m sitting on a wobbly metal bleacher. The sting on my little toe tells me my flip-flopped feet are too close to a red ant nest. It’s hidden somewhere in the gravel underfoot of this dreary, charmless ballpark. The infield is dusty, the outfield is weedy, and, just beyond the centerfield fence, the county road is noisy. It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m watching my fifth baseball game played by nine-year-olds in two days. I love watching nine-year-olds play baseball, but I’m fast reaching the limit of sweat I’m willing to produce for my younger son’s favorite outdoor activity.
I know moms who would, at this point in the long slog through a weekend of their kids’ activities, pull out a bag of knitting and click away until a scarf in Gryffindor red and gold slowly unfurls. But sitting here, the hot Georgia sun fading my hair and burning my nose, I keep my hands still and my mind busy. I’ve got my worry lists to sort through. I’m pretty good at fretting (just ask my husband or read some of the previous installments of this column), and I have a specific worry list for each of my two boys. Some of the numbered items carry over from week to week. For Thomas, the older kid, #3 (he hasn’t eaten a vegetable today) and #8 (he doesn’t like to read) perpetually make the list. Today I’m cycling in a new #2 (will he brush his teeth while he’s away at Scout camp?) and #10 (it appears he ate 2/3 of a key lime pie for breakfast.).
For Henry, the younger kid, I’ve kept #5 (cursing) and #6 (does he know his multiplication tables?) on the list for a while. Today I add in a few baseball-related worries such as #9 (why has he grounded out to second three times this weekend?) and #2 (where is he going to play next season?). The red ants are busy underfoot; I try to brush them off before they bite again.
Because I’m a certain type of educated, middle-class mother (and I’ll just own up to the obnoxiousness that often goes with the type), #1 on the worry list is pretty much a constant for both boys: do they watch/play too much TV/video games/computer? Are Disney tween sitcoms/Halo/YouTube videos undermining everything we’re trying to do to raise them up right? Every eye roll tells me yes.
This concern over screen time, which most parents I know share, is perfectly complemented by anxieties about health, physical fitness, and a vague sense that childhood today lacks a certain special-ness that childhood had in the past, like, all the way back in the ‘70s when we could, at least in my specific case, ride bikes to the woods that edged the soybean fields, pile them in a heap, and duck out of our parents’ sights for hours. It’s not hard to summon a bit of nostalgia for a time when kids’ lives began on the other side of a screen door, when parents weren’t swatting away one buzzing LCD insect after another.
Several years ago, the publication of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder seemed perfectly designed to add another worry to parents’ already long lists of the differences between their own childhoods and those of their children. Someone in my book group of mostly young mothers suggested we read it. I think we went with The Help instead. Louv’s general idea, evident from the title, is that kids today don’t interact with nature in meaningful ways. Instead of experiencing an unsupervised, free-range childhood outdoors, kids are inside, plugged into electrical outlets. So when I take up worry #1, I also mull over #1.a.: do my kids spend enough time outdoors? And by outdoors I don’t mean this red ant-infested gravel pit in the sun.
In truth, our family is outside for large blocks of time every week, but obviously experiencing a ballpark isn’t experiencing nature—that mowed and fenced diamond is dangerously close to the soulless manicured subdivisions that Richard Louv says have come to represent the idea of nature for many children. Kid sports have a host of benefits—we have to believe in them or we couldn’t justify the time and money we spend on baseball and soccer and swimming—but it would be hard to put “nature” on the list.
A few weeks ago, Thomas and I were hiccupping along one of Atlanta’s crowded interstates. Perhaps it was the bumper-to-bumper traffic or the less-than-shocking obviousness of just how much asphalt encircles our lives, but Thomas looked at me and said, “Mom, we haven’t been to the treehouse in a long time.” Oh God. He’s right. The kid is practically telling me about his psychological, physiological need for “the nature,” as he used say when he was little, and I’m calculating whether getting off at Exit 261 and taking surface streets will shave an extra five minutes off this commute.
So here’s the irony. There’s a place we go where our kids can be cured of nature-deficit disorder. A place that’s off the grid, not connected to anything by a white power cord. A place that’s spare and simple and, at times, even a bit magical. A little house perched in the trees above fifty acres of wooded mountainside in North Carolina. And we haven’t been there in a year.
The story of how we came to have a treehouse begins more than a decade ago, when my granddaddy died and left my sister Laura and me a tract of land in the Smoky Mountains. It was a magnificent, generous gift from a man who made a living driving trucks for Esso and viewed land as good investment. Laura and I still marvel at our spectacular good fortune. Who wakes up one morning the owner of a mountainside, the proprietor of a view that includes Panther Knob, a venerable 4000-ft. mountaintop that has shadowed ten generations of my family? At the time, we were both young and both pregnant with a first baby. We lived several hours away, and the land was in a trust with the Forest Service, which helped with taxes since neither of us had money to spend on land improvements when there were Huggies and molded plastic baby stuff to buy.
So, while we loved the land for what it symbolized (family, history, generosity, thrift), our husbands loved its physical contours: a gently sloping cove, an old and dangerously rutted-out logging road, and a hillside thick with poplar trees. For them, the land was a real place to escape a very 21st century version of fatherhood (your turn to change the diaper!) and treat their own fluorescent-lit-office-induced nature-deficit disorder. Will and my brother-in-law Britt found all kinds of reasons to make the three hour trip to the mountains. They surveyed the trees for a forestry management plan, blazed a trail through the laurels to the ridge, found the best place to pitch a tent.
After the two babies became toddlers, we tried taking them camping (not fun), so Will and Britt planned a more permanent structure (better than a tent, cheaper than a mountain house, girls!). They found a rectangle of four tall, straight trees: red maple, black oak, chestnut oak, and hickory. Then they designed a boat-like treehouse—part art installation, part DIY project, part folly. It would be built in stages, starting with a giant platform supported by the trees. Over the next three years they raised this little house in the trees, and together we raised the kids who would come to love it: our two boys and Laura and Britt’s three girls.
Several weekends a year, a group of guys—brothers, friends, friends of friends, cousins, the generally curious—would convene at the mountain with power tools, a generator, and cases of beer. They hauled lumber, framed walls, and raised steeply pitched trusses. They nailed board and batten siding and topped it off with a tin roof. They ran cable railing around a deck angled like the prow of a ship, and built a sleeping loft for the kids. There was a weekend to install salvaged windows and doors, and Laura and I, with three-year-olds underfoot, stained the pine siding and painted the trim a bright red. The boys built an outhouse and put a sunshower on the back deck, so we hardly miss running water or electricity. We hung an elegant candle chandelier on a pulley in the center of the vaulted ceiling and scattered worn Persian rugs on the painted wood floor.
We called the treehouse finished when, on a snowy New Year’s Eve, all nine of us—our families had grown with it—met there, and Will and Britt installed and built the first fire in an antique woodstove. It was finally a four-season treehouse, a year-round place to escape.
At night, lit from within by the candle chandelier and dozens of tea lights, the treehouse looks like a boat sailing through seas of poplar, oak, and maple. Its 400 square feet are cozy and comfortable. When we’re there, I think of Huck Finn’s contentment with life on the river: “it’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened.”
Our boys don’t escape us (their parents) at the treehouse, but on our own wooden raft, we have the same contemplative leisure—something absent from life in the asphalt oceans of Atlanta. We play spades or read ghost stories by lamplight; we look up at the stars or listen for the rustling of creatures below; we poke at logs in the fire pit and watch the sparks rise, turn to ash, and drift away into the black nothingness that surrounds us.
So—who wouldn’t choose the charm of a weekend playing Swiss Family Robinson? A luxurious sort of camping under a tin roof? A few days in a world lit only by fire? I want to say that, no way, we’re not those people who’d rather sit on metal bleachers under the hot Georgia sun than stretch out under a canopy of chestnut oaks. Somehow, though, we’ve become the people camped out at the ball field, putting up with all the inconveniences of camping (chairs that pinch, tents that buckle, bugs that bite) and seeing few of its nicer bits.
For everything that we choose or our kids choose for us (dozens of baseball games, hours of Good Luck Charlie), we un-choose a million other things. What’s funny is that parenting doesn’t always seem like a series of conscious choices. We almost never convene and say, okay, we’re going to spend eight hours at a ball field or soccer field or swimming pool this weekend—and a majority of weekends from August to June. It just sort of happens. Then a kid says, “Mom, we haven’t been to the treehouse in a long time” and all of a sudden we pull out the maps and track the ship’s course. And it’s time to tack north, to the mountains.
So, here we are, nearing the end of nearly nine months of baseball with Henry’s team, the Spark Plugs. Back in August we all signed a contract, but now I’m looking ahead, to the last out of the last game, to the freedom of the summer when no one has to be driven anywhere, when our obligations to the team have been met and we can go back to being the family who could spend the weekend at a treehouse in the mountains.