What is the structure of grief? Does it have four walls and a roof? Perhaps a garden with hedges? Or maybe it’s just a room of boxes, never to be unpacked.
My structure is about 12 feet off the ground, supported by a ring of young redwood trees. It faces east with sliding doors to greet the mid-morning sun.
When my father died in December 2017, I was weeks away from starting a project that I knew he enjoyed hearing about, which was building a treehouse on some family property. Without ever explicitly saying I wanted it to be an homage, the little 10”x12” suspended structure looked a lot like the house my dad had built further up the road (and had sold just the year before) with redwood siding, a saltbox roof, and a wall of glazing to capture the view of the cathedral of the forest.
A month after winter solstice, Dustin, the treehouse architect, and his ragtag band of off-season festival riggers moved in with tents, wood, saws, trucks, and beer. The plan was to build in a 10-day window. It had been a lucky project from the start. The right circumstances led to the right people led to the right cash windfall to fund it to the right weather. January 2018 was dry as a bone. The build was out of sight from neighbors, which meant no one complained about the quiet flurry of activity in this remote cul de sac.
It was completed without a hitch.
Since then the treehouse has remained just that — an un-hitched island on a quirky corner in the hills above Woodside. A few local neighbors walk down there and visit as a destination for their weekly roams. I asked Dustin to build a bench for the ground below and an outhouse; my sister has cleared a parking spot for my Subaru. Inside, I added a small Afghan rug, meditation pillows, and a sleeping pad to make it cozy. Visiting is easy — nothing to bring or take; I only installed a padlock last year for my absences.
Spring 2018 with Wayne, Credit: Wall Street Journal
In 1973, my mother and father bought around 20 acres of land in the hills of Woodside on the eastern slopes of Skyline Drive for about $70,000. The burgeoning neighborhood was mostly populated with doctors and academics from Stanford. The acreage was divided over three parcels; they built on one and left the remaining two untouched even though they were zoned for building. When they divorced in 1981, they each took a parcel with them. My mom has held on to hers all these years, thank you Prop 13.
It is sloped land, covered in redwood trees and douglas fir, the odd madrone, and ferns — Alambique Creek runs through my mom’s property and it shares a border with Wunderlich Park. It is the best of California’s mid-coastal redwood groves; however, the geology report says the land is an extremely old landslide and building on this zoned land is not a straightforward thing.
The fantasy of building a real house here has tantalized everyone in my family at some point or another — it’s lovely, a wooded paradise without much of a commute to city life. It’s exactly the kind of place where you can wake up every morning and praise God without irony.
It’s exactly the kind of place where you can wake up every morning and praise God without irony.
In reality, building a house here would be possible in any other township. But today, Woodside is one of the country's wealthiest zip codes and possibly the most NIMBY, using egregious and obnoxious building codes to prevent development. (They famously made the headlines earlier this year when they declared the entire township a “Cougar Sanctuary” to prevent anyone from moving ahead with building ADUs as allowed under Senate Bill 9.) The elitist attitudes that favor plutocrats — and have forced out any remaining vestige of reasonable citizens — and is such standard fare for Silicon Valley that I’ll stop right here before I keep ranting about the un-affordability of the Bay Area.
But despite all that — and quite possibly the best payback — has been exploiting a loophole in building code that says treehouses are not permanent structures and thus no permits are required.
Credit: Wall Street Journal
When I arrived with my tri paw Wayne, back in 2015 after 15 years in New York City, I was desperate to reconnect with nature profoundly and thoroughly. I knew this land well from childhood and wanted to make something of it as a refuge from living in the Mission. Woodside town quickly put the kibosh on my idea to build a platform and a yurt for a weekend camp (that was about my price range). Meanwhile, I’d gotten wind of an innovative treehouse designer based in Oakland named Dustin Fieder, owner of o2 Treehouse.
Throughout 2017, Dustin and I walked the land several times to find the right set of trees. He had sandwich bags in his shoes to keep his feet dry; his truck had a dubious history of being able to start when needed. I was also eager to put on my leather work gloves and delighted in the prep — clearing little rubbish trees, hauling piles of branches, and driving in a load of gravel to shore up a muddy spot on the dirt driveway.
On the last night of the build, I bought a box of goodies for the guys — soda, chips, a handle of Jack Daniels. To my horror — and delight — they built a big bonfire in the woods and had a movie projected onto a jerry-rigged white sheet movie screen while the bottle went round.
Then they departed the next day — leaving behind a fire ring, workbench with a vice, and a finished treehouse. The silence and solitude descended on this place again.
The treehouse was glorious from the start — fresh, gleaming redwood beams; a trapdoor hatch opening onto a small porch; luxury floorboards from a leftover Atherton kitchen construction; an actual tree shooting right up inside the treehouse. The light hits it in the mid-morning in a way that turns it not just into a treehouse — but an intergalactic time machine, transporting one to places far away on sunbeams and filtered light.
The idea of a treehouse is not just a folly that has captured me, even as I have had my own personal journey into canopy life. Treehouses are A Thing. They are a thing on Instagram and Airbnb and among a certain kind of fanciful hobbyist — ranging from people who want nooks to read in, to those who get a kick out of engineering and design. Look closely and you’ll start to see them everywhere.
My little project has been cited in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal, along with profiles of others who share the same whimsy. I attempted — lamely — to brand this cultural moment as #treehousemind, but it takes a lot of energy to spin off a passion project into a full-fledged brand. I am both cheered and gaggy when I hear yet another public radio segment on forest bathing. I want to yell back at the lib-splaining radio, “We know! Spending time in the trees IS MAGICAL and HEALING! DUH!”
I have declined to pursue any idea of monetizing it — insurance, loss of privacy, fielding requests from strangers, annoyance, liability. And besides, I realized I didn’t want to share the treehouse so much as I wanted to use it to go inward. Over the last few years, it’s been a spot that has hosted many a tarot reading, meditation, dog walks, long chats about relationships, a few Fifth Steps, a romantic afternoon or two, tea parties, breakup crying jags, sunbathing, watercoloring, napping, and whatever else I damn well feel like.
Six months after my dad died — and exactly four years ago this June — my beloved dog Wayne got very sick after a walk around the block in the Mission. Something he ate off the street. He was vomiting and had terrible diarrhea, and it was easier to have him down at the treehouse where we could be outside. I quickly realized he was sicker than usual, which launched a tense and sad 48 hours that ended in euthanasia. His intestines had distended abnormally, causing the vet to operate to investigate, which then led to pneumonia — and an instant $9,800 vet bill.
He was a terrific old soul who had lost his ability to do his job as a protector of me. On his last day, he had to be wheeled around on a gurney; he only had one arthritic hind leg left that wasn’t strong enough to support him. He was depressed, coughing with pneumonia, and ready to go. I decided to say goodbye, clutching his big warm yellow waddle and wiping my tears on his velvet ears.
A few weeks later, I picked him up — now in a small box of ashes and drove him back to the treehouse. I sat there with him. I had scattered Dad only months earlier on a little knob of land next to the creek; I’d take Wayne there too. The two of them could hang out and keep company — much like before. I dragged an Adirondack chair down to that spot too. The scattered ashes of the two of them lasted far longer than I knew they could; I had assumed ashes melted, but they did not.
Old bones last.
Today, Bruno has no respect for any of this history. His relationship with the treehouse has one lens — an obsession with the small broom I use to sweep. A primitive dachshund growl rises in his chest, and he quivers and shakes at the sight of it; indeed, in his singleness of purpose, he presses himself against the driver-side window with anticipation of his beloved broom even as we start the descent down the dirt driveway.
The treehouse has also become more of a community project these days. My sister has kept an eye on it as I move to New Mexico; another neighbor has done generous things like helping me replace the padlock plate and rolling in an extra tree stump for additional seating. I lost a gold signet ring at the treehouse when Wayne was so sick. It had slipped off my pinky finger. After a few weeks, I accepted it was gone. After a few more, I noticed something glinting in the sunlight on the workbench. My ring had been set up on the table — another clue of a mystery visitor.
For the most part, visitors are respectful — I can see by the re-arrangement of the seats or occasionally a small piece of litter that others have been there. But my fears about people vandalizing it have not come to pass.
When I head back to New Mexico again in mid-July, I’ll be moving back to the ranch to caretake A.’s dogs and mind her house and garden while she travels. In so many ways, it’s a natural extension of #treehousemind; but instead of redwoods, it’s a sparse scattering of cottonwoods and elms. Instead of the cathedral of the forest, I’ll get lost in the canopy of the sky.
I lost my signet ring again last winter at the ranch, and I keep looking for it there. Maybe it will turn up, or maybe not. These little relics seem less important to me these days as my hold on my history has loosened. Including grief.