The Humble Treehouse as a Cradle of Empathy and Understanding for the Forest

By Julia Shipley

Temple of the Blue Moon, Treehouse Point, Fall City
Temple of the Blue Moon, one of the six treehouses of Treehouse Point in Fall City, Wash. Credit: Crowley Photography

Tonight, in the boughs of towering spruces, cedars and oaks, ordinary people are getting ready for bed. As they settle in, they can feel their tree gently sway, maybe they hear the burble of a creek far below; when an owl hoots, it sounds as if it’s in the next limb. Sensations like these are why the childhood treehouse is currently enjoying a full-grown renaissance. As master treehouse builder Pete Nelson says, falling asleep in the arms of a tree represents “the ultimate return to nature.”

For forest enthusiasts wanting to take their relationship to a new level, roosting in a treehouse can present a more intimate experience than meandering around the forest floor.

This is why Pete Nelson of Fall City, Wash., whose vision is “connecting people through personal encounters with trees,” has built Treehouse Point — six treetop bowers amid the trunks of his large spruces. Nelson, who built his first edifice at age five, has made a career of his boyhood enterprise, building forts and bowers for adults. In addition to renting out his Parthenon-inspired tree forts, he’s a frequent consultant on the TV series, “Treehouse Masters,” and has helped numerous others “break bark” to get started on designing and constructing their own elevated rooms with a view.

Cedar Creek Treehouse
Cedar Creek Treehouse. Credit: Nat Hansen

Bill Compher of Ashford, Wash., also believes that a reprieve in the canopy can transform one’s relationship with the surrounding woods. In 1998, Compher built the Cedar Creek Treehouse on his land near Mt. Rainier National Park, on the edge of Gifford Pinchot National Forest. His rentable, 256-square-foot aerie sits 50 feet — five stories — above the ground, in the boughs of a 200-year-old western redcedar. The tree grows though the floor and out the roof, offering a new meaning to the word “host.”

Unlike your old childhood hideaway, Compher’s is outfitted for longer stays. Though all water must be carried in, there’s a butane stove for cooking, an icebox for perishables, solar electricity for light and even a bathroom on the premises.

Observatory at Cedar Creek Treehouse
Guests at Cedar Creek Treehouse can enjoy views of Mt. Rainier from this observatory, which sits 100 feet high in a Douglas-fir. Credit: Bill Compher

For almost two decades, Compher’s guests have repeatedly inscribed the words “peace” and “magic” in the guest log. Science corroborates their experience. A University of Washington study found that people who view nature are less stressed and have decreased feelings of fear, anger or aggression. The more explicit among Compher’s guests share how falling asleep, rocked by the tree, helped them see themselves as part of a bigger picture. As one guest writes, “having a tree at the center of our daily activities was an amazing reminder part of a larger ecosystem.”

Across the country in Canadys, S.C., Scott and Anne Kennedy share this same ethos — to help visitors cultivate a visceral awareness of the forest. Their flock of three treehouses perch 16 feet in the air, supported by the trunks of bald cypresses, water oaks and swamp tupelos. Built along the Edisto River in 1992, 2002 and 2006 by Scott Kennedy and his son, Beau, each treehouse is constructed on a platform stationed between a pair of trees with similar diameters. Like Compher, the Kennedys also rent their hideouts, which are accessible only by canoe along the river through a 300-acre privately owned forest. These low-impact treehouses are equipped with propane grills, oil candles and torches in lieu of electricity.

Anne Kennedy explains that many of their customers are searching for a way to “plug back in to nature” because, “as a lot of folks tell us, ‘We’d forgotten what it sounds like to hear wind through the leaves.’”

One of the Kennedys' treehouses in Canadys, S.C.
One of the Kennedys’ treehouses in Canadys, S.C. Credit: Scott and Anne Kennedy

“I love the land and I love the river,” Scott Kennedy says, but he wants others to care, too. As he puts it, “If you don’t know about a fish, how can you care about a fish?” To help others discover and subsequently care about a swamp forest, his treehouses facilitate a sort of immersion course, allowing guests to meet sturgeon and turtles as they paddle along the river and to imagine the life of a heron or swallow-tailed kite as they mount stairs to dwell among trees for the night.

The Kennedys’ treehouse guest logs brim with enthusiastic testimonies. On page after page, guests describe sighting their neighbors — Cooper’s hawks, wood ducks, egrets — and offer glowing praise for the region’s seven different subspecies of fireflies. Kennedy says he hopes his guests, whether arriving from nearby Atlanta or distant Athens, Greece, leave with a more personal relationship to the forest community and all its diverse inhabitants — the lizards and the bullfrogs, the wild ginger and huckleberries.

Treehouse at Timber Ridge Outpost & Cabins
Treehouse at Timber Ridge Outpost & Cabins in southern Illinois. Credit:Michael Kappel

Treetop lodgings such as those offered by Bill Compher and the Kennedys abound across the country. In Vermont, a treehouse B&B nestled among the maples overlooks Green Mountain National Forest; in California, a redwood cradles an abode for rent; and on the edge of Shawnee National Forest in Illinois, one can wake up in a white oak. Lodgings range from $100 to $900 per night, depending on the spectrum of amenities, but each treehouse affords its inhabitants the chance to witness and temporarily reside on a higher level. As a recent guest to Cedar Creek advised: “Take time to adjust to life in the trees. Spend time doing nothing.”

These grown-up hideaways all offer a squirrel’s eye view of the forest surroundings and the chance to feel like a woodland creature, sleeping in the arms of the canopy.

Julia Shipley is an independent journalist, poet and small farmer in northern Vermont.