To my parents’ chagrin, I was a climber. Long before I walked across a room, I was climbing stairs. I clambered over picket fences as easily as those woven from wire. After I scaled Mt. Refrigerator, on a quest to reach the chocolate chips hidden away in the highest cupboard in the house, Mother laid down the law. If I wanted to climb, I would do it outside, in the trees.
No doubt she knew the maples in our front yard were too large for me to climb, just as the crabapples were too small, and the elms too brittle. But a cherry tree in the back yard turned out to be just right, with strong lower branches, and a sandbox nearby to use as a ladder. An agreement was reached. Once the fruit had been picked, I was free to scramble up as high as I could go, until branches began to snap. Then, I promised to retreat to a more secure spot.
Tree-climbing was delightful, but I wanted more. I’d seen illustrations of children tucked away in leafy bowers, surrounded by limbs, reading their books as casually as I read in my bedroom. I couldn’t imagine anything more delightful than an hour spent tree-reading, while robins tried to scold me away.
In short, I wanted a tree house. I nagged. I implored. I bargained. I offered to help with the building, or give up my allowance toward its construction costs.
It never happened. Our trees weren’t able to support the open platform most people considered a tree house in those days, and the more elaborate, often free-standing tree houses of today (some of which apparently come with architechtural drawings and a mortgage) hadn’t yet been invented. If I wanted to read, I would have to content myself with front porches, bedrooms and swings.
Still, the connection between reading and trees never was severed completely. As an adult, I indulged myself by vacationing in grove-hidden homes: a log cabin on the Frio river, a cypress-board cottage surrounded by salt cedars, a sturdy, screened-in retreat next to freely-flowing Hill Country springs. All these isolated, simple shelters had been perfectly designed to accommodate a person, a lantern, and some books. While not tree houses in any usual sense of the phrase, they nevertheless represented the adult version of a childhood dream.
Perhaps that decades-long link between tree houses and books influenced my decision when an online site called TreeHouse: An Exhibition of the Arts emailed, asking if I’d be willing to provide an interview for their site. Intrigued by their willingness to define the arts broadly enough to include bloggers, yet slightly ambivalent, I gave it some thought, then agreed.
Some time ago, purely for fun, I already had compiled a chronological list of ten books that influenced my life in the past, and continue to do so today. One entry on the list actually is a speech, and another is a genre containing several volumes, but each of the ten has been referenced or quoted here on my blog: sometimes extensively. They’re not necessarily the best books in the world; other list-makers might turn up their noses at my choices. On the other hand, as Alain de Botton says, “Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.'”
Here are the ten that came into my life at “just the right time.”
Heidi ~ Johanna Spyri
Gift From the Sea ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek ~ Annie Dillard
The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor ~ Edited by Sally Fitzgerald
The Alexandria Quartet ~ Lawrence Durrell
The Gospel of John
The Nobel Prize Speech ~ William Faulkner
Four Quartets ~ T.S. Eliot
The White Album ~ Joan Didion
Prairy Erth ~ William Least Heat-Moon; The Control of Nature ~ John McPhee; Rising Tide – John M. Barry
If you’ve never taken the time to make such a list for yourself, I highly recommend it. Because books come to us in particular places and at particular times, they often become imbued with particular memories. And, while they certainly open new and different worlds to us, they also are capable of revealing us to ourselves. When that happens, it is a wonder and a joy. The tree house is lagniappe.