Tree House

Henry Thoreau built his house at Walden Pond for only $28.12½. George Dyson built his house ninety-five feet above the ground in a Douglas fir tree for $20 less.

George Dyson lives ninety-five feet above the ground in a Douglas fir in British Columbia. His tree stands on land leased by friends from the provincial government. It is the last tree before the water, and the front window of his tree house looks down into Indian Arm of the Strait of Georgia. The tree is the biggest around, and its foliage is dense. Through his seaward windows George can look out unseen at the traffic on the strait. Through his landward windows he can study anyone approaching from that direction. At night the city of Vancouver glows on the horizon.

George built his house in 1972, the year his father, the astrophysicist Freeman Dyson, lectured on comets and the hospitality of interstellar space.

George’s stairs are the tree’s branches. They make a spiral staircase, leading him round and round the trunk as he ascends. The first branches begin some distance above the ground, so at the foot of the tree George has nailed a ladder. Climbing from the top rung to the first branch is difficult, and George intended it that way. He likes his privacy. The hands of any visitor are covered with pitch by the time he reaches George’s door, but George knows where to put his own hands, and they stay clean. For visitors, even those young and nimble, the first few climbs up to the tree house are scary, but George runs up as if his Douglas fir lay horizontal on the ground. He has climbed it drunk, and he has climbed it in winter storms. He could climb it in his sleep. All the motions—swinging around this branch, reaching for that one, pulling up—have been burned by repetition into his autonomic nervous system. He hauls up his firewood by rope. When he wants to descend he rappels.

The house is lashed to the tree, not nailed, for the treetop sways in the wind and the attachment must be flexible to endure. George has confidence in the lashings. In 1975 the worst storm in many years hit British Columbia, and George, who at the time had been living elsewhere, moved back into his tree to see how a big storm felt. The storm did its best; the tree whipped wildly about; George fell asleep.

The house is shingled, inside and out, with red cedar shakes. The outside shakes have weathered as dark as the tree trunk, fine camouflage. The inside shakes, protected from the weather, look fresh-split, retaining the warm red-blond of the heart of the log they came from. The house has a single tiny room. The ship-tight, red-blond interior is free-form, for George built to include fourteen branches as structural members. His ingenuity does not call attention to itself, and the number of incorporated branches is a surprise when you total it up. The door’s hinges are screwed into the main trunk. Above the hinges, the biggest of the inner limbs, thick as a man’s thigh, forks from the trunk, passes over George’s bed, and exits through the wall. In the morning, George’s eyes open wide and green on living bark, and he can pull himself out of bed on the limb’s solidness.

The bed is Procrustean. George is six feet tall, and the house is two or three inches narrower than that, so he must sleep slightly bent. The bed’s hard planks are softened somewhat by a mattress of two blankets, thin and nondescript, which are covered by a Persian rug, thick and beautiful. At the head is a handmade leather cushion which George uses as a pillow. Like most of the things he has owned for awhile, the cushion has begun to have the look of a talisman. It is round, shallow, and worn. It might be a Kwakiutl or Haida artifact that he stole from a museum. On the wall above the bed a barometer is nailed, and next to it hangs a pair of binoculars in a leather case that George made himself. An octagonal window with leaded panes is inset in the wall beside the bed, and an identical octagonal window is inset at the foot. George can lie in bed and watch, through his binoculars and his leaded panes, any boats moving on the strait. He has three rectangular windows, too. No point of the compass is hidden to him.

Across from the bed is a small, cast-iron, wood-burning stove. Stamped on the front is NEW ALBION STOVE WKS, and beneath that is the raised emblem of a fish, and beneath that is VICTORIA.

Against the seaward wall is a tiny desk. On the desk are candles, a kerosene lamp, a small jar of flowers, another jar full of pens, a vial of washable blue ink, and a wooden letter seal. The seal was carved by a friend of George’s. It is titled LING COD, and shows a cod swimming among the stalks of a kelp forest. On the wall above the desk hangs a silver letter opener with Arabian designs on the scabbard and handle. Stored beneath the desk are a big jar of nuts, a few pots and utensils, and a coffee mug. The mug is thick, white, and plain. It came from an Alaska ferry. It is the kind of mug, says George, that a man on watch can take out on deck. It is the kind of mug that, on the bridge of a seiner, a man can set down heavily and satisfactorily, then return his attention to the helm.

On the landward wall hang a frying pan and a whisk broom and a toothbrush.

When I visited, two books lay under the bed. One was the U.S. Coast Pilot for the Pacific Coast, tenth edition, 1968. The other was the Bering Sea and Strait Pilot, first edition, 1920. George is especially fond of the old 1920 volume. He chooses old books over new ones when he can. The old guides, assembled in the days of sailing ships, have better information on the winds—“Wait for SE wind and stay close-hauled on the port tack”—and they tell George where, in 1913, the Indians rendezvoused in their canoes.

Inside the old pilot book was a sketch of a canoe rudder George was planning. In the margin of the sketch was a note I have puzzled over, and have never been able to decipher. It said,





I would take this for a list of possible names for a canoe, except for the odd placement on the page. The note looks more like a crude map. Are these sailing instructions to some obscure region? Dawn Treader is the ship in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, but is “Mariem” a misspelling of the Latin marem? I don’t know. When I asked George the meaning of the note, he claimed to have forgotten.

Outside the door, on the landward side of the house, hang two buckets for rainwater. They are brimful through most of the year, for maritime British Columbia is a rainy country. On a seaward branch is a birdhouse.

Henry Thoreau was proud of building a grounded house at Walden for $28.12½. George built higher, and for $20.00 less. He split all his shakes from a single drift log he found at sea and towed to shore. His two octagonal windows, his three rectangular windows, and most of his other materials are gifts or salvage. He spent $2.00 dollars on a stovepipe and $6.00 on his lashings.

Sometimes George looks alarmingly like Thoreau, even in the style of his beard and the cut of his hair. From the old daguerreotypes it is impossible to tell the color of Thoreau’s eyes, but his gaze in black and white is as wide and arresting as the Dyson gaze. George, like Thoreau, suffers or enjoys a heightened sense of solitude. George has the same rawboned ego, inflated to fill the solitude. His personality, like Thoreau’s, is sharp with edges that companionship has not had the opportunity to wear away. If George is Henry reincarnate, then their soul has made some progress since 1845, but entirely in matters of economy.

Like Thoreau, George is a bean-eater. When George’s body is entirely finished with the beans he has eaten, or the brown rice or fish or sprouts, he rappels down the tree and disappears briefly in the forest. In nature he answers nature’s call. Sometimes, when it’s raining hard, or when he just doesn’t feel like making the trip to earth, he selects a red cedar shingle, uses it, then sails it like a Frisbee out over the canopy of trees.

In the autumn he has trouble with flying squirrels. In that season they besiege him like paratroopers. When he is home, there’s no problem, for on hearing them bang into his windows or land on his doorsill, he shouts, and they jump off to glide elsewhere. But when he is gone, they enter and burglarize his place. In British Columbia, 1974 was the year for flying squirrels.

“They were driving me crazy,” George told me afterward. “They were flying down from the hill into my tree and messing up my house.”

“Eating your food?”

“Yes. That I could tolerate. They shit all over my floors, and I could take that. But then they began taking the insulation from my walls to make their own nests. They began taking the insulation from my sleeping bags. That was too much. I was seriously thinking of getting a shotgun.”

This, from George Dyson, is a powerful admission. He is a pacifist who first came to Canada at the height of the Vietnam War. The squirrels were testing his creed. They were bending his essential nature. He never got the shotgun, but he began practicing with a slingshot and became, in a purely theoretical way, deadly with it. He honed his skill down very fine, continually postponing the day of the massacre. Then came an idea for a new sort of trap.

Conventional rattraps don’t work with flying squirrels, according to George, because the squirrels know how to set them off harmlessly. Had he proceeded conventionally, he says, bomb squads of squirrels would have eased into his house, defused his devices, then whistled an all-clear. George believes that living in trees boosts intelligence, and that squirrels are smart, like primates. Arboreal life had sharpened George’s wits too, of course. He designed a cage with a door like a guillotine blade, a mousetrap for a trigger, and power supplied by rubber bands. He trapped three squirrels, transported them thirty miles, and released

them. They were the ringleaders, apparently, for he had no more trouble that year.

Raccoons sometimes bother George in his tree. Most of his trouble is with the juveniles. “They’re bad

then. It’s their teenage period or something. They challenge each other to go up my tree. ‘I dare you to go up to George’s house.’ One night they wouldn’t let me in until four in the morning. There were five of them, all from the same litter. I threw rocks at them and everything.”

“Did you hit them?” I asked.

“Yes. But they’re tough. They wouldn’t move. I don’t know where they are now. I guess they broke up.”

Winter is George’s favorite time in the tree house. In that season, fogs roll in from the cold strait and obliterate everything but the Douglas fir. George is perfectly alone then, his tree rising from the immaculateness. He sits high and detached, like a Moslem in his minaret, or an astronaut orbiting a planet of clouds.

On being fired up, the small stove warms his small space instantly. He passes stormy winter days reading, thinking, and swaying slightly in the wind. At night, high in the dark, wet motion of the Canadian fir forest, his hidden fire burns.