Human beings used to live up in the trees and may yet return there. There are a lot of reasons why we might want to go back into the crowns of trees and live among the leaves. It might be a little uncomfortable up there, but it would also be a fantastic experience.
Our ancestors climbed down from the trees about five million years ago. Some researchers believe that this happened as a result of growing animosity between the Ardipithecus species and their larger, more predatory cousins the chimpanzees, which were able to jump from branch to branch, but moved across flatlands more awkwardly. Today’s monkey species probably rue not following in the footsteps of human beings and coming down to earth. Yet in spite of the total success humanity has made of making solid ground its home, we probably still have some nostalgic sense of wanting to return to the good old days of lounging in the shade of leaves for hours upon end. Human brains still perceive trees to be oases of safety and calm, which is why we feel so good when surrounded by them, and react so emotionally to the idea of having trees removed from our public spaces.
Spending time climbing trees is a key component of childhood development, with adults also indulging in the practice from time to time. This requires a healthy dose of non-conformist courage, however, such as in the case of the American activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent over two years (from 10th December 1997 to 18th December 1999) living in the crown of a 1000-year-old sequoia at a height of 55 metres above ground, in protest against plans to cut the tree down. From a wooden platform that she had mounted up there with the help of other ecologists, she conducted educational sessions covering the theme of ecological protection, and even appeared on breakfast television shows, broadcasting live from her elevated home. Thanks to the determination Hill showed – even when attacked by helicopters, enraged lumberjacks and security guards hired by the logging firm involved – it was finally possible to arrive at a compromise and save not only her tree-top home from being pulped, but also a section of woodland within a 60-metre radius of the ancient sequoia tree.
No less stubborn is the titular hero of Italo Calvino’s 1957 novel The Baron in the Trees (Italian: Il barone rampante) – a 12-year-old aristocrat, Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, who on 15th June 1767, raging against the killing and cooking of his beloved snails, climbs a massive oak tree in the park surrounding his family estate and resolves not to return to earth until the end of his life. The Italian Baron has a tempestuous romance with the highly emotional Viola, while simultaneously reading Virgil, writing letters to the greatest thinkers of the age, and watching from his vantage point as the Napoleonic army marches across Tuscany. “Rebellion is not measured in metres. To depart, even by a mere few feet, could also be an irreversible departure,” says Cosimo’s father to his confident son, being a man who is essentially pragmatic and pained by the boy’s attitude. And so it is. This way of rejecting the world of inherently conservative aristocratic standards turns out to be a one-way street. Trees do offer a new, seductive perspective from which to observe reality, deepening the rift between the young, wild intellectual and the society that he is a product of.
Calvino relied heavily on Italy’s real history while working on the philosophical tale of the tree climbing baron. Sources confirm that the Tuscan prince Cosimo I de’ Medici ordered a tree house to be built during the 16th century in the grounds of the family gardens of Villa di Castello, where he hosted grand dinners for members of his closest circle. His son, Francesco de’ Medici ordered a similar construction to be erected next to the Villa di Pratolino in Vaglia. Locals called it the “oak fountain”. Its 7.5-metre high wooden spiral staircase – and the imposing impression it made on those who saw the construction – was documented in the many memoirs penned once the tree house was erected.
Wooden platforms set among tree branches, where exquisite banquets were hosted, were also popular in France. In the 19th century, much fame was achieved by a group of restaurants situated upon trees in the town of Le Plessis-Robinson, not far from Paris. Its elegant clientele enjoyed luxury dining in the canopies of ancient oak trees, as roast chickens and champagne were lifted up to them in wicker baskets. These decadent pleasures, although undoubtedly fantastic, had little to do with the wild freedoms and rejection of social norms represented by Cosimo’s determined decisions in Calvino’s novel.
The radical notion of living in a tree can easily be stripped of its emancipatory context. The internet has many sites devoted to exclusive hotels and other places of residence erected in the crowns of beech, lime and oak trees. These amazing adventures, for which you often have to pay dearly, involve controlled, warm climate conditions, and guest rooms that ensure not only close contact with nature, but also the chance to use a sauna, play pool, or watch television on screens the size of a football pitch. The hum of leaves harmoniously mixes with the hum of YouTube, as we return to our childhood fantasies of climbing trees, without running the risk of more scratched kneecaps.
“In recent decades we have witnessed an ever increasing attachment to comfort, security and sustainable development. These three notions form a mantra which is starting to dictate new social norms, slowly replacing the old mantra – liberty, equality and fraternity. In this process there is no room for any creative transgressions”. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, in saying these rather protectionist words, was not intending to negate the need for environmental protection, but to criticize a certain ideological lack of consistency: the fact that we do need green spaces, but prefer to experience them only in a tamed, softened version, as seen through the windows of comfortable, air-conditioned rooms.
There are, however, many examples of a different approach to nature, originating from the times when Franciscan monks used trees as places of silence and prayer, erecting temporary shelters upon them. A similar ascetic vision of a house being closely connected with nature, its fittings kept to a minimum, can be seen in the creations of Terunobu Fujimori, a Japanese architect. His remarkable designs fall somewhere in between the fairytale aesthetic of Princess Mononoke and the calculated naivety of modern minimalism. The irregular and organically-shaped tree houses created by this rather crazed professor of architectural history are seductively primitive. They have no electricity or central heating, offering visitors only fireplaces, specially framed views of the surroundings, and limited space for just a handful of people to stay in. Fujimori uses only natural materials and simple construction techniques. He has actually built some of the houses that he himself designed. Some of these are used for the drinking of green tea; others for simply isolating oneself from the world (or maybe even getting closer to it). In fact, gaining entry into his creations is a challenge. Their uncompromising nature means that sometimes just getting away from the Earth is enough to experience something extraordinary.
Translated by Marek Kazmierski