By Robert R. Thomas
Camping out is an honorable Michigan tradition. I have a photo of me at three years old in the wilds of West Branch holding a hatchet while standing in front of my father’s Marine Corps pup tent that always smelled of tropical mold, which made it all that more exotic as a camp. And it was very mobile.
Spending much of my boyhood in the Genesee County countryside creating “camps,” which we kids also called “forts,” was always great fun.
Location was critical. The farther from home and the deeper into the woods the better because what we were creating were “hide-outs” with their glorious intimations of unsupervised privacy. No adults hung out in kid camps. It just wasn’t done.
That universal fantasy
But of all the kid camps I have known, including the tent that smelled of the South Pacific in WWII, the universal fantasy of the kids in my circle was to someday have a real treehouse. We had plenty of woods, so a treehouse was not much of an imaginative stretch.
But none of us ever did, as far as I know. Nailing a couple of barn wood planks between a couple of maple tree branches was hardly the edifice conjured by the grandeur of a real treehouse. The closest I’d come is a friend who once lived in a treehouse in the Hollywood Hills, but I never did visit her there, which I have always regretted.
A stranger walked into Cork
Treehouses recently returned to my fantasy life when a stranger walked into the Cork where my wife and I were dining with a few friends. Ingrid rose from her chair and excused herself by saying, “I know that man. I know who he is.” She headed for the stranger, introduced herself and was quickly deep in conversation with him.
“That’s who I thought it was,” she said upon her return. “He is The Treemaster. His name is Pete Nelson. Pete builds treehouses all over the country and has a TV show about doing just that.”
Ingrid had recognized him because she is a fan of his show, “Treehouse Masters,” on the Animal Planet Network. When she asked Pete what he was doing in Flint, he said, “Building a treehouse in For-Mar.”
The For-Mar Nature Preserve and Arboretum is a 383-acre preserve operated by the Genesee County Parks & Recreation Commission. It’s focus is environmental education. I could not imagine a better location in the county for my dream treehouse.
For-Mar is sacred ground
For-Mar will always be sacred ground for me. A few miles upstream from the For-Mar treehouse is where I did most of my boyhood camping and hunting. My father built a house on a hill bordered by Kearsley Creek. The creek was our trail into and out of the woods where we had our camps. The terrain then was very much like For-Mar’s acreage.
For-Mar was originally a dairy farm owned by Forbes and Martha Merkley. In 1970 FORbes & MARtha donated the acreage to be preserved and available for environmental education as an arboretum and wildlife sanctuary. Which is exactly what it is today. It is also the very environment in which I spent the most pleasurable years of my youth camping with Mother Earth.
On Pete’s invitation, we visited the construction site several times. Accessibility could not be better. Located just a few paces down the trail from the visitor center parking lot, the site is on a wooded bluff above Kearsley Creek.
Our first visit was a Sunday and no one was at the site, but the work had begun. After gawking at the beginnings of a real treehouse, we ambled over to the visitor center to get the story.
Nicole Ferguson, the head naturalist at For-Mar, answered our many questions about how this project came to be.
In 2014 a program at For-Mar challenged the kids in the program to conjure up and draw their dream treehouse. The kids then created a presentation to pitch the idea to Genesee County Parks Director Amy McMillan.
So impressed was the director that the Genesee County Parks Commission inaugurated a treehouse fund and applied to Treehouse Masters to have them build it. Six months ago Nelson Treehouse and Supply accepted the application to design, build and install the treehouse.
During one of our trailside supervisorial visits to the site, we chuckled over the signs along the site.” Don’t bother the carpenters!” “Don’t feed the carpenters!”
Despite such warnings, the carpenters and crew were a friendly group, thoroughly enjoying their fine communal creation in a Michigan woods. I thought at some point they would all break into “Whistle while you work.”
Treetops are for wheelchairs, too
During another visit, when the ramps were weaving their ways through the trees and the house was rising, we encountered Kevin, one of Pete’s crew, whom Ingrid asked about the educational focus of the treehouse.
“This treehouse is definitely focused on accessible environmental education.”
He added, “How cool is it to be able to ride your bike up into the trees with the birds?”
“Or wheelchair,” I added. The treehouse is universally accessible featuring an ADA compliant ramp.
I turned around to recalibrate what was rising before me. The genius of the ramping through and around existing trees, for example. The substance, the wood of the ramps and beams and house structure, made me grin and shake my head in awe.
Pete and his crew are truly tree masters. To watch them do their magic over three weeks was watching art take place at the hands of artists whose media is dreams and wood and cooperation.
When I asked Kevin when I could move in, he said, “As soon as the job is finished. Anytime after that, the place is yours.”
With Kevin’s assurances, I have come to calling the treehouse “My House.”
But no matter what the house is called, it will always be my dream treehouse. It is open to the public every day, as is For-Mar. That I can visit it daily is like stepping into a time machine to my childhood where I climb up into the trees to take in the observations of a crow.
I invite all to come on up to the house for a visit.
The For-Mar treehouse will appear on the “Treehouse Masters” TV show in January.
EVM columnist and staff writer Bob Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For-Mar photos by Ingrid Halling.