04/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Living Green in a Treehouse Dream

"The Worlds Most Famous Treehouse"

When I was five years old I had an epiphany. I found I could drive a sixteen penny nail through a two by four without banging my thumb, or bending the nail. So, when I was five and a half, I built my first Treehouse.

The ability to hammer and saw has kept me fed and clothed in times when I had no other recourse. Like Benny Franklin said, "He who hath a trade, hath an estate". His hands were black with printers ink when he said that.

Then in 1845 Thoreau came along, and with R.W. Emerson's charity, set himself on a starvation diet at Walden pond, produced a shack that was about two steps up from a yurt and proclaimed, "The construction of one's home is the noblest of professions". He hit this mental high note after living off tree bark for about a month.

Now, I am neither Franklin, Emerson, or Thoreau, but I can identify with their utterances. Because I live in a tree. A phrase I've used, often defensively, many times over the last 18 years. It's most vigorous usage coming one afternoon when I was standing next to the submarine that juts out of the north side of my home. I was approached by two guys dressed in white jackets and carrying a net. Luckily for me they were just beekeepers on a lark.

But they asked the same question everyone asks. Why? If I could have answered that then, without babbling and drooling, I would've. But the net made me nervous. (Later, out of curiosity, I checked with Freud. He never studied why people live in trees -- probably because it didn't have anything to do with sex). If I'd taken a stab at philosophical rationale on that day, and drifted off into some Zen-like trance, and conjured up a healthy slew of meaningless polysyllables that rang well in the ear, but were otherwise useless to logic, then I suspect the beekeepers would've slapped their net on me, wrestled me to the ground and summoned professional assistance.

But over time I had discovered that no matter who posed the "why" question, the youngest child or the oldest adult, that it was best to just smile a bit, let my head wobble from side to side, and then to stare profoundly off into the distance. A kind of nutso's nolo contendere.


"Willow", the ancient oak, occupies a prominent spot in the interior of the Treehouse

It was 1992 and I'd returned to my hometown here to scratch out another book, a sensible concept I concluded, since my earlier works had been so wildly unsuccessful. As usual, I was blinded in both eyes by a birth defect called optimism.

What I'd done for the previous five years was mostly write and starve. When you haven't eaten for a couple of weeks Lucidity and Looneyville can be two towns on the same signpost.

I'd been home less than a month when an old friend asked me to help him get a restaurant up and running. He'd bought a '30's era rock house in the center of our town, and needed to transform it into an eatery. Over the years he'd made some sacrifices to assist me in a couple of iffy endeavors, so, I owed him. But there was a caveat, I told him, I needed a place to write. With a wave of his hand he said, "just go up there on the back of the property and build ya'self something." Neither he nor I knew the degree of foreboding that statement held.

Later that day I walked up on the slope just behind the eatery-to-be and surveyed the area. First the history of it hit me. When William Tecumseh you-know-who was preparing his assault on Atlanta in 1864, he had stopped here in Calhoun, in the Appalachian foothills of North Georgia, to regroup his forces and to insure that each troop was properly equipped; rifle, sidearm, matches. He'd scattered his soldiers along the bottom of the ridge where I was standing, on the high ground with a good view of the western terrain. With that history in context, I gave the area a comprehensive scan, and as I looked south, about fifty feet in front of me was a truly majestic oak. In that instant, I was five years old again. The genesis of what was to become a Treehouse, now literally known worldwide, stirred an area of my brain that had been dormant for more than 35 years.

When I was growing up here I was a bit of a pain in the hiney. Parents, especially moms, are the ones who suffer most after they've mistakenly birthed a nonconformist. During my formative years I heard one phrase so often, that I thought my mom had gone down to the courthouse and had her name changed to, "yourpoormother". It was stuck to me like a tattoo that folks would read off my forehead. She has always had difficulty, and rightly so, trying to explain what it is that I do. She could hardly keep up with the 50 plus jobs I've had over the years, from janitor to soldier to White House Aide. But it was that career aberration that allowed her about two years of solace. During that time, she would initiate conversation about me, instead of heading for the exit at any mention of my name. But she has resigned herself to what now passes for a standard answer in the context of her youngest son, "well, he used to work at the White House, and now he lives in a tree."

When I first began, I scrounged around our town on a search and recover mission for those items needed to construct a Treehouse. I didn't work from a list, for I had no preconception of it's design. I only knew what I needed, when I saw it. Two months after driving the first nail, the Treehouse had assumed it's basic shape, six hundred square feet or so of rectangle, spread among the branches, about 12 feet off the ground. For the first time in my life, I had my own home. And I suddenly realized what Thoreau had meant, and how he must have felt upon the completion of his cabin at Walden Pond.

But the difference between Henry David and I was that, well, Henry David knew when to quit.

The airplane came next, then the boat, then the submarine and finally (but probably not) the helicopter.

The Atlanta Journal was first to arrive, just after the Airplane, then Chattanooga TV, Atlanta TV, PBS, The BBC, all the Networks, Canadian TV, Discovery Channel, HGTV (twice) then magazine folk; Mother Earth News, Nickelodeon, FHM (London) Grand Designs (Europe) and finally the book types; England first, then France, then Canada, then Germany ... in all, the house has been chronicled in at least 30 different books and magazines, translated into more than 50 different tongues, and distributed all over the globe. I've had e mails in languages I can find no evidence of on the internet. So, here I am, in a little town called Calhoun, and I'm getting mail from the WORLD! Actually, I've always thought that was pretty nifty.

But it was the last video crew, the one from London, that recognized the one aspect of the Treehouse, that is currently the most apropos. Victoria Hollingsworth, the host of "The Worlds Most Extreme Homes," opined, upon her arrival, "this may be the Greenest home we've ever seen, because the whole structure is made almost entirely out of salvaged material!" That was really the first time I realized just how Green the Treehouse actually was, and in fact we'd been Green since 1992!

I can never envision living anywhere else. This house is me, I thought it in my head and built it with my hands. I have taken steps to insure it remains in perpetuity, a part of our town.