“Out On A Limb”

By Sandy Bauers, Inquirer staff writer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Friday, November 24, 1995

Jonathan Fairoaks is a grown-up who lives in treehouses. He lived in one, 35 feet up, as a college student. But his present perch is a real sky-scraper.

Jonathan Fairoaks is up a tree.

And as far as he’s concerned, there isn’t a better place in the world at the moment.

“This is my element,” he says, grinning.

“Not that I don’t like it on the ground. I just enjoy it more here.”

“Here” is in the treehouse he is building in a tulip poplar in his backyard.

A tall tulip poplar. To be precise, Fairoaks is n-n-n-n-ninety f-f-f-f-five feet up.

That’s about as tall as an eight-story building.

A fresh breeze comes through, making the house not so much sway as undulate, each of the boards flexing – and creaking – independently. This tells Fairoaks (if not his guest) that things are as they should be. The treehouse needs to move with the tree, not resist it.

So is this guy nuts??

A little. And Fairoaks doesn’t dispute it.

“I don’t know how we’d exist in this life without being a little bit crazy,” he says, shrugging happily.

Fairoaks, 44, is an arborist who talks to trees. And he says they talk back, albeit in their own way. Trees, he says admiringly, are “unpretentious” and “straightforward.”

He’s president of the Philadelphia chapter of Tree Climbers International – a group he readily admits has hardly taken off, with only half a dozen members locally. They choose a tree, climb it with ropes and then maybe camp out in hammocks.

And he is – not the least – a treehouse-lover who is sitting now in the highest one in the world. “At least, it’s the highest one I know of,” he says. “But that’s not why I built it,” he adds quickly. “I built it because of the view.”

He takes out a pair of binoculars to better investigate the scenery. The entire world, it seems, is below. Very little – just a few leaves and, incredibly, an “upper” section of the treehouse – is above.

When he travels to visit trees (plus a few people) elsewhere in the country, he introduces himself as Jonathan Fairoaks of Penn’s Woods – the original name for Pennsylvania.

This usually gets people’s attention, not to mention the inevitable question.

The answer is yes. Fairoaks is his birth name. “I just think of it as destiny,” he says. He studied business at one point, but hated it. So he went to the University of California at Davis and got a bachelor’s degree in environmental horticulture.

All the while, for three years, he lived in a treehouse – this one a mere 35 feet up. It had electricity, running water, a wood stove, a sleeping loft with a skylight and a way of working itself so indelibly into his being that things haven’t been quite the same since.

Even as a kid, Fairoaks liked treehouses. He remembers being 8 years old in Devon and hiding out in his first one, which was over a sidewalk. “People would walk underneath and not know I was there,” he said. So they’ll keep right on talking. Interesting stuff.

The original treehouse was little more than two boards across some branches and a plywood platform on top.

Come to think of it, although it’s purportedly sturdier, the current one isn’t a whole lot bigger, weight being a consideration that high in the tree. Also, eavesdropping is out.

Fairoaks gets up into the treehouse by climbing a 40-foot ladder tied to the trunk of the tree. Then he hooks onto a line suspended from an upper branch and uses rope-clamping devices to shin up the rest of the way.

Visitors come up via what Fairoaks calls the “elevator” – an electric winch that hoists a sling buckled around the waist and hips.

The descent is a bit quicker. Simply strap in, step out into the air and let go, using a special arborists’ knot for a break. “It doesn’t take long to trust these knots,” Fairoaks maintains.

He says he’s not afraid, just respectful. Still, he admits, “you never get used to it. When you’re that far off the ground, you only get one chance.”

After graduation from UC Davis, he came back to Southeastern Pennsylvania, and opened a tree care company named Arborvitae – Latin for “tree of life.” He found this property, which is heavily wooded and at the end of a road in Upper Uwclan Township, Chester County, a year and a half ago.

Normal-looking bungalow

He lives in a surprisingly normal-looking bungalow – it doesn’t even go as high as a second floor – not far from the base of the tulip poplar topped by his treehouse.

Around the yard are his many tree toys – including a variety of swings, not the least of which is one that hangs from a 50-foot rope, the better to have a longer, smoother glide that the “short, choppy” lurches of most other swings. (It also, of course, swings much higher than your typical swing.)

The treehouse project started in the winter, which is an arborist’s slow time because “the trees are sleeping.”

Fairoaks hopes to make a business out of it. And while he thinks it’s great to build treehouses for kids – the traditional clientele – he really wants to build them for adults.

This is all tied in to Fairoaks’ philosophy of life, which is to eschew a mere “biological existence” and reach for something grander.

He contends that putting an adult in a treehouse brings out that person’s “essence,” which he defines as the thing children have from the time they’re born until about age 7. Then, he said, “we lose that essence, especially in this day and age, very quickly.”

‘Quiets the chatter’

Going up into a tree as an adult, “you lose a lot of that who-are-you, where-are-you-from nonsense and become a real person again. Being up there quiets the chatter inside. You begin to feel the essential urge of nature.”

The houses don’t even have to be 90 feet up. “There’s just something magical about getting off the ground,” he said, and it doesn’t really matter how far.

Fairoaks is hard at work in his own treehouse. For the last week or so, he’s been up there every night. He works until it’s too dark to see, then stretches out in a hammock and contemplates the stars from the closer vantage point.

He’s keeping the current treehouse rustic. No water or electricity, although a small lantern is a possibility. That and, come to think of it, a little framed picture, he says, tapping a spot on the tree trunk where it would hang.

Fairoaks isn’t sure yet what the picture will be, but “it might be Walt Whitman. I like him, and I know he would enjoy it up here. Of all our authors and poets, he probably epitomizes the idea of an adult who has reclaimed his essence.”

For now, though, he has two small chairs and a table, plus a lidded trash can to store his tools.

Fairoaks unpacks a small picnic he has hoisted up, and continues with his favorite subject.

“I really think,” he says, “there is a connection between people and trees that, in this technological society, we don’t really want to own up to.”

It seems to him that going up into a treehouse from time to time would cure that, and so much more.

He ticks off a few more of the reasons on his list to go aloft, and then brings the discourse to a halt, thinking better of it.

“Some things transcend words,” he says, “and maybe that’s the best reason to do them.”

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