“The Tree man Climbeth”

By Christina Alex, Main Line Life Staff
Main Line Life
December 14, 1995

Devon native seeks to restore a child’s delight in treehouses – for adults

“I’m not afraid of heights. I just respect them,” says Jonathan Fairoaks, looking down 95 feet from his back-yard treehouse in Glenmoore, Chester County, over miles of country interspersed with homes. Higher than 35 feet, he says, it’s all the same.

The 44-year old arborist has just climbed a tulip poplar with a 40-foot ladder and ascenders for his hands and feet.

Lest you think this technique dangerous, Fairoaks’ Esterlon synthetic climbing ropes pass a 7000-lb test and are stronger than steel. For other visitors – journalists and such – a harness strapped around the waist and pulleys will ensure an interesting ride.

Climbing trees is old hat. “We do this every day,” he says, referring to himself and his five employees at his Devon tree business Arborvitae, which serves many Main Line customers.

He and his friend Butch Ostrander, from Berwyn, began a similar service in high school. Now Ostrander works as a roofer, but Fairoaks hopes he’ll help with the treehouses he’s starting to build.

It all began in Devon when Fairoaks laid some boards across a tree when he was eight and hid up in his little treehouse right over the sidewalk. “Nobody knew I was there,” Fairoaks says.

He has to build two more before Christmas, one in Penn Valley and one in Westtown. One will be a two-story, incorporating a swing set, a jungle gym and a little porch. For the kids, of course. “That’s what they say, but who knows?” Fairoaks says, with a laugh.

For adults, climbing trees presents a novel way to get in shape. You can work out all your muscles, see a beautiful view and slide back down. “It’s much better than a treadmill,” says Fairoaks.

Afterward the tree will massage you – Fairoaks pushes his back up against it “to share energies with the tree.” This Walt Whitman aficionado suggests a book of poetry to complete the picture.

He does this workout every day “I don’t have any trouble sleeping at night.”

But maybe that’s due to the feelings generated by being so high up away from the world’s troubles. “It makes me feel able to leave behind the earthbound nonsense and experience a different kind of freedom.”

In September Fairoaks and others are conducting a four day seminar at Omega Institute in New York where the group will – what else? – build a 10-foot and 35-foot treehouse.

Fairoaks can put a tree fort up in three days, but one with a conventional roof, wood stove, running water and enclosed in large plate-glass windows like the one Fairoaks lived in during college at U.C. Davis, took three years to build. “The stove was toasty,” he remembers, during the long rainy season, and a little elevator similar to the pulley system in his treehouse now pulled up firewood and people.

Majoring in environmental horticulture, Fairoaks then became certified as an arborist and spent 10 years consulting for the wineries in the Napa Valley before returning east. He consults there in winter while the trees are resting here, he says.

Then there’s the question of the name. He introduces himself as Jonathan Fairoaks, a moniker given to him by his minister with the idea that people generally become identified with their names. His family name is Schaberg – he had it legally changed in 1978. “My father’s a businessman. I told him it was for business reasons,” he says.

After trying just about everything, meditation, yoga, drugs, he found the Fellowship of Friends, a school similar to the Quakers. They believe that everyone has a seed of a soul inside them, not yet developed. “I look at it like it’s a garden. If everyone had a fully developed soul, the world, would be a better place to live.” Fairoaks thinks that’s where the treehouses come from. “Treehouses are not something our personality can build… they’re usually a whim, for fun. They’re much more connected to one’s essence. To create a soul one has to go back to one’s essence and be aware of it.”

And help others do the same. As president of Tree Climbers International’s Philadelphia chapter, an exclusive group of six, he sometimes teaches people to climb trees. “Fear can be overcome,” he says.

They start with a rope demonstration. One woman got halfway up and wanted to stop. Fairoaks told her that it was the same distance up as down, so she continued. “Once she got up she was fine.”

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