When the wind blows, the tree house will rock

Alice Oswald talks to Milo Webb.

New York.
"For three years, he spent his nights balanced like a bird in the branches". Photo: Getty Images.

About three miles from here there is a cat, who lives in a beech tree in a hedge. She has her own twostorey treehouse, with a spiral staircase, a wood-burner and an outside shower; and there she sleeps on a sheepskin rug and lets herself in and out through a hole in the floor.

Her creaking apartment used to be the home of a carpenter, who built it after spending time in Thailand:

“I was living in lots of funny little structures out there and I realised you can operate out of anything. When I discovered there was a water supply at the top of the hill, that’s when I had the idea of living here permanently. When the weather was good, it was lovely. People would come up for breakfast and have coffee and toast and eggs. But it was lonely in the winter and always a challenge to get the shopping up the hill. It’s very steep. Sometimes I did it on a little motorbike.”

For three years, he spent his nights balanced like a bird in the branches and his days making things out of wood: “but a living tree,” he says, “has almost nothing in common with a tree on a bench once its bark has come off. It’s only the name that connects them.”

A dead tree, cut into planks and read from one end to the other, is a kind of line graph, with dates down one side and height along the other, as if trees, like mathematicians, had found a way of turning time into form.

But a living tree is a changing, sleeve shape, a wet, thin, brightgreen creature that survives in the thin layer between heartwood and bark. It stands waiting for light, which it catches in the close-woven sieves of its leaves.

From a distance, it looks almost human – parental, stable, nostalgic, theatrical – but close up you get an impression of something hypersensitively twitchy. It has no nervous system but never stops shivering as it responds to split-second changes in the cloud and the wind.

Into this force field of tremblings come various species, all terrified of each other: “Great tits and blue tits mostly. I put a few nesting boxes in the branches and they’d turn up at the weekend when I wasn’t there. Then they’d see me and make their alarm gestures and squeak a lot. Then they’d just settle down, although still a bit wary. The squirrels were always hard to reckon with. I went away one summer and they realised they could come in and help themselves and they got bold and I couldn’t stop them. Once I woke up and went down stairs to confront one and it started running round the walls like a cat. The only way out was past me up through the trap door, so it finally used me as a foothold, dug its claws right into my thigh and jumped.”

Anyone who sleeps outside becomes part of this worldwide network of fear. Perhaps it isn’t fear. Perhaps it’s just a huge extroverted readiness in which trees participate. When the wind blows through a wood, its mass is cut and closed by every leaf, forming a train of jittery vortices in the air.

“Normally you can hear the wind but up there you feel it like a horrible pressure. I didn’t feel safe. To begin with, I relished it. I thought it would be fun if the whole thing started tearing itself apart. But what really freaked me out was when one of the next-door trees fell over. I woke up and there was this horrible crashing noise. It’s quite high where my bed is and after that, whenever it was windy, I couldn’t sleep. The sound of the wind just terrified me.

“So now I mostly use it as a kitchen and I’ve built myself a bed in the hedge under a holly bush. It’s quite a confined space, like a miniature house and that’s the place I sleep best of all. It’s got that slight thrill of being not quite safe. It’s not anchored so it really takes the brunt of the wind. It’s quite exhilarating, the feeling that it might slip down the hill.”