A Fort of One's Own

"Look for a wolf tree and build it so it’ll move with the wind.”

So advises Mitch Gordon of North Tisbury – the Buddha-builder of tree forts.

A wolf tree, he explains, is the timber industry’s nickname for a tree with too many limbs, a tree that’s useless to them – but treasured by a tree-fort connoisseur. And regarding the wind: Just as branches sway and don’t (usually) break, a tree fort should be built with the same ability to move as the air and branches. The best way to do that, according to Mitch, is to suspend it so that the tree is left unscathed. Mitch started this fort at the foot of Indian Hill – at a place whose Wampanoag name means Land where the Spirits Walk – about eight years ago, and it’s survived some serious northeasters because of this ability to swing and lean.

Cerina, twelve years old, and ten-year-old Ben – Mitch’s kids – scamper up into an arbor castle secured with wood, nails, and their own good faith. Their calloused, bare feet find footholds with what seems like a priori knowledge and monkey-like agility. It must be genetic, I figure, because Mitch – with his gray, tousled hair and intense eyes – seems to have been born to build (and maybe even live in) a tree house.

“Where I grew up in Connecticut,” he says, building tree houses “was a good way to keep a boy busy all summer, two-by-fours balanced on my bicycle, riding down dirt roads out to the perfect tree with the perfect view, and figuring out how it was going to hold.” Once one of his tree forts was complete, he’d sit in it with his buddies and “we’d all look around proud of ourselves, then we’d look at each other and say, ‘Let’s go build another one.’”

This fort was built low to the ground in the beginning. But as Cerina and Ben grew taller, the height of the fort in the tree grew as well. “And it’s all built from dumpster diving – not a new piece of wood was used.” That’s pure Mitch. From the top platform, surveying her backyard kingdom, a usually shy Cerina declares, “I use the tree fort as my base of operations when I attack my brother.” Her dad just smiles and shrugs, “Big sisters – what can you do?”
When the skirmishes are done, the kids can look out over the family vegetable and iris patches, the unmowed circle of grass, and the woods. “It’s a little Eden,” says Mitch.

No matter your age, there’s something about climbing the spiraling limbs of an oak tree and hanging out with the bats and birds, closer to the stars and the sun. Cozy and safe in a space that’s built to Lilliputian dimensions up in a canopy of trees. Hidden.

Or at least above it all. A tree fort is a place to read, nap, play the viola, paint a picture, or throw water balloons (down on your little brother). “And the best ones,” grins the Buddha tree–fort builder of North Tisbury, “have funk to them.” Absolutely.