He’s up a tree

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BRIDGTON – People often stop to gawk at Peter Lewis’ backyard treehouse.

They take pictures, get out of their cars on the side of Sweden Road and sometimes trespass, marching right across his property to get a closer look.

It doesn’t surprise him. He’s still as fascinated as the next person by the building, all two stories and 6,000 pounds of it, suspended 21 feet off the ground by cables strung carefully over a large fork in a 105-foot-tall white pine. On the front side of the building, two walls rise stoically and meet at one corner of the hexagonal frame, their 10 windows beckoning toward the sun and passersby.

What gets Lewis is the one question that always seems inevitable, the one asked by those who cannot fathom the need to spend three years, countless daydreaming hours and one’s entire savings on a glorified childhood fort.

“Why did you do this?” they ask.

“Why wouldn’t you?” Lewis replies, raising his eyebrows like it’s the other person that’s nuts.

He runs over this typical encounter while swinging in a hammock chair on the first floor of the treehouse Tuesday afternoon. He looks out a window that takes in a view of his 1820s farmhouse and barn, his backyard and the surrounding fields and woods. For a moment, he appears lost in his thoughts. Then he exclaims, “I really don’t understand people like that. I thought everybody would want something like this.”

Lewis’ friend Ted Walsh smiles underneath his wool felt hat. He’s standing near a spiral staircase with steps cut from a tree on Lewis’ property. The railing is made from a slim beech branch, all its natural twists and turns and gnarls left intact, the bark stripped and wood polished. Pegs, rope and twine keep much of the treehouse together – not just the branch that forms the railing, but also the door and window latches and even a papasan-like chair on the second floor, which is made entirely from woven twigs and more branches.

“Americans have forgotten how to play,” Walsh says. Forgotten how to rely on their own ingenuity and resources, and to think outside of the box.

But the magic of the treehouse is that it changes people. Working on the project was amazing, Walsh says, because those who first asked why were suddenly asking, “Well, are you going to have a folding staircase?”

He does. Along with two levels of decks, a small, potbellied coal stove that provides modest heat, and an incredible wooden chess set hand-carved by Walsh. There are stools and stumps tucked into corners of the treehouse and on the decks for seating, and there’s a futon for napping. There are hidden mechanisms to protect the treehouse from all but the birds and resident squirrel, Vinny.

It took a team of men suspended from ropes to erect the timber frame that supports the treehouse. There are no bolts through the tree, or boards nailed to its side. The timber frame, suspend by the cables hung over the tree’s fork, is wide enough to accommodate the tree’s growth. It’s a bit of an engineering feat and has surprised those who build treehouses professionally.

Walsh said that when they began the project in 2002, they had no idea there was an emerging treehouse trend. “If we had gone to (a treehouse engineer), we probably wouldn’t have come up with this,” he said. Instead, most treehouses – now popular out west – are built on stilts so they won’t be affected by expanding trunks.

According to a book he wrote about his experience, “Treehouse Chronicles: One Man’s Dream of Life Aloft,” Lewis expects the tree to support his getaway for at least another 50 years. (When the problems start, “my grandchildren can deal with it,” he quipped in the text.)

Walsh helped illustrate the book, which details every twist and turn of what began as a “hare-brained” idea and evolved into the eye-catching creation that presides over Lewis’ back yard today.

For anyone who needs a refresher course on outside-of-the-box adventure, he and Walsh – both of whom are 46 years old – will be giving a presentation on their treehouse project and signing copies of their book at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick tonight.

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