Forests coloured my early imagination. Stories of houses in the woods, of winding paths and breadcrumb trails. Of things hidden in the shadows, lurking possibilities. Lurking dangers too – wolves and witches and grandmamas, or imps who would grant desperate wishes in return for some future payment you really should know better than to pledge.
There was no real forest where I grew up, in New York City. But when I discovered one, years later, just a few hours’ drive from my Cape Town home, I set my heart on it. I dreamed of having a piece of it. Of course you never can really possess that cycle of humus and musk and atmosphere. I just wanted to safeguard it, and be allowed to be safe there, myself.
Twenty years ago an opportunity came up for me to do just that. A plot for sale in a forest eco-development coincided with a windfall (well, I’d earned it). I bought a small slice of indigenous forest – the sloping canopy made a three dimensional triangle as deep as it was wide. Pioneering keurbooms marked the forest edge, giving way to candlewoods and yellowwoods, stinkwood and ironwood, bokkenhout and assegai trees.
We camped there over December, my husband and I, mapping the terrain and the trees – none would be harmed in the making of our dwelling, not if we could help it. We slept in the back of the bakkie and I got stung by a forest scorpion. (With his big black pincers, he was more fierce-looking than poisonous.)
I wanted to build a Zen retreat, clean-lined and light on the land. I pictured a tower, book-lined inside, so you could browse as you spiralled up to the writing eyrie at the very top, from where you would look out over the treetops to the Outeniqua mountains. It was the perfect place to retire and write, one day.
But life had other plans. We realised we made better buddies than spouses, and divided our assets with an amiableness that startled our friends. It made much more sense for him to move to the forest – he needed out of the rat race, my career was peaking. And so he moved there, and I stayed on in the city.
But first I made a solo trip to the plot, set up a tent and spent some time thinking things through.
One misty morning I sat with a cup of camp tea gazing down the slope to where the fog settled thickest. I could barely make out the tree trunks through the haze, but thought I saw something move. A twig cracked. A shape morphed out of the mist. Then another. A band of baboons was moving quietly left to right, passing across the bottom of ‘my’ plot, using some hidden, private track. I knew then that it wasn’t really mine.
My ex-husband-and-forever-friend made a life there. He honed his skills as a natural builder, using offcuts from other sites to create a tree house like no other.
I visited every year, first on my own, then with my small son, and watched the bush kitchen-and-sleeping platform expand into a series of wood-and-glass rooms on three levels, linked by walkways through trees. I bathed my boy in a plastic basin on a deck in the canopy and watched the fireflies blink on. At night I peed over the edge of the balcony because the compost toilet out back was just too far. (After a few years of hinting, he graciously put a toilet in the house itself.)
Travellers always feel welcome. There is an owl eyrie at the very top; if you climb the ladder you can sleep there, and wake up to the view I’d once imagined, and the sound of the loeries: kow-kow-kow.
You can walk through that forest for days without seeing another human soul. You can fill your pockets with feathers and seeds, with moss and old man’s beard. You can bring them back home to remind you of a place that turned out better than anything you’d imagined.
(This article originally appeared in Visi Magazine January 2016 issue.)