Sunday, November 30, 2014

What do deer and Algeria have in common? A Treehouse, of course!

            It took two years for Monet and Nadir to pay a second visit to Fern Forest. We’ve been following them on social media as they ride elephants in India, run half marathons, and go on ridiculously long bike tours, all the while smiling and laughing. And once again, they brought smiles and laughter to the Treehouse.
            Monet, named after the painter whose work her mother loves, showed up for breakfast on Saturday wearing a sweater with a buck on the front. I had to tell her that a neighbor had just shot a buck on our property that morning. She hadn’t heard the gunshots.
“Should I change my sweater?” she asked.
I told her if she wore a coat and a blaze orange cap, she’d be fine.
     Monet works with the EF foundation matching European   young folks with au pair jobs in the States. With her bubbly personality, I imagine she makes au pairs feel right at home in their new jobs.
Last year Nadir launched his own internet marketing business and works out of the third floor of their house in Boston. After two visits, I summoned the gumption to ask him about his name.
     “Is it Middle Eastern?” I asked. When I lived in Washington, D.C., my favorite restaurant was Mama Aysha’s because of their delicious Moroccan dishes.
      “No,” he said. “It’s Pied-Noir.”
      “Black feet?” The name sounded Native American.
      His family, Nadir explained, is from Algeria in French North Africa. The French ruled much of the region until 1962. Until then, ten percent of the population were non-Muslim, including Nadir’s family. I looked up the history of the Algerian War and got lost in the explanation of the FLN and MNA, but I gathered that the Pied-Noirs supported colonial French rule as opposed to Algerian nationalist groups, which included the Berbers and the Arab and Islamic cultures. The French Fourth Republic, as they were named, did not fare well in the war, and the conflict ended with a mass exodus of Algerian Europeans to France when Algeria gained independence.
      The annals of Algerian history are complex. The upshot, I gathered, is that after the war eight hundred thousand French Pied-Noirs left the country and a couple hundred thousand chose to stay in Algeria. Today only about fifty thousand Pied-Noirs remain.
      Life in France was no picnic, however. The Pied-Noirs were blamed for the war and were alienated both from their adopted country and their native homeland. I recall reading a story in college French class called “La Mort d’un Bicot.” The 1940 narrative follows an Algerian who enters France without the proper papers and lands in jail. When released, he jumps into the sea and his drowned body washes up on a beach at Dunkirk. No one knows the man, and no one cares about his death. Existentialism at its best.
      Switzerland, always neutral and accepting of pretty much everyone, welcomed Nadir’s family, and they settled in Geneva.
      When I asked Nadir about the origin of the term Pied-Noir, he said he thought it related back to sailors—mostly Algerians—who worked barefoot in the coal rooms of steamships, their feet dirtied by soot and dust. I prefer the theory that “black feet” refers to French Algerians whose feet were stained with purple as they trampled grapes to make wine.
  Nadir was a young boy when his family left Algeria. He thinks of Switzerland as his home, but his father goes back to Algiers see relatives. For Christmas Nadir and Monet are heading to Geneva. I can only imagine the stories that will circulate around the banquet table, not to mention the Algerian delicacies like mahjouba (flaky crêpes stuffed with tomato jam), chicken tagine, slk fel kousha (baked cheese and spinach), and of course, couscous.
   I admit I’m a little jealous. My own family history is bland by comparison. Neither am I named for a famous painter. What I love about hosting guests in the treehouse is that when they’re willing to share, I get a glimpse of the world through their experiences. But it’s more than that. We foster friendships, no matter how different we are from each other. For one weekend, at least, we have nature and a little treehouse in common, and that’s enough.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Flying high at Fern Forest Treehouse

            Up in the sky—is it a bird? (Newp) Is it a plane? (Newp) Is it Superman? (Well, sort of)
Treehouse guest Ben is flying high with his new startup company, Altaeros Energies. The MIT grad has spent the last few years working on a new kind of windmill. It’s called a Bouyant Airborne Turbine. Made of sturdy industrial fabrics, the BAT looks sort of like a gigantic floating donut with fins. In the middle are blades that turn with the wind. The flying turbine, which Ben says is as big as our house, is tethered to the ground and strong enough to hold sensors that detect when helium levels are low—in which case it floats to the ground for “refueling”—wifi, and impact detectors in case a clumsy pigeon should fly into it. And, of course, a very long extension cord to supply electricity.
Ben’s idea is to use the BAT not only for home power but especially for areas hit by natural disasters that have knocked out electricity—earthquakes, tornados, floods, and the like. Once the donut is filled with helium and aloft, it transmits power to the ground, and you’re good to go. The BAT is cheaper than a windmill and at an elevation of two thousand feet reaches more consistent winds than windmills. The BAT is more flexible, too, as well as reducing human and animal impact. You can check out the BAT on Ben’s company website:
I neglected to mention that Ben brought his girlfriend Sarah with him to Fern Forest for the weekend. She works in commercial marketing in Boston, but there’s nothing stuffy about this savvy lady. She raced Ben to the top of Camel’s Hump, challenges him to a half marathons, and likes to sing silly songs. When I told her I was working on a novel about the Titanic, she launched into the old camp song:
Oh they built the ship Titanic
To sail the ocean blue,
And the Captain swore that the water'd
Ne'er come through.
But the Lord Almighty's hand
Said the ship would never land.
It was sad when the great ship went down.”
Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I couldn’t help joining in on the chorus:
Oh it was sad - so sad
It was sad - too bad
It was sad when the great ship went down
Husbands, wives, little children lost their lives
It was sad when the great ship went down
Down to the bottom of the sea
Blub blub blub blub
            These two very cool people like Vermont microbrews, good food of all types, and lots of fascinating conversation. Before breakfast each morning Ben took over the stove and made himself hot chocolate with some cacao powder I found in the back of the cupboard. Sarah didn’t complain when on their second night a high wind got the Treehouse rocking and rolling. Don’t doubt for a minute that these two bright and energetic people can rock and roll right along with it.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Little figure skater leaps high..into a tree

           Imagine you’re the oldest of four children in your family. The younger siblings get most of the attention, but your mom doesn’t want you to feel neglected. So when you’re five or six and more babies are coming along, she asks if you’d like ice skating lessons. The first time you take to the ice, something clicks. You’re hooked.
            That’s what happened with Fern Forest Treehouse guest Caitria. The firstborn is always special. With the first child, everything changes. The bond is strong and enduring.
            When Caitria turned ten, Julie wanted to do something special for her. A night in a treehouse—just the two of them—seemed the perfect thing.
            When I was growing up in Virginia, I knew nothing about figure skating. My brothers and I played outdoors in the nearby creek or in friends’ yards. Parents didn’t spend a lot of time ferrying their kids to practices unless the teams were part of a school program. I didn’t put on ice skates until I moved to Vermont and fell in love with a hockey player. I was determined to learn to skate and started by holding onto the boards as I wobbled around the ice. Then the hockey player put a stick in my hand and I leaned on it to skate. I fell a lot. Ice is hard and before long I was speckled with bruises. When I got a little better, the hockey player bought me hockey skates. Without the toe picks, I kept falling forward. Then (because he loves me) he came up behind me and pushed me—fast. He thought it would be fun. I screamed and waved my arms. My hair flew out behind me. He laughed. When he stopped, I went to the bench and took off the skates. They’ve been gathering dust in the cellar ever since.
            I wish I’d gotten hooked the way Caitria did. As she grows, Julie buys her spiffy new figure skates. She also gets to wear glittery little costumes when she performs in front of judges. And no surprise—the judges like her. She’s strong and fit and pretty. When she does axel jumps and camel spins, double toe loops and a layback spins, the judges smile.
            Caitria is has such potential that Julie enrolled her in a school for athletes so she can take academic classes on campus and spend the rest of her time on the ice. She practices five hours a day and would skate longer if she could.
            This fall Julie wrote us that Caitria would be participating in the New England regional competition at Burlington’s Leddy Park where, coincidentally, I gave up the idea of becoming the next Tonya Harding. Caitria did so well that she qualified for the finals. We were honored to be invited and drove in to watch. The excitement in the rink was palpable. For each skater, parents and siblings in the stands applauded and whooped. Several fell. Others glided lyrically.
            When Caitria and three other girls came out to warm up, we recognized her immediately. She looked beautiful in her red sequined skating dress, dark hair knotted into a tight bun, eyes shadowed with glitter, her hands snug in her lucky pink gloves.
It had been a year since Caitria had stayed at the Treehouse, and now she was eleven. She was stronger and more confident than when we’d last seen her. When her turn came to perform, she skated out and took her starting spot in the center of the ice. The music began—a forties tune, peppy and classy. Her routine was flawless. The audience erupted in applause.
Afterward, Caitria came to the stands to say hello to us—to me and that hockey player I married. I could tell as he was watching Caitria that he was hankering to get out on the ice and do a few twirls himself, maybe chasing an imaginary hockey puck. But he held himself back.
Before we said goodbye to Caitria and Julie, we hugged Caitria and gave her a bottle of Vermont maple syrup to take home to Massachusetts. She's off to Boston soon for more competing. She's ready. She's psyched. You can be sure we haven’t seen the last of this little skater lady.