tree in a tree
(…) For the next eleven years we lived in a quaint old place originally built as a hunting cabin back when mountain lion, bobcat, bear, and elk could be found on Mt.Tamalpais. The living room was the original structure, a plain rectangle with hand-milled redwood panels and beams and a rough tile fireplace; one bedroom, an office, the bathroom, and the kitchen had been added later. The bathroom had an enormous claw-footed tub and inside the medicine cabinet was a faded doodle of a man looking over a wall with the words “Kilroy Was Here.” Above that, “Free Huey” was scrawled in fresher ink. My brother and I liked Kilroy and Huey and persuaded mom not to paint them over as she slowly fixed the place up, put in skylights, walled in the sleeping porch to make a guest room, and eventually converted the basement into a room for herself. Much later, after my grandmother moved in, they did more remodeling, but the old cabin at the house’s nucleus never changed much. It was always our living room and we knew exactly which boards creaked underfoot, how the dust motes floated in the sun, and how the wide view of the valley would wriggle and waver when viewed through old glass windows.

The house started as a single cell that evolved and multiplied to adapt with our family. Frank Lloyd Wright said that “organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.” Our house looked nothing like a Frank Lloyd Wright but it certainly felt organic, especially after mom resuscitated the sprawling, terraced garden and let the cypress hedge grow high but even inside, nothing was fixed in stone. The chairs and small tables moved from room to room like lumbering animals and mom used the walls as gallery space for her latest paintings. First my brother and I shared the bedroom, then he moved into the office, then we switched, but I’d often sleep on the porch or the sofa or set up camp in the large walk-in closet or pull my sleeping bag up onto the roof or even climb up to make a nest in the cypress hedge which was overgrown with maidenhair vine that wove a soft, dense mattress high above the ground, and when I slept up there in the arms of the trees, the wind would nudge and toss me in every direction and by morning, I’d feel completely changed, estranged from earth and only tenuously human. I’d walk back into the kitchen like a fallen bird, like Italo Calvino’s Baron In the Trees, and hold the warm cup my mother gave me with both hands, its warmth as astonishing and inexplicable as soft boiled egg.

Is a person shaped by their container or do they rub off on their surroundings? Could an American (or Icelandic or Balinese) zeitgeist be propagated anywhere else? Which comes first, the person or their place? What happens if you grow up in Swahili or Gaudi or in a basement or a tent or a houseboat, under redwoods or in an orchard or at the top of a Joshua tree? What about the nomads and jet set and homeless? How do people with panoramic views differ from those who see nothing but a brick wall? What if every time you opened a window, you heard gunfire? What if the windows were nailed shut or if there were no windows at all?


What do you think?

This post is a part of a series that starts here.

About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. This is something I’ve wondered about a lot on our travels, especially now we’re back in the US and I often find myself thinking wistfully about moving to Iceland (or other places). How much of my desire to live elsewhere is rational, and how much of it is just wanting to somehow get closer to something that appealed to me so much as a visitor? What if I went to Iceland wanting to become more of an Icelander, and ended up only feeling like an outsider, always seen as American? Then again there’s a weird relationship between outsiderness and belonging; our friends in Japan seem paradoxically even more Japanese for being rather unusual, as if their choices to be nontraditionally Japanese could only have come out of a Japanese upbringing; I became more aware of my Americanness after coming home from traveling.

    • I wonder about this, too, Lisa– if you choose a place, rather than simply adapt/accept the place you are… or if the place you choose doesn’t accept you– what then? I chose the city and house I live in now, but sometimes I yearn to go off and see the world like you did– I miss that freeform feeling. And I’m wondering what you learned about your Americanness.

  2. I think your writing is crazy good.

    About place, it seems to me that we grow to fit the container. What eventually fills that space is determined by some kernel of self outside the constraints of environment: you and I would still be thoughtful people, seeking meaning in our surroundings, but that would take a different form for both of us if we had been swapped at birth. How would you be different, I wonder, growing up in my suburb, in the desert, with only the blacktop for a view? It’s a really good question.

  3. A man I once loved, Native American grown up on the plains of Oklahoma and educated in New Mexico, went to New Hampshire for an artist residency and afterwards told me “I didn’t like it. There was No horizon line.”

    Beautiful writing by you here as usual.

  4. I think your writing is crazy good, too. And I’ve wondered the questions you pose. What versions of ourselves would we be if our surroundings had been different — even if our parents were the same people? I think we’re born with a lot of our personality. What affects that personality more, our surroundings or the personalities in the families we live in?

  5. Hi Anna,
    Your post probes the mind with whichs and what-ifs that most people hardly ever contemplate. You open a great line of thinking that could lead to a wonderful conversation. Beautiful job !

  6. I want to talk to you and answer your questions but you keep asking the same questions I have always asked of myself and others! Which is why I enjoy your writing so much!

  7. Todd

    Ditto what they said… your writing is like friggin’ psychotically awesome dudina!
    I like that word zeitgeist, or maybe just what I think it means… spirit of the times. I’ve only felt it strongly a time or two and would sure like to find it again. When our family moved to Mill Valley in 1972, I was only 10 but I remember that there was a strong feeling in the air, no, in that place, that something cool is going on here.
    Maybe it was the time and that feeling of change and artistry and new perspectives was happening all over.
    But for me it was attached to the streets and valleys, funky old homes and interesting people of that town.
    Our house was pretty funky too and my mom had a stream of artsy and eccentric friends gliding through. I think the container of that house and that valley must have affected me. I can’t imagine that I would be the same person if we had stayed in Ohio, or moved to New York… if my dad had stayed at IBM or my mom had stayed with him. So now I’m casting about in my mind, and on the Internet, to see if I can find a special place like that for my son to grow up in. Where is the place that is alive with possibility? Is it just a memory trapped in time, or does it exist really somewhere now? Is there is a nexus of new thought that shifts about the planet alighting in certain places and times? Maybe that time was only special because I was 10. Maybe my son will feel excited about life wherever he grows up. Anybody know?

    • “Zeitgeist” is perhaps not exactly right in this context, but I couldn’t find a word that came closer to the thing I was trying to say, zeitgeist as in the mood or character of a time or place or movement. It is a good word. German just sounds right for some things. Gesundheit is just the best way to respond to a sneeze.

      Maybe the specialness does come from the kid. Good point. Maybe if the family’s happy, the place will be, too. I hope you find a very good place for your family, Todd.

  8. Such a delightful vision of you as a child, sleeping in the cypress hedge! No wonder you’re a little bit wild 😉 So rich. You always make me go off on a thought journey and then I really wish I could yarn with you much longer than this comment space will allow. There’s this thing about the way that Australian indigenous people speak which apparently has something to do with needing to conserve energy in the desert. I’m not sure if it is something I read, or a conversation I had with a crazy free thinker, but it intrigues me. Because Aussies are known for not opening their mouths when they speak, and for their minimal word usage. Some might call it lazy, but I wonder how much of it has to do with a population being stretched over a vast, hot, dusty and (largely) empty landscape…I mean, we used to sound like the British, once – so something happened in this place! 🙂 Endlessly fascinating.

    • I bet you did some unusual things as a kid too Alarna. Most kids have good ideas. I love what you say about Australians not opening thier mouths– so fascinating to think how our appearance, body type, speech, actions, etc. might be a reaction to the environment. We were all Africans or Asians once.

  9. God, I love this. Fantastic and thought provoking as always, Anna. I will be imagining you nested in the trees today. A young bird, with black feathers …

    • Yes! And I haven’t announced it yet? but the crows have made a roost (or are considering a roost, I can’t tell– there’s a lot of chatter out there) just outside my house, which means I will be able to see them when I wake up in the morning. (crossing fingers they stay)

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