Tree Climbing

Photo by Lars Nelson

There are three old oaks at 14 Chestnut Place: two white and a black. They spread their canopy so broadly that nothing on the property is visible from Google Earth—just a wide swath of green. At one point in the planning stage of the Old Oak Dojo, we considered cutting down the black oak which stood where we intended the Dojo to be. If we cut down the tree, not only would we gain square footage for the studio, but we’d also be able to power it with solar energy. And given that there were two other old oaks on the property (and that the average lifespan of a black oak is 100 years), it seemed wise to simply cut it down.

We weren’t cavalier about that decision. We brought in an arborist to tell us about the age and health of the tree. We considered how we’d convert the tree into material for the studio, allowing it to continue serving the site for years to come. This was a thoughtful and deliberate process that sought to maintain balance between the natural world and the human-made environment.

And yet, something kept pulling at us. Something about this tree… We visited the site again and again, sitting at the base of the tree and listening for what felt right. Again and again, we heard the same answer: Despite its age, the tree would stay.

So the Old Oak Dojo is the story of dancing with this tree. We set the building on piers to protect and aerate the root system. We designed a 90-degree cutout to wrap the tree—leaving us with just over 450 feet of contiguous movement space. We installed windows in the two walls surrounding the tree so that the experience from within is that of a terrarium (though it’s hard to say who is in the terrarium—us or the tree). From outside the building, the vertical rhythm of the windows and Nanawall is broken only by the tree, drawing your eyes and attention. The Old Oak is a guardian of this space, continuing to watch over us as it has for more than a century.

So now, with the help of Andrew Joslin, our favorite arborist and dear friend, we climb our beautiful old oaks. Using Andrew’s ropes, harnesses and rigging, we climb as high as 60 feet off the ground, where we can look out over the Boston skyline, relaxing in the canopy. Or we can float upside down, spinning and stretching in our harnesses. Or even go to sleep in a tree boat, tied in for a night sleeping close to the stars.