Struggling up the hillside in 100 degree temperatures, I peered through the dusty firs and pines, to see a small cluster of birch trees. If they appear out of place even within the variety of species represented in the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Oregon, that is because they are— these trees are part of a living sculpture called House for Summer created by artist Helen Lessick.
This house was hard to find. I walked from one of the many parking lots in the surrounding Washington Park, up a maze of paths, across a street, down around a cell phone relay station, and through a picnic pavilion filled with wedding attendees. It turned out to be relatively close to the visitor’s center, but off one of many forking paths, marked with many signs, but none referring to Lessick’s work.
This sculpture was planted in 1987, and this summer marked its 30th anniversary. Lined up so that the “residents” of the house can view the summer solstice sunset, many years have seen the artist conduct performances at the house on that day. In images, these performances show the trees at different stages of their growth.
The Himalayan Birch are not large, at least not compared to the cedars and Douglas Fir of the rest of the park. But they are certainly growing. As I crest the hill and finally lay eyes on the sculpture, I see that it is occupied. A group of youths has established residence, and tied a hammock up inside the tree, held easily between the ample trunks. I can hear their laughter, and smell the smoke from their Saturday afternoon’s recreation drifting out through the hot air between the green birch leaves.
From this angle, the sculpture looks out of place, like any house in the woods. But it isn’t so much the type of tree, as it is their placement. Trees don’t grow so close together, unless planted that way. But that is what makes it a house, and not a collection of plants, even though it is both at the same time. Any house is also planted— from wood also arranged unnaturally, that will change and grow over the decades, even if it is lumber at that point, rather than saplings.
I leave the teenagers be, and continue down the hill, leaving their privacy in the house in intact. I wonder how long they will remain there, before they pack up their hammock, and drift away, out of the heat, to somewhere even cooler than their current shady spot. From behind a set of willows, the house is invisible, unfindable, once more.