Alex Shirley-Smith, founder of tree tent manufacturer Tentsile, laughs as he says it, but there’s serious intent behind the statement. Tentsile sells what are essentially lightweight, portable treehouses, so it would be easy to scoff at this humanitarian mission. But the brand is serious about impacting real change on humanity’s relationship with the natural world. It’s a relationship that, ultimately, poses an existential threat to our species.
We might be getting ahead of ourselves, though. To understand the gravity of Tentsile’s chosen mission, you need to understand their origins. And it begins a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
As a child, Shirley-Smith watched Star Wars with wide open eyes – he’d recently been troubled by images of Amazonian deforestation on the news and now these Ewoks were showing what was, to him, an obvious solution: live in the trees. It’s a philosophy he carries with him even today. “If we’re all hanging out in trees, they can’t chop ‘em down,” he says.
Most childhood dreams fade with time, but this was an exception. It has shaped everything that Shirley-Smith has gone on to do. Whilst studying architecture at university, he was gaining practical experience with a treehouse construction firm and studying woodwork, joinery; anything that helped him to realise his ambition.
Upon graduating, he embarked as a full-time treehouse architect – no kidding. Nor are we talking about the kind that your dad would assemble in the garden. These treehouses are exactly that: houses, with bathrooms, kitchens, balconies and all the other trappings of modern living. Although incredible (seriously, how amazing would that be?) these constructions aren’t exactly cheap. So when the economic recession hit in 2010, Shirley-Smith needed to rapidly rethink his plan to save the world.
Now, as cool as a treehouse – luxurious or otherwise – might be, there’s an inherent problem: they’re kind of stuck where you build them. To promote the outdoors, Shirley-Smith needed something portable and accessible with all the benefits of treehouse living. The solution? To reverse engineer the whole concept and create something that both utilised the landscape and complemented it. The result? Tentsile.
Tentsile’s tree tents use the tensile force between these natural pillars as support, using multi-dimensional slack lines to eliminate the unsteadiness of a hammock. Every bit as comfortable as a regular tent and with all the novelty of being suspended in midair, they’re the perfect fusion of innovation and traditional camping methods. Better still, these tree tents are lightweight and easy to set up, with the added bonus of looking amazing on Instagram.
For Shirley-Smith, the Tentsile wasn’t just a remarkable product he could make a business from. It was a platform from which to pursue his dreams of combating deforestation and destruction of natural habitats. Not only do Tentsile plant eighteen trees for every product sold, they collaborate with activists on the ground in endangered areas earmarked for deforestation to resist the bulldozers. There are Tentsiles in use right now to protect these fragile ecosystems. As Shirley-Smith remarks, it might just be the perfect blend of capitalism and conservationism.
Nor is that the extent of Tentsile’s social ambitions. They work on projects as wide ranging as disrupting social media echo chambers to organising mass campouts across the world. Their blueprint is built in social collaboration – it’s the reason many of their tree tents can literally be connected and stacked to form communities in the canopies.
It doesn’t stop there. Next year’s new stock will introduce more permanent tree tent structures to further promote engagement with the natural world, and the brand’s pool of innovation doesn’t stop there. They are leading the charge in developing a more sustainable, engaged relationship between human beings and trees, with fun and enjoyment at the heart of their mission. Suddenly saving the world doesn’t seem so farfetched.
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