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This is the story of the woman who lives in a tree

Shawnee Chasser, a purple-haired grandma wearing clothes to match, opens her arms as if to embrace the lush, tropical garden around her, dotted with purple furniture and ornaments.

“Purple makes my eyes happy,” she says, smiling. “I’ve got purple and green here. My eyes are happy.”

“I did the hair thing a long time ago, before it was cool,” she says. “I had to pretend it was for Halloween and then I just kept it. My son used to call me ‘crazy purple mama.’ ”

Chasser has been bucking convention for a long time.  The Miami native graduated from Miami Norland high school an A-student with a straight ‘60s flip, but morphed into a curly-haired flower child, protesting the Vietnam War from a “hippie van with psychedelic colors.

Today, Chasser has a smaller cause closer to home: She’s been battling Miami-Dade County code enforcement for almost a year in order to bring the open-air wooden treehouse in which she lives up to snuff, a project she can’t afford.  The dwelling is scheduled for demolition in January. Chasser has retained a pro-bono architect, but the fees for surveys, penalties and other costs are holding her back.

The treehouse, where she has lived for 10 years, is located near 1-95 off NW 135th street in North Miami. It has a straw ceiling and wraps around an oak tree with a generous canopy. A narrow wooden staircase leads to a bedroom that fits a full-size futon.

Downstairs, cast iron pots hang from a countertop where she cooks on a gas stove, a mini-fridge and sink within arm’s reach. The living area includes a sofa and an antique desk. Old photos from Shawnee’s past, antique tchotchkes and dozens of books fill the cozy space.

“Forty years ago, after I gave birth to Wren, my ex-husband surprised me with an air conditioning unit,” she explained. “I woke up in the middle of the night freaking out and asked him to return it. I never had A.C. before and haven’t had it since.”

“I have to live in an outdoor structure,” she said. “It’s a ‘want to’ and a ‘can’t do’ anything else.”

Coming home

After the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in 1986, she spent nine months on the road marching for peace, getting herself arrested again and again. That same year her mother died. Chasser was ready for a change. “It was the last time I went to jail,” she explained. “Going to jail wasn’t helping the cause. That’s when my revolution started within.”

Chasser returned to Miami and settled in a treehouse on her brother’s farmstead in North Miami, which was classified as a botanical learning center for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. (Today, he runs a similar program at Earth-N-Us farms in Little Haiti.)

“At my brother’s property we taught kids how to take care of the earth,” she said. “Teaching young people how to save the planet, how to be vegetarian, about beehives, indigenous plants, organic gardening, seemed like the way to go instead of protesting.”

The treehouse also taught kids lessons about sustainable living. Chasser wanted to lead by example.

“Living in a treehouse means less is more,” she said. “It’s my motto. ‘Live simply so that other may simply live.’ ”

In 1997, she adopted her daughter Lantana with only “$70 in the bank.” She raised her in the treehouse. “I knew I had enough to offer her. I had a tiny bed. I made a second tiny bed for her,” she said.

She eventually started her own landscaping business, mowing lawns during the day and coaching kids’ soccer at the Miami Shores community field after school. Lantana was part of the team.

In 2006, she moved into her current property, a wooded lot with a single-family home just down the street from her brother.

Her son fell in love with the property and moved into the main house. She built and settled a the new treehouse, the one she lives in today.

An unconventional routine

Chasser’s life today is methodical. She wakes up at 5 a.m. and enjoys some coffee before feeding her two pet raccoons, who join her for a walk down the street with her two dogs. After sunrise, she spends time on maintenance, with daily attention to the yard and pond. Once a week, she focuses on her popcorn business. Twice a week, she takes the dogs to the beach. Every Sunday, she plays volleyball at her brother’s house, which she says been doing the last 40 years.

Chasser describes herself as both claustrophobic and agoraphobic — afraid both of being walled-in and of wide-open spaces and crowds.

“I don’t like to the leave the house,” she said. “I don’t like going out in the world, all the traffic, it scares me.”

She points out to noisy 135th street and says she wishes it were the ocean.

“I’d like to own a little island where I can teach kids to sail, teach them that life isn’t about drugs or crime,” she says. “I want to send popcorn to poor countries.”

Three years ago she started teaching people how to sail on her 20-foot boat named Joshua’s Bliss — after her son Joshua, who died of a heart attack seven years ago — on one side of the hull and Be There Now on the other.

She hopes that her homegrown business, Shawnee’s Greenthumb Popcorn, which she created after years of developing a nutritious snack for protesters, will afford her the opportunity to grow.  The product sells at Florida Whole Foods stores and is popular, but she just barely breaks even. She puts all profit right back into the business, which she says saved her when her son died.

Unconditional love

“When Joshua died of an unexpected heart attack at 32, I couldn’t think of a reason to get out of bed,” she said. “I decided to go for it.”

A sign in Chasser’s forested enclave reads “Joshua’s Way” in honor of her son, whom, she said, rebelled against all things hippie. “He always had short-cropped hair and wanted bologna sandwiches instead of sprouts,” she explained. “He was a good kid.”

He still defended his mother’s choices.

“In the fifth grade he got bullied because his mom was a purple-haired hippie,” she continued. “But he stood up in front of the class and said ‘my mom is a hippie and that means that she defends everything she believes in.’ ”

The treehouse property holds many fond memories. “He loved every single tree,” she said.  “He was my best friend. He called me every time he saw a rainbow. I called him every time I saw a hummingbird.”

Chasser claims she never wanted her story to hit the media, but code enforcement’s decision gave her no choice. “Remember what Martin Luther King said?” she asked. “Look it up. Something like ‘our government has defaulted on its promissory note to give citizens the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.’ ”

“Please don’t tell me what my happiness should look like,” she said. “I never fit in one of their boxes and I never will.”

If you want to help Chasser with the costs of bringing her treehouse up to code, you can donate here

By Maria De los Angeles
Maria de los Angeles is an award-winning multimedia storyteller and one of those rare native Miamians who loves all things Florida. When not catching 200-pound bull sharks or chasing pirates up the east coast, you'll find her whipping up delicious vegetarian meals and practicing yoga.

  • Maybe Pete Nelson the Treehouse Master might want to throw his weight toward helping her out. I sent him a Tweet http://bit.ly/2dldYwd with a link to this story. Others should too. Plus, if push comes to shove by the anal code enforcement guys, we should gather together at the base of her tree with arms linked to stop them from trying to tear it down. You know, like activists did in the 60’s and 70’s.

  • Maybe Pete Nelson the Treehouse Master might want to throw his weight toward helping her out. I sent him a Tweet http://bit.ly/2dldYwd with a link to this story. Others should too. Plus, if push comes to shove by the anal code enforcement guys, we should gather together at the base of her tree with arms linked to stop them from trying to tear it down. You know, like activists did in the 60’s and 70’s.