Michelle Fox has felt at home in nature for as long as she can remember. “For the longest time my goal has been to live on a river in the woods,” she says. She’s living that dream now as the founder and executive director of TreeSong Nature Awareness and Retreat Center, in Skamania County just east of Washougal. She also lives on the 1.33 acre property along the Washougal River that has been serving as a natural classroom and environmental refuge since 2013.
The vision for TreeSong originated 17 years ago when Fox, a teacher and single mother with two children, was exploring the possibility of opening a children’s book store with dreams of it becoming a community hub with wellness classes and more. “I went to a visioning workshop . . . and they had us drop into a visualization and I saw a place like this.” She gestures around the property, which I’m visiting with my own daughter, on Earth Day as it turns out. “[The visualization] was very detailed. Families could come and connect and do nature stuff and art and . . . I opened my eyes and thought ‘Where did that come from?’ . . . And then I just watched my life prepare me for it.” She and her kids had previously lived outside Washougal, but years later in 2013 when they were living in Vancouver a friend told her that the familiar little red cabin they knew from their Washougal days was for sale. “I just knew this was going to be it,” she says. As a practicing massage therapist and yoga instructor by this time, purchasing a parcel of property with a home on it was a tall order. A massage client and friend of Fox’s listened to Fox describe the property and became curious. “She was excited and wanted to see the property . . . One day at coffee she said, ‘I would like to buy that property and be your bank, on very reasonable terms, so you can have your dream.’” Fox describes their meeting as “magical.”
With means provided, the property was purchased in April 2013. But developing it into Fox’s dream of a retreat where children and adults alike could commune with nature and with each other was a process. “The cabin was a wreck,” she says. “It had been a rental for a long time and it needed a lot of work.” Fox’s daughter was in college and her son was still home attending Vancouver School of Arts and Academics when the property was acquired, so she lived in the Lincoln neighborhood of Vancouver while overseeing the restoration and renovation of the property’s small 1,000 square foot cabin that had originally been built in 1941. Once her son graduated, she sold her Vancouver house and moved out to the property full time, eventually quitting her massage and yoga instructor jobs to devote herself to TreeSong full time. “There was a lot I was juggling in the beginning . . . At some point I took a little bit of a leap of faith and just stopped doing everything else and did this because it was asking it of me.”
It had been Fox’s dream for years, but many people came together to make that dream a reality, making TreeSong a communal labor of love from the very beginning. “I knew from the beginning it was something we’d all be doing together,” she says. The owner of a combination of 80 total acres neighboring TreeSong on both sides of the Washougal River “is really into stewarding the land . . . and super supportive,” says Fox. “He has put trails in on both sides of the river . . . And let us use the trails. So even though we have an acre and a third, we have access to [essentially] 80 acres.” Even the property’s name came from a friend. Fox’s original name concept was RiverSong but after finding another center by that name, she was back to the drawing board. A friend who has since passed away and who helped on the grounds in the early days suggested TreeSong and the name seemed utterly appropriate. “She lives on in the name,” says Fox.
Fox had worked with children since she was a teenager herself so she naturally formed kids’ programs right away, even as work continued to improve the property and obtain nonprofit status. “We had our opening on Summer Solstice 2013 and started offering kids’ camps,” she recalls. In the fall came Circle Keepers, a weekly weekday school year program for kids ages 4-16, developed by Fox, and which later expanded to also include a monthly weekend event for non-home-schoolers and other kids who can’t attend the Tuesday or Thursday Circle Keepers groups, and which now attracts families from as far away as Portland and Stevenson. On sunny days kids are outside the whole class (10 am-3 pm), learning about native flora and fauna species, playing active games, reading books, practicing yoga, creating art and more—all inspired by nature. “I love all of what I do out here at TreeSong, but I really love being with kids out here,” says Fox. “We’re outside a lot, we’re exploring, you never know what you’re going to discover . . . They really have a sense of belonging and connectedness to this land.”
Programs for grownups soon followed: wild edible classes, Audubon bird classes, art retreats, survival and wilderness training, cooking classes for grownups, animal tracking courses, an artists in residence program and more have all taken place at TreeSong, making it a hub for groups of all kinds. Fox continues to teach the kids’ programs while other programs are run by various experts in the environmental, art and naturalist community. The property is also available for private groups to rent on weekends.
TreeSong’s small cabin is close to outgrowing the retreat’s popularity, so plans are in place to erect a yurt that could accommodate a fuller school program, an outbuilding for office space, and an outhouse. “I’d love for it to just keep growing and growing,” says Fox. “We’ll see where it goes, but everyone who is involved is in it for the long haul because we believe in what we’re doing and how important it is. I’ve seen the magic that happens for grownups and kids here. It affects them in a really profound way and I think it makes a difference in the world.”
Upcoming Public TreeSong Events
Forest Dreams: A TreeSong benefit event, September 28, 2019