A Tree of Knowledge in Idaho and Beyond

This story caught my eye back in November 2019. When I opened it, and saw the photo essay inside, I was entranced.

As I’ve traveled around the country in the last few years, I’ve seen these little micro libraries popping up more and more. The first one I recall running into was in Estes Park, Colorado back in 2011. I don’t know if it was part of this program, as it was installed by the town, along with about three others. It was a sense of of being bathed in warmth on a classic Estes snowy day. It was also a classic Estes thing, but it may well have been done in unison with the Little Free Library organization, because in looking at their website, the kits I’m seeing look an awfully lot like the ones in Estes.

Every time I see one, especially in person, my face breaks into a wide smile, and all sorts of memories of reading as a child come rushing into mind. I always take the time to look around me when I see one, to see the community about me, and how it may serve to expand the horizons of the people nearby. I’ve often opened the doors and looked through some of the books, and usually they’re really well selected, with the hint of sharing by adding as you borrow. Many of these little boxes of books are unique, usually in their cabinetry construction; most often in their location. For example, beside a great little cafe at the entry to a narrow alley between two buildings; the other of the buildings was a small art gallery in a smaller city in South Carolina, with another restaurant I think on the far side. I think it may have been Greenwood, in the western part of the state, for I walked that city for three days, due to an odd family connection I’d never looked into but did while I was back east. I saw another, similarly perched in the heart of an array of small mom and pop shops in a town off the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

Each time, it not only brings that similar smile, which seems to be merging into sort of a “concert smile,” as in the concert performance of these very personal repositories. It is as though there is some wonderful recoupment of the power of a printed book within them and before me. They are rather musical in a way. Then, the smile is always a little dampened by the memory of articles chronicling the decommissioning of libraries around America and the world, and photographs recording some instances of grand library buildings being razed for new development, which seem to have found a niche in my mind in which they now permanently reside. I have to wonder at what “new development” could possibly trump the necessity, importance, and conduit of learning that our library system has afforded all of us, for centuries. Add to that the history of great libraries like Alexandria in Egypt being lost to wars targeting the annihilation of great cultures. I am often quickly humbled by the fact that we are doing this to ourselves, both in terms of this very medium we call the internet, but also some internal causality that seems intent on reversing our storied and cherished romance with the simple act of learning.

For libraries are more than a repository of books. They are temples of a people. They are magical places of corridors in which just a casual visit and walkthrough while putting a forefinger to the spine of an interesting title can yield at times an almost spiritual sense of “This was meant for me to see,” as in some scenes in films where a book may slowly slide out towards the visitor as they walk past it. The wealth of knowledge stored in a library, whether in a small town or a metropolitan city, may be viewed by some to be anachronistic today, with Google at our fingertips. Others seem to have formed the conclusion that such behemoth buildings, storing the pages of human existence—of people, nations, communities, literature, art, love philosophy and science, just to name a few—are nothing more that outdated and archaic storage buildings needing to be repurposed.

There is a decided purpose to such repurposing, by persons who live in the half-light of being human, within great and multiple mansions, apart from others, and who benefit from cutting the tethers of free and accessible learning from their fellow humankind. It is in these moments spent standing by these little libraries that are popping up around the country, that I often realize this is an acute experience of the sublime. For it is an arc that begins with an almost personal meeting of another soul, in the guise of these little cabinets of shared learning; through the appreciation and pleasure gleaned from the written word, we can experience that full range of sliding from the initial moment of joy to the realization that the reason these little libraries are here is that we are losing our treasured vaults of all of what we have ever been, usually done with little or no oversight, and with repercussive effects that we have yet to realize in the larger scheme of what our shared world is becoming. All for the sake of profit, from the re-sale or the gentrification of the building, or, after the destruction of the building, the marketing of the flat and barren property to those who would erect another condominium, or another retail cluster of high-end shops.

And I am left to wonder if these little spaces are not the cairns we are leaving behind us on our trail towards the unknown; the vacuum of shared knowledge for all.

And yet here in this article is such a labor of love crafted by this family in Couer d’Alene, Idaho, that it has been marked as a site on my next northwest trip to visit and photograph—to document what one family can do to lob a very large depth-charge across the great ship of indifference which knows no true harborage, which anchors in local clusters of humanity at our own peril, and leaves with a wake of disturbance which we know not of the terms of it’s interaction or the fell direction of it’s next voyage. As you scroll down through the images, notice the decorative wooden representations of great books resting above the door. It is loving touches like this which proclaim this tree of knowledge also as a visionary work of art.

Such cairns of books are things of beauty. They are signs of personal empowerment. They should afford us a glimpse into the resilience of the human spirit, and they do. They are a simple statement of “no” to the powers that be who are charting a course which can have no good ending, while at the same time they are a resounding “Yes” to the sharing of not only knowledge, but of that light in the hearts of those who quietly and beautifully stand as a single beacon along our way.

And each time I find one of these little cairns of knowledge and literary pleasure, I also find that similar visitation of sublimity, and it all seems like a sense of déjà vu, reminding me of this very subtle and usually unnoticed invisible war on libraries reaching out from from all the eras behind us but which linger like ghosts, whispering of forgotten words and all they entail and represent. Then as my presence of being comes back to that place on which I stand, there is almost always the sense that all is not lost, for this little cairn is, like true cairns, a small storehouse of reason left there to help us along this incredible journey.

And that initial smile returns to place, as the conversation between me and the cairn is concluded.

A huge thank you to Sharalee Armitage Howard and her family, for creating this glorious little portal into the true heart of humanity.


Almost born on the hospital steps of Camden in a rush to be on time...