Tree Forts


 I have a Fort Theory of Ecology, Fort Theory of Conservation. Every ecologist I know, every conservation biologist I know, every conservation professional I know, built forts when they were kids. If we have a generation that doesn’t know how to build a fort, we’ll have a generation that doesn’t know how to care about nature.

Emma Marris, TedTalks

If I Had $1,000,000, I’d build a tree fort in our yard.
If I Had $1,000,000, You could help, it wouldn’t be that hard.
If I Had $1,000,000… Maybe we could put put a little tiny fridge in there somewhere
([Talking:] We could just go up there and hang out. Like open the fridge and stuff, and there’d be foods laid out for us, With little pre-wrapped sausages and things. Mmmmm. They have pre-wrapped sausages but they don’t have pre-wrapped bacon. Well can you blame them. Yeah!)

Barenaked Ladies, “If I Had A $1,000,000”

It’s that time of year when the Christmas trees come down, and it makes me remember building tree forts when we were kids. Shortly after Christmas, we began scouring the neighborhood in competition with other kids for the most trees to build the biggest forts. The stray strands of tinsel added a dash of class to even the most humble tree fort, and occasionally you’d find an overlooked ornament, or by some miracle, a neglected present (in our dreams).

We usually started by placing the trees horizontally to form a base, often against a wall or fence. Then we’d add more trees, hopefully stacked at an angle to make them more impenetrable. As the walls got higher, we could form more of an arch, sometimes leaning them against the wall or fence for support. It was usually a matter of how many trees we could score, and how many we could protect from raiders. Ideally, we put the most scratchy ones on the outer walls to deter theft, and the softer ones on the inside for our own comfort. We wanted the inside to be tall enough to sit up in, but since we seldom found that many trees, our forts were usually roofless.

We could hang out in the seclusion of our fort, surrounded by the rich pine smell, and try not to get too prickled by the drying boughs and needles. Roving gangs of kids would search for the forts, and you had to defend yours. Of course, in Texas we never had snow for snowball fights, so sometimes we’d just yell or maybe throw pine cones, sticks or dirt clods at each other. The safest forts were in the back yards, hopefully protected by your back fence and your faithful guard dog. However, the alleys provided ready access for marauding gangs, and our family dog was usually glad to have someone come into the yard … maybe to play! Forts could be demolished and trees pillaged for other forts.

Since dead trees dried out pretty quickly in the warm Texas winters, we were sometimes glad to have trees ‘stolen’ as they began to be less enjoyable, and it saved us from having to put them out for the trash men. But there was always a pile of needles left in that spot, and you’d be reminded of it when your bare feet encountered the dried needles later in the year.

Where I grew up there weren’t a lot of native pine trees, the most common evergreen was the scruffy juniper bushes that was prickly, but always had bag worm sacs down among the branches. You could pull them off and throw them at the girls, or try to squeeze them to get the worm out. Sitting in our tree forts, we enjoyed close observation of the different types of Christmas trees. Some were tight and erect, some more flexible and tall, some saps were different — but all were sticky. The needles were different, some soft and flat, others round and hard. Lying in your fort, you couldn’t help but see some of these things close up.

We’d loll around in the safety of our forts, telling stories and getting covered in dirt, pine needles and tree sap. Then when we went inside we’d have to take a bath or shower, but that wasn’t enough to get rid of the sap/needle/dirt combination which stuck to our skin and hair. It required scrubbing, and maybe a liberal dose of alcohol rubbed into our skin or hair, though I suspect at those times our mom wanted the other kind to drink.

In my neighborhood today, most everyone recycles the used trees. Our town lets you drop them off for shredding into mulch to be used for city gardens and made available for residents to take for their own gardens. It’s a powerful message for kids (and adults) that we can use things from nature, but need to be conscious to return something to nature in appreciation for that use.

I don’t see many tree forts around now, but then I’m not a kid anymore (in spite of what my wife thinks) and I’m not too sure that the kids get much chance to roll around in the dirt. Where our lawns and playing fields were brown and largely dirt, it seems that now they’re well sodded and green (or sometimes artificial). The cross-streets in my old neighborhood were never paved, and when it rained we could go there and build dams to collect the runoff and play in the mud. Now of course, our streets are all paved, which significantly reduces the dust — but it is still a little sad.

We’ve come a long way, but need to remember that our improvements have cost us something, and we need to work to give our kids a chance to experience, and hopefully learn, some of the things that we did. Dirt isn’t all that bad. Pine trees can get you sappy and dirty. However, every kid needs a place to loll and dream and imagine themselves in other places and other worlds.

It doesn’t have to be a tree fort, but that worked for me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s