Forts: Nature Tells Us How to Build

I grew up in Los Gatos, a small town just South of what’s now Silicon Valley. Our one story house at the end of Jones Road was perfect for my brother and I because it was located on a quiet cul-de-sac surrounded by nature. There was a wild, partially contained hundred-acre park that began where the street ended. Here, we could hike for hours, and discover new things like black widow spiders, gopher snakes and blue belly lizards.

Our very own back yard was a much smaller version of this natural wonderland, with ample trees and bushes surrounding a grass-covered hill, perfect for tobogganing down in the summers, after Dad cut down the dry stalks.

By the time I was eight my brother and I had built a fort in and around almost every tree and bush in our backyDSC_7580.JPGard, including he towering Eucalyptus, so high it swayed with the weight of our little bodies, the Acacia, with its buxom branches strong enough to support hours of intense play, and the Manzanita tree with it’s bush-like shape and super smooth branches that poked in every direction.

Each one offered a different challenge to overcome and with it, a unique opportunity to experience something new. We didn’t know, for example, that the Acacia tree was perfect for climbing and building on until we reached across its gigantic trunk to grasp a protruding knot in exactly the location we needed it to be to be able to scale its width. The fort we built within its branches ended up being the most stable of all the forts we built, partly due to our skill, but just as much a result of what the tree gave us – super climbable trunks and a strong girth upon which we could position wood planks for our fort’s floor.

We learned that to build a fort – it was as much about what we wanted to create as it was what the tree wanted to give. It was a relationship of sorts, unique not only to its nature, but to our interaction with it’s nature.

I gained an understanding of our back yard by experiencing it first hand. The only exception to this for both my brother and I was the rambling Blackberry hedge that lined the border between our house and our neighbors’.

There was something about this hedge that was both intriguing and a bit scary. It gave us fruit and the young leaves were a beautiful, translucent green. But if you didn’t position your hand in just the right way and time your selection of the berry you wanted in sync with its readiness to be picked, then chances were high you’d be stuck with a thorn or get one of those nasty little cuts you can’t see, but that hurts every time you use your hand.

None of this changed the fact that we didn’t know what was deep inside its thicket. We could conjecture that it was just layer upon layer of prickly vegetation, and therefore, inhospitable, but we hadn’t actually experienced it. And this fact made the notion of building a fort there, irresistible.

So one Saturday morning, after breakfast and chores, John and I focused our minds on the serious work of planning our fort in the Blackberry hedge. We brought every tool we had in our combined arsenal, driven by a single question – what if you could make a fort inside this bush?

My brother, who was especially skilled at architecting a vision, knew intuitively to start cutting around the area with the visibly largest branches. I followed behind, using dad’s thick cowhide gloves to remove broken limbs in John’s path. Two hours in and we’d made a hole deep enough to almost completely obscure my brother’s frame from mom’s viewpoint in the kitchen.

It wasn’t until we sat down to lunch that I noticed scratches on both of us, head-to-toe. Over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we resolved that if we wanted to reach our goal, we’d have to go deeper, and if we wanted to go deeper, we’d have to dig smarter.

So right after lunch, back at the hedge (now with a noticeable gape, that we dubbed the front door, over lunch), we bore full gear, complete with hiking boots, overalls, long sleeved shirts and ski masks.

By days end, we reached our goal – an area big enough to allow us to sit side by side and ponder our next fort. We created instant walls by draping old blankets on the interior sides. Even so, we couldn’t lean back like we could on the Acacia tree.

Still, it was dark inside and there was a feeling of being protected from the world outside. And this was something we didn’t know before we started.

The Universe in Tide Pools

It’s the fall of 1973 and mom’s packing the car for a trip to the beach. Not any place – our special beach, a strand of remote coastline in Northern California between Santa Cruz and Pacifica. We call it brain beach instead of it’s official name, “Bean Beach,” because it’s cow-sized rocks – poc-marked with holes – look more like a human brain than beans.

We get to the coast in time to catch the early morning fog. My brother, John and I charge toward the shore, leaving mom to bring all the beach stuff. We run fast to meet the tides edge, stop just short of it, then kick and scoop water with full gusto, sparing no effort to get each other wet.

Tide PoolsThen, without skipping a beat, we make a b-line towards the jagged edged cliff at the end of the beach. The tide moves fast, allowing just a few hours of access to the area around the corner. The tide pools.

Rocks at brain beach are not only full of lots and lots of small holes, but they are luxuriously smooth, at least the part between the holes. The kind of smooth that gets slippery with ocean spray, but feels so good to walk on when dry. But you have to be careful of the edges formed when the area between the holes wears thin from the pounding waves. That part of the rock breaks, leaving a butter knife sharp edge. We navigate the edges and slipperiness in pursuit of our treasure – the tide pools freshly filled with ocean water.

There is nothing dull about these water-soaked kingdoms. Their contents predictably include combinations of starfish, sea anemones, all kinds of seaweeds, muscles, crabs and various crustaceans, and yet each and every tide pool is a world unto itself. Unique and mesmerizing.

I’d find a favorite pool and sit on my haunches nuzzling my feet in a way that makes me feel secure against the waves power. With each one, comes the promise of a new discovery, a micro-adventure. The pools fill up – bringing seaweed to life, anemones opening like flowers, and an occasional crab, its claw peaking out from under a rock.

Then, just as fast, water rushes out making that same seaweed collapse, the anemone, constrict and the crab retreat back under its rock. There’s a slight crackling sound that comes with the instantaneous change from water to sunshine.

And this is just one tide pool.