I ran into Noah and Demetrius in the woods last weekend, both wearing knit hats on a 72-degree day and digging like badgers in their new fort. They were in perfect sync, the hats a badge of solidarity. I had been out walking our annual Trail Crawl route with Jay and Giovanna when we reached the fort.
When she was at my house last, Eden told me they were making a fort as part of their schooling. During our walk Jay told me more.
“It has rooms!” he’d said.
“Maybe you can live there.”
“No,” chuckling, “It’s too small for me.”
Jay is a tall drink of water. When I saw the fort, I realized what he meant. It was more of a burrow than a fort. A rabbit warren. An expanse of sticks and leaves on a flat area next to Stinking Creek which could easily be mistaken for evidence of a heavy rain.
When Jay told me where it was I’d remarked, “On the floodplain? That won’t last long.” “No problem,” Jay replied, “They have short attention spans. As soon as they finish one fort, they start building another. They aren’t meant to be permanent.”
This delighted me. I recall reading years ago about indigenous structures, wattle and thatch and how they held up to storm damage compared to our version of “permanent” housing. In my culture, hurricanes send roofs flying, causing much damage and requiring massive reconstruction efforts. But a hut just blows away and is easily rebuilt from materials at hand.
Permanence is an illusion. The kids had tapped into primal values with their series of temporary forts. “Each one is better than the last,” Jay pointed out. What a great way to learn teamwork and common sense!
I scoffed inwardly when Eden told me their home school teacher Sarah was leading them down to the creek four days a week. What can they be learning down by the creek? Now I knew. This was experiential learning. In addition to math and other conventional subjects, they were learning to work together far from screens and mindless entertainment.
The boys stopped tinkering and scrambled into the openings on their elbows to demonstrate their fort’s functionality. I walked around the perimeter, stalking their voices and rustlings. “This is the sitting room.” An unusual choice of words for a little boy. Jay pointed out his “lashing demo” four feet up a tree, made from a nearby vine, an attempt to steer the kids towards loftier goals. But they had chosen to keep it small.
I crouched, peering through the painstakingly layered sticks making up the short walls. Fingers and then a hand snaked out of an opening. I reached down, wondering which boy was on the other end, a hand nearly as big as my own. I grasped it, realizing it must be Noah. Alisa, taller than all the other women in the ‘hood doesn’t know where Noah gets his size. I looked up at her and laughed when she said that. Chris wasn’t that tall, she continued, and neither are her parents. Must be her grandparents, we decided, the same people who made her 5′ 10″.
Our neighbor Whitney is shocked that Noah wears her husband Ben’s size 10 1/2 shoes. She’s also impressed by the kids’ appetites. At times there are a dozen running around these woods; Whitney’s son Jack, Amie, Noah, and Eden, Brooksie’s kids, Amy’s, and Hope’s. Whitney is a chef by trade and when she catches sight of the pack, she calls them inside and feeds them. She said they chewed through a loaf of bread and a block of cheese in no time the other day. “I kept making sandwiches,” she said moving her hands in a blur, “It was like dealing cards!”
Noah’s hand felt calloused and grown up. We let go of each other and the image of Amie flashed through my mind. I remembered Alisa’s story of little Amie crawling into a red wolf den to retrieve pups and how frightening it was to see her daughter disappear into the ground, how Chris held onto one of Amie’s heels and dragged her back out after she was finished passing pups behind her.
That night I lay in bed and savored my golden moments from the day. Whitney’s stories, the brisk pace through the woods, Noah’s hand reaching through the twig window. I wondered why they chose to make it so small and low to the ground.
And then it struck me. They had made a wolf den!