Childhood Forts: Building a lifelong love for nature

by Jenni Veal on November 23, 2014

Driving home in winter’s premature black of night, I noticed a small campfire flickering through the trees along the remote road that leads to our home. I pointed it out to my daughters, and we gazed out at its flicker in the quiet darkness.

fire vintageCampfires are pretty common in our neck of the woods, so it wasn’t the campfire that captured us. It was the person who we were certain was tending that campfire – a fort-building 13-year-old boy.

I met this young person while walking along a stretch of woods near my home, part of my weekly (or so) exercise routine. He caught my attention as he emerged from the woods with a tarp. As I caught up to him, we exchanged hellos and a few friendly words about the weather.

“I am building myself a cabin back in the woods,” this very adult 13-year-old explained when I asked what he was doing with the tarp. “This tarp is too small to cover the concrete floor I poured, so I have to figure out something else to use to protect it.”

quiet fortHe was walking the same direction I was heading so we were able to talk a bit more about his project. “It’s not every day that you run into a young person building a cabin in the woods,” I said to him, thinking of all the other boys his age who are instead making methamphetamine in our rural county. He agreed, seeming to “get it” that he was unique in this endeavor.

Then he went on to tell me that he couldn’t wait to have a campfire at the cabin this winter.

I gave him my contact information – in case his parents would allow me to write a story about his adventure – and we parted at the mailbox to his mobile home. I assured him that if I wrote about his cabin I wouldn’t reveal its location. “Good, because someone burned down the last cabin I built and I wouldn’t want that to happen again,” he said.

tree fortI am not surprised that I haven’t heard back from this young man, who is probably quite busy finishing his cabin for winter. And I sensed he was a bit unnerved by my request to write a story about him anyway. As a parent, I understand that I am but a stranger to his parents. However, as a fellow fort-builder and writer and outdoor adventurer, I am so darn curious about this cabin being built in the woods. I think about it every time I pass the spot where we met – and it just makes me happy knowing that the whole thing is taking place.

This young man added a grain of hope to my thoughts about the future. Outdoor play in childhood – fort-building, splashing in creeks and wandering – has a long tradition in grooming conservationists, scientists and world-changers.

Take, for instance, American biologist and writer Rachel Carson , who often said that she could not remember a time when she wasn’t interested in the outdoors and the whole world of nature, an interest that she shared with her mother.

fort in woodsAnother renowned American biologist and writer, Edward O. Wilson, also credits his evolution as a biologist as beginning during childhood when he wandered the beaches each summer. He said his explorations resulted in a passion for nature that has “enchanted him for the rest of his life.”

Many world-changing conservationists and scientists grew up on farms, spending their childhoods working the land. This includes poet and writer Wendell Berry, who grew up on a farm in Kentucky, and Canadian astronaut and writer Col. Chris Hadfield, who grew up on a farm in Ontario.

last-child-coverAuthor Richard Louv, author of the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, which coined term “nature-deficit disorder” as a childhood severed from nature, also grew up exploring the woods and fields that surrounded his home in Kansas. “I spent most of my waking hours in those woods, digging and exploring,” Louv told the Wichita Eagle‘s Suzanne Perez Tobias. “They were my woods. I owned them. Those woods were in my heart, and they’re as real to me today as anything else.”

While there might be a secret cabin being built in the woods near my home, there is so much more being built there at the same time: a young person who will care about the woods and wilderness in the future; a potential father who will share his love of the outdoors with his children; a conservationist who will work to protect the natural landscape he loves.

Science and conservation efforts in the future will require adults who care about – and have experience in – the natural world around them. This requires a childhood spent outdoors.

So hat’s off to my 13-year-old friend and his cabin in the woods. Who knows where it will lead him.

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