When I was a child—oh about second grade through sixth grade—I spent most of my free time in the tree tops in a little copse in a field behind my house in Richardson, Texas. On blistery days I’d sway with branches in the bitter wind and survey the long furrows through dormant cotton fields. Suburban developers would later build houses on much of the land, but luckily a line of high-voltage power lines directly behind our house saved a swath from development, and the copse remained.
The neighborhood gang of boys my age (and a occasionally a girl or two) would haul lumber—which was readily available with the ongoing construction—to the copse and build elaborate tree “forts” in the sturdiest of the trees. Sometimes the platforms were well-constructed masterpieces of ingenuity. Other times just a board nailed in to a fork of limbs provided a perch. But the fort was our go-to place for gun wars, hiding out, and eventually for reading the trampled and muddied Playboys and other soft porn mags that older guys had left behind.
As my son grew, I was shocked to see that he didn’t climb trees all that often, and he never built a single tree house/fort. Nor did any of his friends. “I don’t know how to build a tree fort,” he’d complain. Since I did have the benefit of seeing other forts already built when I was young, and I had a lot of friends to collaborate with, I helped my son out a bit. I showed him how to build the two-by-four ladders up the trunk and which types of branches would best serve as platforms to form a foundation for further development.
“There isn’t any wood!” was the next excuse. So I took him on a tour of the neighborhood and pointed out several possible sources, like stacks of old wood in the backs of businesses that might be willing to part with some of it. But nothing stuck, and to this day I don’t know of any kids my son’s age who have built tree forts. (Nor do I see any kid-built ones anywhere.) I wasn’t convinced this lack of outdoor ingenuity among the current generation of kids should be a big concern. But I recently read a book—Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv—that speaks to a growing problem of “nature deficit disorder” in children, and it spends a good amount of ink talking about tree houses. He writes:
[It] reminds me of my early career as neighborhood tree-house architect. I couldn’t catch a ground ball well, but I could climb a trunk and nail a board with style. One summer I directed a crew of five or six boys in the appropriation of “spare” lumber from nearby building projects. In the 1950s we did not consider it stealing—though certainly it was….Carpenters looked the other way as we carted off four-by-eight sheets of plywood and two-by-fours. Our pockets bulged with nails that we collected from the ground. We picked the largest oak in the state, we figured: a tree that must have been two hundred years old. We erected a four-story tree house with a sealed bottom floor that we entered through a trap door on the floor of the second story. Each ascending level became more elaborate and larger as the branches of the tree opened out. The top floor was a crow’s nest that could only be reached by leaving the third story and crouch-walking out ten fee on a thick branch, transferring to a higher branch that dipped down close to the first one, and then traversing that branch to the crow’s nest—forty fee above the ground. The tree house was serviced by ropes and pulleys and two baskets.
Louv went on to explain what he learned by building tree forts and he explained some of the causes for kids not building them today:
Kids buried in technology and TV and not accustomed to going outside to find something interesting to do.
Helicopter parents who either forbid their kids to go to the nearest woods, or copse, or whatever natural place is nearby, because it’s too “dangerous.” These parents also tend to have “safe” tree houses built for their kids, instead of letting them build them on their own.
Homeowners associations and other neighborhood groups that prohibit tree houses and tear them down when discovered.
I’ll let you read—and I encourage you to do so—the problems with nature deficit disorder as Louv outlines them in his book. But we—meaning my age that grew up in the late 1970s—certainly didn’t have TV as competition for the outdoors. Summer days were awash in soap operas that held no interest. After-school-TV had a couple fun re-runs like Gilligans Island and Bewitched that lasted an hour, then news or boring talk shows.
Our parents certainly didn’t helicopter. The rule was be home by dusk for dinner—your whereabouts are not needed. The only parental concern was, “You stepped on a nail again? How long ago was that last tetanus shot?” And older boys were the only threatening force to tear down our forts, just because they could. So we learned, and we fell, and we learned.
I remember a little kid—a boy—tagging along with us one day to help with construction. He, like me, scratched his way up the thicker trunks to the tree tops, with nary but a twig more to go to the sky. We clung to the tiny branches, mere pencil thick, and grinned to each other that we were the masters. Then he fell. I watched him bounce bough to bough to the bottom, visually akin to a pachinko ball on steel pegs, but softer, in muddied motion, with no cry or scream, and certainly no cracks. He tore through the willows near the ground and thudded the fecund leaves and came to rest. (If only he landed on a few Special Edition Penthouses).
“Are you OK?” I cried. He croaked, but not in the idiom of dying, but simply because that’s all the wind and throat spittle he could muster: “I’m fine.”
I myself learned one day that faulty construction leaves bruises. Although we had eight distinct levels in our tree, it was deemed by our hoard that a grand, lower entry platform nearer to the ground would be useful. Since only one big bough was available—and there being the obvious need for two to stretch wood across—we decided to put four-by-four “posts” into the ground and then stretch two-by-sixes out to them to fill the need for another side. Our idea of setting the posts was merely putting them a couple inches below the hard ground softened with buckets of water. Then we nailed the big boards on top. I volunteered to test their fortitude by tight-rope walking a board out to the post. I recall a couple steps before the post toppled, and I plunged 15 feet butt-first into the dirt. My sternum had hind sight to see the absurdity of the idea.
We learned. By doing in real life. Each hammer blow to the thumb. Each nail piercing the sole. Each slip of a muddy tennis shoe across bark. We learned. I’m not sure yet—because I haven’t progressed in the book any farther—if Louv appreciates what our kids nowadays learn from technology, particularly video games. The first video game I bought my son for our newly-acquired Wii system was Lego Indiana Jones. When my in-laws left town, we escaped to their pad to play the game for six hours straight. We made little progress. However, my son kept going the next couple weeks with little sessions—because we were strict on our allowance for his video game time—of an hour a day at the most. By the time I played with him again two weeks later, I realized he was a master. He had learned the language of the video game and knew how to interpret its guile—which, of course, draws you in all the more—and he can now pretty much quickly master any video game. With regards to mastering technology, some of it is learned, and some of it is “you.” I know that I started late in life on computers (having hacked manual typewriters and wrangled correction tape to get a journalism degree at the University of Texas). But with a few months of having the luxury to screw around on computers playing in graphic design at one job, I quickly became a master of “the language” as well. Once you learn the language of how technology communicates to you, you adapt quickly to the cues provided in most any type of technological device.
I envision my epigrapher, archaeologist friends, picking up Egyptian glyphs faster after they’ve already learned the rhythm of Mayan glyphs. So thus, if you put me in the pilot seat of a keyboard, I can usually read the signs to fix a problem or get something done.
Here’s the end. My contention is that it’s much easier to learn the symbolism of technology at any age, or at least through your twenties. It’s much harder to learn the tactile skills (and social collaboration) needed to actually build a tree house if you’re trying above age 15. And there’s just the plain physicality of it. You might wade into the equivalent of Twitter at any age, but scaling a massive tree at anything above age 25 will become increasingly challenging.
I’ll plan to write about my rail against technology in elementary schools at a later date, and its backlash from ignorant parents. But until then, I’ll nurse the nostalgia—shared by Louv—of the magic of tree houses, and the lost opportunity for our children who stare into the tree tops, without climbing them.