When people come to the woods for the first time and are introduced to forts, they are often puzzled.  They look around at what is usually a jumble of sticks, a pile of monkey brains, or a seemingly random assortment of rocks, and ask, “What makes this a fort?” I understand – they expect a classic walled and roofed shelter, a more rigorous fortification, a clear territorial boundary. Sometimes this happens. maxbook A group of kids, usually with one or two dedicated designer-builders, will gather materials and construct something that is clearly a shelter, attracting considerable attention and admiration from other children.  Usually they spend no time in it.  Once construction is deemed complete, the fort is often abandoned, having served its purpose.

A fort in the Jemicy woods, as I’ve heard old kids explain to a new, puzzled cohort many times in the fall, means a place to call your own.  It is less about the structure that you build, and more about the affordances that attract you to that particular spot: on the stream, overhanging spicebush branches, near the buckeye tree, by an old brick dump. A chosen spot is officially flagged (with a strip of cloth or surveyors tape) and remains “owned” until abandoned – which might mean ownership lasting a few weeks, or a few years. The flag might be the only sign that a spot is a fort.

bricksAffordances are interactive.  They invite action of a particular kind, which very often involves organizing, or arranging theseemingly disparate jumble of objects and people in the woods into meaningful order. For some kids, it is this act that creates a lasting bond to the spot that they have chosen as a fort.  Some middle school boys unearthed a pile of old bricks and set about paving an area beside their fort. They told me that they expect this to remain long after they have graduated, and pointed to a stone wall constructed years ago by some other inhabitants of that fort. “And probably if we have kids they’ll have dyslexia and come to Jemicy, too.  So they can keep working on this.”

A younger boy asked me the other day to come look at his fort in the pine woods, where the younger aftercare kids play. “I’ve just spent a day organizing my fort.”  His tone was excited and proud, but once we arrived, he sighed with the weariness of heavy responsibility. “It took so much work to get all of this cleaned up, because someone sold me his fort and everything in it, so I had to organize all of that too.” He gestured to a meticulously arranged assortment of glass, rocks, and other objects under a teepee-like stick and bamboo structure.pinewoodsartifacts “This is the living room, and this is my garage in the back here,” he pointed out, and then scowled as he studied the garage area. “This is still a mess.  I need to make room for more storage.”  He turned to look at another bamboo branch lying nearby.  “That… I guess I’m going to sell.” He studied the fort for a moment and then dashed off to consult with a friend about his furnishings.

What do kids like this do when they don’t have opportunities to organize their own spaces?

Monkeybrains, buckeyes, and turtleheads

A flurry of activity filled the woods at Jemicy this week.  During the first month of school, kids wshirtload of buckeyesould stare up at the bright green monkey brains hanging heavily from the lone Osage orange tree, waiting impatiently for them to fall.  Some middle school students using bamboo poles were able to knock a few buckeyes loose for instant wealth.  Finally, the weather cooled, the fruit ripened, and children squealed and scurried up and down the steep hill, filling their shirts with buckeyes and clutching monkey brains under their arms.

I stopped a few kids to photograph their bounty, and to video the trading of goods. Several older students were advertising “Monkey brain sales – today only!”holding the fruit high in the air as they ran down the trails.  A younger child stopped one of them to ask about the exchange rate. “One monkey brain for two buckeyes!” they answered.  After some consideration (“How old is this monkey brain?” “Fresh today!”), the trade was made, and the new monkey brain owner headed off to stash his prize in his fort.

christopherThis is the sort of transaction that I have been documenting in the Jemicy woods for many years.  The value of certain items waxes and wanes, often depending on relative abundance, but also on the experience and perspective of a particular year and group of kids.  Some years, monkey brains are hoarded jealously, heated arguments erupt over supposed thievery, and only when the fruit has become intolerably rotten is it dumped out of a fort.  This year, I overheard an older student dismissively say, “Why would anyone want monkey brains?  They just rot. You should just hunt for buckeyes.” Such value judgments also apply to collectibles such as garnets and quartzite, bamboo and other particular types of sticks. What merits attention and possession is not always apparent to me, but as soon as just one person finds value in something, that value seems to expand rapidly and inhere in every similar object throughout the woods, year after year.

While I was watching the kids go about their collecting aturtleheadnd trading, one girl paused beside me, and said, “Hey, there’s a flower!” I looked where she was pointing, just beside my foot, and gasped, “What?! White turtlehead?” As soon as the kids saw my reaction to the flower, a crowd gathered.  I showed them the signature white flowers, explained that this plant is rare here, that it is the host of the also rare Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, and that it was amazing the deer hadn’t already eaten this to the ground.”We should protect it with a flag,” one boy suggested, and so we attached a fort flag to a stick, and stuck that in the ground to guard the plant. Every day after that, a few kids would go to check on the plant.  They were alarmed when the flowers began to fall off, but were reassured when I showed them the developing seed capsules left on the plant. “Well, that’s good,” said a girl. “So there will be more next year, right?” And with those hopeful words, I could feel the burgeoning value of that single small plant.


TDSC_0036his week, my JE classes are looking for artifacts, to try and piece together the mystery of Jemicy’s history.  An artifact, I told them, is something made by hand.  Maybe a piece of pottery, a chunk of metal or glass, or a stone shaped for a purpose. Jemicy’s wooded hillside leading down to the smattfeatherstream is loaded with artifacts, having been backfilled with the construction refuse of prior tenants, including a dairy farm and another small school. We headed out with collecting bags to search the woods.  Immediately, old bricks and chunks of clay drainage pipe were discovered.  Pieces of thick, oddly shaped glass surfaced, and large slabs of concrete protruded from a half century’s collection of forest detritus.  It seemed impossible to account for all the pieces of human activity strewn around us. We spent an hour hunting, spreading out through the woods, and when we finally gathered to share our finds, “artifact” had expanded its meaning.  Here, among the scattered clay and glass shards, were spherical garnets and chunks of sparkling mica schist, jagged pieces of quartzite, a handful of scarlet spicebush berries, some wild apples, a black crow’s feather, and a red-tailed hawk’s red tail feather. In these woods so altered by humans, many of the most attractive artifacts are those that are not shaped by hands.  They are the collectible bits of evidence that other animals have been here, fruits announcing ripeness, and the gleaming, perfectly pocket-sized rocks that weather and time have revealed.

Itching to go

mon3It’s been a week, and I am still scratching the chigger bites that I got hiking around Soldiers Delight NEA last week.  Throughout the broiling summer, I would head out to this favorite spot clothed head to toe in tick and chigger-proof gear, spray my ankles and shoes with repellent, and jump into the shower as soon as I returned.  For the most part, I survived these outings unscathed, but I detested being out in the woods wearing chemical armor and didn’t feel like lingering to look around. So last week, I went out sleeveless in shorts and sandals.  The butterflies popped out of the bluestem, lit on boneset and ironweed, nectaring long enough for me to slowly approach through waist-high grasses.  I spent hours out there relishing the solitude, the slight breeze that picked up a lone monarch and carried it to a patch of bright purple blazing star.  The scent of joe-pye weed rose along a grassy stream where I crouched, lifting rocks one by one – here a young dusky salamander, there a tiny coiled water snake.

The chiggers accepted my invitation to dine.  Their bites, swaths of vivid red welts against my pale midsection, will slowly fade. Chiggers are invisible to me when I am out photographing butterflies. I am searching for the bold, the lovely, the striking, the remarkable, while being consumed by creatures tinier than a pinhead.  Also consumed by the need to know more, I have just learned that only the juveniles feast on me, and that at this stage their legs number 6 rather than 8. Their digestive enzymes dissolve my flesh while forming a feeding tube in it.  No animal remains in or on me – only the rankling itch.

My skin still holds the faint scars of last year’s chigger feasts, etched by the elders of this year’s youngsters. I am tattooed with reminders to pay attention, to keep watch for what I haven’t yet learned to see.