Woods work

December arrived gray, wet, and chilly this year.  When the sun finally broke through today, the wind whipped through the woods and sent the last of the leaves flying. Due to the rain and an extended Thanksgiving break, the kids had not visited their forts for some time.  There was much talk of repairs needed, of missing valuables, and of new ventures.

Someone came running to tell me exciting news: “We have an employee of the month!”  The lucky child was chosen, I was informed, by virtue of always wearing a big smile, and was honored with the gift of a special curved stick. Meanwhile, at the far end of the woods, two 3rd graders worked with a hockey stick and a homemade sickle to cut back a multiflora rose bush that was invading the play area. New welcome signs were hammered together, decorated, and displayed. Two gardeners dug and planted a small plot of soybeans that had been part of a holiday display, hoping for edamame in the spring.

All this, plus it was Thursday Trashday, one of our very favorite days of the week. I am already missing the Jemicy woods.



The stream at Jemicy has no official name.  Sometimes after a dry summer, it is barely a stream at all – just a rocky, damp ditch winding from a sporadic seep at the northern edge of the school’s property and under a broken-down corrugated fence at the southern end.  At some point in the land’s history, well before the original farmland was developed here, the stream must have been a far more powerful force to carve out the deep, narrow valley that now forms the recess play area.  You can still get a sense of this force after a heavy rain, when the banks are scoured clean, the grasses in the narrow floodplain are flattened, and debris gets deposited in unexpected spots.

boysstreamBut most of the time these days, the stream is a benign and beguiling place, its waters an attraction unlike any other. Right now, the stream is strewn with fallen leaves, the water glimmering in the small spaces between them. Many animals are still active in the extended warm spell we’re having.  Every day during recess, I find two new middle school students hanging over a log across the stream, searching for crayfish. Downstream, another group of boys dares each other to vault across the water with a long bamboo pole; at least one always manages to land squarely in the mud to the cheers of his friends. When I introduce children to the woods, we go first to the stream, where I show them that they can orient themselves from its course to all other places.woods3

Disputes over water rights happen here too.  Children with forts downstream frequently accuse those upstream of blocking the flow of water, or of contaminating it with mud.  There is no official policy as to what can or can’t happen in the stream, but when  activities seem to be having a detrimental impact on the ecosystem, they are curtailed.  The discovery of clay deposits after a spring flood scoured a bank launched a frenzy of digging and the creation of a pottery business.6996_394811800596324_1086335970_n  This had to be closed when the fragile bank collapsed.  Just this week, I informed a group of middle school boys that the fort they had held for several years in the middle of the stream would be designated a recovery zone in a few weeks. This came as little surprise to most of them, as they had been asked numerous times over the past year to scale back their dam-building and other activities. “But why?  We’ve been working here since we were 6 years old!  Can’t you please let us stay?” they begged.  I pointed out that when they were six, their activities had little impact, and that with each passing year, they had managed to alter the landscape and stream ecosystem more significantly. It was time for them to acknowledge this and move to a location that was less sensitive to disruption – away from the stream. One tried to argue that they needed water “to do anything fun,” but one of his friends nodded. “No, there’s a lot more things that need that water more than we do.”

The next day at recess, the boys were gone from the fort.  I thought perhaps they had abandoned the woods altogether, but at the lunch bell, as I was leaving the woods, I found them in a new location near the top of the hill.  It was an old fort that had been worked on and left last year, a jumble of old concrete foundation pieces, gravel, and a few perimeter trees.  I complimented the boys on their new location, and pointed out a deep gully worn through the middle of their territory. “Looks like you may have water after all,” I said, and explained that this ditch was an erosion problem caused by storm water runoff from the middle school wing and had never been adequately managed.

“So, it would be a good thing if we tried to fill it in!  Or caught the water to make a pool in our fort!  Or piped it into an irrigation system!”  They headed off to lunch talking excitedly about their plans.

New life for the lifeline?


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.