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My Childhood up a Tree

by Lesley Evans Ogden

This week we bring you another story from our Plant Love Stories Live event held recently at North American Congress on Conservation Biology in Toronto.

This week's story is by Lesley Evans Ogden. You can hear her story using the video link below A transcript of her story is available below:

Growing up in rural Ontario just north of Kingston, my family lived next door to a farm. The farmers were a friendly and generous family and my brother and I were given free range to play and explore the pastures and patches of woodlands where their cows grazed. From our house, we’d hop over a fence, walk past a muddy pond, and climb to the top of the hill beside the barnyard. Along that cow path past the fish fossils in the limestone rock, was a copse of cedar trees with branches so evenly distributed and parallel to the ground that they cried out for climbing and exploration. As luck would have it, four mature cedar trees were growing in an almost perfect square, so that to us, placing a platform between them seemed obvious. So my younger brother and I built a tree fort. And for many summers there was nothing I wanted to do more than spend every possible moment running off to the tree fort -- a continual work in progress.

Not far away from the beginnings of our tree fort was a pile of the farmer’s discarded scrap wood. No one seemed to mind us using it. So we helped ourselves. In the old planks of barnboard, we would hammer out the rusty nails and bring our own fresh ones, plus hammers and a hand saw – all tools that we’d swipe from our parents’ garage.

Over a period of years, with much banging of nails, scouring of the scrap pile for good planks, our fort went from a simple platform to a three-story structure. It was a place of freedom and possibility. Kids only. No adults around. At our treefort, we were pirates, and spies, and explorers, knights, and warriors. We’d take snacks and spend whole days there, heading home only when we were hungry.

There was a house on the other side of the field where some other children lived. I recall feeling outraged when we discovered these kids were stealing “our” wood and making their own fort concealed inside a patch of thorn trees. I guess it never occurred to us that the scrap wood pile was a shared resource – and not ours at all. Thinking back, I suppose it was my first introduction to the tragedy of the commons.

Long before frequent-flier or loyalty points were a thing, I founded our tree fort club. My brother and any visiting friends were automatic members, and given a membership card. Upon each visit and contribution to work on the tree fort, I would affix a tiny sticker to their bingo like card. I recall spending hours cutting out and making tiny TFC -tree fort club stamps, putting glue on the back that I would then lick to attach to the membership cards. That points program didn't last long, mostly because it was a lot of work to award points mainly to myself!

The tree fort was our place of refuge and independence from the adults that otherwise planned our lives. One afternoon on a hot summer day -- I must have been 9 or 10, and my brother 7 or 8 – we got into a nasty argument at home, in our house. To break up the fight, and as punishment for our bad behaviour, my mother sent us both to our rooms. The thought of being forced to spend time indoors, let alone in the confines of my room, was very unappealing in the summertime. My bedroom was on the first floor, about six or seven feet above the ground. So it occurred to me that if I just took the screen off my window, I probably safely jump out, and run off to the tree fort without my mother even knowing I was gone. So out I went. And, so did my brother, from the room next door. Off we went, complicit in our secret avoidance of punishment. At some point my mother must've discovered we weren’t inside our rooms, but I don’t remember her ever mentioning it. The tree fort was a place where arguments were forgotten, replaced by collaboration and teamwork.

My parents still live in that same house, next door to the farm. On the crest of the hill, most of that grove is trees is now gone. But a big part of my childhood was rooted in those four trees and their perfectly aligned branches. Upon reflection, so many life lessons were learned from years of gradual work there, and climbing up and down those trees. Lessons like, don’t waste things, don’t take more than you need, don’t hammer your thumb, watch out for rusty nails, don’t put weight on thin branches, and you achieve more by working together. Trees are valuable as givers of oxygen, habitats, and materials. But to me they’ll always be remembered as fuel for the imagination.

Lesley Evans Ogden is a freelance journalist based just outside Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Check out her website here.


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