Richard Vanduyvendyk

Just as birds are genetically inclined to build nests, so kids are wired to make forts. We all have memories of throwing sheets over a table, cutting up big boxes, or making hideaways in the yard. Memories recalling the fort-building and Christmas trees of my childhood kindle a cherished memory and produces a must needed laugh.  The most significant and most memorable fort that I ever built was a Christmas tree fort in Randall’s yard.

Randall’s family was quite different than ours. His father was very artistic, with paintings and sculptures strewn all over the house, boxes of grapes on the table ready to be pressed into wine, and fishnets adorned with dried starfish and shells. Randall’s mother always seemed to be nursing fledgling birds long before there were places to bring orphaned wildlife. They had a large outdoor cage with an owl and at one point even had a coyote. We used to catch gophers to feed the owl before she was eventually released. I accidentally clobbered Randall when I threw the baseball bat after hitting the ball in grade one. My mother baked a cake, found out where he lived, and sent me off to make a peace offering. We became good friends.

After Christmas, when we were seven or eight, Randall and I noticed that the back alleys were full of discarded Christmas trees. After a previous Christmas, Boomer (a true baby-boomer who lived nearby) and I started dragging trees into his yard. Much to Boomer’s chagrin, his mother thought the fort would be better suited for my yard, which delighted me to no end. Then my father came home. For some reason, he wasn’t very keen on the scale of our construction project. Our grandiose plans to build the Taj Mahal got scaled down considerably into something resembling a tiny house. We returned the carcasses of most Christmas trees to the alleys where other urchin vultures devoured them and carted their remains to their lairs.

Randall’s parents were more liberal about or unaware of their children’s activities. After breakfast, children were free to roam the landscape, burdened only with their imaginations. We spent days scouring the land looking for discarded trees until we had hundreds of the forlorn trees piled up in his yard. We tied many of the trees together with number 9 binder twine, threw planks down so we could sit or lie down on the snow, and built several rooms, one equipped with snacks and comic books. We had piles of snowballs at the ready if attacked by the Russians or kids from hostile tribes.

Usually, we all enjoy the colours of the trees in fall. Exchristmas trees (Xmas trees?), deprived of their roots, start to turn crimson red and yellow ochre in the spring. The burning barrel had fodder well into July to keep the home fires burning. You could still see pine needles in the grass for years, nestled between the timothy grass and dandelions. Like people who have skydiving on their bucket lists or those who have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, our instincts to build Christmas tree forts waned and then became just a distant memory.

As a teacher and a carpenter, I consider fort-building a universal drive in all children; such a fun activity is perfect for homeschoolers. It builds creativity, promotes teamwork, encourages critical thinking, and gives the parent a badly needed break from having the kids underfoot all day. I suspect this last reason may engage the casual reader. I’m still a kid when it comes to building forts. Like Martin Luther King, I have a dream. I have a vision of collecting all the discarded Christmas trees in Almonte and creating a forest around our fire pit by planting them in the snow. Then I’ll set up the spare record player in the barn and listen to the music wafting through the crisp cold air. In these pandemic times, we are not allowing even the grandchildren into our house. The best we can do is meet outside around the fire. The forest of Christmas trees will hold back the wind, and decorated with lights, would create an enchanted space, a shelter from the storm, where we could experience the warmth of a fire and friendship. In the spring, when all the trees die into full colour, and before the snow all melts, keeping the fire safe, we could have the most splendid bonfire of them all!

I encourage you and your kids to build your own Christmas tree forts or forests.

You probably won’t be able to build a fire pit if you live in town. Portable heaters? Check the regulations first. I know you can plant a bunch of Christmas trees (when we get snow) to act as a sheltered spot to sit and meet outdoors. It’s still legal to add a string of lights for evening visits. If you have none of these little elves, you can build it for yourselves and your neighbours. They’ll be trees aplenty in a week or two. There is a reason why I’m not too fond of artificial trees. Plastic and wire make a toxic mess when burned at a fire pit. Happy fort building! Why let the warmth of Christmas cool down before spring while we have all these free trees around. Invite us over. We’ll bring our lawn chairs and a thermos of hot chocolate. You supply the comic books, snacks, and yarns.