Ruins of Childhood

The other day I found and photographed another tree house ruin. I decided to re-post the following piece from September 2006 and make these things a steady presence on Aard, with a category tag of their own.


If you’ve ever taken a walk in the woods near a housing area, you’ve seen them: modern archaeological sites, full of artefacts and building debris, abandoned to the elements in a way that is unusual in the well-organised industrialised world. They’re settlement sites of a particular subculture with its own rules and customs, thriving on the fringes of mainstream society. I’m referring to abandoned treehouses.

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At these sites you’ll see rotting boards and beams hanging from clumsily bent nails on a group of trees, gradually collapsing to the ground. Perhaps some old shag pile carpet decomposing on the forest floor. The woods strewn with an enigmatic collection of objects, haphazardly selected, mostly old household gear. When visiting these sites, I always have the feeling that the inhabitants didn’t choose the objects they brought there: they took whatever they were given by someone more affluent and powerful than them. By grownups, in fact.

My eight-year-old son recently told me of a nearby ground-level clubhouse (Sw. koja) he had visited. It has an actual working typewriter. Old useless tech given to the kids, doesn’t even need electricity. I wonder what future archaeologists will think when they find the remains of a 1970s Selectric in that context.

These sites and their formation processes reflect children’s psychological characteristics. Kids have little sense of order, short memories and strange rationality. They also have no idea that childhood is brief and transient. They will happily fill their treehouses with junk without any thought that they might one day stop coming there. When adolescence strikes and the hormones get going, old childish haunts like these suddenly become the last places they want to visit. So everything is left wherever it dropped the last time someone came to play in the house.

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Grownups hardly ever leave their sites that way: we keep any useful stuff and tidy up the place before we leave. Often we will even tear the house down and bring the building materials to our next place of habitation. The grownup type of site most similar to abandoned treehouses is the homeless substance-abuser camp, which is also inhabited by people with thinking impairments. Such sites may be abruptly abandoned when their inhabitants die of overdoses, get thrown into jail or find someone with an apartment who’s willing to take them in.

And the treehouse sites are hardly ever cleaned up. In fact, the children’s parents often have only a vague notion of where the treehouse is. They may help to build it, but they don’t feel responsible for it. It’s out in the woods where only children and mushroom pickers see it: out of sight and out of mind. The mess there would never be tolerated in the back yard, just as most Westerners of today feel really uncomfortable in the stench and litter of Third World villages.

So the next time you come upon an abandoned treehouse site, you might give some thought to the fact that you’re standing in the ruins of someone’s childhood. The children who used the site no longer exist: they’re grownups now, living somewhere else, disposing more rationally of their belongings. And some of them very probably have kids of their own now who are wheedling them to buy a few boards and a box of long nails, a rope ladder and some tarred roofing cardboard. And daddy — can I please have your old drum kit / dough mixer / rollerskates? I’ll take them out of your sight.

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16 thoughts on “Ruins of Childhood

  1. All of the ruins of my childhood are in my mind. Every site that I frequented and played at as a child has disappeared or been changed so radically that no remnant of the physical place remains as I knew it. It’s like a language on the verge of being lost: When I die every vestige will be gone, along with the child and the man he became.

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  2. Sometimes the ruins are those of a parent’s dreams. Next door to my house is a partially built treehouse. Made of redwood and non-rusting bolts, it looks as new as when it was begun nearly 4 years ago. The father of two small boys began this treehouse, but a very hard winter caused a backyard tree to fall near to it and the mom not only put the kibosh on letting her boys play in a space so potentially dangerous, but made leaving the semi-rural neighborhood entirely her top priority. I can’t help but feel sorry for both the dad who started the treehouse and his boys, none of whom will ever get to play in it.

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  3. I have seen a grownup place that’s kind of like that. It’s the Nevada Test Site, where the US nuclear arsenal was (may someday again be) tested. After each test, much of the stuff that remains is left in place. There’s all these craters all over the place with all sorts of cables and wires coming out of them, going nowhere. Those mock houses and bridges and things that were blown up back in the 50s, during the above ground tests? Whatever was left standing is still there. They just leave it an move on to the next spot.

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  4. I have a house close to a famous birdlake. There is a high birdwatchtower. I use to climb up, bring with me a bottle of hot chocolate and some sandvishes. On top of the tower is a small room with glasswindows and outside is a balcony.
    I love to sit on the small balcony, feeling like a little girl on top of my towerhouse, watching the lake deep under, eat my sandwishes and listen to Burial (track nr 8) in my mp3 player. Perfectly happy!!

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  5. Thanks for this post … recently my dad tore down a fort/cabin/rickety-but-impressive structure that I had built out in the woods when I was a kid, and reading this brought back a lot of memories.

    I wonder how much decomposing pr0n future archaeologists will find in abandoned treehouses.

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  6. My husband built an impressive treehouse in our side yard, in the crotch of three adjoined redwoods. I never know what I’ll find out there. The kids like to use it as a sort of magical apothecary– they make up potions out of colored water poured into all the interesting old bottles they can find, and they gather herbs and grass and interesting seed pods and put them into receptacles they have snuck out of the kitchen. I found my mortar and pestle out there one time. I don’t know when this treehouse will finally be left behind, but I know I will be sad when it happens.

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  7. You might want to check out our blog on kid hut expeditions, a bit more tongue-in-cheek, but it actually made by an anthropologist and an architect. We’ve adopted the prose style of Hiram Bingham’s publications and just got the blog started after having “documented” kid huts in a particular area of Bergen since 2002.

    http://www.kidhut.blogspot.com

    Oh, a note: the majority of the abandoned sites we’ve come across contain hardly any artefacts at all, suggesting that these children have indeed taken the trouble to return the things valuable to them. Or, it may suggest that there have never been any artefacts at these particular sites…

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  8. These things are part of the reason I always disliked growing up in the city. Sure there are parks and things but it’s never the same as something you built yourself and don’t have to share with just any other person (not to mention the constant paranoia and hovering of my parents due to crime and whatnot).

    I’d be jealous, going down to visit my friends who lived just outside the city in the farming area surrounding it. Their groves of trees with the tree-house or fort to hide in away from the adults. Now all my grandiose plans for a tree-house of my very own are packed away in a box of my old drawings and things while I try to move on with college.

    I really do hate the city sometimes.

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