Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ruins of Childhood

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.

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.

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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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, tree houses are always fun to study. I was visiting av Late Neolithic stone cist some days ago, but I actually spent more time studying the tree house next to the stone cist.

Gunnar Creutz

23 September, 2006 22:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good God Gunnar, what will it be of you... I thought you were an archaeologist! :-)

24 September, 2006 21:09  
Blogger Molle said...

Vilken makalöst vacker betraktelse, Martin. Som när man åker tåg i mörker och råkar få en sekundsnabb skymt in i ett hus som ligger utmed järnvägen: nån annans tillvaro.

25 September, 2006 12:17  

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