Tales from the Pine Tree Forest

This essay shared first prize in the Growlife Medical Essay competition in 2022.

We should have all become architects and engineers. The amount of time we spent before school, during Little Lunch, and the proportionately named Big Lunch, in the pine tree forest constructing cubby houses—our career paths should have been laid out for us.

Structural integrity, something we only knew of instinctively at the time, was of great importance in the creation of a commendable cubby house. We would scour the floor of the forest looking for the best branches to support our latest project. However, upon reflection the term ‘forest’ seems a tad hyperbolic, there may have only been a few dozen pine trees. Everything was bigger back then; it’s all much smaller now. Once the foundation was set we’d begin the hunt for smaller branches, twigs, and pine needles for the walls and roof. The spiky, brown needles carpeted the ground, poking at bare feet or crackling under soles.

The best place to build a cubby house in the pine forest—the whole school in fact—was in the far south-west corner. I can neither confirm nor deny that the fact it was not visible from the teacher’s office had anything to do with the choice of location—surely that thought never crossed our innocent minds. The landmarks in the corner were integrated into the cubby house with great craftsmanship and skill, reminiscent of the early works of Frank Gehry and I. M. Pei. The right angle of the fence provided a stable frame; the wire in the fence served as a window to see who was coming down the hill from Taste Buddies where we all spent our pocket money on sweets on the way home. The grey, hollowed-out stump of a tree marked the boundary of the cubby house and also doubled as a place to hide. Lowering yourself down into the stump was relatively easy—getting out, not so much.

I don’t recall how the obsession with building cubby houses came about. It must have been connected to the innate compulsion to prevent the flow of the stream near the bike track by constructing dams of pebble and stone. King Cnut had nothing on us.

Around the same time each year it grew too cold to spend what seemed like hours huddled together in our woody domicile, and so began the trek back to underneath the school.

The number of fads and phases we went through during our time at St Bernard’s would stump any seasoned cultural anthropologist. There was the great elastics craze—we’d get to school ridiculously early in the morning and jump over stretched elastic bands near the drinking fountains under the main building—which was then the main building. We’d chant chants that I can’t recall ever being taught, we just knew them instinctively, like grown-ups did with Beatles’ lyrics.

Handball was a regular favourite, so was stealing chalk and writing our names in the wooden beams above our heads. Chalk had permanence back then. If we had known about uprisings and coup d’états I’m sure there would have been one against the establishment in the year that Bedlam was banned. I don’t remember how it was played or why it was banned (though I’m quite sure the former was in direct correlation to the latter), but I do remember the older kids being upset about it at the time.

Much like The Great Migration of black wildebeest across the Serengeti, something in the air triggered our return to the pine forest. New branches had fallen and new building techniques had been refined. Each cubby house would be bigger, better than the last. Build, knock it down, build again.

Sadly, the prophetic lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” were made manifest—they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. I’m thankful it wasn’t during my time; change happens during other peoples’ childhoods. The pine forest is gone and the buildings have multiplied. Since I left St Bernard’s one thought has remained constant, I always wonder if I could still walk underneath that building without bumping my head on the beams like the grown-ups did. I must give that a try even if I’m not really a grown-up yet.