I think that each of us can recall a favorite "secret" place from our early childhood that called to our imaginations. Even if were denied access to natural settings, we created hide-outs and "forts" by rearranging the pillows from a sofa or making "tents" with blankets.
Here is a brief recollection about a favorite spot of mine when I was growing up in the Hudson Valley:
My First Hide-Out
It was just a small tangle of privet-like shrubs in the undeveloped lot between our house and our next-door neighbors - remembering it today; I’d guess it was about fifteen to twenty feet wide and maybe three times as long. I don’t know who or what had first made the tunnel-like path that cut through the middle of the thicket, but I can remember spending a lot of time in there- it was my first secret “fort.”
The path was narrow, and had just enough headroom for a five or six year old. During the summer, dappled sunlight would fall between the leaves and stems illuminating little patches of open ground on either side of the path that I called rooms. I claimed one of the rooms at the far end of the tunnel for myself, the throne room, – and assigned lesser alcoves to my brother, sister, and any of our playmates privy to the password of the day.
My hideout doubled as a treasury and my room was often ornamented with the white quartz pebbles I collected from our gravel driveway, bird feathers, or maybe even a rare find like a turtle’s shell. And, of course, no fort is complete without an armory and I tried to keep a stockpile of the “spears” I made from goldenrod stalks handy (just in case of invasion.)
Sometimes I would slip into the fort by myself, checking twice to be sure that no one could see me, and spend quiet moments letting my imagination fill the space with companions from other times and places. I recall smugly enjoying my invisibility yet also being reassured by the proximity of home and provisions in the form of snacks. I remember there were a few times that I resisted the temptation to answer my Mom when she opened the back door to call for me lest I give away the location of my hiding place. After I heard the door shut, I would sneak out through the back of the tunnel and casually wander into the house to see what was for lunch.
On one occasion Mom questioned me about the fort, apparently I had not been as stealthy as I imagined, and asked me if there was any poison ivy in there. She was incredibly sensitive to poison ivy and would often catch it from my clothing when she did our laundry. Found out, I had to lead her into the fort to reassure her that it was ivy free. I remember proudly showing her my throne room; I can only imagine what she was thought about my little kingdom in the weeds.
Near the back entrance of the tunnel, a stand of Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed, and meadow grasses grew every summer. I remember eavesdropping on the bees and insects as they worked over the flowers and peeking out at the butterflies that used to visit. I would sometimes find a wild strawberry plant tucked away under the grasses and would savor the innocent sweetness of the fruit. Occasionally, the buzz of the nearby meadow would lull me to sleep. I would wake, curled up like a ball in my room, surprised, perhaps, to find myself alone, but comforted by the coziness of the space and the collection of toys and treasures I had gathered around me.
During the winter, when the shrubs were leafless and snow was on the ground, the outlines of the pathway and rooms were exposed to prying eyes. However, I was still drawn to the space, and bundled up in my snow suit; I would visit my room to enjoy the comparative snugness of the thicket and all of the little tracks through the snow.
As I grew older, I sought out more distant corners of the woods as preferred destinations for exploration and solitude, but I have always cherished my first hideout. During my freshman year of high school, new neighbors declared the thicket a snake-sheltering hazard and cut the shrubs to the ground. I held my tongue as they busily “improved the neighborhood,” afraid that I would appear childish if I tried to banish them from my throne room.