On Driftwood Fort Building

My husky once brought me sticks and logs to help build driftwood forts. After she died, I spread her ashes inside a fort I built for her. Fort Sonny, I called it. It washed away with the next high tide. Life is like that, though.

I had a first date building a driftwood fort. I made a five-star barbecued salmon dinner inside a fort. I once sat in a fort with meth addict and watched her drink a beer and scratch scars on her face. I once built a fort with the most beguiling woman I’ve ever met. We were drinking wine and taking photos and I thought she was the one who would merge with me on the Oregon Coast and make a valiant stand against conformity. She wasn’t the one, that was my fault, but she was a damn good builder, with those great arms of hers. I once thought I would get married inside a huge fort constructed beforehand by the wedding party. Then we’d burn it down.

With several friends, I built the biggest driftwood fort in Oregon history not far from Lost Creek on the Central Oregon Coast. It lasted two days before authorities tore it down. They simply couldn’t grasp its audacity and magnificence and I think it struck fear in them. A rich beachfront property owner once destroyed a favorite fort of mine with his accursed placement of riprap to safeguard his mansion. He spent one week a year in that mansion. I met his wife near the ruins a few days after the destruction and she’ll never forget that meeting, I assure you.

About building: relish the labor. Collaborate. Support one another. Talk. Invent. Try out ideas. Invite ideas. Amend them. Discard what doesn’t fit. Embrace what does. Seize the metaphor you are fashioning with your own two hands. Erect spars and stanchions. Hoist, maneuver and interlock crooked wood into shelter, art, studios, secret passages; make pure whimsy or precise architecture that enchants fellow beachcombers. Watch from afar as they crawl inside the structures and return to childhood. Watch them take naps, too. It always happens. Turn detritus into delight, flotsam into fun. Add a little cairn here and there for extra measure. Let everything go with the old sound of the ocean roaring in the background. Relaxation will infiltrate every atom of your existence. Forage for wood! Fetch branches and finagle logs. Fortify your life and find the fort within. Forswear the fiendish foes that finagle frantic fatigue from your soul. Fight the fastidious factory mentality with the fulminations of facetiousness that enable you to forget the furor. Find the best F word in the fort lexicon and free it to fly like a falcon and float on forever. Fort fairies will dance and fort minstrels will sing. Frolic with fort scout dogs. Realize the driftwood fort you will build is unique and belongs to no one except all of us and the eternal cycle of nature. It will not last—that is its simple beauty and profundity.

Several years ago, I built 17 driftwood forts on Ona Beach with 60 sixth graders. They were an astonishing collection to say the least. The most intriguing one was constructed by a group of three girls. It had no walls, just a framed entrance with two poles that balanced upright against one another. When I asked them about this curious design, they didn’t have an answer. Perhaps their fort was built on a purely subconscious adolescent desire to create or find a portal to a different dimension. I walked through the entrance and instantly felt a good vibration. I told the girls and they merely nodded. They already knew.

I once built a super fort at Fort Stevens State Park and left behind a little waterproof notebook and pen encased inside a freezer bag. I called this notebook the Fort Registry. The first page contained these directions: “Please leave your name and your story in building or enjoying this fort.”

Over the next few weeks, I checked the registry for comments. Here’s what was written:

  • We came and found shelter in this driftwood forts. The view spectacular, provisions lacking.
  • First day on the Oregon Coast Trail. Started today at south jetty. Headed to Florence or beyond. Saw this fort and had to stop. Love it! A great place to take a rest and smoke break.
  • Me and my nine-year-old girl found good shelter in this finely built fort. It proved to be a great resting stop on our journey. Wish we could have stayed longer but nightfall is coming and we need supplies from town.
  • Help me! I’m on the worst date of my life!
  • Cool spot. Me and my girl sat here before it rained and drunk (sic) a beer here.
  • Beautiful fort. The ocean air warms my face and the breeze forces salt air into my throat—pushing away fear and worry. In this sum and shade I trust myself and enjoy the moment. Hi! We were following animal tracks and stumbled upon this fort. It’s very nice.

Building driftwood forts during my ordeal perhaps kept me from committing suicide. It certainly kept the writing alive in my mind and positive energy flowing through my body.

Consider this: virtually all driftwood forts are initiated by adults. Why?

I led 27 field trips with Oregon Coast students to build driftwood forts. That’s got to be some kind of record. I’ll never forget teaching a new student from Mexico how to build a fort. He came alive. He was trying to drag logs twice his size. He fell down. He laughed. He was born into Oregon that very moment. We went inside his fort and I ordered pizza for his classmates with my phone. The pizza delivery dude brought them right to the fort!

I’ve built forts in snow, sleet, rain, wind, fog, sunshine, at morning, noon, midnight, sober, drunk, alone, with people. I’ve built forts in the presence of eagles, ospreys, falcons, murres, coyotes, raccoons, gulls, sanderlings, pelicans, sandpipers, ravens, crows, bumblebees, hummingbirds, seals, sea lions, whales and dolphins. I build in collaboration with my bucktoothed friends, the beavers, Oregon’s official state animal, who feast upon willows, alders and cedars in the upper watersheds and let the wood loose into creeks and rivers, where it floats and floats out to the ocean and then comes to rest, gnarled, chewed and stripped, on a beach. Clearcuts help furnish the construction materials, too, the absolutely only beautiful benefit to clearcuts.

I once built seven forts in seven days and it was good. I once built a fort at the same time the incoming tide was simultaneously destroying it. I loved that juxtaposition. Heavy. By the way, that is the only time I have ever seen a fort collapse. They all collapse eventually, but one seems to witness it. Interesting. There is a lesson in that.

I would estimate I’ve built 92-percent of the forts by myself (here, I’m not counting the dogs). I have never seen another person building a fort with the exception of people I’ve brought along to build them. I’ve built forts from Hammond to Brookings. It typically takes me a half hour to get a fort going. I never have plan when I begin building one. Something takes over. I would say I complete one out every two forts I start in a single time period but often return to a fort for days or weeks and keep adding to it. A fort is never completed. I will say that corral forts are probably my favorite design because you can easily nap, make out, eat or write inside them and take refuge from the wind.

I published a book about driftwood forts by an inspiring Oregon artist and author. The book sold out in less than a year. It’s a cult tome now. We started an organization called The Driftwood Forts Association. It’s easy to join. Go build. I helped oversee the publication of what surely must have been the only publication ever produced by high school students on the practicalities and metaphysics of building driftwood forts. I wonder if any of them remember that rainy afternoon or have built a fort since then.

What is it about these driftwood forts? Why do I evangelize them so? Why I am writing 2100 words on the subject this morning when I should be trying to write something that will bring in income? I have my various theories: the perfect blend of spirituality, silence, getting off your ass, making art, making mystery, building shelter, exercising, meditating, entertaining and enlightening one’s self and others, building something anonymous and evanescent. They will always go away and in that they last forever. People have scoffed at my passion for fort building. That doesn’t bother me at all because I know how the activity instills goodness in my heart and puts smiles on faces of people I will never meet. What’s wrong with leaving something fun and enchanting behind for others to encounter at the beach? That seems to me a fine metaphor for how to live. It is a completely tactile metaphor as well.

It never costs a cent in Oregon to build a driftwood fort on an ocean beach and never will.

There really are no rules to building forts. I just like using only what it is found on the beach and not bringing tools. Tools clutter the mind. The idea is to use your hands. I also never steal wood from another fort to create my own. I like decorating forts with kelp, shotgun shells, clam shells, skeletons, beer cans, bottles, rope, cigarette lighters, children’s toys, whatever washes ashore and strikes my fancy. I once wrapped a fort with the brown film of a cassette tape. I vaguely recall it was Bob Seger or Paula Abdul.

I was never able to interest a national magazine about driftwood forts and I tried a dozen times, including Architectural Digest. The editors probably thought my queries childish and photographs strange. Imagine them reading those queries in glass towers overlooking cars and concrete inhabited by creatures utterly disconnected from the natural world. If I could lead the Oregon legislature in a fort building session it would change the fortune of this state. I always wanted one of my principals to hold a faculty meeting at the beach where we would build forts instead of looking at screens and papers. My requests were never taken seriously.

And finally, a remembrance of my last moment as a high school teacher: It didn’t happen in a classroom. It was on a beach, Clatsop Spit it used to be called, near the South Jetty. Forty-two students and I were building eight or nine forts on the first day of June. Almost two years later, one of them is miraculously still standing, high up in the dunes, an outpost with a tremendous field of fire. It might be on the only driftwood fort in the history of Oregon Coast driftwood forts that never collapses.

We christened ourselves the Oregon Driftwood Brigade. I recall not teaching particularly well that afternoon, stewing needlessly over a few recalcitrant students, but nevertheless, I felt that I had inculcated the tradition. Perhaps they will continue to build and teach their children to build. It’s been that way in Oregon for a long time. My work in this field is done. It was a good run and I got to run with some incredible young people. The last thing I ever did as a teacher was build driftwood forts. Is there a word for that kind of ending? I can’t think of one, but it might come to me when I build my next fort.

There I was running around, commanding the brigade with shouts and driftwood riding crop, and offshore, an invisible tsunami of opaque law and order was about to rise up from the gray depths, move inland with the speed of social media, and drown me. It did. I never saw it coming. I had my back to the ocean building forts, but it wouldn’t have mattered had I been facing my dearest friend.

I did drown that day, but began breathing later, when I started building driftwood forts again, this time as a physical and mystical act of repurposing and a sweaty reminder that nothing last forever.

Forts have moved to another realm for me now. I gladly went. I’ll go build one in the snow as soon as I finish this.