A Playhouse Made of Sticks

By Laura Augustine

A windstorm tore through a small neighourhood in southern Ontario. It’s 1994 or so, and as a young girl who had no concept of the yard work created by such a storm, I couldn’t wait to run down the street and see what the trees shed around our lawns and in the nearby park. 

It’s hard to remember now, being at an age when debris was novel and brought the potential for treasure. The right sticks put together could create the most intriguing spaces, the nearby park now was covered in tree-branch confetti; it was a wonderland. 

My sister and I and many kids from the neighbourhood played all day creating shelters and structures together. We worked together, unprompted and unplanned, and stood up just the right pieces to create all kinds of play spaces. Elaborate structures (in our own minds) emerged. By the time it was dark, my sister and I were dragging home branches to try and build a fort in our own yard. 

I can imagine my parents’ joy now, that their kids were doing the opposite of cleaning the yard, bringing more debris than we were originally allocated, but my parents saw that we had an interest emerging and leaned into it. 

In the 90’s, our house, the home my parents still live in now, was one of the older homes in a new and growing subdivision. My dad said to us, if we were willing to bring sticks all the way from the park, then why not check the scrap lumber pile next door? As new homes were being built, collections of scrap materials would be left near the road, as unwanted cut offs mounted as work progressed. 

We made trip after trip and learned quickly which pieces had more value and what I could and could not carry. My first ever permanent scar came from the nail I didn’t see on the end of a board that was too heavy for my 11-year-old frame. Then we discovered that lumber wasn’t all that was being left behind. There were shingles and flooring and other useful items too. Gold! I just couldn’t understand why it was all in a heap, to be thrown away. 

My dad, an engineer who grew up on a farm, saw that we were building quite the stockpile in the backyard, and began working on a design. Our playhouse grew considerably in scope from the original plan my sister and I had in mind, imagined from a pile of sticks. We had to make some new purchases as well, but we used as much material as we could find, and to us kids, that was part of the game. We ended up with an 8×12 shingled building with a gable roof, an operable skylight and a Dutch door. 

It was kid’s headquarters for years. 

From my childhood bedroom window, I saw my neighbourhood grow up with me. Each new house brought in new families, new kids, more friends, and bigger summertime neighbourhood-wide super soaker battles. It was at this point I had found my first love, Architecture. It was the force that could transform space, creating new places for more friendly faces, and I was hooked. From then on all I wanted to do was sketch and dream, drawing floor plans and measuring things every chance I had. 

Fast forward to 2005 and I’m a new graduate of Architectural Technology. I learned the mechanics of creating drawings and details, learning codes and calculations, and how to meet design requirements from made-up clients. I found a job as a designer in the energy industry, and quickly found out how similar and unimaginative buildings for this industry were. I learned about how wasteful cost-efficiency can be. 

My 11-year-old self now had the answer to why she found so much treasure in the trash. It’s cheaper to throw things away, than it is to sort, store or fix just about anything. The cheaper things get, and the more labour costs, the less it is worth our time to keep or care for the objects we have. Employers would rather write-off the breakage of material, than to pay the labour cost to take the extra steps to deal with it. 

I worked in this industry for many years, and looking back on it, I was lost. I ended up moving my career away from design and into information management, where I learned about the data and software that supports design. I found more money and lost my passion. I left my first love too far behind, and I didn’t know I was suffering. 

Then, I met the man of my dreams, and we built our relationship, then began our family. 

We left inner city Calgary and moved to an acreage here in Cedar to be with our extended family. The island changed me. Living on the land changed me. Our child changed me. Love changed me. 

It was as though I was given an entirely new lens through which to see the world. When you’re single and focused on a career, you’re thinking about what’s next, what’s more, what benefits me now? Becoming a parent made me see not only my life, but hers, and her children someday. Suddenly, the world felt far less certain, and I had to do something. 

We planted trees on our property. They say you plant pears for your heirs, and isn’t that the truth? With any luck, she’ll have three of those, and so much more. We planted over 30 fruit trees and even more fruit bushes, on an acre of land that was once a lawn. Every year the garden gives a little more, but it’s also given us a deep respect for established forests and gardens, they don’t just spring up overnight. 

I love living in Cedar. I adore our neighbours and the sense of community here. I love knowing the name of our mail carrier, and the people who run the neighbourhood hardware store. When I told friends in Nanaimo we were going to live here, it was met with mixed reactions. Along cedar road, is the RDN Landfill. While some days are better than others, this area never smells like roses. 

It’s as though there’s a bubble that surrounds this zone, and where the wind blows, it creates an invisible river of landfill smells in that direction. I call it the olfactory moat. 

While I don’t enjoy crossing this pungent boundary line, I find it to be an important reminder about the environmental challenges we face. 

In many cities and civilizations of the past, waste was a real problem, a visible poison and scourge to all. It ran in the streets and made people sick… and that was before mass manufacturing, single use plastics, fast fashion and 2-day delivery. Today, we have a different problem with waste. There’s more of it than ever before, we just know better ways to hide it. We should be grateful for the work those at the landfill do, and how they are willing to be posted to such a location to do the rest of us this service. But, with the wastefulness our society has so effectively masked, so efficiently removed and disposed of, it’s easy to continue to throw things away. It’s easier than donating, which usually requires you to clean, sort and deliver. It’s much easier to put our junk in a plastic bag on the right day of the week and watch it disappear like magic.

So, we do a lot of this in our society. We throw things away. 

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I love the idea of reclamation in nearly equal measure to architecture. My and my sister’s efforts in gathering sticks from the park, was the spark that gave life to the idea of a playhouse. Nature gave us its cast-off material in the form of branches, and it led us to find the cast-offs from capitalism, and with it, we created something that lasted, and gave us lifelong memories. 

Fast forward to 2018, and a significant windstorm blows through Vancouver Island and five large trees come down in the forest in our backyard. Instead of chopping it all into firewood, we painstakingly made lumber and used it to fix up buildings, create countertops, a bridge in our backyard, an arbor and a bar in the garden, and built drafting boards for me and my daughter. Nature gave, and we avoided some capitalism with those gifts. 

Then, capitalism dealt nature a devastating blow. 

It’s March 2021, and the most sickening sound is coming from behind our home. There is a giant logging machine, a feller-buncher, and it’s taking every tree right up to the property line. I’ve never had such an involuntary reaction. At once I both screamed and cried. I ran to see what was happening. I made calls. I was on the phone while I watched and heard tree after tree fall. I was on the phone almost constantly for days. Talking to the professionals who had issued permits, the ones who signed environmental plans, I even spoke with the mayor and called the media. I met people who were already aware of what was happening, and were at the nearby trail, already on it and doing their part. 

Five days later and dozens of acres of trees are gone. Daylight pours into our backyard and the trees left on our side seem to be now teeming with birds fighting for territory after so many have lost their homes. 

While we can be angry at those who profited, I also understand why this happened. It’s private land and zoned as rural resource. A group of people from out of province owns this large property. They have put their money into this land and logging the trees might very well have been the first real reward they’ve received for their investment. 

When people place their hard-earned resources into something, shouldn’t they be able to profit? Why else would they have purchased this land? The problem is that the reward had to come at a terrible cost to nature and to the neighbourhood. 

Just like the kids in the park of my childhood banded together and created something, this community has been coming together too. Thousands of signatures are on the petition our brave friends have started to Save Cable Bay Trail Area, and I have started a non-profit society called Canadians Locally Improving Communities Society, or the CLIC, to reclaim the land that was logged and create a park that helps to grow the trail we, our neighbours and our community love. 

I think of myself as a little girl and what she would have wanted me to do. With all the trees gone, now what? She’d want me to make friends with our neighbours and work together. She’d remind me that there’s more than enough stuff out there and to make spaces without the need to destroy first in order to create later. 

I’d see the playhouse that gave us so many great memories and remember that you can do a lot with what nature gives us freely, and that now’s the time to give back to nature. 

I want to be the person that I thought I could be when I was young, and that’s why we as a community need to keep working on this challenge. I’m calling on my neighbours to work together to make sure we have a park and to share for our kids to make memories. If you want a park too, you have a friend in me. We can do anything if we do it together. Come play. 

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