Monday, October 18, 2021

Building Dens: Practicing For Life As Nomads



Foxes dig, steal, or inherit their dens. I've always thought of fox dens as cozy homes where fox families live, but in reality, very little "living" actually happens inside of them. They are primarily intended for the raising of pups and occasionally for storing food or dodging dangers. It's not uncommon for certain types of foxes of have several dens in their range, moving from one to another as circumstances dictate. They rarely sleep in their dens.

Bird nest, likewise, are not like "homes" as we humans think of them either. And while some birds do return to their former nests to lay eggs and raise hatchlings, most build a new nest for each clutch.

This concept of a single, stable home as a place to eat, sleep, eliminate, recreate, and fornicate is, if not uniquely human, something that sets our species apart. Most other species are more nomadic, even if they spend their lives in a relatively small territory. Indeed, we Homo sapiens were also largely nomadic for the vast expanse of our existence, moving like other animals from den to den, usually within a certain range: the more sparse the resources, the wider the range. We innovated tents and other shelters that could be quickly built using the materials at hand, packing them up or abandoning them. 


I've been thinking about these things lately as my wife and I recently moved into a new home. This is our ninth home together, not counting the many temporary homes we shared in between more decisive moves. Prior to meeting my wife, I'd experienced a dozen previous homes. I'm "above" average in this regard, but the average American still moves to a new home 11.7 times in their lifetime, so given our species' relative longevity and the fact that our young take more than a single season in which to grow into independence, perhaps we aren't so unlike birds and foxes, just on a more extended timeline. Maybe we continue to be more nomadic than we might at first think.

In their book Edgelands, English poets Paul Farley and Michale Symmons Roberts, write, "A den is a secret place, built outside the confines of the adult world. It is a place of retreat, but also a place of togetherness, a social space, that reinforces allegiances and bonds between small groups or gangs." They argue that post-war England was a Golden Age of den building, a time when children were sent outdoors, instead of parked in front of screens, to get out from under their parents' feet. "Time at home indoors contracted to sleeping, and occasional visits for food. The edge lands provided a space of abandonment out of the watchful eye of the adult world, and also provided all of the terrain and materials a child's imagination needed to physically make its own world and reinforce a new sense of self."

I find this fascinating for two reasons. The first being that "home indoors" in this description is much more in keeping with the dens and nests found in the rest of nature -- a place to sleep and to find food in a pinch. The second is that while other species build new habitations to avoid predators and other dangers, human children build dens against the encroachment of adults. This is not, as far as I know, a schema found amongst birds or foxes or any other animal with which I'm familiar.

And it begs the question, Why do human children in the modern world respond to human adults in ways that mimic the ways other species respond to danger? I suppose most of it is classic game playing in the spirit of play fighting or play stalking. If the natural purpose of a den is to protect us, there must be something to be protected from. Adults are the convenient "predators" from which to hide lacking any "proper" predators in the form of older kids or kids from other neighborhoods. Keeping others out is one of the cornerstones of this sort of play.


This is something that makes den play problematic for adults: we tend to value inclusion whereas exclusion is, in part, the underlying purpose of these games. When I started teaching, I was too quick to jump on den play that became, in my view, too exclusionary. We all know that exclusion can become toxic. It wasn't an accident, however, that when I forced my "every one is included" meme on the play, it inevitably broke down. Indeed, much in the way that foxes sometimes dismantle their dens before abandoning them, the kids would often destroy their den before allowing outsiders, but even when they didn't, they almost always abandoned their stronghold with the incursion of others, often constructing another in a different corner of the playground.

Today, I'm more inclined to allow den play to take a more natural course. When children complain about being excluded, I might suggest they build their own den. I'm more inclined to create space for logical arguments like, "It's too small for more people" or "We want to play alone right now." Of course, I'm concerned when this type of play becomes hurtful to others, but I also understand that "we share everything" is unrealistic. My goal is dialog, not tidy resolution. Helping children balance this is an art, not a formula. 

Some years back, a family brought in a huge collection of boxes leftover from their household move. As one might expect, the children claimed individual boxes as their own, each making their own "room." Before long they were combining them into "houses." The houses then formed into a "neighborhood" and then a "city." We played with our city of boxes for weeks as the children moved from house to house, claiming each home for a minute or a day, then moving on to the next, starting again over and over, playing at the nomadic life that is likely in their future.

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