Let me tell you about ladybugs and forts.

When I was halfway through elementary school we moved “out of town” –  which was only fifteen minutes away from “in” town. Still, it seemed we’d immediately jettisoned ourselves to the country. The area was a brand new subdivision and still very much ‘under construction’. Most of the roads in and out were just dirt, and the house plots only home to real estate signs and huge swaths of a plant we called honeysuckle (dalmatian toadflax, a weed). A lot of summer days of my childhood were riding through those endless plots and weeds on my bike, picking the flowers off the honeysuckles, sucking the nectar out, and make swords out of their long, woody stems.

A few houses had sprung up near ours, wooden skeletons looming in the distance. We would investigate them on the weekends in the summer, when the workers were absent and the daylight seemed to last forever. We’d play games and climb the unfinished stairs and talk about what we thought the finished houses would be like. Our parents told us not to, and sure there were a few falls through open unfurnished holes into the basement, but we always crawled up out the window wells and never told a soul. It’s remarkable no one broke their leg.

Among the amber waves of weeds and yet-to-be-filled domiciles was a small hillside next to our home, known ominously as THE HILL, with an industrial trash heap at the top. WHY was there an industrial trash heap in this newly forming neighborhood? WHO KNOWS. It, too, was verboten but we adventured there on our bikes anyway. We suspected the developer didn’t much care about what happened to the trash so it all ended up there. Tree stumps, metal tubing, wire, buckets, unknown discolored plastics baking in the sun… I’m sure we risked life and limb going into the heap, but we did. The BEST PART was the pile had been stacked in such a way that it actually made an enclosed cave you could enter with different little “rooms”. That part was mostly giant pieces of tree and tree stumps. I’m amazed we never had an issue with ticks.

We pretended it was our fort and we’d truly moved OFF THE GRID, into the WILD. We had a club that was disbanded almost as quickly as it was formed, due to a breakdown in communications over what the “secret password” was. It spent a good deal of time as a spaceship as well. It was the perfect playground.

One day, us neighborhood kids gathered and headed up to the heap at the urging of one of our own. Something odd was in the heap. We parked our bikes at the top of The Hill and looked out on the pile. A young tree had sprouted straight up in the middle of a sea of trash. The trunk was at least an inch round and it rose up into a perfect canopy of leaves at the top; a topiary with a perfect sphere. I remember it being large when I was a kid, but everything is large when you’re small.

None of us remembered seeing the tree before. Had it been planted? Had it just popped up over night? We probably just hadn’t noticed, but it was quite the sight to see a perfect tree growing straight out of the waste. We were bombarded with so much talk of recycling and ecofriendliness in my new elementary school – it almost seemed like some sort of staged reinforcement of the message. “EVEN OUT OF TRASH, BEAUTY CAN SPRING. REMEMBER TO COMPOST!” We ignored the tree and went into our cave and this repeated for a few days. But again, one of the kids called us out of the fort. “LOOK.”

The tree was now covered with hundreds of ladybugs. The branches and leaves were coated, a humming sea of red dots flowing all over the heap tree. Occasionally one would fly away. We were transfixed by the sight. We waded through trash to get a better look. We were awestruck. It was magical. It was Disney. It must have a meaning. We stared until nightfall, when the calls of our parents for ‘dinnertime’ urged us home.

The next day we went back to see the ladybug tree, but they were all gone. No trace of them. As quickly as they came, they had disappeared. Had we dreamed it? Could we all have had the same dream? The tree seemed so unremarkable now that it wasn’t swarming with life.

Soon the tree was gone, too, crushed by some additional metal waste that was soon our “mountain” on The Hill, which the boys would climb to go “hunting” and bring “food” back to the fort. We stopped playing on it when someone cut their leg pretty good on some rebar. Years later it was cleared it away and a house was built there, but it could never be as good as our fort.

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