The Beaver Lodge (l.e.e.d. platinum 2009)

This shelter housed the adventurous play of many hundreds of children at the evergreen brick works in the don valley from 2009-2011. This idea is not unique, to look to the beavers for how to build shelters that kids and adults can be inspired by. In this process, there was first about a month of material collection.

First, balancing on a relationship with a fungi farmer near Stouville, ON, i brought up groups of city bound friends who were yearning for some time in the forest, and drove up to the farm. we agreed, with bruno the landowner, that an acre parcel needed revisioning, as it was planted with oaks and ashes over 15 years ago, and had mostly been succeeded by interesting mixes of white pine, pitch and scots pine, ash, and a couple of birches here and there.

This kind of voluntary forest stewardship in exchange for materials to build with excites me. We would asses and try to understand the interrelationships between sun, water, and different species, and then thin and remove unhealthy or overcrowded trees. we would also try and get out the species which the landowner viewed as weeds, even though they may be native or beneficial.

I love to see how a group of people diverge upon arriving in the woods, each to their own tasks and rhythms depending on how they are feeling. usually i would focus on the woodwork to be done to create the beaver lodge above, with a fair dose of absorbing the serenity of the forest.

Once the materials were onsite: the trees from the fungi farm, a whole tree which came from a school ground (a norway maple that had to be removed) and a whole pile of invasive plants and trees as weaving material and education.

Evergreen then facilitated, through Ferruccio Sardella and Heidi Campbell, the participation of 5 students from Ontario College of Art and Design, and 5 students from The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. This mix of artists and educators in the making had to collaborate with me to find the form of the design, including the structural and safety concerns vetted by our children’s garden landscape architect, Heidi.

These materials were then processed by hand , removing bark, separating out inner bark and making rope to bind, weaving the inner bark of oak into a inspirational doorway, splitting with wedges a long branched piece of sumac whose parallel curves served as doorways, and hilariously chipping up the ends of large logs with a felling axe to imitate the processing by beavers. This focus on older skills and tools slows the process down for everyone, allows full participation and immersion in the build through the transformation of natural materials.

often, it is just this transformation which leverages the greatest learning, and provides a stage for deeper questions, all under the guise of doing work to help children learn.

After five days of construction, finding that if the angled lengths that support the roof could be propped up on a structure on the ground to increase head space and base load stability. this bottom structure also has served to hold the work in place through the ever-flooding Don Valley where this work was situated. Throughout i was testing and probing the participants, trying to draw them into a challenge or mystery which would bring out the best craftsmanship and learning. for the ocad students, they would draw out proposals to use different materials. One worked on a ‘crown’ for the sculpture, another focussed on a large woven panel pictured above.  third, who was more interested in the practicality of the material, was asked to create a ‘waterproof’ section. All of these ‘design briefs’ served to increase the quality of participation, learning and the sculpture in general. With the OISE students we discussed how children learn, and how we can demonstrate traditional technologies which pre-vebal kids can learn from, without having it be a lesson plan, rather as a part of the built environment we created for them.

For me, it was one of the first community art projects centered on natural materials and built for a children’s nature play space that i had facilitated to that scale. Multiple platforms of outcomes, learning engagement, and influences made this a great accomplishment for our team.

Hilariously, after completion, we had many people concerned about the flammability of the play feature. it was suggested (and we did this for about a month) that we throw a large tarp over it and water it with a sprinkler daily. it was not until we had the unofficial ‘buy in’ of a consultant from the Toronto and District School Board, that the worry subsided and we could leave the work uncovered overnight.

The Beaver Lodge was disassembled, with many symbolic and useful elements cannibalized into the ‘chipmunk maze’ in the Children’s Garden, because of a culvert below the lodge was degrading. This culvert is now under construction (four years later) and i find it funny and a little sad that in a landscape where beavers dig into the banks of the rivers (they do not make lodges in the Don River) a piece of water infrastructure for the city degrading was the principle reason it was removed.

see this work in its natural habitat here:

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