Thursday, August 25, 2011

We Live Among the Trees


“Originally published in 1972, Canyon recounts the struggle for survival, against powerful and determined opposition, of a counter-cultural community tucked in a redwood canyon less than a mile from the city of Oakland, California. A community of individuals united by the idea of living complimentary to nature rather than subduing it…” - Grizzly Peak Press

I just finished reading a vintage copy of this book that I picked up at a thrift store recently. I had no idea this community even existed, let alone so close by.

Canyon's colorful history made for an interesting read, from pristine old-growth redwood forest to raucous logging community to secluded counter-cultural haven. The book follows the resistance movement as Canyon’s residents battle public utility controllers and county officials to preserve both their homes and way of life.

However, my favorite parts were definitely the descriptive vignettes sprinkled throughout the book, illuminating the strange and wonderful handmade forest dwellings that sprouted up in the woods of Canyon along with the influx of homesteading hippies during the late sixties.

“His house, a hyperbolic paraboloid form (peaked roof of eucalyptus poles complete with leaves, conical-shaped sides with the side facing west left open to the trees, sky, and rain), allows the sounds and odors of Canyon- arguing voices, music, bird cries, burning grass, chants, patchouli oil, a trumpet scale, a revving motorcycle engine- to flow through it like air. There are no locks windows or doors.”

“Anyone walking by on the road above can eavesdrop on his life, observe him tinkering at the large workbench beside his entrance, or call down to him for a drink of water, which he’ll let you draw from the strange, convoluted faucet- pipe joint added upon pipe joint- above his sink.”

While reading about Canyon, images from another book published in the early seventies began floating through my mind. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to thrift a copy of the book Handmade Houses A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art. Maybe you remember Heather’s post on this amazing book.

Though it wasn’t until the description of that “strange, convoluted faucet” pictured above that I realized at least one of Canyon's forest dwellings was not only reminiscent of the images in Handmade Houses, it was the very house pictured in the book. Further internet sleuthing confirmed that homes in Canyon were indeed photographed in the making of Handmade Houses.

"His house is a one room cabin made almost entirely of old window glass. Glass in the shape of shutters, leaded windows, sections of skylight. Above the cabin is a long, narrow tree house in the crotch of a large oak."

"Inside the house, the thick trunk of the oak tree forms part of one wall, and shoes are left on the dirt floor, next to its roots. There are sleeping bags on the floor. There is a simple table, phonograph, speaker and tuner, a battered telescope, and a wood-burning stove."

Images of kitchens, rustic and enchanted from the book Handmade Houses.

"A girl, blonde, wearing one of the gownlike print dresses common to young Canyon, has materialized out of the dusk and is preparing dinner on the wood stove as he bathes with cold spring water in the dark outside.”

“As he talks it grows dark outside, the trees across the canyon and the houses on the hillside below slipping into gloom, leaving only sounds behind: voices, sitar music, a dog’s bark."

I enjoyed how the author would often described the sounds floating through Canyon as a way of conjuring its atmosphere. It brought me right back to the late 90's, when Lucas and I were living nestled amongst the redwoods up on Joy Ridge in Occidental, California.

I managed to dig up some old film photos of the place...

Our Wee Home in the Trees

On the deck at the top of the stairs we had a hammock strung between two redwood trees. A favorite place to be was swaying lazily in that hammock, dangling my barefeet on a warm summer day, feeling the dappled sunlight make its way through the trees.

Also, in the cool evenings with slippered feet, a cozy blanket, and a warm cup of tea catching glimpses of stars between the tree tops. I would just sway and listen...

Mossy Surroundings

Up on the ridge, the silence was thick and peaceful, a medium through which far off sounds would find there way to me. Winding through trees and echoing off hillsides. The roar of a chainsaw, a squirrel's shrill chatter, the guitar strumming of an unseen neighbor.

The periodic moan of the fog horn was always my favorite. Sometimes barely audible. Pulling me closer to the ocean (about 6 miles away as the crow flies) with each low hum.

Even small sounds took on an air of amplification, insects buzzing, clicking, chirping, the crunch of a leaf or twig beneath a deer hoof, birdsong... birdsong... birdsong...


All rough hewn wood and wonky angles, the rustic little cabin we rented would have fit right in among the pages of Handmade Houses. It sat just up the hill from the property’s main house, where the land lords, a quiet older couple, lived.

The house had a sleeping loft with a raised platform just big enough for our mattress. Those upper windows looking out into the forest were right at the level of our bed. It was very much like sleeping in a tree house. In fact, one of my favorite memories of that house involves those windows.

One stormy night, when Lucas happened to be away, I was reading up in the dimly lit sleeping loft. Listening to the sounds of heavy rain against the steep A-framed roof just above me. Suddenly, everything lit up with a flash, quickly followed by some of the most earth-shaking thunder I'd ever heard.

As the lightning and thunder continued to happen in what seemed like pretty rapid succession, I set my book down, turned out the light and enjoyed the show as each flash of thunder lit up the trees beyond those windows bright as day, for a split second, then black, and… CRASH!!!! Magical.

I know, it probably sounds scary, and I’ll admit I was slightly worried that one of the nearby trees might get struck by lightning and come crashing down on me, but I’ve always loved a good thunderstorm, and the way the whole forest lit up just outside my window, appearing out of blackness, was like nothing I’d ever seen.

Husky Forest Kitty

I think our cat Guinness was at his huskiest and happiest when we lived out here. Like a wildcat ruling over his territory. Apart from the occasional raccoon scuffle, he was in heaven.

Speaking of raccoons, we used to leave one of the little windows in the sleeping loft slightly open as the cat door, until the day I came home to find the kitchen shelves ransacked and a raccoon racing back up the stairs. Among other things, it had eaten an entire box of cookies. My cookies. Not cool raccoon.

The Path Home

One of the paths leading up to the house.

All Pots on Deck

The deck wrapped around a few redwood trees growing in a ring just outside the front door. At one point we had a raccoon family living under the house. There were two babies that would come right up to the glass door some nights.

They would be up on their hind legs peering in with their wee paws pressed against the glass. They were so cute. Like fuzzy little masked bears. Or would-be cookie stealing bandits ;)

Guinness on the Stairs

The house was made up of four tiny spaces all at different levels that sort of wound around the spiral staircase which wound up an old burned out tree trunk running up through the center of the house. We were told the man who built the place was a ship builder by trade, and being inside the house did offer a vague sense of being within the hull of ship strangely enough.

Fallen Logs

There was an old overgrown logging road which ran along the lower edge of the property and made for a wonderful hiking trail out into the forested land beyond. Sometimes I would go exploring and guess who would love to come along on these adventures…

Hiking Companion

Guinness was a wonderful hiking partner. He would run up ahead, sniff at things, climb around on the old moss-covered stumps and fallen trees, always managing not to stray too far ahead or behind me. He was a little bit like a dog in that way.

Well, thanks for joining me on this little hike down memory lane, here's a fitting song to end with. We're going to another free concert tonight to see these guys play!

Sorry I've been such a neglectful blogger lately. Hopefully it won't be quite so long again before my next post.

As for Canyon, after finishing the book, I was interested in finding out what became of the community over the years and stumbled upon a series of youtube clips from a local Bay Area news program.

The clips look at the history of Canyon up through recent times and there's even some cool video footage from the 60's. If you can get past the cheesy news program moments, it's pretty interesting to watch. If you'd like to check it out, you can find it here: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

Much love to you friends and sweet folk of the internets!


Celynne said...

When I still lived with my parents back in high school, we lived in the country and I used to go trail walking out behind the house. It used to make me so nervous when my cat Caramel would follow me, I was always worried he'd get lost or eaten or separated from me hah.

That house you lived in... wow, I would love living someplace like that. I dig places that are rough hewn and have their own character and spirit. 90' angles, sharp corners and perfectly white walls aren't my idea of cozy.

I'll have to check out those video clips again once I'm somewhere with sound...

Andrea said...

Wow! What a fascinating post, Missa! I had no idea that you used to live there - it sounds amazing. I don't know much about that area of California - sounds really beautiful - though storms would have been scary living so close to the elements.

Your cat is so cute and I especially love that spiral staircase. A real character home - by the looks of it - just like the ones in the book :)

bonfire of my vanity said...

ooooh! i want to read this. thanks for sharing. great pictures, too. communes are such a trip. have you seen the documentary "Commune"? it's about this commune up farther north from the Bay. pretty interesting.

Alexa said...

What a wonderful time in your life that would have been, living nestled in he woods like that! I wonder who is living there now.

anne said...

wow! i don't think i would have wanted to move away from such an incredible home. that seriously is a dream house missa.

both books are awesome. i always keep an eye out for handmade houses when i'm a thriftin'. i'll have to add canyon to the list.

this post just made my morning! beautiful!

Milla said...

Girl! How do you do it? You have the magic touch of book-thrift! (I mean all thrift, but you do find the best books.) I've been working on a script about an alterna community, something small I could shoot myself, and being intrigued by this recommendation I checked it out on Amazon and...wait for it...a copy of this book retails for like 54 dollars!!!!!!! I'm telling you, you got the magic, you're like blessed by white lightning or something. Thank you so much for sharing all this and for introducing me to the handmade homes, it is such a blessing to leaf through these crazy/beautiful homes and feel...well at home.

Much love to you and your little home on the ground, it has been nice to see the pictures of your former sky abode, I remember well you telling my about a long time ago and being delighted in the idea of you and Lucas living in such a place.

Email, coming. one of these days.
squeeze little squirming Clover for me.

Missa said...

Milla, not to fret, the book is already tucked away in your package ;)I actually thrifted it with the intention of sending it to you but had to read it myself first! $54?!?! That's crazy! Package on its way sooooon :)

Victoria / Justice Pirate said...

oh wow. seems like quite a book. Some of this stuff reminds me a bit of my best friend in Maine. Her family owned an old stove museum and sold them too. It's really neat!

chloëelizabeth said...

Oh wow, I could definitely get cozy in one of those little homes in the woods. I love the pictures of your old tree house homestead, what wonderful memories!

flaming hag folkwear said...

love love love!

really. love!

p.s. and i concur with milla, you've got some mad book thrifting mojo!

Ms. Habit said...

So COOL! I had so much fun discovering this community - thanks for that. I watched the videos, too, and it really is fascinating to see how it all came about. And man, those houses are out a fairytale dream! Makes me long for some kind of second rate tree house - but these city trees are quite pathetic, and too small :(

moonshinejunkyard said...

oh my dear this might be my favorite post ever. i have looked at it many times now, and your little cabin and mister Guin and hearing that SONG, oh wow this pretty much brings a tear to my eye. SEE?! it's all part of that same weird heavy/love/crazyness feeling i've been experiencing. and i love it. it's like things are too beautiful to stand. that's how i feel about you and lucas and the little cabin in occidental. the bohemian highway right? your writing is punching me in the stomach. sorry that's not very eloquent but i think you get the truly take me there to that ridge with that spiral staircase and the sound of the foghorn. i feel like a swirl of mist entered my soul reading this. thank you, and thank you, and thank you. i love your appreciation for houses and stories and the life in things.

moonshinejunkyard said...

i forgot to say the only thing missing was little clover, but i love knowing that in the future, after these photos were taken...she was the continuation of magic awaiting you lovebirds. so beautiful.

Anonymous said...

a.may.zing. miss missa! all my heartstrings are plucked by this have captured all that is truly magical about special homes, the pulse they emit, always seemingly the strongest when having a good sit on a porch. i want to wail, "but why did you leave?!?" but that is only my own current hunger for such a home. so i will bask in this peak of what is possible and am grateful for such an intimate and colorful illustration of the magic that is YOU. (thanks for the links too, fun!) xo


thankyou for making me realize how wonderful it is to live in the middle of nowhere! now i can't wait for winter.....and it's so wonderful that you lived there! can you take me there sometime?? pretty please :)

Eldest Magician (FOX) said...

I love all the pix sweetheart, but the reason I posted HERE is that voices and music make a much WARMER cyberspace...thanks!

Eldest Magician FOX

sally said...!

holy cow, all that and guinness too! astounding, completely. we have been thinking about moving to a place just like that lately, though we probably won't, at least for a while yet.