“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...
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...
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.
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.
One of the paths leading up to the house.
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 ;)
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.
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…
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!