...claudine ko

Our House
In the middle of the trees

Vice, June 2010
Photos + text by Claudine Ko

The view of the San Francisco Bay from a few planks of wood strategically placed over some branches at the top of a 100-foot coastal redwood is just as panoramic as, say, that from a high-rise apartment in the city’s posh neighborhood of Russian Hill. What’s different is the wind factor. When it picks up, the apartment building stands firm, while the tree just… doesn’t.

It was the summer of 2007. I was in the Bay Area, on the kind of gorgeous afternoon that tempts New Yorkers like me to give up our type of sadomasochistic urban suffering. I stood at the base of the tree, my fingers stained a juicy blackberry purple. The fruit picking had been a random diversion from our primary goal: climbing to the top of the redwood where a secret tree house awaited. In retrospect, my friend Raluca wondered whether we could’ve spent our Sunday doing something more productive, like, oh, reading the paper. I resigned myself to the fact that we really didn’t have a choice in the matter. When someone brings you to a century-old conifer in the middle of a forest, hands you a rope, and says, “Meet me at the penthouse,” going home to do the Sunday crossword doesn’t exactly register as a viable option.

A few weeks before, Raluca’s boyfriend, David Freitag, had heard about the house. On a whim, he called its original architect to ask permission to climb the tree. Josiah Clark, a local SF ecologist, answered the phone. “What do you know about it?” he asked. When David told him he was a professional theater and circus rigger, Josiah said, “I’ll meet you there in ten minutes.”

At the top of the tree, David found a crude platform constructed with various recycled materials that had deteriorated from years of UV exposure. “My rigger brain just went crazy with what could be possible. I said, ‘We can build something bigger and sturdier; you could have a better view and bring friends up here safely.’ I became obsessed with it.”

So as not to disturb the public or reveal the house’s location, David worked silently, forsaking all power tools—cutting, drilling, and building everything by hand. He would surreptitiously climb up in the morning, when the surroundings were deserted. It was a dream come true for the geographer-turned-stage worker. “I couldn’t stop until I was finished,” he says. “I felt like I finally found the art I was meant to be creating.”

“Who wants to go first?” At the time, David had seven years of professional rigging experience and 18 years of climbing. I volunteered. He harnessed me into a safety belt that fit like an S&M diaper—strappy, with easy crotch access—and began instructing. First, he threw a rope over a “low” branch and hoisted himself up to free-climb about two-fifths the way up the tree, or as long as half the length of the rope would go. Then he rappelled back down to give me a boost. I clumsily maneuvered my way up, like a waterlogged pig, to the first branch, about 20 feet off the ground. My right hand gripped an ascender that was looped to my seat harness and automatically braked against the rope after each upward lunge.

It must have taken me at least 45 minutes to make it to 80 feet, where I was shocked to find the lower platform: a sketchy construction of what seemed to be a section of chain-link fence, some metal piping, and a few pieces of plywood. I had lost sight of the ground long ago, and the tree was swaying a few inches to the left, a few inches to the right... I wrapped my body around a sap-covered branch like a wrench-hugging Varga girl, balancing my feet precariously on the fence. Then David unhooked me, said something like “You’ll be fine,” and dropped into oblivion.

Of course, I wasn’t entirely convinced. In fact, I was scared shitless. But then there was Yoda or, more specifically, a little figurine of Yoda, sticking off the end of a branch near me, emanating his oneness with the surrounding energy field that binds all living things. So I quietly clenched and waited with the Jedi Master.

When David finally returned with Raluca, he insisted we free-climb to the in-progress penthouse, an equally rudimentary construction where we sat down, popped open a couple of beers, and ate some trail mix. I chugged the hefeweizen, hoping it would calm me down and, somehow, not fuck with my depth perception. Still looking for distraction, I asked David whether he had a pen. He handed me a Sharpie and I tagged the board beneath me, a simple sentiment about surviving the climb.

Weeks later, when David had finished building, the house was two levels and stocked with amenities: sleeping bags and pillows, chairs, a set of dominoes, a camping stove. But then, after another couple of years, it was suddenly torn down. “I knew what was going to happen,” says David, who won’t reveal the exact nature of its demise. He laughs. “It’s like anything, it’s not going to last forever.”

These days, David, now owner of Beanstalk Aerial Designs, and Josiah have a new project. And that is how I find myself riding in David’s old truck to Sonoma, California, where a couple with young children has hired Josiah, who has an environmental-consulting company called Habitat Potential, and his crew to build a tree house on their five-acre forest lot. When we pull up to the driveway of the main residence, Josiah, his childhood friend Andrew Scavullo, and their protégé Rob Ward are already lugging equipment down into the lush wilderness. Together with David, the four are an A-Team of tree-house builders. David hangs a thick coil of rope around my neck, hands me a crate of tools, and leads the way down the woodsy path. It had rained the two days before, so I keep my eyes on the muddy trail until it’s time to stop. And then I look up.

The tree house floats 30 feet above us like an incoming spaceship. Suspended by 12 cables drilled into a fairy circle of three redwoods, its underbelly is a platform of smooth redwood planks supported by ten-foot-long, pressure-treated 6x6 beams. Although it needs a roof and is essentially an open-air deck with three walls forged from salvaged wood and embedded with an equal number of charmingly mismatched windows—it takes my breath away.

Andrew, a licensed contractor and registered California engineer-in-training, explains there are no rules or regulations when it comes to tree houses. “Building codes are extremely narrow and unimaginative,” he says. “We’ve done everything to code, shy of the suspension.” That part, he says, is “educated guessing.” I make my way up the ladder.

In 1995, Josiah was entering his junior year at UC Santa Cruz. The university was having a housing shortage, forcing mobs of students into intense bidding wars for old houses down in the flats.

“We were like, ‘Dude, this is so ridiculous,’” says Josiah. He and Andrew, both environmental-science majors, planned to share a house that year. They had also recently met some guys from Earth First, who had built a tree house in the 400-acre Campus Reserve above school. Eventually, it was discovered and dismantled, but the two were already inspired.

They’d been camping while looking for a place to live, and one night, lying in a meadow, Josiah turned to Andrew and said, “We could spend the same time and money and we could build tree houses. We could live in tree houses.” There was a long pause before Andrew said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So the next morning, they dumped their housing applications, headed to the forest, and began plotting. Soon, they found a seven-foot-diameter, second-growth redwood that had split into two. They climbed up and constructed two cantilevered decks surrounded by eight-inch-high ping-pong netting on either trunk, as well as a massive hammock suspended over a 100-foot abyss. “It was a very creative solution to a serious housing crisis,” says Andrew.

It was August, and they knew they had three and a half months of good weather left. Naturally, a windstorm hit on their first night. “I looked around and the crowns of all the redwoods were shaking,” says Josiah. “It’s almost like you’re in the crow’s nest of some old sailing vessel, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is what I’ve signed up for, living in this pitching and rolling tree house 90 feet up. I am so fucked.’

“I sat up in bed and thought, ‘I know what screws are in here, I know what cables—so if this tree chooses to fall down after the hundreds of years it’s been here, I guess I’m just meant to die.’ And I never had a problem sleeping there again.”

When I raise an eyebrow, he reassures me it wasn’t a death wish. “Every morning, I would wake up and the sun would be rising over the Monterey Bay. Some days it was orange, some days it was azure blue, some days it was gray, some days it was gold, some days it was pink. I was always shocked. It gave me this new inspiration to wake up earlier every day.”

Andrew had 8 AM classes three days a week that trimester. He’d get up, stash his sleeping bag in a dry box, rappel 90 feet down through the canopy, hop on his bike, and haul.

“From the time I clipped in to rappel to the time I was sitting at the lecture hall taking my exam or whatever was, like, nine minutes,” says Andrew. And campus provided much of their daily needs—lockers, showers at the rec center, meals, and libraries. “People ask, ‘What do you do up there?’ Nothing, nothing at all. You just sit there and watch. It was awesome. The noises at night—did you know there are salamanders that live hundreds of feet up in redwood trees?”

I try to imagine what salamanders sound like and come up blank.

“Oh, they don’t sound like anything,” says Andrew. “You’d come home after school, and there’d be salamanders hanging out on your platform, 100 feet up in a tree, and the chorus of birds and the coyotes in the evening. The wind would sway, but it was kind of hypnotic in a way.”

Josiah says they basically joined a culture of people who lived in the woods—they knew of five total tree dwellers in the Campus Reserve. “When everybody else was going into their dorm rooms, we’d all be going back up into the forest.” Sure, it was spooky—this was only 15 years after the Trailside Killer murdered seven people along hiking paths in Marin and Santa Cruz counties—but they all watched out for one another. “I came to realize that whatever was happening out there in woods wasn’t as scary as what was happening in a lot of the rest of society.”

Andrew lived in the tree for three months and was never more attuned to the weather. “It was mid- to late October. I was in a biology class and it started to drizzle, and I had this sinking feeling, like my life was about to get a lot more difficult.”

“The first winter we were up there, it hardly rained at all,” says Josiah, who stayed for 11 months. “It was like, ‘Great, this is so easy.’ I remember the next year thinking, ‘I’m so excited to live in the tree house.’ And that was the El Niño year. It was the other end of the spectrum, where it rained all the time. But when the weather got bad, it was girls who bailed us out.”

“That was key,” says Andrew. “When you got drunk, to go ride your bike five miles uphill and then climb a 100-foot tree with dead branches—at night—it was kind of important to have a girlfriend, a little crash pad available, and that’s my wife today.”

As soon as they left, others filled the vacancies. “It was a lot like a nest in the forest,” says Josiah. “A cavity opens up, the woodpecker makes the hole, uses it one year, clears out, and the next year it’s open and something else is going to move in.”

Rob hops down onto the deck from a ladder. “Whoa, no jumping,” Andrew says, in the middle of sawing wriggle board for the new corrugated, translucent roof. “That would be the dynamic-load condition.”

Here’s the math, briefly: A 5/8-inch bolt inserted perpendicular to the grain of dry lumber can safely resist loads of more than 1,500 pounds. Combined with 1/4-inch cables, which can handle 1,200 pounds each, one can conservatively assume that every cable and eyebolt connection system supporting the structure can support 1,000 pounds. So with the 12 cables and anchors, Andrew estimates it would be safe to hold the 3,000 pounds of wood and another estimated 1,500 pounds of people. However, no one’s made these calculations using live wood. “Obviously we do not recommend using the structure during high winds or for dance parties,” he says. Of course, they could always alleviate risk by lowering the structure.

“If it’s not high up, we’re not interested,” says Josiah, who considers this project fairly low, its lack of height due to the likelihood that children will be using it. “The longer the climb, the better the views, the more isolated, the more extreme. People who like to go into the wilderness like to go way deep into the backcountry. And when you’re in the trees, you gotta go higher…” But, says Josiah, “If you’re smart about it, it’s still probably safer than driving on the freeway or crossing a busy intersection.”

Josiah stresses that for him, building tree houses is not about money, and if done improperly, it can destroy the trees. It requires a lot of observation and research; there is no perfect recipe to find the right tree. “It’s like choosing the place to reintroduce a rare animal or perhaps like choosing a girlfriend,” he says.

“Many trees look beautiful but inside are rotten and lack integrity. Sometimes it’s because they have been through so many storms; sometimes they’re just sick. Still other trees have been suppressed and kept from the light, but it only makes them stronger.”

He points out a slew of woodpecker holes, explaining how they eventually form knots. Therefore, he reasons, a screw and a bolt are not going to kill a tree. That happens by gashing or constricting it, or infecting it with some disease.

David whoops from above. As he comes into view, he surveys the house and says, “This looks like a classic Boy Scout tree fort.”

“You mean the classic tree fort they always wanted but never got,” says Andrew. In actuality, this tree house is far from conventional. At first, Josiah had suggested designing it on stilts between the trees, like many I’ve seen in coffee-table books on the topic. But David doesn’t consider those to be tree houses: “Why do you even need the trees then? They’re engineered to be more like houses, with drapes and plumbing and shit.”

He points out that they’re not the first to hang a house from the trees like a hammock, but that others usually employ bigger pins and more steel. “They’re probably better designed, I’m sure,” he says, “but they don’t quite look as delicate and airy and floating as this one does.

“A tree house should be one with the tree. Redwood trees cradle all kinds of life in the canopy. Suspending the house like a cradle gives it more kinetic energy. It actually makes it feel more alive.”

Here, amid wine-country flora and clear-running streams, our cell phones have no reception, the outside world falls away, and time holds still. In the middle of a food break, I suddenly remember. At 3 AM this morning, I received an emergency text from my neighbor, whose deck my kitchen window looks down onto back in New York. When I spoke to him, he regretfully informed me that my apartment had caught on fire in the middle of the night. I soon learned that the damage was severe enough to render the place uninhabitable. But by several small miracles, nobody was hurt. And as I lay on my back staring up at the forest canopy from the tree house of our collective dreams, listening to the call of the pileated woodpecker, I feel just fine. In fact, better than fine.

More photos at viceland.com.