In August of 2014, eight months after I had graduated with my B.A. in Cultural Anthropology I traveled from California to Northwest Washington to begin my first build of many. For five weeks I worked alongside natural builder Sunray Kelley as we built a two-story studio sized cedar treehouse with nothing but our bare hands, a drill, and a chainsaw.
When I first arrived, the two giant girders were set in place and held by four large chains. Our first day we built a table at the base of the treehouse and began screwing down the deck boards that came from the freshly milled cedar on site. Next, we framed our first story in the shape of a hexagon to resemble a yurt, we then added external walls to the yurt for the bathroom. We put our second story joists up, our second deck, and then framed the walls to our second story yurt.
During this time we continuously hoisted lumber up the second and third platform with a 1940’s boom truck, and used a small John Deer tractor to move the rest of our supplies. Our next step was getting our siding on the structure; some boards were only a single story high, while others spanned the full length. These larger boards were trickier for Sunray and I to carry up and screw down as we usually had to be on a different level of the structure in order to do this.
We finally stabilized the center hexagon where the cupola would eventually sit, and attached the rafters and triangle boards of wood that jutted out from the center. We also found a dead cherry tree in the forest, cut it down and used it to center our spiral stairwell.
I went back to California for the winter and returned in the spring after building three zero-net energy houses on Lopez Island, Washington. Sunray had installed some of the windows and doors during that time and when I came back to visit we set to work for a few weeks picking up where we had left off.
We put on more siding and worked on the roof. Climbing up 30ft cedar trees, we sat on our wooden roof boards as we laid down tar paper, foam insulation and foam spray to seal the cracks. We placed pond liner on top and used screws with washers to hold the pond liner in place below the roofline.
We built the cupola in two parts. First we framed the six sides of the lower half, set the glass, added the trim, and began to work on the upper piece. For the spire we gathered six curved cedar branches, stripped them, and placed our polycarbonate upon that frame. We hauled them up to the roof separately with the boom truck and screwed them in place. One question that I had for Sunray as we worked on the cupola was, “Why is the glass on the lower half of the cupola designed to lean outward so much?” His response didn’t necessarily have to do with the structure or something visually aesthetic as I had thought. He explained to me that the energy of the structure would first spiral in before spiraling out, he said that this energy flow mimics the energy flow with our own hearts and our own bodies. I find this explanation to be a beautiful example of what it means to work with Sunray. I have found it very inspiring to see how my natural building mentor and friend builds in a way that is conscious of a structure’s energy, as well as the world beyond. I feel this has helped me see beyond the straight lines and forced arrangement of traditional design.
I left again to California for a few months and when I returned Sunray had put up the sheetrock as well as the beautiful cob shower. Together we spent the next few months working on siding, trim, and plumbing for the kitchen and bathroom. We used stone, sand, and glass gems to mason the bathroom floor, shower floor, and bathroom sink counter.
We installed cabinetry and shelves in the kitchen, we added granite countertops that curved with the space and were hand carved by our neighbor. We also set a hole in our countertop with a hidden door underneath for the compost bucket. Sunray and our friend Bob built a beautiful stove that utilized leftover granite slabs.
We hid a tiny fridge into the wall, added a small stove. We then therapeutically used plaster-paint to transform the walls into works of art, spirals, marbled waves, sunbursts, and waterfalls. We installed bamboo flooring on both levels, and finally painted the exterior with orange oils and natural tree saps to seal the wood from weathering and preserve the golden color of the cedar.
The treehouse is wired for electricity and will soon be connected to the rest of the property or potentially tied to solar. The living roof will be the final step for the structure in which Sunray will add straw, netting, compost, and plant the living roof where flowers, ferns, and sedum will grow. The space will most likely be rented out to a future community member on the land.
When we weren’t working on the treehouse, Sunray and I could be found foraging for fresh blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and filberts. We traveled to music festivals and pow-wows, we traveled by gypsy wagon and electric bicycle. We juiced fresh veggies from the garden, enjoyed the sauna in the forest, and swam in the trout ponds. We went camping with friends, found hotsprings and waterfalls, and ate delicious vegetarian meals with fresh berry pie in the evenings.
That summer was one of the most transformative points in my life thus far. I not only gained confidence and strength in my body, but also in my mind and heart. I found love and kindness in the most amazing people, and lived each moment so presently. I was overcome by simple beauty, and found myself growing alongside our beloved structure. Each day I did yoga in the sunlight, and read in the evenings. I was mesmerized by a lightning storm at midnight, a deep river home to many tiny frogs, I swam to an island in the mountains, and ziplined down a cliff into a lake despite my deepest fears.
I learned how to travel alone with nothing but a backpack, yet always seemed to find a home in the hearts of friends. I am deeply grateful for this experience, as it still stays with me wherever I go, I am thankful to everyone I met on my journey, as well as those who never left my heart.