My first tree house (part 1)


(photo courtesy of my friend Janis and his WWII era camera)

Oh the memories…

As requested, here’s a bit about the first tree house I built, summer 2012. It’s interesting for me to think about it again since I’m in the beginning stages of planning another one and there are for sure plenty of things that I did with the first one that I would not do again.

The project came about at the end of the first year of my master’s program, when I announced during my final presentation of the year my intentions to build a hut in the woods. My research was (and still is) about a reconsideration of what we consider to be useful skills and about creating human-scale economies of production. This all took off when I attended a workshop by an artist obsessed with apocalyptic themes, and I found myself drowning in boredom during the talk so my mind started to wander into thinking about what people do to prepare for the coming fall of civilization, and what they perceive to be important skills for the rebuilding of society. I was sitting in the back of the room next to a computer so I started reading a bunch of the websites floating around out there where survivalists and preppers converge to discuss closed-loop agriculture systems, the stockpiling of canned goods, etc. It got me thinking about what sorts of skills I had that would contribute to my community’s survival, and also the sorts of skills my friends and acquaintances had. I sent out a mass text message to about 40 people, no prefacing context given, asking: “If civilization comes tumbling down tomorrow and we’re forced to rebuild a community, what skills and/or knowledge and/or material would you contribute to the effort?”

The replies were varied:

  • knowledge of growing food
  • construction skills (wood and metal both)
  • reconsideration of the time dedicated to work
  • a copy of Barjavel’s Ravage
  • skills in facilitating group work and consensus-based decision making
  • a Kindle and raclette grill (didn’t understand that one — where would we plug them in?)
  • crocheted clothing to protect from the elements
  • ability to identify wild edibles and hallucinogenic mushrooms

So some of the answers were jokes, but most of them were serious, and I was surprised and impressed to discover that many of the people I knew had some sort of hidden talent that I hadn’t known they possessed. Then when I considered what I would contribute to the post-apocalyptic community of my imagination, I came up with: text editing and yoga teacher. And I could tell stories. However, I had little to nothing in the way of knowledge or skills toward the direct production of most of life’s necessities. Thus began my obsession with all things DIY (or rather DIYT – Do It Yourself Together).

In the beginning I was dangerously toeing the line of falling into the whole individualist mentality of the lone frontiersman doing it all himself — I had an exaggerated list of things that I decided I would learn, which today makes me laugh. Hunting? Seriously? Did I seriously think I would be capable of shooting bambi with a bow and arrow? That initial frenzy to learn it all now calmed down and I settled into three areas of skill acquisition: bread (for sustenance), woodworking (for shelter), and music (to keep up our spirits). Since then I’ve added clothing. When I worked for a newspaper in upstate New York I covered (ha) a regional nudist convention, and thanks to that I understand the allure of running around naked in the woods, but I’ve got Irish skin that burns easily so I prefer to cover up.

At first I imagined constructing a wooden shelter on the ground, but one afternoon/evening we were all sitting around Parc Bastion drinking cheap wine —

(oh the memories)

— when a group of young proselytizers, like so many heathen-seeking missiles, came over to our neck of the park and started asking people to fill out a questionnaire about Jesus. A guy sitting in another circle of people drinking cheap wine got up and came over to sit with us so as to avoid the conversation that was starting to get heated where he was. It turned out that this guy knew a bit about tree houses and, wouldn’t you know it, my friends and I were talking about that exact subject. He and I got into a lengthy discussion about tree house construction, and I took copious, illegible notes:

1st treehouse notes

I eventually went home, psyched about this new project but without a tree in which to build it. Help came in the form of my friend Steph, who lives a bit outside of Geneva in her childhood home, which is surrounded by a big yard with lots of trees. And her dad lives on the bottom floor of the house, and he just happens to be an artist who works with metal and wood and therefore has a huge collection of pretty much any tool you can imagine and was happy to lend it all to me.

First I visited the tree for an afternoon and took what I figured were all the necessary measurements:

blueprints version 1

and then I went home and built a meticulous scale model of it (which wasn’t really necessary but it was an excuse to play with clay):

my messy desk

Then one day in July, I started work. Luckily, since I had absolutely no clue what I was doing, Steph (who was also one of the people who had responded to my survey with a serious answer) helped get me started.

steph leveling the first support beam

And here’s where we get into things I would do differently now. Because, yes, we did it: we bolted the support beams to the tree branches. Ouch. In our defense, the tree was very old and her dad was planning to cut it down in a few years, so from the start we knew the tree house and the tree would not be around for very long — but still, I’m embarrassed now that I didn’t take the time to become more informed about less invasive ways of fixing support beams to a tree that don’t involve drilling holes into the poor thing. Lesson learned, I won’t do that again.


That first day we got all three support beams up, much to the excitement of her kids.


And on day two I put in flooring.

end of day 2

Which meant that by day two the kids were already starting to move in.


If you’ve never tried to build something with three kids under 10 running around you, I don’t recommend it. (“NELSON PUT DOWN THE POWER SAW!”)

Once the platform was up, it was all exhilaration followed by… what next. Because by that point I had started to rethink the design a little, realizing that some things I’d planned were not going to work. So in the meantime I built a bookshelf. First things first.

bookshelf before walls

I’d imagined a hanging bookshelf like in The Baron in the Trees: “To keep his books Cosimo constructed a kind of hanging bookcase, sheltered as best he could from rain and nibbling mouths. But he would continuously change them around, according to his studies and tastes of the moment, for he considered books as rather like birds and it saddened him to see them caged or still” (p. 102).

After the bookshelf, it was necessary to install some sort of railing. This turned out to be more complicated than I’d first thought but luckily in the midst of this project I met some people who had built their own tree house (of sorts), considerably bigger than mine, and I spent enough time with them and their project to be able to learn a few important construction techniques.


But right now I need to head down to the garden to get some planting done. To be continued.

Patience, young one

Today’s production cycles have been evidently more interested in mirroring nature than industry.

Last night I mixed the leaven for the sourdough bread I’m planning to bake today. Our kitchen must be unusually cold because this morning the leaven was still not ready. You can tell when it’s ready by pinching off a small glob of it and dropping it in a glass of room temperature water. If it floats, it’s aerated enough to begin mixing in the rest of the flour and water to make a dough. When I tested the leaven’s readiness, this is what happened:

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The glob of leaven you see in the bottom right of the glass there is supposed to be floating at the surface of the water by now. I have no idea what the deal is. Bread may have to wait for another day.

My germinating plants are also marching to their own beat.

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I wish I could give them something better than indirect sunlight from a west-facing window, but sadly, I can’t. It is my dream to transform our entire living room into an incubator for seed germination.

The only thing that is moving quickly today is my knitting. Last night I started relearning through YouTube tutorials all the stuff I’d forgotten (everything) since my brief flirtation with knitting about ten years ago.

My first row:

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Where I ended up after that first session of getting to know you again:

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Where I ended up after a prolonged morning knitting session fueled by several cups of coffee:

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That’s right, I’m on to switching colors. I’m seriously shocked at how quickly this is all coming back to me, given that back in the day when I first tried knitting I was extremely slow, extremely frustrated, had no patience, dropped stitches constantly, couldn’t carry on a conversation while doing anything so complicated as knit one purl one, and would repeatedly get five rows into a project (that was always beyond my abilities) before abandoning it for another project (that was also beyond my abilities).

Just 24 hours ago I didn’t know that I could knit. Apparently I can — simple stitches for now, but those simple stitches are the same ones that once drove me mad with frustration. Is this what they call the patience that comes with age? Maybe it’s that I’m more comfortable with repetitive handiwork that lets the mind wander, which means I can mentally handle stretches of time where I’m doing nothing but sitting quietly with my coffee and yarn and thoughts. I think it’s all this, and most of all the fact that I understand and accept now the time it can take to learn new skills.

I’m experiencing the same thing with bread baking, which I also dabbled with in my early twenties, turning out loaf after loaf of dry, wheat-flavored bricks, before deciding that bread was clearly a mysterious science that I was not capable of mastering. Then one day a few years ago, it occurred to me that maybe actually reading the chapter on bread baking in the Joy of Cooking would be useful, in addition to looking up more information online, and maybe peppering my mom with questions during our Skype calls — instead of doing what I’d once done, which was speed-read through the recipe, ignoring whole paragraphs of information about, say, the science behind why bread dough rises (which explains why certain instructions such as rising and resting times are included in a recipe and not tossed in there as optional steps for me to blow off). I would not, and in a sense, could not, as Emerson wrote, “leave this military hurry and adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience” (Lectures and Biographical Sketches, p 152).

Victory over things is the office of man. Of course, until it is accomplished, it is the war and insult of things over him. His continual tendency, his great danger, is to overlook the fact that the world is only his teacher, and the nature of sun and moon, plant and animal only means of arousing his interior activity. Enamored of their beauty, comforted by their convenience, he seeks them as ends, and fast loses sight of the fact that they have worse than no values, that they become noxious, when he becomes their slave.

This apparatus of wants and faculties, this craving body, whose organs ask all the elements and all the functions of Nature for their satisfaction, educate the wondrous creature which they satisfy with light, with heat, with water, with wood, with bread, with wool. The necessities imposed by this most irritable and all-related texture have taught Man hunting, pasturage, agriculture, commerce, weaving, joining, masonry, geometry, astronomy. Here is a world pierced and belted with natural laws, and fenced and planted with civil partitions and properties, which all put new restraints on the young inhabitant. He too must come into this magic circle of relations, and know health and sickness, the fear of injury, the desire of external good, the charm of riches, the charm of power. (p 127-128)

Once I stopped trying to muscle my way through the baking process, caring only about the end result and not about the means to get there, when I actually started taking the time to learn about bread instead of fighting with it, that’s when I started making good bread. (If I may say so.) Once I started relaxing about feeling like I needed to get it all done right away, accepting the fact that sometimes our projects develop minds and schedules of their own, I became okay with stepping back and letting things go about their business. If this were ten years ago, I promise you that the leaven that’s puttering away in the kitchen right now, taking its own sweet time and mocking my human-world schedule, would already have been formed into a dry, heavy dough and probably shoved prematurely into the oven. If this were ten years ago, the apartment would smell warm and bready right now, but we would be eating hardtack with our soup tonight.

Of course I’m kind of annoyed that my leaven is not bending to my human whims today, but I’m leaving it alone. And if we wind up having bread for breakfast tomorrow instead of dinner tonight, well… we’ll still have bread.

This week’s reading: Spring fever edition + I’m looking for sheep people


In other news, I finally got my bike repaired after its long winter’s nap. No more bus. FREEDOM!

And in still other news, I picked up a set of knitting needles yesterday. NEW PROJECT!


Also, thought I’d throw this out there: I’m looking for people who raise sheep for wool who would be interested in talking to me for my research. Doesn’t matter where they’re based — I’m searching especially for people living around Geneva, Switzerland (where I live), but I’d be interested in talking to people elsewhere, too, because why not? So if any of you reading this happen to know people who raise sheep, please contact me. Thanks!

Sourdough take six + the library is going to blacklist me

This is something like round six of sourdough starter cultivation. I had a nice one going last summer and fall, but after doing a workshop with it, which entailed weeks of bread baking in advance to better my sourdough skills (I’m a novice after all, but novices can share knowledge, too), I couldn’t stomach another round of sponges and rising times so I decided to let the starter sleep for a while in the fridge. Then I forgot to feed it for quite a long time (… months….) and so of course it died. Since then I’ve started a starter several times but each time life called me elsewhere and I didn’t follow up on it, and thus another one would buy the farm.

The last death was an epic one — I had trucked my starter to the workshop Mas and I did the other week, along with a few other DIY projects I had hanging around the apartment, plus a load of books having to do with our subject. After we’d finished up at the end of day 3, Mas and I went to another meeting for a different project we have going on, and after that meeting a group of us went out for a beer, which turned into going to Pachinko, and in case you had any doubts, no, sourdough starters do not like going to hipster dive bars. Because, yes, I was that stupid to pack up my starter AND not only my starter, but a dozen or so books, too, and take them out on the town with me. In my defense I hadn’t anticipated moving around as much as we did. I had packed up the books so as to avoid having to lug them all back after the last day of the workshop, and had taken along my starter as well because I feared for its safety. I clearly didn’t fear for its safety all that much, though, or at least not enough to verify that the lid to the jar was screwed on securely. I think we all know how this is going to end…

Sourdough starter all over my coat:

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The stupidity of carrying a jar of starter in the same bag as some of your most prized books:

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Including library books… about bread:

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No, I’m not slitting my wrists in despair there — Alvaro suggested letting the starter dry a bit and then shaving it off with razor blades.

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It sort of worked, but since starter is wet there are a few books with permanently damaged covers or pages. Including one library book (Le Pain) which I’ve now got to replace. Stupid, stupid.

After a brief mourning period, I began a new starter. Here it is this morning, day eight or so:

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Tonight I’m going to make a sponge, tomorrow I’ll be organizing my day around rising times for the dough, and with luck we’ll have fresh sourdough for tomorrow night’s dinner. I’ve got high hopes for this starter, by far the most lively I’ve ever managed to cultivate. I’m guessing it’s the flour (organic, 95% whole wheat, recently ground).

I feel a renewed motivation to be a better caretaker (and not only because I’m doing another workshop in three weeks, coughcough) — maybe it’s the coming springtime making me think of growing things. Who knows. It’s probably also because I feel more direction in the bread part of my research, and am starting to lay out more of a methodology and thinking about how to present it. I feel kind of wary of having a fixed idea in mind of what I’m going to produce, because that can steer the research process and cause me to miss out on a path that might not be the obvious one but which might lead me toward something interesting. But at the same time, having an image of what I’m working toward helps me stay more focused and I feel more confident in what I’m doing if I have an idea of the route. I guess I’m more tree than rhizome.

Start o’ the garden 2014


Last Friday Mas and I spent from late morning till early evening waking up our garden parcel for planting. I felt like we did loads of work but when I stood back to look at it at the end of the day it still looked like a dormant, wintry patch of soil for the most part. That will change.

Before: (our parcel is L-shaped, the one covered with branches on the exterior there)

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The biggest chore was cutting back and pulling out much of the grass that had crept into the parcel. We grow food, not lawns. Pulling out all that grass along with its big, stubborn roots only confirmed my hatred of the species.


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Mas spent most of the day re-edging the outer border of the plot and began preparing the ground for planting flowers. We’re hoping that will keep the grass from creeping up again, in addition to attracting bees. And looking pretty.

In addition to direct sowing a variety of seeds, I planted ten or so baby potatoes that had sprouted in my kitchen. We’re going to make a potato tower but in the meantime I marked the spot with a rock circle. If our neighbors ask I’ll tell them it’s an energy vortex.

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The most fun part of the day for me was starting to build an herb spiral. I’d seen one before in the garden of a friend of Mas’s, and when the friend explained the system it made so much sense that I decided I needed to try it. I have a thing for architectural feats of gardening. We don’t have a lot of space to work with (the link there suggests 2 meters diameter) so it’s a bit edited down, but still in keeping with the principles.


There’s very clear, detailed explanations of all of this on the site I linked to above, but basically the structure of an herb spiral creates micro climates through the particular orientation of the spiral, rock walls, and varying elevation to effect soil hydration. Plants that call for more sun, more heat, and less water are planted toward the top of the spiral, while plants requiring more water and less sun are planted toward the bottom (oriented toward the north). All this means that you can grow more and diverse herbs in a smaller space than you normally could with straight planting on level ground.

Building the spiral:

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Partly done:

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I ran out of rocks (O Woe Is Ye, say people with rocky soil) so I’m going to need to track down some more. Also we only had three herbs in the garden (rosemary, oregano, thyme) so that’s all there is for now. Only the oregano did well last year, so I’m hoping the change of scenery for the other two will do some good. I’d like to add chives, cilantro, parsley, and mint, but I’m a little afraid of planting mint lest it take over the entire yard. To be seen.

This week I’m going to get some leeks, lettuce, and radish in the ground, in addition to the new herbs. Plus a whole load of onions — one of “my people” at the farmer’s market gave me a freebie couple of handfuls of onion seedlings.

So, this is the garden after all that hard work:

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You see what I mean? Five hours of intense work and this is what we have to visibly show for it. People in need of instant gratification, beware.

Welcome to your new home, little one

Welcome to your new home, little one

Reading & living in the trees

How to Begin Living in the Trees — conversation with Pierre Bal-Blanc, Ferran Barrenblit, Alexandra Baudelot, Binna Choi, Eyal Danon, Maria Lind, Pablo Martinez, Sanne Oorthuizen, Emily Pethick, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, Tadej Pogačar

Tony Negri – Reflections on the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics (the manifesto is here)

There is still space for subversive knowledge!


The Rise of Anti-Capitalism (NY Times)

Starving College Students and the Shredded Social Contract (The Nation)

College students, of course, have long been broke, and plenty members of today’s professional class nurture nostalgic memories of their ramen years. What we’re looking at here, though, isn’t picturesque slumming—it’s serious poverty. A recent paper in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, for example, found that 59 percent of students at one midsize rural university in Oregon had experienced food insecurity in the previous year, with the problem especially acute among students with jobs. “Over the last 30 years, the price of higher education has steadily outpaced inflation, cost of living, and medical expenses,” the authors wrote. “Recent changes to federal loan policies regarding the amount and duration of federal aid received as well as how soon interest will begin to accrue after college may exacerbate the financial challenges students face. Food insecurity, as a potential consequence of the increasing cost of higher education, and its likely impact on student health, learning and social outcomes should not be considered an accepted aspect of the impoverished student experience, but a major student health priority.”

Imagining the future of my avocado tree

The avocado tree in the kitchen is growing like mad, such that I’m starting to question its terrestrial origins. Since its original sprouting in a cleaned-out yogurt pot, I’ve moved it twice to bigger jars. I swear you can practically see it growing. It’s now in a two-liter mason jar, and as of this morning the root has reached the bottom. Time to move homes again.

This time I’m going to plant it in soil, since it’s well ready for that, but I’m going to do it indoors because we’re in alpine region here and not necessarily rooted ourselves. I’m hoping that my tree will be content to live in a large pot for a couple more years before I find it a proper home in the ground.

As the tree is going into the ground eventually, I’m not concerned with getting it a pretty ceramic pot. 100% utilitarian here. So I went to the flower shop across the street from our apartment and asked if they had any largeish bins lying around that I might take for my tree’s temporary home. The sales lady looked at me dumbly. “No, we don’t have anything like that.” I didn’t believe her, because I saw with my own two eyes all the decapitated flowers they had sitting in large, black plastic bins. Surely they had a few extra of those in the back? “No, we don’t have any. We carry pots like this,” she said, indicating with a wave the fake-hydrangea-filled 150 Euro chinoiserie that I was not interested in buying. I was annoyed but didn’t feel like pushing it further, and so I left, and that’s when I saw stacks upon stacks of exactly the sort of plain bin I was looking for. Next to the dumpster. So, like I’m sure you would have done in the same situation, I returned to the shop at night with Alvaro and his mother (in town for a visit) and went dumpster diving.

I haven’t done it yet but this week I’m going to pound a few holes in the bottom of the bin for drainage and plant the tree in some nice loamy soil. A few sources for proper avocado tree care:

Edible Plants — UCCE Master Gardeners of Orange County, CA

SF Gate: What Kind of Soil is Good for Avocado Trees? and Conditions Required to Grow an Avocado Tree

Morton, J. 1987. Avocado. p. 91–102. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.

University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources: Avocado Production in Home Gardens

After getting the tree in the ground (and by that I mean the pot), and I’m projecting quite a bit here, I’m going to start planning the tree house that will eventually grace its branches. All my research online for “how long does it take an avocado pit to grow into a tree capable of supporting a tree house?” has turned up zero results. Even bearing fruit is questionable. For one, it appears that you need to graft the trees, so I’m going to need to find someone with a producing tree if I want mine to grow fruit. When they do finally produce is also uncertain. I’ve found estimates ranging from four to thirteen years. Since trees can bear fruit when they’re still quite small, I reckon that the tree house-supportive stage is easily three times the upper end of that estimate, or thirty-odd years. I’m also making this estimate based on the fact that when my parents moved into their current house I was four years old, and they planted a forest of saplings out back; I’ll soon be 33 and those trees are now quite large, more than sturdy enough to hold tree houses. So do the math…

I’ve built two tree houses — one in an actual tree and one made partially out of living trees. They were fun projects and good learning experiences but I feel like with both there were certain things that didn’t turn out the way I wanted, or else there were things I did that I would do differently now. I felt a bit of a time crunch, because both times the tree houses were on someone else’s property, and there were children residing there, and so in the rush to perform I didn’t do things the way I might have done had I had a nice long time (like thirty years) to plan everything out.

So: Welcome, this is the first installment in an ongoing archive of research into the non-rushed building of the avocado tree house.

Today’s links: DIY ovens, woven homes & Digitized Thoreau

Design is supposed to give form to a gap in people’s needs. This lightweight, mobile structural fabric could potentially close the gap between need and desire as people metaphorically weave their lives back together, physically weaving their built environment into a place both new and familiar, transient and rooted, private and connected.



Digital Thoreau: Thoreau Digitized. Deliberately.

What is Digital Thoreau?

In Walden, nineteenth century American author, philosopher and activist Henry David Thoreau famously declared that he went to the woods because he wished to “live deliberately.” In the same work, he also wrote that “Books must be read as deliberately as they were written.”

Digital Thoreau is a resource and community dedicated to promoting the deliberate reading of Thoreau’s works in new ways that take advantage of technology to illuminate Thoreau’s creative process and facilitate thoughtful conversation about this words and ideas.




At long last, and just in time for spring!

I almost lost it with the second thumb but I stuck with it. Warning to the wearer: these mitts are infused with a whole lot of swearing.

Next stop: learn knitting. No offense to crochet, I like it, but I’ve learned that it takes up three times as much yarn as knitting does and, well, I have a budget…