Across the United States there are thousands of people living clandestinely on public land. There are hundreds in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay area alone. Producer Robin White sought out several longtime wilderness squatters to learn more about how and why they live the way they do.
CURWOOD: There are people who've identified their own wilderness hotspots. You might catch a glimpse of them in wild places across the country, people living illegally in shacks or shelters among the trees. You might describe these forest dwellers as homeless. But that's not how some of them see it. They call themselves wilderness squatters— people living outdoors entirely by choice. Reporter Robin White went in search of some of these people in Northern California.
SERDAHELY: See here, this is isless cherry that a fox has pooped here.
SCHOOLY: Yeah, right.
WHITE: Besh Serdahely and his city friend David Schooly are showing me a steep trail up San Bruno Mountain just south of San Francisco.
SERDAHELY: That’s a cherry. That’s got a coating on there as sweet as can be.
SCHOOLY: Islay is the Indian name–
SERDAHELY: Meaning delicious cherry.
SCHOOLY: Right, uh huh, exactly.
[LAUGHTER, TEASING ARGUMENT]
WHITE: The men argue about who’s going to lead the way. Both of them are excited to show off the mountain and the place where Besh slept in a tree house for 12 years.
SERDAHELY: I just loved the dappling leaves and the - this glorious - just to look - just to open your eyes here.
WHITE: A thousand feet up San Bruno Mountain the air is pretty good and the view of the San Francisco Bay lifts your spirits. The 3,600-acre mountain is an island of wildness. Until recently Besh Serdahely lived here with his wife Thelma. But then San Mateo County found them and knocked down the hand-built tree house which had been on the mountain for 20 years. Deputy county manager Mary McMillan says the county was concerned for the couple’s welfare.
MCMILLAN: Health and safety – fire - those were the biggest concerns. There’s no running water. There’s no sewage. There are no facilities for that couple. So you really cannot reside in a park in that situation.
WHITE: Well there is a pit toilet. Besh’s friend David Schooly believes that San Mateo County just didn’t have the imagination to let the couple live here. Schooly runs San Bruno Mountain Watch, an organization of volunteers that care for the mountain. He leads hikes with hundreds of schoolchildren. On every nature walk he’d bring them to visit Besh and Thelma’s treehouse.
SCHOOLY: The kids are just drawn in immediately. It’s the dream of their childhood. It’s the right way. It’s a connection that we lose from living in the cities and the TVs and the freeways and cars.
WHITE: Schooly says before Besh lived outdoors he tended to drink and his wife Thelma had mental health problems. But Schooly taught them how to identify non-native species and for years, they spent their time weeding the canyons and making them better habitats for the mountain’s endangered butterflies.
SCHOOLY: They’ve done more work than the county or the state or anybody.
WHITE: When the County began pressuring the couple to leave, Besh started drinking again and Thelma got scared. In the end she was seduced away by social workers and that made it easier to get Besh out. But he’s not planning to move inside anytime soon.
[SOUND OF CROWS]
WHITE: There may be several hundred wilderness squatters living in California’s Bay Area. There are also reports of communities in the Sierra Nevada, in Portland, British Columbia and in Utah. Some keep themselves secret for fear of eviction– which makes it hard for a reporter to find them to tell their story. One day I went looking for a community I’d heard about in the redwoods at the edge of a Bay Area city.
[SOUND OF HIKING THROUGH BRUSH, CROWS]
WHITE: So I found an abandoned hut here— has a couple of chairs and there’s a storage bin covered in water. I wonder what’s inside.
WHITE: Well it is somebody’s stuff— there’s a notebook there with some pens and a message. “Hi – Whose is this beauty?” it says. But even after a couple of hours I still couldn’t find people. I found out later that I had been only about a hundred yards from two inhabited huts. It took weeks of unreturned phone calls and letters to mailboxes before I finally met a man named Woodrat who would take me to his place.
[SOUND OF WALKING THROUGH WOODS]
WHITE: He was dressed head to toe in warm woolen clothing. And he kind of walked sideways. I can almost see you walking a certain way here
WOODRAT: I kind of don’t have the sense of it any more It’s so long that I’ve been doing it.
WHITE: You’re kind of stepping and stepping…
WOODRAT: I try to step in the same place most of the time
WHITE: That way he doesn’t pound the ground into a trail - which is partly why it was so hard to find the dwellings. There are five people living in this secret community. They try not to draw attention from the corporation which owns the land they live on. Woodrat’s hut is draped in military camouflage and hidden in tall manzanita bushes with dark red trunks.
WHITE: Can you tell me about your set-up here? It looks like you have a Coleman stove.
WOODRAT: Yeah just the camp stove and a little propane heater. A pretty well stocked kitchen with lots of maple syrup.
WHITE: Woodrat does go into town sometimes where he works for free on an anarchist magazine. His lifestyle doesn’t require a lot of cash. His name he takes from an animal which was nesting outside an earlier cabin.
WOODRAT: The wood rat was constantly building this pile of sticks in front of my door and every morning I would get up and brush it away so that I could get out the door. And one day it just built the sticks in just the right way so that I couldn’t get out.
WHITE: The animal’s daily rebuilding was a metaphor for Woodrat’s underdog life. Eventually he himself had to rebuild his cabin when he was found out.
WHITE: The people in this community say the hide and seek game they play with security guards is more than made up for by waking up in the woods each morning and feeling themselves to be directly a part of nature. The urge for wildness is a deeply rooted part of the American soul. Henry David Thoreau sought refuge in a hut at Walden Pond for much the same reasons as today’s tree dwellers. But Thoreau wasn’t squatting and these people are. They have a more overt agenda.
WHITE; On another visit, it’s a rainy day and Woodrat’s neighbor, Lenny, is busy sweeping his hut.
[SOUND OF SWEEPING]
LENNY: Cleanliness is next to godliness. Or, as I like to say, cleanliness is godliness.
WHITE: Lenny’s been squatting in the woods for 17 years. He’s in his fifties and he identifies himself as Jewish. He dresses in black and sports a pointed hat and stainless steel hose clamps as a form of jewelry. He flouts the law– he’s a hobo and he has a pirate radio show. He’s a dumpster diver and built his hut with scavenged materials.
LENNY: How is that scavenging possible? Well we live in a very wasteful society is probably the main reason
WHITE: Lenny’s hut is shaped like a dented oval to accommodate the trees that grow around it.
LENNY: Compare that to a two or three thousand square foot home where they bulldoze a meadow or cut down a bunch of trees, and the lawns, and the driveway, and the road leading to it, and the telephone poles…
WHITE: Lenny likens the forest squatters to latter-day Robin Hoods.
LENNY: Robin Hood and his merry gang lived in the forest and the bad guy in that story is the sheriff, right, and the king. You’re not supposed to live on the king’s land and the sheriff is the guy who comes round and tries to kick you off, right?
WHITE: But for the people who have to play the Sherriff of Nottingham the problems caused by the squatters contradict the utopian values they claim to uphold. Maggie Fusari is the Natural Resource Manager for the University of California at Santa Cruz which owns 3,000 acres of parkland. She estimates perhaps a hundred people live there in the University’s forests in tree houses, huts and tents. Some of them are students saving money and using the bathrooms at the school gym to shower off. But some are non-students choosing to live out for political reasons.
FUSARI: It’s people who don’t like living in the built world and who feel that their way of living lighter on the land is justified because they don’t make as much of a mess of the land as those of us who live in the city. And there’s definitely a righteousness element to their positions, because I know, I’ve talked to them and I know that— but it’s not negligible.
WHITE: Fusari says she’s worried the squatters will bring their own version of sprawl.
FUSARI: Even in the backcountry if one person is living there, then there’s another, then there’s another, and it grows by accretion to the point where it really is going to have an impact.
WHITE: Fusari says she’s sympathetic with the urge to live outdoors. But she says with the world population threatening to overwhelm nature, people have to accept that living in towns is the best way to preserve the open spaces.
WHITE: For their part the forest squatters say their lifestyle is unconventional enough that they’re not expecting hordes of people to be joining them anytime soon. For Living on Earth, I’m Robin White.
[MUSIC: Purple Ivy Shadows "Ladderback" Field:Guide]
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.
Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.