We are currently living in a way that is indisputably unsustainable. The ecological resources on which modern housing depend are becoming increasingly scarce, and the excessive carbon footprint left behind by "McMansions" and sprawling suburban developments are leading more and more people to seek radically greener housing alternatives.
This is the first of a five-part series called "Off the Grid," in which we explore environmentally-sustainable, self-sufficient communities across the globe. We'll attempt to answer the question: Is green, off-grid living our future? This week, we take a look at a treehouse village in the rainforests of Costa Rica.
Imagine a world where you wake up among the treetops, where neighbors glide door-to-door on zipline canopy "trails" and swinging vines, where fruit, vegetables and cacao are harvested on site, where fresh meals are prepared in a communal kitchen. A wholly self-sufficient, sustainable forest utopia. It's la pura vida in the sky.
Though this may sound like some sort of fantastical, arboreal otherworld straight out of a William Cullen Bryant poem, such a community exists in the lush rainforests of southern Costa Rica. Christened "Finca Bellavista" (which translates to "ranch with a beautiful view"), it's the world's first modern off-grid treehouse community.
A Lofty Idea
Like most success stories, it all started with one crazy dream -- and "quite a bit of naivete," said the community's creators, Erica and Mateo Hogan (pictured below), who spontaneously began building on 62 acres of lush forest in 2006. (The treehouse community now spans almost 600 acres of secondary rainforest and reclaimed pasture).
"We literally stumbled upon the land and the opportunity, and the idea to build a treehouse village just popped into my head," said Erica Hogan, who at the time was an associate editor at a newspaper in Crested Butte, Colo. She and her husband, then the co-owner of a roofing contracting company, were immediately struck by the unspoiled enclave, abundant with whitewater rivers, wildlife and views over the blindingly blue Golfo Dulce. It was the perfect setting to build a treehouse -- or five.
"Once your imagination takes over, it's hard to get it to stop," Hogan added. "I didn't envision just one treehouse, [I wanted] my friends in the tree next door to me, with a zipline from my house to theirs. It just made sense at the time, and it seemed fun."
The couple were also inspired by the leafy, fictional "Star Wars" society of Endor. The Ewoks of Endor lived high among the trees in villages. There existed a "Central Village" of thatched-roof huts on the primary limbs, with suspended bridges connecting the trees and adjoining huts. As fate would have it, this is more or less how Finca Bellavista (affectionately known as "the Finca") itself turned out.
Stuck in the Mud
That initial euphoria, however, was swiftly dampened by the unnerving challenges posed by building a sustainable, off-the-grid development literally from the ground up.
To begin with, the site, located at the base of a rainforest mountain and bordered by Rio Piedras Blancas and Rio Bellavista, was initially set aside for potential timber harvesting. The couple not only lacked the financial resources to snap up the 62 acres -- more than they wanted to purchase, but they were determined to save the land from deforestation -- but they also had to convince neighboring landowners that their precious native forest wouldn't be bulldozed to make room for a "gringo" subdivision.
With support from their friends, family and local communities back in the United States, they were eventually able to buy the land outright. And with some "serendipity and good luck," the neighboring native landowners were satisfied that the Hogans weren't planning to tear their trees down for "McMansions with a view," and they went on to sell their own parcels of land to the couple.
A Peek At Finca Bellavista
But even after tackling these initial hurdles, making their dream a reality was anything but smooth sailing. The Hogans were suddenly confronted with their most arduous challenge: constructing fully-functioning arboreal structures using only the resources of the land.
Running water, for example, had to be gravity-fed from rainwater catch tanks mounted high above. Electricity needed to be generated through solar panels. The treehouses themselves were built by hand using sustainably harvested teak from a nearby plantation and naturally felled manna negru and corteza from the forest itself. Limited resources, a humid environment, cultural misunderstandings and the poor quality of telecommunications in a Second World country all added to the already arduous (and at times, seemingly impossible) task. To make matters worse, during the first two years of construction, the Hogans were forced to live "in a tent in the mud."
"Had we known what we were getting ourselves into, we likely wouldn't have started this journey," admitted Erica Hogan. "Now, of course, we're glad we did -- but it hasn't been easy. Now we are finally getting to the good stuff."
'The Way Humans Are Meant to Live'
Six years later, Finca Bellavista has expanded to five true treehouses and 25 structures, including a community center complex. Though many of the community's residents don't live on-site year-round, more are opting to. Some residents are even running full-fledged telecommuting businesses from the treetops of the Finca.
It's not too difficult to see why some are transitioning from plugged-in "modern life" to this increasingly remote and pared-down way of living in the treetop realm; in fact, the idea has been explored for years. Though no record has been made of a true, year-round treetop society other than Finca Bellavista, there have been numerous attempts at temporary arboreal, off-grid living in the forms of eco-tourism and even activism.
At the popular Collines de Niassam Lodge in Palmarin, Senegal (pictured at right), for example, accommodations include solar- and wind-power treehouses built on the branches of native baobab trees. Similarly, at the Green Magic Resort in Kerala, India, treehouses run entirely on renewable energy. (Cookers are powered by cow dung and kitchen waste, and food is grown on-site and is served on banana leaves "without forks or knives.")
For years, treehouses have also proven to be an effective tool for environmental activists to stall logging operations. The Fall Creek Tree Village in Oregon, for example, was occupied by an estimated 1,000 activists for almost six years. (As a result, the Fall Creek forest still stands today). The infamous treehouse village consisted of seven completely off-the-grid treehouses that relied on solar and wind power for energy, hydroponic sprout farms and composting toilets.
The slow but deliberate move toward simplicity and back-to-basics living lends us an interesting view of the future. A growing desire for purposeful detachment from "modern society's" reliance on technology, excessive materialism and instant gratification is driving more and more people out of cities and back into the wild, said Ayako Ezaki, of the International Ecotourism Society. Even if it's for a week at a time.
"I think that living a greener lifestyle is our future and already becoming a reality, slowly but surely, in many countries," Ezaki said.
Erica Hogan echoed Ezaki's sentiments, adding that people are becoming increasingly aware of the wastefulness and unsustainable nature of this generation's current lifestyle. Humanity, she said, had become sidetracked and numb from an overabundance of "conveniences and other distractions," and we're finally starting to wake up to it.
"I don't believe that the intention of mankind was to create a 24-hour on-demand society, which is essentially what happened over the course of a few decades," she said.
Contrary to popular belief, the simpler lifestyle in the treetops of the Finca is very comfortable, and residents don't lack for anything, according to the Hogans. If anything, the abundance of the natural world offers more meaning and fulfillment than the freneticism and excess offered by the standard of modern living today -- and people are flocking to Costa Rica for a taste of it.
"The wildlife and the immersion in the environment can't even be explained. It's an experience and a life like no other," Erica Hogan adds. "We fall asleep to the sounds of the crickets and glass frogs and wake up to the sound of birds. You get into this amazing rhythm with nature, and I truly feel this is the way humans were meant to live."
Treetop living may, understandably, be too large of a leap for many city dwellers, and, in any case, completely off-the-grid living may not be a lifestyle that everyone is suited for. But Ezaki insists that there are still significant lessons to be learned from the treetop dwellers of Finca Bellavista.
"I'm not sure whether the idea of living off the grid will ever be mainstream," Ezaki said. "But in many areas of our lives, including through travel, there's a lot that we can adopt from the off-grid lifestyle to try and minimize negative impact and maximize positive impact. Places like Finca Bellavista are a good example of that."
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