The High-Tech Hobbits of Trout Gulch

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There are several small outbuildings at Trout Gulch, including a tool shop, guest room, an old trailer, a hoophouse for starting plants, and goat paddocks.

In the mountains outside Santa Cruz, California, an intentional community is under construction. On 10 hilly acres in Aptos, three filmmakers and their friends have established a sort of rural hackerspace where the guiding philosophy can be summed up in three letters: DIY. The utopian outpost is called Trout Gulch.

“We’re building a 21st-century hobbit village in which things are extremely bucolic and integrated into nature, but we’re also embracing the best of technology,” says 29-year-old Isaiah Saxon, who grew up on the property and returned with two filmmaking buddies, Sean Hellfritsch and Daren Rabinovitch.

This back-to-the-land trio has a digital animation company called Encyclopedia Pictura.

Ever since they made a big splash with a music video for Icelandic pop diva Bjork, there’s been a steady stream of offers to work on videos and commercials. So far they’ve only agreed to work on two.

“We’ll only do advertisements for products we use,” explains Saxon. “We could certainly be maximizing our potential to make money right now, but that would hinder and slow down the development of this neighborhood that we’re building. It would take us on a road to possibly an empty existence.”

Their existence now might strike some as downright idyllic. Visitors to the compound are immediately taken by the outdoor kitchen and dining area. The food prep and eating is done under a 1,000-square-foot canopy made from redwood logs and corrugated roofing. For baking, there’s an igloo-shaped cob oven built out of earth, chunks of broken concrete, and cement. A large redwood slab serves as a kitchen counter.

Their refrigerator, also outdoors, is actually a commercial freezer that was being discarded by neighbors. Like so many of the hacks and mods done here, the Trout Gulch boys learned how to do the conversion on the web.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of the internet in the lives of Hellfritsch, Saxon, and Rabinovitch.

“We’re self-taught in every possible area,” says Saxon. “To go from complete ignorance on a subject to execution of a project within a week is pretty normal here.”

You might expect an internet-savvy crew like Hellfritsch, Saxon, and Rabinovitch to have tons of computer gear, but the Encyclopedia Pictura office at Trout Gulch, currently located in Saxon’s mother’s house, basically consists of three modest worktables with MacBook Pros.

At the moment, there are several small outbuildings at Trout Gulch, including a tool shop, guest room, an old trailer, a hoophouse for starting plants, and goat paddocks. The compound has outdoor showers and a composting toilet.

Encyclopedia Pictura’s web intern, Rob Wilson, sleeps in a tree house that’s 24 feet off the ground. Hellfritsch and Saxon live in tiny houses not far from the kitchen. Walk through a stand of redwood trees and up a steep hill and you’ll get to Rabinovitch’s thatched hut, which is made out of an invasive species from South America commonly known as pampas grass. The hut’s door is only 4 feet tall, causing visitors to wonder whether a gnome might dwell within.

“This is basically a sleeping chamber that is built to last about 10 years, and then decay beautifully into the land and become mulch,” says Rabinovitch, 33. “We’d like to figure out how to live in the forest and not just trample everything.”

As you approach the hut, a 175-watt solar panel comes into view, providing a wonderful metaphor for how the bucolic and space-age coexist here. The photo-voltaic panel, which rests on a frame made from tree branches, powers LED lights and Rabinovitch’s laptop.

Saxon and musician Meara O’Reilly live together in a tiny house they built across a dirt road from the kitchen. The 160-square-foot structure has a 14-foot peaked roof and was constructed of
locally harvested wood and reclaimed lumber.

True to the Trout Gulch credo of documenting and sharing, Saxon and O’Reilly have posted Google SketchUp illustrations of their tiny house on the company website, Encyclopedia Pictura.

“Core to our philosophy is [the belief] that with proper documentation and proper information sharing, any averagely capable person should be able to pick up what may seem like a daunting task and learn it,” Saxon says. “I think everyone in this country is capable of building their own house, even using power tools that may intimidate them.”

One factor in the appeal of Trout Gulch is the regular visits of “DIY Heroes.” In the winter of 2010-11 the Gulch was home to Marcin Jakubowski, a Princeton-educated physicist whose Open Source Ecology project is making prototypes for 50 different DIY industrial machines, including tractors, a saw mill, and a compressed earth brick press that can turn out 5,000 bricks a day–enough for a home.

Many of the weekend regulars at Trout Gulch are Bay Area friends of the three filmmakers. They feel a part of this place.

“A lot of us who are part of the community don’t actually live here right now,” said May Nguyen, a graphic designer and landscaper at an urban agriculture group in Oakland called Planting Justice. “Our jobs are still up in the city but we’re trying to contribute however we can.”

Nguyen was helping dig a graywater wetland that uses waste water from the outdoor kitchen sink to irrigate a fruit orchard. The project was supervised by Brent Bucknum, a restoration ecologist with the Oakland-based Hyphae Design Laboratory. Bucknum met the Trout Gulch fellas up in Ukiah, California, where he was building a composting toilet that resembled human intestines.

“We’re sort of working with these guys in trade for video production and a nice place to escape from the city,” said Bucknum. “I guess we’re lured by the good food, too.”

Much of that food is grown in the Gulch’s garden, just a few paces from the outdoor kitchen. Farmer Ryan Hett, a North Dakota native, presides over a garden with beds that are 18 inches deep. The garden was created by double digging: removing the soil, mixing it with compost, and then putting it back. Saxon says such beds are unrivaled for bio-intensive production.

“I think people are excited by the freedom of this place and the amazing sense of empowerment you get from being able to build everything around you,” he says.

When the filmmakers at Trout Gulch ponder the notion of building everything around them, they also think along virtual lines. They’re working on a medium called augmented reality (AR). Think of it as a real-time view of the surrounding environment that’s digitally manipulable. “What you have is essentially magic.” says Saxon. “We’re going to try to be the Walt Disney of augmented reality.”

They’re also working on their first feature film together. It chronicles the adventures of a 12-year-old boy and his crafty friends who leverage the talents of their town’s carpenters, mechanics, and gearheads in a rebuilding effort after a devastating flood. The film’s tentative title is DIY.

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter and podcast producer. He covers the DIY scene for NPR. Excerpted from MAKE(No. 30), a quarterly magazine that brings the do-it-yourself mindset to all the exciting projects in your life, and helps you make the most of technology at home and away from home.

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