Primitive Hut

If you live at the wildland/urban interface then you have to make a decision, either actively of by default, as to the most appropriate demeanor to adopt as a creature confronting a substantially alien environment. Broadly speaking, you can stand apart or attempt to be a part. Similarly, that carapace we call home can be designed to either confront or acquiesce to, the primal energy of the wilderness.

As I point out in Bingo, we are now and forever discontinuous with our aboriginal environment - having been well and truly cast out of the Garden of Eden - but as Joseph Rywkwert notes in his book, On Adam's House in Paradise: the Idea of the primitive Hut in Architectural History, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., 1971, “Paradise is a promise as well as a memory," and, he argues, humankind’s quest for the archetypal dwelling has, historically, been most often resolved as a Hut which...

“ some way resembled or commemorated those which ancestors or heroes had built at some remote and important time in the life of the tribe. ... And in every case they incarnate some shadow or memory of that perfect building which was before time began: when man was quite at home in his house, and his houses as right as nature itself.”

We took the barn as our archetypal model and situated it in a clearing. I like to think of it as an extruded hut. It is notionally open to the landscape and our conceit is that the land flows, like the canyon breezes, through the short axis of the building.

Although Rykwert focuses on the Western tradition, it is the Japanese custom of the simple life lived in a simple dwelling that speaks to me more insistently and it is my sons William and Griffin, who were the first victims of my pursuit of this elegant ideal - in 1998 they were each immured in a ten-foot square ‘hut’ or hojo on our property in Santa Monica Canyon.

Kamo-no-Chomei’s Hojoki or Record of the Ten-foot-Square Hut, Kyoto, 1212, is an undisputed masterpiece of Japanese literature, and its opening lines are known by every school-age child in that country,

“The river flows on ever changing, on the still pool foam appears and disappears, and so it is with the people and houses of this world....”

Rereading the translation by Burton Watson in his Four Huts - Asian Writings on the Simple Life, Shambala, Boston, 1994, I noticed my inscription on the flyleaf, “For William, Enjoy your New Hut, Love Dad, 1998”. Will was 13, his brother Griffin 7. They were to be sequestered each night in the hojo for the next five years until Will went to college, and then Griffin alone with Derek, our dog (Wild Thing) for a further four until he went away to board at Happy Valley School.

The word hojo has developed over the centuries to mean a Buddhist monk’s cell with an integrated garden. Our hojo functioned as a pair of 10’ x 10’ huts - in the original limited meaning - and in the later sense as novice monk’s quarters, for both rooms opened out to the south to a small sunken courtyard garden. The hojo was the only new structure in a compound that included two single-wall craftsman buildings from about 1915, and its simplicity informed the design of our Koenigstein house.

Kamo-no-Chomei wrote Hojoki at the beginning of the Kamakura Period, at a time of great political uncertainty and it records his retreat to the north of Kyoto where he lived in his simple dirt-floored and thatch-roofed hut in the forest - where the deer have no fear of him and trailing boughs of wisteria frame his views. There are obvious parallels with Thoreau: both Walden and Hojoki are examples of pastoral or hermit literature and Chomei has been called "the Japanese Thoreau".

Thoreau's cabin and Chomei's hojo are both huts and both exist at the wildland/urban interface: on Mt. Hino beyond Kyoto and Walden pond outside of Concord, MA. Thoreau and Chomei were, in varying degrees, political refugees and attempted to establish a cosmic-biological connection to their surrounding landscape.

Many years ago Lorrie and I stayed in a ryokan at Ohara for a month while studying the temples and gardens of Kyoto. Chomei writes, “five years I spent in the clouds of the Ohara Hills, though I have little to show for it”, and it was here, failing to find enlightenment, that he decided to build his hut on Mt. Hino further to the south. We had an altogether more positive experience. It was in Ohara that I fell in love with Japanese minka, the traditional farmhouse - in its simplest form not much more than a hut - and Lorrie was entranced with a traditional Japanese style of architectural drawing that ‘folds out’ elevations from the plan and in that style she drew Sanzen-in, a buddhist temple which dates back, through several iterations, to 788 and was across the street from our inn.

Chomei’s signature hut, the hojo, went on to influence the form of the tea house as well as suggesting the basic form of the monk’s cell. Such elemental buildings occur all over the world and here in Ventura County the Chumash built their version of the primitive hut.

I was looking at an 1853 map of Ventura recently and Indian territory was indicated either side of the mouth of the Ventura River - in that wedge of land between what is now the 33 Highway and Taylor Ranch Road which runs to the north below the hills that rise up beyond the delta. This was after missionization had run its course and it was a dispirited people that hung on in the littoral. But even at this stage they were still building their domed grass houses because as late as 1924, a Chumash man by the name of Jose Romero built a version at the Ventura County Fair. Their structure is thus well documented.

Willow and sycamore were used to erect a framed hemisphere approximately twenty feet in diameter and ten feet high. Tule (bulrush, Scirpus spp). was used to thatch the exterior and provide matting for the interior. Even the door was made of bulrushes and tule mats were also used as partitions in these huts that would house up to fifty people. There is still a tule marsh at the mouth of the Ventura River. Although more famous for their plank canoes, the Chumash also made so called balsa canoes of bundled bulrushes (Jan Timbrook).

The Chumash huts were typically clustered quite close together in villages and such social congeries of buildings belong in a quite separate category to the kind of eremitic tradition of Chomei and Thoreau. Similarly, many wildland/urban interface dwellers live in areas of suburban-like density pushed up against the wildland. But many of us in Upper Ojai have crossed over that line - we are not hermits, and not all of us live in huts, but we have deliberately spurned the social proximities of the suburb and embraced the primal energy of the wilderness and seek a cosmic-biological connection with our environment.