Driving down the street, in the deep woods of residential Buckhead, Peter Bahouth’s mailbox appears at the edge of a dark green emptiness. I turn down his driveway into a paradise of Georgia shade. To the right is an elegantly aging, white, 1980s contemporary house that has a sort of pyramidal look. A dog and a cat greet me behind a massive plane of glass that faces the driveway. A peek inside reveals a rustic wooden work table, books and papers. We immediately go outside to catch the light, as the sun sets through the open framework of elevated tree houses built in his forested lot next door.
Peter Bahouth: I knew I’d live here. I was invited to a party at this very house five years prior to buying it. It was just a feeling I had.
Karen Tauches: What gave you the idea to make tree houses?
PB: I remember when I was a kid, and the feeling I got from having my own space in a tree. Back then, all I had was a board, which I wedged up high into a tree. This simple device gave me the power and privacy to get away.
Plus, a tree house is the one thing a kid can build. Builders can’t make these.
KT: When did you first build the tree houses? How do you use them? And, how long do you think they’ll last?
PB: 11 years ago. I brought everything here, assembled a crew and built with the site. There were seven large trees to work around. They serve as flexible anchors or supports. The tree houses are not directly attached to the trees; instead they are attached by brackets that the beams slide through. This allows the trees to move independently, and don’t cause harm to the trees themselves. They sway quite a bit and so the tree houses must be flexible in this regard.
KT: That’s a neat idea to “build with the site.” It’s sort of old-fashioned, but I feel that interacting and acknowledging the environment is the essence of property ownership. If you trace things way back, humans had to be sensitive to context when treading on new territory. One did not erase an area to dominate it as developers can do now. A person or a tribe had to occupy and negotiate with a space and its previous tenants. They stalked it, walked it, spent long periods of time with it, learned the nuances and patterns of weather conditions, plant and animal life, geography—in this way, early humans co-habitated with the energy of particular landscapes as a measure of survival. If it was a copasetic relationship, the land gave back by providing protection and abundance. And in this way I can see how early people anthropomorphized mountains, trees, bodies of water or forests. They had a more intimate relationship with nature. This level of care and respect is often lost in modern industrial times and I appreciate your sensitivities to that.
PB: There is a type of building that follows the philosophy of bringing materials to a site and having that place determine what happens next regarding the design. That’s basically what happened after we had figured out a few basic features and collected a bunch of old windows…
KT: When you attempted to buy the adjacent empty lot—where you eventually built the tree houses—the property owner did not want to sell. But you patiently waited for the desired response.
PB: Actually, I threw the I-Ching to determine the right time to make a move. . .You know, if you hit all the traffic lights correctly, you just end up in the right place.
KT: Your personal approach to problem solving seems to transcend conventional science. And yet, it is science that you wish to bring to the attention of government and political influence with your environmental politics. How do you merge the two approaches—the less quantifiable, spiritual side of existence versus cold hard physical facts?
PB: Should we ever act without the two?… It makes sense to always acknowledge both knowledge itself as well as those muscles that recognize intuition and atmospherics. The I –Ching stands for the premise “as above, so below.” It’s a little like when you are thinking about a friend, and then they call.
KT: So, then, regarding the future of the Earth as we know it, you are aware of some terrifying data. What is your attitude?
PB: There is no hope, but we might be wrong. I know things that point to real trouble, but who knows? Things change, and I don’t pretend to know the outcome.
KT: That’s a surprisingly positive remark—
PB: Well, I try to employ a nice combination of pessimism and optimism. One without the other just seems wrong. . .
KT: Early in your career as the director of Greenpeace, you witnessed the sinking of Rainbow Warrior by the French Government. It impacted you that a superpower would come after a non-profit boat over a nuclear protest. How did this effect your politics and attitude?
PB: I took my work more seriously and I realized that after that, not much would scare me.
KT: Tell me about the magnificent 150-year-old shortleaf pine, around which you’ve built a terrific seating area and hammock site.
PB: That’s the place in the tree houses where people look up and say, “Wow.” That tree was here during the civil war and it is just beautiful. The shortleaf pine is the closest thing we have to the long-leaf pine, which used to cover the south. I joke that I want to turn it into a table just to take the edge off how much I love that tree.
Peter Bahouth is a stereoscopic photographer, an environmental activist and a local supporter of the arts. He is the current Executive Director of the U.S. Climate Action Network (http://www.usclimatenetwork.org/), and the former Director of Greenpeace (http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/). Bahouth spends his time shuttling between the D.C. headquarters and home office of his mostly glass home. He has worked with Art Papers (Board Chair), Hambidge Center, MOCA GA and ACP to name a few local art institutions. He is represented by Marcia Wood Gallery.
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