Why Does a Tree Fall in Detroit?

Surviving a winter with utopian squatters


in Americana


In late January of 2015, a tree stood wavering on the edge of Detroit’s burnt-out Grixdale neighborhood. A loud, old engine revved. A 100-foot rope tightened. A car strained forward. The tree followed, snapping and dropping into the overgrown yard of an abandoned house. A group of bearded men looked on from the front yard of a fire-ravaged structure across the street. Satisfaction and relief filled them as the final rays of sunlight scattered into the gray horizon. They had lost two ropes and a chainsaw in bringing down the tree, but they comforted themselves with the thought that the abandoned house and the surrounding telephone lines stood unharmed.

They were pretty far from Detroit’s refurbished downtown. Years ago, this neighborhood had succumbed to the rot brought on by the crack wars. Inhabitants fled, homes were torched, and the long blocks, once designed for cars, were left sparsely populated. In 2015, it remained largely abandoned. Sometimes, there were residual flare-ups of violence and theft. Some ways down the road, there remained a crack house. In this quiet, largely forgotten place, however, adjacent to the vistas of empty lots, under the canopy of old-growth trees, there was a new community growing. They lived amongst the neglected red brick houses and chose to call themselves Fireweed, after the pioneer plant species that takes over the landscape after a forest fire.

Fireweed (Music from the Bottle House)

These men were specimens of that community. They and other Fireweed residents rejected the traditional sources of basic amenities. For light, some installed solar panels and some illegally hooked into the city’s electricity in horrifyingly jury-rigged ways. The rest scavenged for candles. At night, they stumbled around with battery-powered headlamps. A few houses ran water, illegally, from the city system. The rest lugged their water in plastic jugs from those houses. The only house that was both associated with Fireweed and fully wired into the grid was that of a chiropractor, Doctor Bob Pizzimenti, a self-described “recluse” in the community who claimed to enjoy watching its developments from afar. All but Doctor Bob’s house were heated with wood stoves.

At the site of the fallen tree, William Phillips ran up through the new darkness and began pulling at the massive knot around the trunk. Chris Albaugh began gathering the tools. Multiple SUVs, bumping up and down under the influence of their blasting hip-hop, slowed a full minute longer than usual at the intersection to stare at the white men running around with axes. Hunter Muckel jumped out of the little red Toyota and slipped the other end of the rope off of the car. He walked over to William, grinning. After a few minutes, they got the rope off the tree. “It’s like a Chinese finger trap,” Hunter said as the rope slithered off the trunk.

They could give Charlie Beaver his rope back, though not his chainsaw, and the whole community would have firewood. The first urban lumberjacking mission by Fireweed’s engineering committee had been something of a success. But what kind of success was this? Why did they choose to live in this way, in this weird, wild land, between prosperous zones that burned without responders? Why did they spend their days chopping trees for janky, jury-rigged wood stoves, rather than buying into electricity and central heating? Why did they choose to live on the edge of desolation?

I’d been here once before. On the cusp of the previous fall, I’d hitchhiked out from Ohio. The stories I’d heard lured me back; stories of train hoppers and men walking across savage America without any destination in mind. There had been one vagabond veteran who’d returned from the war without a plan, without a home, who’d wandered the midwest on foot, sleeping in fields and barns, and draining the long-forgotten booze stashes of forsaken rust-belt hotels. When I came back, I found that these characters were just the superficial ephemera of Fireweed. They’d flittered away as the cold Detroit winter descended and the easy pleasures of summer evaporated, but the core that remained was much more committed, passionate, and confusing.

Fireweed was not ideally set up for winter on Lake Michigan. Even in the summer, the smell of burning wood — the smell of coals and scorched, carbonized earth beneath the bonfires that served as gathering places — had permeated the neighborhood. In the winter, whatever house you walked into, your nose and lungs were assailed by the trapped smoke of the wood stoves. I’d noticed this as soon as I got there. It was hard to miss.

I’d gotten off the greyhound not long after New Year’s day, caught a city bus from downtown to Goldengate, Fireweed’s main street, and pretty quickly made my way up to the living room of 159 West Goldengate, the only building legally owned, at the time, by Fireweed. There were blankets on the walls and a wood stove took up much of the space. It was a big steel barrel turned on its side and mounted on bricks, with a door on the front, a few logs inside, and tubing running up through a hole in the window, carrying smoke from the room and into the atmosphere. Sitting there, I reacquainted myself with three people. They reminded me that there was something other than outlandish stories which had brought me back: I was thrilled by the virility of experimental lives.

I’d stayed with Sara last time. She had widely spaced eyes and wavy brown hair, and she’d come here after finishing a marketing degree. Her homestead was Slide House, across the street. A former goat house and bike shop, it was the least conventional looking home on Goldengate, with its boxy shape, flat, leaking roof, fully graffitied exterior, and a twisting, yellow slide, salvaged from a playground, attached to the front. Sara would light a few candles inside to illuminate brown corduroy couches with cats lounging on them. In the center of the house was another wood stove.

I’d met Shane standing around a fire. He was an impressive figure: tall, lanky, blond, with a big curly beard and, often, an axe in his hand. He’d been there, not exactly from the start, but pretty close. I learned some of Fireweed’s history sitting in that dark, smoky room with him. There’d been a few people squatting on the street as early as 2009 and rumors, as rumors do, had spread. Mars Noumena bicycled 2,000 miles from California to join what he thought was a much more developed community. Not long after, when the winter of 2011 set, Mars invited Occupy Detroit to move from Grand Circus Park to Fireweed. They took over the white house on the street, which became known as the Occupy House. It was used as a neutral space, not permanently occupied by anyone. The Occupiers built a library, a free store, a dishwashing station, a kitchen, and a shower area open to the community.

But it couldn’t last. “It’s very difficult to have a fully liveable home that no one lives in,” Shane said. “With all the demand for living spaces, it’s very hard to keep that locked up.” By the time I got there, Occupy House had been occupied for years by Mary, who kept her gray hair in dreadlocks and ran a shifty business from her living room. She lived with her daughter, a group of mostly local young men known as “the block boys,” and a pack of dogs. Mary and Charlie Beaver, the scruffy, quarrelsome, stubborn, kind, and idealistic gentleman whose chainsaw had jammed mid-tree, constituted Fireweed’s older contingent.

Shane never saw the Occupy era of Fireweed. Not long after those occupiers moved on, his life changed. His job as a manager in the Hilton I.T. department was outsourced and he used his severance bonus to go traveling. Six months into his time bumping around the country, meeting people and visiting friends, he met Zack, a Fireweed resident, at a Philadelphia bus terminal. He spontaneously changed his ticket to a Detroit-bound one-way. When he got there, he moved into 159 West Goldengate, and he’d lived in the same room ever since. At the start, he had a roommate named Coconut, who ran a weekly writers workshop in what’s now the toolroom and expected people to go barefoot despite the abundance of “Detroit diamonds”: the glass shards which litter the streets.

“There were drunken brawls, multiple times a day sometimes, out in the middle of the street, people dragging shotguns and yelling up and down, like, literally absolutely crazy,” Shane recalled of those early Goldengate days, “people getting shot, people getting stabbed constantly, over and over and over again. It was ridiculous. It amazes me that people like Coconut were alone in their little zen space not allowing any of it to hit them.” The final stroke for Coconut was the theft of his bicycle. He left. Shane stayed.

Most days, Shane went out to chop trees and cut rounds. If ever while walking around looking for suitable trees he saw anyone, he’d wave and ask how they were doing. If they offered to help, he’d say maybe they could carry wood later. He seemed to enjoy the solitude of his work. When he finished, wood would be distributed to every house, whether the householders had helped or not. Once every couple of hours, he came in for a few minutes to relax but, thinking of the sunlit hours he’d lose, he’d get up, straighten his snow pants, pull on his boots, gloves, and red Carhartt hat, and return to the eternal task.

Hunter Muckel, on the other hand, was a recent arrival. When he’d moved in, in early August, Detroit had been flooding. Of all the people who lived in the community, he’d taken the least-likely path to end up here. A few years before, when he’d enrolled at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, he’d thought he’d be a business major. Clearly, he wasn’t an anarchist at that point. “I wasn’t a Republican anymore, but I was a Libertarian. I considered myself a Libertarian,” he said. “Then Occupy happened. I went down there and, being the good fiscal conservative that I am, I saw them handing out Coca-Cola hats and was like ‘you guys are handing out corporate sponsorship and you’re talking about not liking corporations!’

“They said ‘Hey! Stop yelling at us from the sidewalk and come over here and talk.’ We started talking, and I realized that the Occupy movement really did align with my fiscal conservatism.

“From then on I was like, you know what? I’m going to start showing up here every day. My first thought was this really egotistical thought. Because I liked the conservative part of the Occupy movement. I wanted to influence Occupy Bloomington in a way that wasn’t radical. I didn’t want them to be radical. I wanted them to be fiscally conservative.”

It didn’t quite work out that way. “The Occupy movement opened my eyes to this totally other way of living,” he told me, his eyes alive with remembered passion. “I started seeking out new ways to look at the world. I stopped smoking pot for Occupy, man. I was serious about that. I didn’t feel the need for it. I was tripping the whole time. I was tripping on Occupy. I learned about intentional communities there. It was incredible. To some extent, I always knew that we were fighting a failing battle and that we were going to get shut down eventually, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to show as many people in the limited amount of time that we had what my eyes had been opened to.”

He began to come down from his trip when general assemblies began to crumble into a few people giving routine speeches. He split off to join the “getting shit done committee.” Its members did what they thought could help without necessarily talking about it. He began to reassert his family’s blue-collar roots and rediscovered a consciousness in action. Rather than the airy sense of accomplishment provided by expounding theory, he demanded thoughtfulness in every act and about the hard facts involved in fulfilling needs.

He graduated with loans weighing on him. He wanted to play music, to visit Armenia and Palestine. He thirsted for adventure, but his father’s invocation of financial responsibility hung over him. A debt, he thought, was a claim on his freedom: it would allow others to enlist his time until he had rid himself of it. So he scrounged up work in Detroit. “I rode in with my motorcycle the day before I had to start my AmeriCorps job.” But Hunter missed the high of Occupy. He missed that sense of discovery and the sense that what he was doing mattered. He started asking around about intentional communities in Detroit. When he found Fireweed, he started spending most of his free time there. Then he moved in.

Eventually, I asked where I could sleep. Sara pointed me to Intentional House, behind Slide House, one street over on Robinwood. It was stewarded by a strange man who went by Irie. He didn’t live there anymore, though. He lived in the Universe Building, a massive warehouse with heat, running water, and electricity a few blocks away, which Fireweed sometimes used as a meeting space. He’d picked up his name while living with Rastafarians in Kalamazoo.

Before this part of Detroit had been abandoned, Intentional House must have been a split two-family home. Irie had decorated it with his collection of quaint and offbeat antique furniture. It looked like part of a ’50s nuclear test suburb. The one operable wood stove sat in a room on the first floor with very high ceilings and an entrance shielded by blankets to trap the heat. Whatever you did, though, whatever you tried, in winter, Intentional House was at least chilly. But you turn numb to the cold.

I had two housemates: Chris Albaugh and William Phillips. We slept in the little room with the high ceiling and the stove. Chris slept on a cot to the side of the stove, William on a couch, in the coldest part of the room, against the back wall, and I in the middle in a pile of blankets. In the dark of the room, we talked while lying down. I told them about myself, though there wasn’t much to tell. They told me about themselves, and there was plenty.

Chris had told himself that he wouldn’t be an adult until he could grow his own food. When Occupy Eugene happened, he dropped out of a lot of his classes at the University of Oregon, stopped paying rent on his house, and moved to the encampment. He went on to visit other Occupy encampments and walked with Walkupy, a traveling cross-country encampment, for two weeks. Occupy left him disillusioned with the idea of protest and revolution in a classical sense. Now, he wanted to work toward revolution one step at a time, acting on a personal level. He wanted to build an alternative society so when the old one collapses, people will have somewhere to turn. He’d moved to Fireweed on Christmas Eve, about a week before I got there, with hopes of working on an urban farm.

He was an intellectual, a dreamer. He’d spout off Walden quotes and makes small talk about anarchist theorists. “My food security is a radical method to liberate myself from my current paradigm,” he said, “but, to an outsider, I’m just growing food, I’m feeding people. Farming is kinda radical but it’s not really that crazy. Maybe it’s in a slightly radical environment, but still, I’m just growing food.”

William looked like Doctor Watson would look after a couple months living in the woods. You could still hear his North Carolina accent. He’d joined the Navy on the heels of 9/11. “They lie to you all through the recruiting process,” he said, so he got out as soon as he could. In 2009, he got involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War. He began thinking and decided that “government is one of the root causes of war and one of the best ways to fight it isn’t so much to fight it but to drop out of it and quit feeding it.” The previous May, he’d found Fireweed on a Libertarian website and had come out to Detroit.

In his life, he tried to avoid assumptions. Sometimes this took a toll on his capacity for optimism. He found the hippie aspects of the community offputting and unproductive. “Will expects there to be social norms, to some extent,” Hunter told me later, “he expects you to not be fucking nuts, which sometimes doesn’t happen around here.” He tried to not let this stop him from helping. With a shy smile, he told me, “I never really tried to spearhead a project, but if they need help with something, they know where to find me.” Then he chuckled.

The fire went out sometime in the night. In the morning, we woke up freezing

The next night, we had trouble getting the fire started again. Once we did, Chris defrosted his feet in the stove. We had some pasta with canned tomato sauce and got into our sleeping arrangements. That night, in the dark, we told jokes.

“Why isn’t there a hunting season on hippies?”

“You ever try to clean one of those things?”

“How do you know if a hippie slept on your couch?”

“He’s still there.”

“What’s the difference between a girls’ track team and a band of pygmies?”

“One is a group of cunning runts.”

The next morning it was still fucking cold.

A few nights went by like this. William began to develop an intense cough and Chris found a completely frozen lemon. We got lucky, not long after that, when Hunter offered us the opportunity to move into Bottle House.

The presiding spirit of the Bottle House was Cookie, a sprite-like local who decorated the house with astounding art which revealed itself if a lucky eye caught it in the right flash of sunlight. At one point, Hunter had moved in too. Bottle House was the only building on Goldengate that could rival Slide House in its inspiring visual oddity. It was known for its friendly orange-and-green paint job and the many colored bottles encased in cob that served as stained glass windows. Its shelves held Edward Lear’s collected nonsense, assorted classics, a Thomas Edison biography, practical engineering books, and a collection of Zane Grey’s novels in matching red hardbacks with titles like Wilderness Trek, Western Union, 30,000 on the Hoof, and Majesty Rancho.

That winter, Cookie left Hunter alone in the house. “She comes and goes, especially in the wintertime,” he said; “She has a million places to stay that are much warmer.” Not to say that the Bottle House wasn’t relatively warm. Hunter’s dad had brought him plenty of wood, which he kept in the basement, and the stove distributed heat well. “I feel the need, as a new person,” Hunter said later, “to welcome other new people.” One morning, he unlocked the door and left for work. Chris and I piled a wheelbarrow with blankets, pillows, Chris’s cot, my backpack, and some food. It took a few trips through the snow to get everything from house to house. I stuffed my coat pockets full of tea bags.

That night, no smoke rose from the roof of Intentional House. Chris and I enjoyed the warmth of Bottle House and William spent the night at the Universe building. At dusk, Intentional House was broken into, rummaged through, and robbed. Chris and I noticed the next day that the back door had been kicked in. Without venturing a look inside, filled with fear that whatever had entered hadn’t left, we walked over to the Universe Building to tell Irie.

“I’ve dreamed so long and now I’m being crushed by my dreams,” Chris moped as we walked. Up ’til then, I’d thought that idealism might have kept people going in this climate, under these conditions. The stakes and the risks hadn’t seemed so stark. You might get cold and you might be hungry, and maybe you’d even get sick, but you’d probably be alright by the time summer came around. That night, however, as far as we knew, Chris might have lost his laptop, his bike, and much besides. In that moment, at least, he’d lost his sense of security. Idealism had to be part of what brought him here, but it couldn’t be what kept him and the rest of the community, which routinely suffered these sorts of setbacks, from leaving.

When we told Irie about the break-in, he told us that his phone had been buzzing with texts the previous night and early in the morning from someone who’d said he’d wanted to stay at Fireweed. He figured that the texts had to come from the person who’d broken into Intentional House. He wanted to report it to the police, until he remembered that, for reasons he wouldn’t make clear, he couldn’t make a police report. William, Chris, and I refused to make the report. It probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference. People at Fireweed estimate that, on average, it takes the police about five hours to respond.

Irie took on the role of detective, trying to reason his way through the crime on the way to its scene. William, naturally enough, joined in as his Watson. I trailed along. The house was a manic mess. There were two pairs of footprints outside, the furniture and any unsecured objects were scattered, drawers hung halfway out of every wardrobe. Chris’s laptop, Irie’s chainsaw, and a bicycle were gone. Irie stalked about, trying to figure out what happened and who could have done it. He went through each room tossing out theories with abandon. At one point he accused William, though he himself could act as William’s alibi. So William gathered his clothes and welding mask and moved to Bottle House.

Irie called the person who’d texted him and found himself on receiving end of a two-hour diatribe. The man on the other end of the line traced his descent from Atlanteans and explained that he was a reincarnation of William Wallace and Nikola Tesla. Irie intermittently interjected “uh-huh” while shaking his head in disapproval and maintaining a dazed, confused, and eerie smile. Mars and Shane figured the culprits were probably crackheads from down the street. Irie remained irate and, ultimately, unsatisfied. One learned to live with mysteries and loss.

According to legend, the first squatter at Fireweed was Hippie Mike. It’s likely there are no other Hippie Mikes in the multiverse and, almost certainly, there is no other place where Hippie Mike could be Hippie Mike. Mike is unmistakable. He seems like the sort of person that could only exist through a single chain of events. His birth, however, was a regular one. It took place in Waterford, about 40 miles from Goldengate. When he turned 18, his mom kicked him out and he discovered the country, hitchhiking. In that time, he worked as a short-order cook in four different Waffle Houses across America. His favorite was in Arizona and, in quiet moments, he dreamed of returning to the beautiful, arid state.

About seven years before I got there, a girl brought Mike to a drum circle at Doctor Bob’s. He took a wander around the neighborhood and decided that he’d found his spot. Where others saw risk and decay, Mike saw free housing. In the wake of his monumental vision, a community was born.

Mike was the first person to show up to the weekly community meeting and potluck at the Universe Building. His monk-pattern balding scalp was bobbing and his scraggly beard spread out to conform with his smile. He talked, with his characteristic mumble-slurring, about his favorite subject, “cannabis caregivers and patient providers.” His dream was to become a certified “cannabis caregiver” and to grow his own weed, but this was foiled by his constant lack of capital. Eventually, the rest of the community arrived and the meeting started.

Fireweed theoretically functions on a consensus structure, similar to Occupy, in which the community discusses an issue or a proposal until all or nearly all of the members come to an agreement on it. In actual practice, people announce and explain their intentions and projects at the weekly meetings and in regular conversation and whoever supports them consents to help.

Mars led the meeting, as usual, though he no longer lived at Fireweed. He ran a pedicab company in downtown Detroit and he’d moved to be closer to his work. He’d started shopping at Whole Foods but still carried a large knife on his belt. Sara took notes, as usual, and William was unusually empowered to speak by taking stock, keeping track of the order in which people wished to contribute. Hunter and Chris were as loud and talkative as usual. There were others who talked. I kept quiet, mostly. Charlie Beaver was high, instead of plastered, and unusually placid. The only flare-up was the revelation that Doctor Bob owned Slide House and was considering turning it back into a goat house. Sara snapped “how many of you have actually raised goats before?” About a quarter of the hands went up.

Afterward, there was a smaller meeting about how they ran the meetings. This might sound like the birth of redundant bureaucracy in this fledgling society, but it brought out something important. Fireweed was disproportionately male, white, and nonlocal, in a city that is 83 percent African American and, like most cities, has a basically 50-50 gender distribution and a majority local population. So why were the members of this community different? I suppose it’s to be expected that an unusual project will attract people from far away. But why white and male? And, if the members of the community didn’t reflect the people around them, how could they benefit Detroit, or even the wider Goldengate community, as well as themselves?

At the end of the night, Sara threw out a single soggy White Castle bun, the remains of Mike’s dumpster-dived contribution to the potluck. “Hey! Dig that up out of there!” Mike shouted. “I’m a freegan. I live on that stuff!” The only thing he got consistently mad about was waste. One time he took a few vegetables out of Fireweed’s garden and traded them for a beer. When Shane found out, he sought out Mike, who promptly offered him some. Shane simply nodded, took the bottle, and turned it upside down.

Hunter and Chris didn’t stick around for the drama of Mike’s buns. After the meeting about meetings, they walked over to an abandoned, remarkably well-preserved house on Robinwood. It had clung to all its carpeting, and, instead of the holes left by scavengers yanking out wiring to sell as scrap copper that decorated many of the walls in the neighborhood, it had Dora the Explorer stickers and other remnants of a happy family life. The man who’d started squatting here not long ago, Moe, had a couple things in common with this house. He’d seen and lived through the turmoil and changes that rocked Detroit. His family had lived here for generations. That winter, unlike the rest of us, he didn’t have an out. Hunter had supportive parents, Chris had a mother in a warmer climate and periodically thought about trying to find money for a bus ticket out there, and William was thinking about leaving later in the year. Hell, I was going to be gone at the end of the month. Moe didn’t have an easy exit. Except for a brief interlude in the military, Detroit was what he knew and had always known. This place, its challenges, and the hustle that it took to survive weren’t new to him.

Fireweed surprised him, though. He’d started stopping by Bottle House after finishing a temp gig distributing flyers around the city. He’d play a game of chess with Chris, and most of the time he’d win. One day, Hunter gave him a lift to the store without asking for anything in return. “Why’re you doing this?” Moe asked. “If I buy a pack of cigarettes, I’ll give you a couple cigarettes and we’ll be good.”

“If you want to give me a cigarette, I’ll take a cigarette,” Hunter said, “but you don’t have to give me a cigarette.”

“I don’t get it,” Moe said.

“That comes from living here, man,” Hunter reasoned later on. “That comes from living in a city where you take, take, take, and there’s scarcity so bad that you need to take, take, take.” Maybe it wasn’t his place to say it, but it’s a conclusion that’s hard to miss. The difference between us and Moe, between people who, at one point, at least, had a choice about whether they were going to live here or not and those who didn’t, came out in the way we looked at the world. But these weren’t insuperable barriers, and the longer the residents were around each other and the more time they spent here, the more muddled their views became. Moe was, for the moment, willing to try Fireweed’s paradigm. Someone had stumbled on four steel barrels. They’d contained chemicals of some sort at some point, but, with a little work, they would serve beautifully as wood stoves. Moe was down to put in a little work if it meant he could be a little warmer.

The stove that was to be installed in his house had a new design. It stood upright rather than horizontal, giving it a flat cooking surface on top. Shane, after years of living through Detroit winters, in a cautious, conservative mode, objected to such experimentation because the alternative to success was allowing a house to freeze, or burn. Moe was willing to try it. We rolled the four salvaged barrels down the middle of the snowy streets, kicking them to keep them going, sometimes leaning in to give them a steering push. In Charlie Beaver’s backyard, we filled them with wood and paper and lit fires. At first, the inflamed chemicals rose in a cornucopia of color towards the sky, then, pure black smoke began to spew out in a steady geyser until the barrels had been burned clean. Hunter operated Charlie’s angle grinder to cut holes for the chimneys and doors. One barrel went to Moe, one to another house in the community, one was used as material for stove doors, and one was a spare stove.

We rolled Moe’s barrel over to his place and shoved it up the stairs to the room in which he planned to sleep. To prop it above the carpeting, we carried over cinder blocks out of a burnt-out house down the street. I dropped mine a couple times. I’d never carried something that heavy that far before. We had to chisel out a hole in the brick wall of that room to run the chimney tubing out. It would need a bit of insulation around the tubing. Heat was a negotiation. After more than a bit of work, it was ready. When Hunter and Chris walked over that day, after the meetings, they ran the tubing through the wall, and with Moe they built a fire. When the stove worked, Moe’s house was warm. When William and I got there a couple hours later, we threw off our coats. It was almost worryingly warm, but it worked.

By this time, the residents of Bottle House, Hunter, Chris, William, and I, had begun to think of ourselves as an engineering committee. Our meetings were in nearly constant session. Each day, it would start at just about ten a.m. over eggs and coffee. By then, Hunter would have been up for hours, since sunrise. Chris would pop up from his cot mumbling about some idea he’d had in the night. William would drowsily rise from his pile of sheets near the hanging blanket that insulated and isolated the main room of the house. We’d spend the nights talking under the one electric bulb which was hooked up by a discrete, overhead wire to a car battery in the attic charged by the solar panels.

People who don’t have much electricity tend to talk more. They talk about how to fix stoves, how to heat water, how to pivot solar panels. They dream about bike-powered electricity and using magnetic fields around electrical transformers to get power. Sometimes, they joke about converting the methane in the city sewer systems to electricity and buying plots of land on which to farm and in which to bury secret storage-container homes. Oddly enough, for people who hardly had enough electricity to consistently power a lightbulb, much of our talk, when not about these outlandish engineering projects, was about half-remembered T.V. shows.

We talked a lot, but we only got things done sometimes. Next to Shane’s shining example of individual industriousness, our achievements — a couple stoves here and there — were nearly nonexistent. Sara was worried that Shane was overworking himself. Chris idly suggested that if he asked for help, or even told people where he was working, he’d get help. Sara suggested he take some initiative. Hunter agreed. After some deliberation, we decided that the next day, with the help of Charlie Beaver’s chainsaw and Hunter’s car, we would pull down a tree.

The morning after the tree fell was a Sunday. It was a peculiarly warm day. Rather than the seemingly permanent frost and snow, the residents woke to the sound of rain; instead of balancing on ice, they sunk into fresh mud. In the greenhouse next to Slide House it was even warmer than outdoors. It was the first time in a long time that anyone could be more than a couple feet from a stove wearing a t-shirt and jeans. The Ohio boys hosted a work day that day in the greenhouse. They, Nathan and Josh, had joined Fireweed a little before Hunter had. He saw something of himself in them when he arrived. In the dynamism of this community, he saw not a blank slate, but the raw materials needed to build a society that he could understand, a society for which he could feel responsible: a better society. He saw a wealth of material and a lack of preconceptions. The boys saw that too, but their path to Fireweed was radically different.

Nathan was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, a town most famous for producing NASCAR drivers and Johnny Depp’s wish to flee. His parents were poor, transient, southern baptist fanatics. “Being openly gay was not in the cards at all,” he explained. Nonetheless, in an act of near-futile bravery, he came out in the seventh grade while in a psychiatric hospital for what his mother said was depression. His family quickly decided that he should be sent to straight camp. Their local church gathered the money to send him away within two days. He spent his days either in solitary confinement or having olive oil poured on him in a chapel. Most of the time he closed his eyes. He signed the papers and became a statistic: “a recovered homosexual.” When I met them, he and Josh had been together for eight years.

“You’re tied to this grid and when it goes down you’re gonna be screwed,” Nathan declared in the greenhouse, his Adam’s apple bobbing in the wake of the vibrations of his nasal voice and his eyes glaring with fighting intensity and a hint of fear. Josh offered the smooth and genuinely friendly smile of someone with a broadcasting degree. Two years before, they’d quit their opulent lifestyle in Cincinnati, broke off communications with the majority of their friends, sold most of their possessions, and bought two cheap acres of land next to “a cop-infested highway” in Ohio. They moved into a converted storage container, something akin to the house in Tron, and started farming.

They’d heard about Detroit’s fallow land and decided to expand their farming operation. When they first got here, they moved into the Bottle House. Not long after, they moved a ways away to an abandoned mansion on Channing street, close to Michigan Urban Farms. “I sang on the weekends,” Josh said with a pained squint to his eyes, “At the same time as I was advertising for my first show in Detroit, someone broke in and stole all of our music stuff.” I asked if they’d ever got it back. Nathan laughed a little. He used to drag race and had a fondness for risk and trouble.

Now they were living on Robinwood and were part of the community again. On this day, the community came together, just like in the summer. We dug a trench along the bottom of the greenhouse, which the boys would go on to fill with water. When we were done, William and I walked over to Doctor Bob’s cafe with the Ohio Boys. They were helping Doctor Bob out over there, and he let them feed us some soup. When we finished up, William and I walked over to the site of the felled tree, where Hunter and Chris were bringing axes down into rounds of wood.

“Burning wood is not a sustainable solution,” Hunter said between swings. There weren’t enough axes now, so he and Chris traded off, as William and I ran back and forth depositing armfuls of wood in a light blue trailer, fabricated by Hunter’s dad, attached to Hunter’s car. “With the number of people we have, we can burn wood and be fine, but you can’t have everyone everywhere do it. It wouldn’t work.”

When the wood was piled high on the trailer, Hunter slowly and carefully backed the car down the one-way street and, just as slowly, drove back to Goldengate. We left it in stacks in front of Slide House. There was enough for everyone to stay warm for a long while.

A few days later, the engineering committee invited the community over to Bottle House for pasta with homemade alfredo sauce. Chris and I had walked past the city border the night before to a supermarket in one of the suburbs to buy the fancy cheese for the sauce. Brian, who was then living in Slide House, came over first and strummed his guitar and spoke of the sorrows of a jailbird nomad with a pregnant girlfriend. Brian brought his dog, Jaeger, who he’d had since puphood. Jaeger looked like the Hound of the Baskervilles, a big black dog with massive jowls, but had the personality of a friendly, drunken socialite. He’d followed Brian through the crowded streets of New Orleans’s French Quarter and countless cities through years of rambling, without a leash. Once, Jaeger bit a cop who’d threatened Brian, and Brian wrapped himself around Jaeger. In his South Carolina-Colorado accent, Brian had begged, “don’t shoot my dog.” He still slept wrapped around Jaeger.

Chris cut off the bottom of a Faygo bottle to make a bowl. He joked that the other half could be used for a gravity bong. Hippie Mike soon wandered in. Sara and Shane eventually joined us. They crowded into the small room. Most found decent seating. Hippie Mike sprawled out on the floor next to the stove, his legs splayed in either direction. The conversation soon turned to the questions that had been on my mind since I’d got here. Why were they here? Why did they stay?

“I hitchhiked around the country for years because I didn’t want to put into their system,” Brian said. “That was the smallest carbon footprint I could think of.” He wondered if an urban farming project and a set base was really the solution. He wondered whether they would achieve anything substantial here. “We need to wake up one day and see a collapsed system,” he said. Sara admonished him for his pessimism. Brian explained that he was worried about the society his child would be born into. He wanted to show his kid a different way of life. He wanted her life to be devoted to living, rather than to mindless, grinding labor for somebody else’s cause.

“I get it,” Chris said. “I get the pessimism. I understand my reality but I know if I stare too long into that darkness I won’t survive. I don’t give a shit what the truth is, but I believe what helps me get out of bed in the morning. I can only live with the hope that things will get better.” He was just ramping up. “Just because they tell you that you have to go to college and then get a job and work 30 years and then find a wife and a white picket fence and then retire doesn’t mean that that’s what you have to do. You have the freedom to live the life that you really want to live, even if the system’s opposed to it.”

“We need to go out there and do it, and we need to get people to come with us. That’s what’s important,” Sara said.

“You can’t isolate,” Chris said, nodding. “You have to live in both worlds at the same time. If you isolate yourself, you can’t connect to the base you’re trying to educate. There’s a spectrum of non-cooperation, right? There’s extreme noncooperation to the point of like, you know, violence against the system. Whether it’s mutually beneficial or whatever, we choose to cooperate with the system by not shooting people, right? So there is a balance. There has to be a balance. You have to change the system from beside the system. Not within it and not outside of it, but beside it. You’re creating the life, the reality, the community, and the resources that you feel you need. That’s the only change you can make, right? You can’t change the world, but you can change yourself, you can change the people around you. Well, they can change themselves, but you can lead them.” Chris liked to make speeches; sometimes they were worth listening to. “It’s not about the end solution,” he went on, heading toward a conclusion. “It’s not about what form of government we’re going to have. It’s about communities of people creating social structures that are healthy, sustainable, positive, and beneficial to them and their localized environment.”

Suddenly, a sound shook the hanging blankets. The door opened with the force of a windy winter night. A blanket lifted, and Tommy Spaghetti entered the room. His smile was framed by white stubble, a black mustache, dark gray sideburns, and playful black eyebrows. His hoodie, splattered with many-colored paints, sat atop a blue bandana. The American flag was stretched across the back of his black jacket and his sleeves proclaimed in big blue letters, “USA.” The tidiest parts about him were his plain brown corduroy trousers.

Tommy used to sit on the roof of 159, playing his saxophone as a chorus of dogs howled at the moon. When a developer bought Bottle House from the city a while back and tried to extract rent from the squatters, Tommy gave up the money he’d been saving for a trip to China and bought it from him. But he didn’t pretend to have any real ownership over the place. He had only two requests for the residents: “First, protect the grapes.” He had three grapevines in front of the house. That was his number one priority. “Second, clean the house.” That night, his conversation was peppered with ’50s slang and the words “bro,” “man,” and “dude.” He talked of playing benefits in Ann Arbor and encouraged Hunter to come busk. Talk became superfluous when the instruments came out. Brian had his guitar at the ready, Hunter snatched up his left-handed mandolin, and Tommy grabbed drumsticks and positioned himself over the steel barrel stove. They played Tommy originals, featuring Hunter’s mandolin solos, Tommy’s beautiful whistling, and an ever-impressive mouth trumpet. Chris and I stomped along. The music, the joy, and the overwhelming sense of community seemed like they might be the ultimate answer to that essential question that nags at you in the coldest moments: “Why the fuck am I doing this?” Almost everyone sat down. William hopped about, looking like Donald Duck, trying to get out of his raggedy weathered jeans, leaving on only his grey waffle-patterned long johns and undershirt. His face was red behind his bushy beard as he lay down in his pile of blankets.

In the coming months, Bottle House would burn down leaving only Hunter’s charred mandolin, Chris and William would move away, the Ohio Boys would split, and Brian’s baby daughter would be born. Despite their plans and their principles, despite the cold that seemed a constant, none of them knew what the future would bring. They were focusing on the present. Their situation demanded it. But they’d chosen that situation. Their mission statement read, “Fireweed Universe-City is a grassroots movement to realize a sustainable, eco-friendly community of Universal Consciousness.” At first glance, that “consciousness” bit might seem like mystical hippy bullshit, but it can and should be read on a much more practical, quotidian level. The people who ended up here had started life as standard-issue Americans. At some essential pivot point, they’d each seen that the fire at the center of our civilization, a constant presence, evenly and surreptitiously distributed throughout our homes through some sort of figurative and literal central heating, unseen and unknown, was something that demanded consciousness. They saw that the people leading lives as part of entrenched civilization had lost control and given up responsibility without knowing it. The flame had consumed them without them feeling it.

For a lot of the people here, their moment of epiphany had been Occupy. The movement challenged them to rethink everything. So they kept the fight going even as the movement faded away and the terms of engagement changed, because in some sense they couldn’t go on without it. There were still pockets of Occupy scattered across the country. On a hitchhiking trip the following summer, I popped by to see the remnants of Chris’s home camp in Eugene, Oregon, and, during the Democratic primary in 2016, I heard memories and songs of the movement shared at the Bernie marches in New York which ended in Zuccotti Park. But the rest of the country had moved on. When Trump and his cabal of one-percenters took power, the networks of class-based resistance had faded. Fireweed was an attempt to find a sustainable way to keep them going. Part of that project was forming a community based on shared ideals. They refused to idolize the amorphous ideals of a society that was polite, civilized, comfortable, and numb. In discomfort, they discovered a virtue. This left a void and inspired a search for grounding in their approach to the most basic things. They had to know how everything around them worked. After all their searching, they found that the most basic elements are people, the most basic technologies their relations to each other, and the most important grounding an understanding of those around them.

“When people ask what this place is,” Hunter had told me the first time I’d visited, “whether it’s a commune or something, I tell them it’s a community.” It was a community which could foster the new fragile fire of this beautiful, crazy, radical space, and keep it going by building stoves, installing solar power, working harder, expanding knowledge, planting gardens, and felling trees. It didn’t matter that the country could fall apart around them at any time: They were in the process of saving its essence. Maybe to fight the fight was to lose it, but they felt that the fight, the sustained conscious effort, the experience of truly living, was in itself worth it. So, why does a tree fall in Detroit? It might be said that it falls to light a new flame. On that night in January 2015, in between songs, Hunter leaned back, gave a drowsy smile, and said, “the hardest part about the zombie apocalypse would be pretending I’m not happy.” He was dreaming of a moment when everybody realized that they had to fight for the life they wanted.

Bottle House sang itself to sleep.

The morning after the reckoning in Bottle House, engineering committee did not meet. Hunter was at work and Chris and Will were still asleep. Fresh sunlight filtered through the bottles in the walls and lent kaleidoscopic tints to the rising breath of the sleeping men. The fire had died, leaving only a few embers, and a chill set in. Not the brief slaps of frigid wind that might assault you as you walk from one warm building to another. This felt permanent. This was a chill that broke through walls, blankets, clothes, any and all obstacles. It penetrated straight to the marrow and seemed to offer the singular option of a stoic embrace. The final embers smoldered. The stove demanded wood. •

Photos courtesy of the author. All artwork created by Emily Anderson.