I'm celebrating Tu B'Shevat — long known as the festival of the trees, beginning this year on Feb. 9 — in a tree house for grownups, spending the night in what looks like a large eyeball, suspended, spider-like, from old trees on Vancouver Island.
In fact, they're called spheres — the brainchild of Tom Chudleigh, an islander bent on creating back-to-nature accommodations that leave nary a footprint on the environment. Too small to be called a cottage, too sealed to resemble a tent and too suspended to come close to a tree house, the spheres occupy a category all of their own.
They are an unusual form of accommodation, to say the least, structures that hang from living organisms and rely on the elements for their motion.
Tight and compact as a nut, they represent a marvel of ingenuity as they rock gently in the breeze. A ladder hugs the circumference of the tree trunk, providing access to and from the sphere, and once inside, you're sealed in a room-for-two in a giant, round capsule 20 feet from the ground.
"I didn't know much about spheres initially, but I knew they'd be important to me somehow," says Chudleigh, 56, a Canadian from Calgary who began making his first sphere in 1992. "Now I realize the sphere has symbolic meaning of wholeness, connectedness as opposed to separation. The walls become the ceiling and the floor. In a sphere, it's all about oneness."
The two spheres he rents out for nightly or weekly use are a labor of love. Each composed of spruce, they sport Costa Rican teakwood floors, two circular windows, two beds, and a seating or dining area. Storage space is cleverly fitted into all the nooks and crannies of the orb, and guests have running water, a kettle and microwave, and even a speaker system so you can plug in your iPod and listen to your favorite tunes.
I'm grateful for the absence of music the night my companion and I sleep in Eryn, the larger of the two spheres. It is comforting up there in the treetops, in this small, peaceful and organic space. We watch the geese Chudleigh inherited when he rented this property swim gracefully on the pond. An ever-so-slight breeze rocks Eryn softly, and as darkness descends we are lulled to sleep on comfy beds by this rhythmic, slow dance.
The tree spheres are eco-tourism personified. Hoisted into the air, they leave no footprint on the ground and require no elimination of vegetation.
A composting toilet located steps away from the ladder provides a sanitary and non-odiferous solution, and guests in need of a shower take a three-minute walk to Chudleigh's log cabin, where a bathroom has been set aside for their use.
For now, the spheres hang in a grove on the five-acre property he inhabits in British Columbia, near Vancouver Island's Horne Lake. Ultimately, Chudleigh dreams of an eco-friendly resort where 20 or more spheres will hang together deep in a forest — one, he explains, "where floatplanes preferably provide the only access."
His rustic workshop holds the seeds of this idea. In one corner sits an unfinished fiberglass sphere that will serve as a massage room. A trailer on wheels is another work in progress, destined to become a sauna and two bathrooms for guests.
These days, he is fielding calls from New York, France and Australia, as people all over the world read about his work and are interested in purchasing a sphere. The fiberglass versions take seven months to create and sell for $50,000, while the spruce versions require 20 months' labor and have a $150,000 price tag.
Most guests use the spheres for sleeping, but others use it for meditation, or find inspiration to write.
"One couple spent a few days making a documentary film in the sphere, and for another guest, a night in the sphere was a transformative experience, prompting a total life change," recalls Chudleigh.
"People certainly seem to find it restful," he muses. "They tell me that it is very relaxing, and that they haven't slept so well in a long time. Perhaps that is because of the motion, or the space itself, or the fact that they're up in the trees for the first time since they were kids."
For now, Chudleigh is thoroughly enjoying his orbital experiment, and when bookings get quiet, you will find him and his wife Rosey curled up in one of the spheres for the night.
Info to Go
The Free Spirit Spheres are located an hour's drive from the Duke Point ferry terminal on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. They are available for rent year-round, on a nightly or weekly basis.
Booking is via e-mail to: rosey @freespiritspheres.com; for details, log on to: www. freespiritspheres.com, or call 250-757-9445.