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50 years off-grid: architect-maker paradise amid NorCal redwoods

In 1968, Charles Bello and his wife Vanna Rae moved onto 240 acres of redwood forest looking to live a simpler life off the land. They had spent their savings to purchase the land so they got to work building their home themselves. Their first structure was a panelized A-frame that they erected in 5 days (with help from a couple of family members). The total cost was $2,800.

The property is a half-hour drive down a dirt road and it was bare land when they arrived so Charles and Vanna Rae built their own infrastructure: roads, bridges and went decades without refrigeration nor phone (they eventually installed PV panels and cabling for phone lines).

After 15 years in the A-frame, they built a cabin in the woods, and there they lived for a decade until the trees began to block out their views. In 1991 Charles (who once apprenticed under famed architect Richard Neutra) designed the Parabolic Glass House. With a curvilinear wood roof and two curved walls of windows, the home feels enveloped in trees.

Charles and Vanna Rae built it for $8,500 with the timber they milled themselves, using salvaged materials for everything from doorknobs to stoves. The couple relied on photovoltaics, solar thermal and gas for power, and a dug-in greenhouse attached to the home provided much of their food. By canning and preserving, they could go for months without going to a grocery store. Their two boys were homeschooled. The couple supported themselves selling Christmas trees.

Nearly all the old-growth trees on the property were logged in the early 20th century, but Charles has spent the past half-century restoring the land. He and his wife set up the Redwood Forest Institute in 1997 to manage and preserve the forest. He has carefully selected 1,000 trees to be preserved for 2 millennia as the next generation of old-growth.

Now, 87 years old and a widower, Charles is determined to find successors; he is actively seeking three couples who want to settle on the property (currently worth about 4-6 million dollars) in exchange for continuing as stewards of the land. He is currently building “glamping” guest houses that he hopes will help fund the enterprise. His website now advertises “seeking homesteaders as caretaker ASAP”: “Seeking 6 people, preferably three couples or a combination of two couples and several other professional applicants who desire to live in a remote area, in the middle of the redwood forest away from the hustle and bustle of urban life in a quasi sustainable lifestyle primarily active in food production – food processing, shelter, and financial sustainability, along with teaching these skills to others so that they too, can have this lifestyle on their own or with friends..”

  • Mark Blu

    Charles Bello is both a Genius & an Artist.

    The Michaelangelo of the Mendocino Redwoods.

    I had the privilege of being in his company for a few days recently & his Vision is as exacting as his Labour of Love for 52 years.

    Growing up in beautiful Zealand & traveling the World I have been blessed but the Bello Ranch is the most serene, captivating & intoxicating location I have known.

    He has created a Haven beyond Words.

    The property is a Magical Experience.

    And therefore the Man Immortal …

  • kirstendirksen

    Thank you for sharing that. I agree with you that he is both artist and technician and very authentic. And yes, the place is magical.

  • Riikka Rajamaki

    Wow thank you for this. Incredible dedication to sustainability, art, the inner and outer, beauty, sanity and harmonious living. Hopefully I’ll be blessed to visit this place.

  • James

    Kirsten, The contact phone number on the Redwood Forest Institute Web Site does not seem to be working as of this morning. What do you recommend is the best way to contact Charles Bello?

    • kirstendirksen

      Charles has been overwhelmed by the response to this video. You can also try him at his email cbello@savetrees.org. He says he has been going through everything though it is taking him time and I know he can’t respond to everyone. Good luck.

  • Demarco Jackson

    Absolutely stunning!!! I have believed in the same serenity for the last 20 years. Seriously “OFF GRID”! Love it!

  • Stephanie Fullen-Safian

    My heart is full of love for this man and his majestic home. Thank you for this unforgettable documentary. My life is better for seeing this and knowing that someone like him exists. Is he doing ok with the fires we’ve had since August? I live a few hours away and the fires have been horrific. I am concerned about him!

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