SAN FRANCISCO — Standing in front of his 8-by-10-foot shack, Woodrat, a lean man who named himself after the forest animal, checks the padlock on his front door. But it's not likely that anyone has found his home - the shack is shrouded in military camouflage and sits in a thick grove of blood-barked manzanita bushes in woods outside a Bay Area city. From 30 feet away, the house is invisible. And Woodrat would like to keep it that way.
He's one of a scattered tribe of wilderness squatters: people who build secluded illegal dwellings on wild land owned by the public or by corporations. Wilderness squatter homes dot the landscape of most countries - put there by people who seek a better way of life or who want to get away, for whatever reason, from the demands of civilization.
Paradoxically, their push to escape to nature leaves an ever-wider human footprint, complicating efforts to preserve and study Earth's last wild places. It's also an uncertain life, but one that appeals to a growing number who see their rent-free, back-to-the-land lifestyle as a commentary on society.
"I think the world around me changes the way my brain works," Woodrat says. "I prefer to be in a place where it's not all straight lines and it's not all goal-oriented. It's just life happening."
There are five other people living in Woodrat's corner of the woods, and observers estimate hundreds squat in the Bay Area's many parks and woodlands. There are squatter communities all along the West Coast, and there's even reputed to be one in Utah at 10,000 feet. Beyond the United States, wilderness squatters have put down roots from Africa to Southeast Asia. Overseas squatters are often driven by economic pressure, but in the US, many are people who share a passion for nature.
One of Woodrat's neighbors sees himself as kind of a hobo activist and has previously lived in a cave and a tepee. Going by the name of Lenny, he relishes the idea that he is living comfortably at next to no cost on the discarded materials of the consumer society.
His secret house is built from scavenged wood, including the blown down top from a tree. Draped inside with fabrics, the hut looks like a cross between an Arabian tent and a gypsy caravan.
"I shaped my house so I didn't have to kill anything. Compare that to a 3,000-square-foot home where they bulldoze a meadow or cut down a bunch of trees," he says.
Lenny wears black clothing and shiny hose clamps for jewelry. He says he tries to tread lightly on the beautiful land he squats on. He sees himself as a guardian of the forest, clearing nonnative invasive plants, such as English ivy, when he sees them growing.
By borrowing a patch of land to live on, Lenny sees himself as a latter-day Robin Hood, redressing an unfair balance of wealth and power in society.
That view puts others, sometimes unwillingly, in the position of the Sheriff of Nottingham.
For land managers charged with preserving wild areas in an untrampled state, the squatters are an unwanted burden.
Maggie Fusari, director of natural reserves at the University of California in Santa Cruz, estimates there could be as many as 100 squatters living on the wilder parts of the Santa Cruz campus, where the University of California owns 3,000 acres.
"You get everything - from someone who's made a conscious decision to live with nature and knows exactly what he or she is doing to a person who's escaping or trying to drag a little piece of the built world with them," says Ms. Fusari.
Fusari and her rangers manage the campus's natural areas, where she says they have cleared everything from soggy bedding to entire tree houses.
"The point of having preserves is to study wildlife where there is very low human disturbance. Many of the squatters don't understand the impact they have," she says, adding that the squatters are often afraid of the dark, so they light candles and fires at the risk of causing wildfires or disturbing animals.
The desire for a free home in the woods is not confined to the US. Mike Korchinsky of Wildlife Works, a US company trying to address the impact of squatting on wildlands in Africa, says that Kenyan national parks have had a long history of encroachment from poachers and cattle grazers. As a deterrent, he says, these days rangers are instructed to shoot squatters on sight. The problem in Africa is an order of magnitude greater than here in the US, but Fusari sees it heading in the same direction.
"What these folks in the woods do is go to the edge where nobody else sees them, and then 10 years later they will go to another edge - because they know that they will attract others and it will become a place where they don't want to be."
Fusari says she and other land managers for the most part don't have enough money or time to find people and stop them from living on the land. Squatters are rarely caught, and when they are, it can cause bad press.
A couple lived in a treehouse on San Bruno Mountain near San Francisco for 10 years before being forcibly removed by San Mateo County. Their eviction brought an outpouring of public support for the couple's offbeat lifestyle. So the squatters keep a low profile but continue to come and go.
Woodrat's lock is the exception. Most squatters realize the occasional order to move on is an inevitability - but worth it in exchange for the chance to wake up to the sound of the birds and the wind in the trees.