``IT'S a little like living inside a light bulb,'' says Karen Eberhardt as she and her husband, Parton Keese, stand inside the white, softly glowing tent that was their northern California home for about two years. ``Or maybe a cloud.'' Their experiment in alternative ``residency'' began when Ms. Eberhardt saw an article in Sports Illustrated in early 1982. ``Fabric structures'' was the subject, and there in photos of wondrously curving, rounded shapes of white canvas was the perfect temporary home for a California hillside, Eberhardt thought. The maker of these and other ``fabric structures'' was and is Bill Moss from Camden, Maine.
At the same time Mr. Keese, after 16 years as a New York Times sportswriter, wanted a slower, country life and plenty of time to write a novel and build a house. Well, why not live and write in a beautiful tent for a while? he thought. Husband and wife were in agreement on what would prove to be an unforgettable, character-defining, and utterly unique experience.
``While we were still in New York we had the wooden deck built to order in Sebastopol on a hillside spot on 25 acres,'' Keese says. Then with a goodbye to New York brownstones they bought their very own ``fabric structures'' from Mr. Moss (three structures linked together for a total of about 900 square feet) and had them sent to Sebastopol.
Total cost? Around $12,000.
When Karen and Parton arrived in Sebastopol, the deck was waiting. Following instructions closely, they raised the three tents, connected them, and moved in, using plenty of rugs to cover the wooden floor.
The biggest tent is a combination living room, dining room, and kitchen with a specially built wooden cabinet and counter with a curved back to match the curve of the tent wall. The second tent is a bathroom (pipes go up through the deck), complete with a tub, a low-flush toilet (with a septic tank), and a shower. The third tent is the bedroom.
The canvas of the tent is double walled, with pockets of air serving as insulation. ``Cotton canvas is waterproof when wet and `breathes' when dry,'' says Keese. Each ``room'' has mesh screen windows with plastic coverings for winter.
But for almost a year Ms. Eberhardt and Mr. Keese were unable to get a permit from the Sonoma County Planning and Building Department. ``And without a permit we could not have electricity or a phone,'' Keese explains. Up the hill from the fabric structure, they had drilled a well for water.
``If I had known beforehand that I would have to live about a year without electricity,'' admits Eberhardt with a hearty laugh, ``I probably would have thought I couldn't do it. But the whole idea is to rise to the occasion, isn't it?''
The transplanted New Yorkers quickly learned that living in a fabric structure is a calming, simplified experience, certainly not for everybody; but for those who welcome adventure and genuinely like the challenge of adapting their life to fit the gentle canvas enveloping them, a tent is a low-cost living arrangement worth considering.
For heat they used kerosene heaters; kerosene lamps were used at night, and water for showers was heated by using solar bags. ``And I used a two-burner propane stove in the kitchen,'' Eberhardt says. The couple also used a generator on occasion.
What the county did not want to do was set a precedent.
``If they approved a permit for us,'' says Keese, ``then they thought they would have to do the same with any other tent.''
Eventually the county conceded that this graceful tent on the hillside was better than a mobile home, definitely not an eyesore, completely safe -- and safer than a brick or wooden home in a California earthquake. ``Waterproof, windproof, and quakeproof,'' Keese says with a laugh. ``I'd rather live in a cave than a mobile home,'' says Eberhardt.
Finally, on the basis of a relatively new county law that permitted custom-made dwellings on 20 acres or more to bypass strict building codes, the permit was approved by one vote. At the final hearing, experts in alternative housing spoke on behalf of tents, and neighbors of Eberhardt and Keese also voiced support.
``We got a lot of attention,'' Keese says. ``People rode up the hill on horseback to see the tent.''
The disadvantages of living in a fabric structure include a lot of zipping and unzipping (and zippers get stuck and break); in heavy rains it takes a long time for things to dry out, and the seams have to be checked and waterproofed. Mildew is also a problem in the tent home. Eventually the couple added a covering layer of synthetic material to ward off the elements better.
While they lived in the tent, Keese began building the house that now adjoins the tent and its decking. The tent is still used for guests, for big dinner occasions such as Thanksgiving, and for quiet retreats in the summer.
``You almost become part of nature,'' says Eberhardt, reflecting fondly on months of living in a tent. ``What you lose in comfort, you gain in many other ways. It's such a soft feeling all the time, and so nonabrasive. I gave up living in it very reluctantly.''
``We had people visit us from New York who would say, `It's nice but I wouldn't want to live here,' '' says Keese with a smile.
``If keeping up with the Joneses is not important to you, and you're the kind of person that likes to camp and backpack,'' says Eberhardt, ``and you have an affinity for the unpredictable, then you could live in a tent.''