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As I enter the Bilston Glen Woods, I feel like an anthropologist in search of a native tribe in the middle of the Amazon. I heard plenty of stories about the community I have set off to learn about, but I do not know exactly where to look for them or how to recognise their territory. I am not sure if they will send me away or eagerly welcome my efforts to get to know them and I even start doubting if it is OK to turn up uninvited like this. But once the outlines of the colourful village of dumpster-dived materials become visible, my anxiety turns into curiosity.
The Bilston Glen Treehouse Project goes back to the year of 2001 when the Midlothian Council approved plans to build a dual carriageway in the place of the forest that belongs to the University of Edinburgh and through that, to the students of the Scottish capital. Alarmed at the prospect of losing one of the remaining green areas near the city, outraged students and environmentalists from all over the world came together to occupy the woods until the plan is dropped. That was 12 years ago…
As I make my way to the central fire where residents are already gathered to start cooking lunch together, I am greeted suspiciously. Later I found out that the community still receives visits from enemies of the project, so they have to be careful. I offer my help and as the stew starts cooking, the story unfolds: „We wanted to show them that they could not shovel everything down our throats! There is hardly any place to go to breathe some fresh air in Edinburgh any more. We did not want to lose this one as well, so we decided to do something.”
A few metres from the fire, I watch an older resident teaching a newbie how to construct a tree house. I can see the appeal of this place for people of the capital. Then somebody asks me to see his house as well. The tiny 1 m² cabin which is situated about 3 meters off the ground contains a wooden log for a bed and is his bedroom and living room all in one. He says it’s only for sleeping, because most of the day he is not here. I spot a suit lying in the corner and to my biggest surprise he explains that he works in Edinburgh for an IT company. „Even though I have a normal job, I love nature and this is a reason that I am willing to fight for. It’s an amazing experience to live in this community. You can grow veggies and be out in the fresh air all day. When I was living in Edinburgh, I had no idea who my neighbours were. Here, everybody cares about everybody, we cook together, and we take the time to talk to each other.”
It is unavoidable to talk about the future, so I tell them that I heard the Council is planning to drop the plans for the road. It seems to stir different emotions. An older man says it’s an incredible feeling when all their efforts suddenly pay off and that they will surely organise a huge party where hundreds of people will celebrate. But others cannot conceal their sadness: „If they make the news official, we have 1 year to pack up and leave or otherwise the police will come to intervene. We can always move on to another campaign, but it’s just never going to be the same.”
That evening, when I arrive home to my overheated apartment in the centre that has all the necessary gadgets to make me comfortable, I feel an urge to tell somebody about my day, so I call a friend. She is busy with work and promises to call me back. I wait for an hour, but then go to sleep disappointed. Suddenly, I can’t help wishing I had a communal fire in the back garden of my apartment...