So, I think it’s been established that I like to do some weird shit. Like live in a trailer and take pictures of my shoes. It part of the reason I love roadside attractions so much. You get to see what other weird shit are doing. House on the Rock in WI is might be my favorite place on earth. I love hearing about others doing kooky stuff.
That’s why I found myself down in Fresno this afternoon to check out the Forestiere Underground Gardens. Now there was one Kooky Dude. A Sicilian immigrant who dreamed of founding a citrus empire in California, he purchased a 80 acre tract of land to find out that it had almost 5 feet of hard pan rock in the soil.
In order to make a living, he started digging ditches for other farmers in the area, and then would come home and dig out tunnels on his 80 acres. He ended up excavating about 25 of those 80 acres, creating a maze of tunnels and rooms, as well as a place to plant citrus trees. This is a guy who spent his days digging ditches only to come home to dig out some tunnels. For 40 years. It does not recommend the Fresno night life.
Now, there is some creative agriculture and sustainable living. He would dig out the hard pan rock by hand, as he was working primarily in the early 1900s. He placed skylights into his tunnels, to grow trees, and designed the skylights to provide various light and water conditions to experiment with his trees. He would also take the dirt he dug out topside, and plant citrus trees in the more fertile deep soil.
He lived entirely underground, with a solar water heater for his open air bathtub. The skylights served as natural ventilation, and the hard pan rock is a natural insulator, meaning even though it stayed cool in the face of the hot California summers, it was extremely easy to heat in the winter.
As kooky as this guy seems, he was onto something. Even though, he had no blue prints to work from, this was a man with some deliberate plans. He planted a variety of trees all designed to bloom in succession, to lengthen his growing season. The floors of the rooms were sloped in order to direct rainfall into catch basin to be recycled for irrigation. A great deal of successful farming is all based on efficient planning.
I have a special affinity for this guy when I found out about the peep holes. He had viewing portals set up through out the catacomb house to see who is coming to visit, so he could decide if he should hide from his visitors or not. If it wasn’t someone he wanted to see, he would go hide in his 10 acres of tunnels. I respect the hell out of that.
After losing a battle to pneumonia in 1947, he died. His Sicilian brothers came stateside to settle his estate and sold off a large portion of his original 80 acres. When the city began developing the land, residents would often come across large holes in their parcels that needed to be filled in. Were he around today, I am sure his tunneling would get him on My Strange Addiction.
I found this place to be especially meaningful to this trip, especially as I look into alternative ways of farming. Here was a guy who figured out how to increase the yield potential of some pretty crummy soil, and was able to integrate it into a fairly energy efficient way of living. It was neat.
One of his brothers managed to preserve the main 10 acres that Forestiere called home, and now tourists from all over the world wander through the house it took him 40 years to dig. One more point in favor of Kooky Dudes doing Neat Stuff for Agriculture.
So if you are thinking about a way to build a sustainable citrus empire with minimal heating and cooling costs, I suggest grabbing a shovel and digging out your own catacombs.