Once Upon A Time, Two Worms Lived in a Palace
Now, they might just save the world.
Perched on the edge of a mossy pond, the temple’s ornate exterior belies its hardworking inhabitants. Sloping and opulent, the metallic roof gleams as sunlight reflects onto the water. The glare offsets the bright red design on the temple’s exterior.
In another time, the structure might have housed an aristocrat in Dynastic China. But just a few decades ago, a California man built this temple for two worms.
Then, he built a world.
It’s his home, which he has named, “The Last Resort.”
On 2-acres of sloping land, The Last Resort is a magical place that captures energy from the sun to heat water, and recycles waste through “vermiculture,” David Lee Hoffman’s brand of alchemy. Using techniques he has spent decades creating, Hoffman’s temple-dwellers (now numbering in the thousands) transform waste into food for fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains that grow on his hillsides.
It is low-cost. It is an answer to pollution. It is even easy to emulate.
But The Last Resort may be facing its last days.
After ten years of living with Mongolian nomads, drinking tea with the Dalai Lama, and discovering thousand-year-old tea trees tucked away in rural Chinese mountains previously unexplored by Americans, the “Indiana Jones of tea” spent the next 40 years reflecting these experiences in the unique architecture of his Lagunitas, California home. Californians generally have to visit ancient sites around the world to see the sorts of structures that Hoffman has created, inspired by his years on the road and his enduring connections to Asian culture through his tea business. Recently, he opened a Tea Museum where guests can taste rare teas every weekend.
But Hoffman’s work yields to the bounds of neither art nor culture.
At the root of his creativity is a continued attempt to create a solution to climate change.
“Waste isn’t waste until it’s wasted,” is a favorite mantra of the energy-independent builder.
An avid cook, Hoffman often makes delicious bread using the sun, and grows his own food using innovative waste recycling programs he has invented.
However, his attitude has always been one of hesitation when it comes to sharing his inventions. “I don’t want to tell other people how to live their lives,” he says.
Instead, like an ecological Elon Musk, Hoffman wants to make his innovation open-source.
He insists that we do not have to live in a cycle of destructive dependence on fossil fuels. He sees a way forward, and he wants to share it.
But before Hoffman can take on the climate, he faces a more immediate opponent. Experts in the fields of architecture, history, science, and art have deemed Hoffman’s structures and systems significant. However, in forty years of building and inventing, Hoffman never got permits. As a result, Marin County has fined him hundreds of thousands of dollars and ordered him to destroy all of his work.
Hoffman has spoken at colleges and schools. He has helped neighbors build structures, create compost systems, recycle sustainably. As he looks toward the future, he would like to share his viable alternatives to the wasteful, polluting practices that are built into our daily routines.
Even after Marin County drove The Last Resort into receivership, the thousands of international and local supporters of Hoffman’s work breathed a collective sigh of relief when the property seemed to, by all accounts, qualify for a protected status. Marin County had appointed an architectural commission to decide whether Hoffman’s property was historically significant. All five experts unanimously agreed that it was. Logically, the county would uphold the finding of its own commission.
However, the county-appointed receiver inexplicably dismissed the unanimous finding.
“The county’s right hand doesn’t seem to know what its left hand is doing,” says John Torrey, Hoffman’s neighbor, and a seasoned city planner who has worked all over the world.
In the meantime, Hoffman’s legal fees and county-imposed penalties have continued to mount.
Now, his hope is that the community rallies around his property and his ideas, which, at a certain point, are one and the same. Decades ago, he understood that the climate was changing.
“When the songbirds stopped singing, and started dying, that was sort of disturbing to me,” he says.
Rather than simply realizing that a problem existed, Hoffman made the much more difficult, painful, and risky choice — he did something about it.
He invented a water recycling system. He learned to cook using the sun, how to heat his house using clean wood. He built a temple for worms.
He gave the larger community an option — a powerful alternative to an existential threat. Why?
Seated on a wooden stool outside of the worm palace, Hoffman shrugs lightly. Then, he smiles.
“I want my grandson to know that I did the best that I could.”