From Nuisance to Nest: This Artist Makes Shelters From Fallen Limbs and Trees

An educator and dreamer, Californian Jayson Fann perches his larger-than-life creations on the green cliffs of Big Sur and beyond.

Jayson Fann is not a bird—but he does make nests. Hundreds of them, fantastically large, with flowing, radial patterns molded from the golden ratio and other mathematical codes. In the hills around California's Big Sur, Fann collects felled trees, branches, and twigs and weaves them into aeries for passersby, both winged and wing-less. Nests are universal, he says. “Every creature seeks shelter, a place of protection, and bearing children. It’s a central part of the cycle of nature.”

Tall with soft features and a fondness for fedoras, Fann, 45, is a woodworker, an educator, and also a conservationist. In his one-man trade, he works almost exclusively with eucalyptus, an invasive species originally from Australia, which now swaths of California’s coastal woodlands. In the mid-19th century, the towering hardwoods were planted for use as a biofuel, says Joel McBride, a eucalyptus and environmental planning expert at UC Berkeley—as well as to serve as windbreaks and a source of timber. As they grew, however, they shed potent fuel across a region already prone to wildfires. Just two years ago, the mountains north of Big Sur saw the costliest blaze in U.S. history.

With his small, yet precise operation, Fann helps clear away that kindling. Sturdy against the elements, eucalyptus is ideal for his unconventional purposes. “I’ve got nests that are 15 years old, and the wood is still completely strong after exposure to all sorts of weather,” he says. In more than two decades of nest building, he estimates he's repurposed the detritus of several hundred trees.

For the artist, the forestry aspect adds more joy to an already therapeutic endeavor. Education is also part of the mission; Fann regularly engages children in the making of the nests, collaborating with local schools and youth organizations. “I want to get young people excited about the world that we live in and passionate about how all things are connected,” he says. Once the structures are finished, the helpers set upon them, squirreling up the ladders to explore while Fann fields their questions.

Fann’s own fascination with nests began early. He remembers the first one he built back in his bedroom closet as a boy in Omaha, Nebraska. His family then moved near the Platte River, where he fashioned kid-sized nests out of driftwood collected from the banks. Later as a teen he relocated to Big Sur and never left.

California has changed Fann’s nesting philosophy in a number of ways beyond materials. To start, he's studied with the state’s indigenous communities to incorporate environmental stewardship in his art and teachings. “The more children are exposed to the interconnectivity of what we do as human beings, they develop a sense of responsibility,” Fann explains. He's also been able to engage residents, tourists, and patients with his pieces, both in and outside of Big Sur. He's had nests commissioned by the National Institute of Health’s Children’s Hospital, the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum, the Treebones eco-resort, and the Basalt Public Library outside of Aspen, Colorado.

More recently, the woodworker started a collaboration with state parks in Marin and Monterey counties to create a “living” nest. Woven from strategically planted willow saplings, the spacious nook will then be used as an outdoor classroom—much like the rest of Fann's installations. Unlike the others, however, this one will be a work in progress even after construction is finished: Regular pruning will be required as new bits sprout out of the willows. But that’s part of the fun, Fann says: The beauty of building with plants—willows, eucalyptus, or the pesky bamboo someone's asked him to scavenge from their yard—is that they present their own types of architecture. Birds have been depending on that for millennia; humans, it seems, are finally catching on.

This story originally ran in the Summer 2018 issue as The Bird Man's Lairs. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.