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Bill Coperthwaite and the Arts of Culture

My first post here was a short description of How to Build a Low-Cost DIY Yurt. I was a bit surprised when the editor told me it had gotten 423,000 views in its first week or so, but there are a lot of reasons why people are interested in yurts. One of them was a man named Bill Coperthwaite. When Peter Forbes came out with his book about Bill, I jumped at the chance to review it, partly because it was an opportunity to express gratitude for Bill's life and work. This is adapted from a long version of the review published on the Hand Print Press website.

A Man Apart, Bill Coperthaite's Radical Experiment in Living,
by Peter Forbes & Helen Whybrow

I met Bill Coperthwaite in 2007. I had recently read his book, A Hand Made Life, and was deeply impressed by his stories and practice, and the way he was trying to live out an answer to questions that, by our denial of them, define our culture:

“Can you have ‘culture’ without violence?”

“Is beauty useful?”

“Are justice, democracy, and peace possible if most all of our technologies require violence?”

Like Gandhi, Bill figured that whatever he could make for himself meant less dependence on an imperial master, but where Gandhi lived with hundreds of others in an ashram in India, Bill lived alone on a couple of hundred acres in Northern Maine, at the end of a mile and a half footpath. For a home, he built himself a stunning, 4-tiered yurt, each layer divided from the next by a ring of clerestory windows. When he wasn't at home building and designing, he travelled the world building for others and seeking out living traditions of craft and design.

Two years after I met him, I organized a workshop where Bill led us in building a beautiful 20' diameter two-tiered yurt for one of my Oregon neighbors. He introduced us to crooked knives and welcomed me into the art of spoon-carving. When the building was done, he spent a day at our home, talking about books and poetry and helping us shuck our dry corn. The conversation continued as I drove him to a conference, and then to the airport.

I would have loved to spend more time with him, but opportunity and timing never coincided. Thanksgiving of 2011, he slid off an icy road, hit a tree and died at the age of 83.

Bill cultivated, largely by hand, a unity of home and life that freed him from participating in most modern consumer insanity. It's a high ideal for many of us, including Peter Forbes, whom I'd met when he came out to photograph our yurt workshop. He'd known Bill for decades, so when he and his wife Helen came out with this book, I was eager to read it.

Of the two authors, Peter in particular was influenced by his relationship with Bill. In meditating on that relationship, he and Helen focus primarily on the experience of building a yurt together on Bill's land, as part of a stewardship arrangement by which Bill was turning over his life's work to a small group of friends, and encouraging them to share his land and vision while he was still alive.

Like any life, Bill's was full of compromise -- but those weren't what he talked about. He spoke of principles, and design -- the right way of doing things. Unlike social theorists who address such challenges with words and ideas, however, Bill addressed it with his hands. How do things fit? And how do our tools, materials, and choices affect that fit?

At one point, Bill decided to make a better landing area for his canoe (his primary mode of transporting materials). This was a design challenge that most would have addressed with dynamite and a civil engineer. There would have been a high price to pay for power and engines to do the work at speed. That work would have been "someone's job," done primarily for payment, and measured in days and dollars. Instead, Bill chose a sledgehammer, and spent one if not several summers slowly chipping away at Maine's granite coastline. He said he would spend 20 minutes hammering, and 20 minutes reading a book. He measured the work in ideas and stories; things seen while resting, and a physical understanding of geology that could make a person feel like a true brother to wind, rain, and time.

Bill inspired Peter's decision to leave a successful career in land conservation, but he and his wife chose a place and path several hundred miles from Bill and his communitarian vision. It's hard to try and participate in a vision held by a reclusive, if brilliant, curmudgeon; harder without sharing in the day to day work. Lacking such daily reinforcement, how do you measure success?

A teacher is like an old tree. He stands or dies by himself. With luck, there will be seeds and sprouts that we can nurture, even transplant. Maybe we graft old wood onto a new tree, and clone some fruit. But when an old tree is gone, it's gone. The shading branches fall; the spring brings no new flowers. The gifts of a living love begin the slow process of turning to compost, while the next generation of seeds seek nourishment from what remains. The vision is that nourishment; it's survival depends on each individual's ability to see it for themselves.

Helen, who met Bill as her husband's mentor, didn't really choose her relationship -- it came as a package deal with the husband. She was admittedly cautious in her approach to a reputedly "difficult" person. Not long after they started building, however, she realized that if the yurt was to have the separate space they'd promised to their young daughter, it would be up to mom. So, with trepidation about whether he'd allow "his" design to be modified, she approached Bill. In response, he drew a picture of how he thought it could fit, and said there was probably enough lumber. Then he left her on her own. So she partnered up with a more experienced builder, and they did it. What she drew from the experience, I think, was not what Bill taught (if anything), but that he had faith in her capacity to learn.

That kind of faith is a fundamental principle by which societies live and grow; it is perhaps the sole nourishment for native human genius. It teaches us what we need to learn in order to do the work we're uniquely suited for. It's not a lesson you can learn in school, where we're divided and ranked against each other, according to false criteria that have little to do with who we are and what we want. In lieu of faith, school offers fear: "don't step out of place, or else..." Or else what? What happens if we step out of a mechanistic, industrialized society? Will we lose our humanity? Our kinship with others? No! We'll lose only mechanized social "function" -- we'll be bad consumers, we won't help "grow the economy" -- but we may gain kinship with wind, rain, and time, and a culture built by beauty instead of violence.

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