Building One Last Yurt With Bill Coperthwaite

A shared experience of what it was like to build a yurt with back-to-the-land pioneer Bill Coperthwaite


| April 2015



Yurt under construction

Members of a yurt building workshop nail shingles to the roof of the last concentric yurt Bill Coperthwaite helped to build.


Photo by Peter Forbes

A Man Apart is the story of authors Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow's deep-rooted friendship with Bill Coperthwaite. This beautifully written book is not only an inspirational story about the life and death of a man who embodied the ideals of intentional living for nearly 50 years on a remote stretch of Maine coast, but also about the power and complexities of mentorship. In the following excerpt, Whybrow recounts the final days of a yurt building workshop lead by Coperthwaite in which they construct the roof of the last concentric yurt he would ever build.

Buy this book from Chelsea Green: A Man Apart.

The sky seems to mirror my interior state as the workshop unfolds—first bright, then obscured by rain and fog, and for the last few days brilliantly blue, the air crisp and invigorating. Geese stream over in ragged bands of twenty, seventy, a hundred or more, calling to one another without pause. Scott’s family, my dear friend Rani and their son, Quinn, arrive to help. Most of us throw ourselves into shingling the seemingly endless curved layers of the lower roof, crouching on our toes until our feet and legs cramp, shaving each cedar shingle with a knife to taper it top to bottom so it will make the proper curve, then securing it with two nails, in just the right place to be hidden by the next layer up. Mike builds little shelves with angled legs and the point of the nail on the bottom of each leg that we can stick to the roof to hold our piles of shingles.

That first night after the storm, Bill, too, seems to feel a lift. Under the cold clear air, the red sparks of the fire flying up to meet the stars, he starts to tell stories again. Bill loves a good story, and most of his yurt stories follow a pattern: Bill shows up to lead the workshop, nothing is set up, things are looking bleak, and through some twist of ingenuity and sheer will a motley crew of assembled volunteers builds something extraordinary.

He tells about showing up to build a yurt on the Florida coast, having been told that the footings were all poured and ready to go. He is walking around in the dark, checking it out, and realizes that some of the footings are as much as 6 inches higher than others. Then he sees that when his shoe comes against a cement footing the material crumbles away and leaves a pile of gray sand. The workshop is to start the next day, and Bill knows he will have to start the foundation over; it is complete junk. “So we went out in the woods with axes,” Bill recalls, “and cut all the foundation posts out of cedar. Then we had to dig eight-foot holes in sand and erect these posts. This was the only yurt I ever built on stilts, with waves washing under it. It was an adventure.”

For someone so intentional, Bill thrived on the unexpected. “If you put yourself off-balance,” he once wrote, “you gain new perspective and movement.” It reminds me of Bill’s tree house, three stories of wooden boxes, not connected, suspended by wire cables and swinging sixty feet up in a spruce forest. The climb up is hand over hand on the broken lower limbs of a spruce, with some long reaches and precarious balancing along the way, and finally, the part that gives me the most thrill, a half turn and full leap of faith over to the lowest swaying box at one’s back. Bill still went up there to spend the night sometimes, and always on his birthday.





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