Living in a Tipi: One Man’s Journey

As a result of a house fire, one man re-evaluates what is important in life and rediscovers a childhood dream of living in a tipi.
By Mark Warren
May 31, 2012
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In “Two Winters in a Tipi,” author Mark Warren shows, without thumping the drum of environmental doom, how you can go back to the land for two days or two years. As Warren beautifully reveals, the wild places of the past still exist in our everyday lives, and living that wilderness is still a possibility.
COVER: LYONS PRESS
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One stormy August night, a lightning bolt struck Mark Warren’s tin-roofed farmhouse and burned everything to the ground. Living in a tent his friends loaned him, he observes the beauty of the exposed land, and rediscovers a childhood dream of living in a tipi. More than just the story of one man, Two Winters in a Tipi (Lyons Press, 2012) gives the history and use of the native structure, providing valuable advice, through Warren’s trial and error, about the confrontations that march toward a tipi dweller. This excerpt from Chapter 1: “Trial by Fire,” Chapter 2: “Native Son,” and Chapter 3: “Home Equity” narrates the beginnings of Warren’s journey from the house fire to what inspires him to live in a tipi. 

Chapter 1: Trial by Fire

In 1989, a midnight August storm unleashed a bolt of fire, connecting heaven and earth through the mountain farmhouse in which I had been living for the past seven years. Crude columns of hand-stacked stones propped the old wood-frame building, built almost a century earlier, two feet above the ground. Its sagging interior wood flooring had at some point been covered with creaking linoleum, its roof nailed with tin. That roof, the fire investigator later told me, reflected heat downward like an oven, turning the fire into a blistering inferno. Nothing survived it, not even metal tools.

Everything I owned was incinerated in an unstoppable blaze that must have lit up the driving rain like falling diamonds. I don’t know because I didn’t see it. My dog, Elly, and I were fifty miles away, sleeping at the summer camp where I had just returned campers after a week-long wilderness program on this same leased mountain land.

The call came the next morning. I was packing gear and about to return home when one of the camp owners came out of the office and called me to the phone. She followed me back inside. A woman not given to shows of emotion, she put her arms around my chest as though to hold me in place when I picked up the phone. Then the side of her face pressed into my back.

Through the line, I barely recognized Teresa, my closest friend in the mountains. Her voice sounded small, squeezed from an unfamiliar place. She asked about me and how I was doing, but a vacuum pulled at the core of her sentences. She was trying to prepare me.

“Last night there was a bad storm,” she said finally. “Lots of lightning.” Then after a pause, her voice resigned to a forced, even timbre. “Your house burned down.”

The hum on the telephone line dropped away. Her soft words had delivered a slap of finality that sucked up all the electricity in the wire.

“Oh,” I said.

My voice sounded muted and distant, as though I were hearing myself from underwater. The camp owner’s grip tightened around my chest.

Teresa wanted to know if she could do anything, but what was there to do? I thanked her for calling, hung up the phone, and extricated myself from my unexpected support system with an attempt at a grateful smile, insisting that I was okay.

“I need to go home,” I said.

She nodded, and her expression said, Of course; though, when I thought about it, I wasn’t sure why I had to go. There was no home to go to, nothing to do there. Some things, however, need to be seen before they can be real to you.

Walking outside into the sunlight, I felt quiet—and alive. What if Elly and I had been in the house last night? 

Elly, as usual, was waiting for me in the cool shade of the bushes just outside the office. At the bang of the screened door and the familiar rhythm of my footsteps, she sprang up at a fast walk at my side to be sure she wasn’t forgotten. Together we marched to my truck, and as soon as I opened the door, she jumped in. Before starting the engine I looked at her. What might she sense from me on this landmark of a day?

The previous afternoon, I had dropped off my camping gear before leaving home. All of it was gone now. Minor things came to mind—sleeping bag, tent, mess kit . . . but these were the first lost items to register.

“Well,” I said, looking around the cab, “I’ve got the truck . . . my guitar . . .” I laid my hand on a stack of field guides. “These books . . . a raincoat . . .” I looked down at myself appraisingly, as if someone else had dressed me that morning. “These clothes . . .” I patted the leather sheath on my belt. “My knife.”

Elly had been watching me throughout my monologue. “And you,” I whispered. Her body made a subtle tremor, as if a wag had originated in her brain but fizzled before reaching her tail.

Elly was always with me. What if she had been a housedog, and I had left her at home yesterday when I brought my campers back? Therein lay the silver lining to this violent cloud. I reached over and stroked her head. She looked out the front windshield and shifted her weight on her front paws. Then she gave me that look that said, Let’s get this thing going. I want to get home.

Home.

Even the word was forcing upon us a new definition. It had become a loose and immeasurable sphere that surrounded us, an invisible bubble of air, pliable enough to fit any space I chose. Where we went, it went.

Driving down the highway, I began to understand that what I had inventoried inside the truck really was the sum total of what I claimed on this earth. Elly, who looked back at me as she always had, knew a lot more about all this than I did. Possessions . . . or the lack thereof. What was important? What wasn’t? She had already grasped this on the most fundamental level. The highway spooled out before us, and I realized that I was just now catching up to her way of thinking.

Smoke lifted lazily into the air as we pulled up to the charred ruins of the house. It shredded through the blackened limbs of the scorched sycamore and oak that had shaded the front porch. But for the absurdity of the concrete front steps standing alone above the ash like a pulpit, there was nothing left to remind me of a house. Even the tin roof had vanished.

Acrid air bit our noses with irreverent odors never intended for release, heat still radiating from the debris like the foul breath of a gluttonous monster that had eaten itself into a stupor. No sound but the faint tick, pop, sizzle of settling embers.

Elly jumped from her seat onto the scorched grass and walked over to the place in front of the steps where it was her habit to keep guard in the shade of the sycamore. Now, with the leaves burned away, the great summer shadow she had known was mottled and web-like—little more than the streaking of winter’s bare limbs. She dropped down on her belly, face toward the road, paying no attention to the pile of smoldering rubble where the house had been.

I walked the perimeter of the blackened foundation, mesmerized by the open space that had appeared. Sunlight swept uninterrupted through new territory, a volume of air where even light had been denied for a century.

When you lose everything at once like this, there is no way to fathom the sum of the losses. The process is an unbelievably long itemization of “stuff” that trickles back to memory in scattered bits. I imagine that this is a protective safeguard for the spirit, like shock. Something comes to mind thirteen years later, and you let out a whimsical snort at not having thought of it before. How important could that have been? 

My house had been like a small nature center, and the students who had come to this land for workshops always enjoyed browsing its walls and shelves. Sometimes, when I ran into summer campers years after their time with me, they reminisced over fellow campers and our exploits. They always mentioned the treasures that had adorned my walls: antlers, skulls, pouches made of tanned skins, pelts with exquisite hair, bones, feathers, claws, cast tracks, beaver gnawings, homemade bows and arrows, quivers, moccasins, drums, deerskin clothing, lacrosse sticks, spears, arrowheads, atlatl, and a collection of driftwood that revealed a canoeist’s case of borderline kleptomania.

Standing there by the ruin of my home, I felt no need to assess the value of these possessions. Neither my landlord nor I had insurance. Losing those things seemed a part of some natural order, an unspoken law; they had gone back to a place from which they had come. One mound of the ruins, however, continued to draw my attention.

This last pile of coals glowed orange-red, the heat visibly intense, rippling the air above it and distorting the trees beyond. This “last stand” against the inferno had been my piano—and on the piano, I realized with a catch in my throat, I had laid the novel I had been writing for the last seven years, my first attempt at a full-length book. Then, unable to pull my eyes away as my mind reeled, I remembered that beneath the manuscript lay five composition books filled with the music I had written over the last three-quarters of my life. These scribblings—little etch-marks on paper—became the most salient losses of the fire.

My gain, I later came to understand, was learning that contradiction—as quietly immutable as it is beside logic—hovers around us all the time. It is only in a powerful, shifted moment like this perhaps, when everything goes up in flames, that we get a glimpse of it. The contradiction gave me choices, the themes of which were as diametric as the two ends of the same arrow.

Limitations imprisoned me. Denied my former gamut of options, I couldn’t, for instance, take off in my canoe and disappear for a few days. My canoe had become a glob of melted plastic.

Or I could declare myself liberated. There was nothing to take care of. If I wanted to take off for a month, there were no arrangements to make for paying the electric bill, no food spoiling in the refrigerator, no calls to return.

The weight of the tragedy felt immense. I wasn’t sure how I would crawl out from under it. Yet, I was light, like a migrating bird wheeling on the wind, with the new freedom to set my course wherever I desired. I was homeless . . . and yet I was more grounded than ever before.

I had a decision to make. I’d been living on leased land as a temporary base for my nature and survival programs until I could find the right piece of land to buy. Holding the deed to the perfect mountain property had been my lifelong dream, and my current home had given me a tantalizing taste of that dream. It would be hard to leave this acreage, true, with its varied topography, its streams, peaks and valleys, woods and meadows, for another interim property. If I moved, I wanted it to be the last time, onto that coveted ground that was to be my permanent territory.

I had money. I had been living the life of the poor in order to save all the paychecks from my adult life. In every abode I had rented for the past twenty-five years, the financial arrangement had included some measure of barter, trading a portion or all of the rent in exchange for labor. I lived as if my savings did not exist. That money was for the land and nothing else.

Now, without a house to afford me shelter, my landlord dropped my rent to zero. Serving as caretaker of the land, he said, was barter enough for my staying on the grounds. So stay I did—at least until I bought my own homeland.

Ben and Dana, Teresa’s best friends and patron saints of the scorched and roofless, lent me a tent that I set up in the most remote corner of the back meadow. This was deeper into the property, well beyond earshot of the road, which dead-ended at the house. My new site, high on a ridge, overlooked the Etowah River. All day and night I could hear the rapids, like an endless sigh exhaling from deep in the valley.

The tent provided a spare living space with a simplicity that suited me. Each time I unzipped the door to enter, I could count my belongings on one hand. Blanket, guitar, books, water bottle, and a cardboard box of assorted foods. Elly declined use of the tent and slept outside.

After a month, the tent fly ripped, brittle as charred gauze. UV rays beating down day after day had desiccated the nylon. A piece of plastic from the roadside easily replaced it, but the remedy was only temporary. This was my second eviction notice delivered by celestial fire. Fall was on its way, and then winter. I didn’t want to fend against the cold by wrapping up inside a cocoon of blankets. I wanted to do things in my home at night—carve, sew, read, write, play music.

That afternoon as Elly and I dragged firewood from the forest, I took a new perspective on the dome tent, which now seemed squat and a little forlorn . . . like all tents are when you leave them up too long in one place. Tents, by nature of their compactness and mobility, suggest moving on—which I didn’t want to do right now.

The fire ring several yards from the tent appeared disconnected and illogical, as if inanely intended to warm up the entire atmosphere. I was immediately dissatisfied. The tent, with its ragged makeshift cap, looked destitute. In its place I visualized something tall, braced by sturdy wood. I imagined a fire inside and living spaces delineated like the slices of a pie.

“I should be living in a tipi,” I thought. Elly gave me a curious look, and I realized I had spoken aloud.

My words spilled out onto the wind and drifted down into the swale of the meadow like a carrier pigeon striking out on a mission of vital importance. My inner compass suddenly shifted, pointing to a new angle bright with promise. Excitement stirred within my chest.

The next morning I started looking into tipis.

Chapter 2: Native Son

When I opened my eyes the next morning, the tipi idea was still hovering beside me, like a child at dawn on Christmas morning eagerly waiting for me to wake up. It was too early to make calls, so I went about my usual morning camp chores: building a fire, fixing breakfast, washing up at the river. After that, there were still another two hours before businesses would open, so I returned to my bedding and stretched out to think about my new choice of abode.

It could never be called a stretch for me, this idea of living in a tipi. The Native Americans had served as my perfect mentors for a long time. I had, after all, begun my life smack in the heart of their tribal homeland. Historically, eastern tribes hadn’t used tipis. They had no need for a break-down tent. The woodland people here didn’t need to follow migrating herds of animals because the vast and diversified forest—from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic—provided a year-round paradise for most creatures. If hunting overkilled a section of forest, the vacuum soon filled like water obeying the law of gravity. Expanding populations of animal species see emptiness as opportunity.

The Muskogee had once walked the sylvan trails in the piedmont forests of my childhood, and just north of me, where I was to live in the mountains, the Cherokee. All of Georgia had been the “property” of these native people, though they wouldn’t have phrased it that way. They honored boundaries for the sake of clarity and intertribal equilibrium. For the most part, native tribes did not embrace the concept of owning parts of the earth, at least not until Europeans forced the abstraction—and the paperwork—on them. Such an idea of ownership was presumptuous and disrespectful to the Maker of All Things. As one famous northwestern chief once put it, one might as well claim ownership of the air.

Though mutual enemies, the Cherokee and the Muskogee developed cultures that overlapped with many similarities. And why not? They shared the most common of denominators: the land. Environment shapes cultures like nothing else—or at least it used to.

In our time it might not be so easy to fathom how land shapes people. Too many artificial variables are thrown into the equation. Long ago, a man, spear in hand, chased elk through the mountains on a regular basis and surely developed a stalwart physique. Everything about his rugged appearance would have reflected his excellence in the hunt.

Today a pale and pudgy scion of any paleo-man can effortlessly surpass his ancestor’s abilities to reach that same goal of putting food in his stomach. Twist the key, step on the accelerator, drive to the grocery store, and browse the meat section where a sundry herd of critters obediently awaits the hunter without his even pulling back a bowstring. He takes his prize home, sticks it in the oven, turns a dial, and puts his feet up for an hour as he tests his acuity against the contestants on Wheel of Fortune.

His is the modern high-tech equation that we now think of as the norm. Both paths leave imprints on the user and upon the earth, but they contain vastly disparate sets of tracks. Neither man could trade places with the other and succeed. Early man couldn’t know how to operate a car. Conversely, modern man couldn’t keep up with the elk. But the paleo-man could reject the automobile, head to the hills, fashion a weapon, and resort to his tried-and-true method of the hunt. The modern man, if placed in the paleo-man’s time, could not reciprocate. He hasn’t the luxury of eschewing the primitive, predatory sprint to wait thousands of years for the advent of the internal combustion engine.

The Cherokee were a mountain people. The Muskogee spread from the piedmont into the coastal plain. There were and are unique differences to these geographic areas, but because they were contiguous, the piedmont Muskogee and the montane Cherokee shared a botanical and geological overlap in their environments. Both lived in the Great Eastern Woodlands, which still cover the eastern third of America, albeit in ever-diminishing islands of green.

By virtue of its thick cover and leafy carpet, these Eastern Woodlands made extraordinary stalkers of its first people. Highly advanced long-distance weaponry didn’t work effectively in a hunting ground so cluttered with deflecting objects: shrubs, vines, tree trunks, branches, and leaves. The supreme and necessary tool was stealth . . . to close the distance between hunter and prey for a clean, unobstructed shot.

These people learned the skill of stalking from the same local master stalkers who predated them: cougar, wolf, fox, heron, and a host of others. Even prey animals like deer know how to stalk—in their case, away from danger. All these animals became the unwitting teachers, as the humans observed, adopted, and adapted the wild techniques as their own.

A little more than a century after these people were purged from their land, along came a young boy tracing the same paths across the same terrain, encountering the same rocks, plants, animals, and creeks. What better place to turn for guidance, illumination, and camaraderie than these natives who knew the forest as no people have since. The Cherokee and the Muskogee learned the forest out of utilitarian necessity. Because of their conscious dependency upon trees, stone, herbs, animals, creeks, and so on, they never lost their hold on reverential gratitude for the gifts afforded them. The rituals that developed around this gratitude made perfect sense. I, too, was grateful for these gifts. That was how I knew that the native people and I shared the same passion.

I dug their arrowheads from the sandy creek flats and followed their bearing trees (or trail trees)—centuries-old oaks and hickories that a friend’s grandfather told me the Indians had bent and tied down as saplings to mark the trail toward secret springs or caches of buried treasure for years to come. It seemed only natural that this land might teach me and mold me in a like way.

Whenever winter came, I waited for ice and snow to come to my forest. The magical day always stalked in under cover of night to ambush me the following morning with a frozen wellspring of joy. The world was transformed. The snow smoothed every sylvan scene as if by a gentle, omnipotent hand. The pines above were rimed in pale green crystal, bending down to my level as if beseeching me to come be a part of the masterpiece, arching to the perfect white mantle of the earth as though in prayer.

One of those days was my birthday—when I was twelve- or thirteen-winters-old. My running feet left the first human tracks in the pristine white of my front yard like the contrail of a spacecraft launching into the mysteries of outer space. When I reached my favorite part of the forest, I moved quietly through the altered spaces where tree trunks had converged overhead like low-ceiled cathedrals, and I felt some personal responsibility for the changed landscape, as though God had approved of my needful eye and arranged this natural wonder just for me.

This was my first preparation for tipi-life, for I saw the forest architecture as my true home: beams of wood leaning above me, intersecting at a solid confluence of buttresses. Chandeliers of refracted light sparkled overhead, even brighter than the snow. Even with my feet wet and cold, I stayed out late that evening, pushing the limits of my freedom, needing deep in my soul to see how this exquisite scene would change with the advent of night.

The darkness came and with it the moon. Annealing and bone-white, the growing orb rose and lit up everything around me like a warehouse of crystal sculptures. The forest took the lunar light as its own and turned it back on the world. The trees shimmered. The snow glowed from within, burning with a cold invisible flame.

Simple observations like this had stoked the fire in my soul, and I wanted such moments to last forever. As darkness spread across the sky, my mother’s expectation that I show up for supper called me home. Still I lingered.

That was when the idea first hatched in my head—looking at these bending pines gilt in moonlight—that I would one day live simply beneath leaning trees. I never spoke about this. I didn’t yet know the language that could explain such a notion. I tucked away the prophecy, went home, and eyed the squared-off walls, door frames, and carpets of our home. Now I knew that such angular things were not necessarily the natural way of all people. There are choices.

Coming home from that sacred day among winter pines, I probably smelled of pine resin and wet wool. I’m sure I carried snow crusted on my socks and the flush of winter on my cheeks. In our kitchen, Mama turned from the stove and smiled at me. It was the kind of smile you give a dirty-nosed puppy that’s been digging relentlessly for a chipmunk.

Part of her probably wanted to know about my day, just a glimpse of it, so that she could assess my safety, I suppose. But another part gave me room. Drawn by the rich aroma, I went over to watch her stir a stew.

“You were born in the wrong time, weren’t you, Mark.” It was a statement more than a question.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, eager that she recognize who I was becoming.

“Well . . . I’m glad you weren’t. I wouldn’t have known you.”

That simple exchange of words passed between us many times. It was a succinct one-act play of three lines that confirmed what lay at my center . . . and her approval of it. What would she have said if somehow I had been able to see into my future?

Mama, I’m going to live in a lot of unconventional places in my life—often bartering for rent. I’ll need to do it because of the forests around them. That and to save money to buy the land where I will teach people about nature. For a couple of those years, I’m going to live in a tipi. I hope you’ll be okay with that.

She dipped her spoon into the pot, and I watched her sample it. Her eyebrows arched to let me know it was good. As it turned out, she was okay with just about everything I did—including living in a tipi.

Chapter 3: Home Equity

A few years before the old farmhouse burned, I had met a man from North Carolina who made tipis. He seemed a good place to start. When he and I first crossed paths, he had been inside one of his tipis, teaching a class on fire-making at a powwow. Always ready to learn better teaching techniques, I joined his group to see how he handled the lesson.

He was, in a word, a perfectionist—and happy for everyone to know it. His attention to detail and precision might have been admirable had he not been so officious about it. One visitor asked a question that the teacher must have considered unworthy of his time because he stared at his guest but didn’t deign to answer. I felt embarrassed for both of them. The young man who had asked the question asked nothing more, and my attention drifted away from the lesson. Mostly I remember looking around at the tipi, soaking up the details.

I had reservations about calling, but the tipi was, after all, going to be my home. A precision product from a relentless perfectionist was probably a good idea. So I got to a telephone, dialed information, and made the call.

I first learned that there are several points to consider in customizing a tipi: size, type of canvas, weight of material, and fabric treatment options for mildew resistance or fire retardation. You must know your decision on all of these options before ordering. Of course, he didn’t share these points with me so much as lecture me about them.

I began to remember the abrasive quality of his voice that had made me slip out early and attend another activity at the powwow. Beneath everything he said crept the underlying tone posing the same question: What makes you think you have earned the right to live in one of my tipis? 

Before I could even explain what I needed, he cut me off. “You don’t want to buy one of my tipis.”

It was the last thing I expected to hear from him.

“I don’t?”

“No.”

“Why’s that?”

“Too expensive for you.”

Did something in my voice imply that I was destitute? I hadn’t even mentioned the house fire.

“And how do you—”

“Just take my word for it. You don’t want one of my tipis.”

His silence took on the cold indifference of a cinder-block wall.

“Do you sell tipis very often?”

“Not very,” he said stiffly.

Now, had he added, “. . . and I can’t figure it out, you know? I make a damned good tipi . . . ,” then I might have shared some marketing wisdom with him. But he didn’t, so I thanked him for his time and hung up.

The next day, I mail-ordered a tipi from Colorado: just a simple phone call and a check in an envelope. No one even tried to talk me out of it.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Two Winters in a Tipi, published by Lyons Press, 2012. 


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