Building One Last Yurt With Bill Coperthwaite

article image
Photo by Peter Forbes
Members of a yurt building workshop nail shingles to the roof of the last concentric yurt Bill Coperthwaite helped to build.

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.

As I listen to story after story I appreciate the heroic nature of them and laugh with everyone else. Ingenuity and intelligence, the ability to come up with solutions on a dime with little at hand, the willingness to take on a job that at first seemed impossible, the delight in giving others an experience of learning were all parts of what made Bill original, and I loved him for those. But I also had more insight now into how all those people who had invited him to build a yurt as a workshop must feel, going in with little instruction or organization, not quite knowing how much they would be winging it along the way. All those people ended up with a “finished” product that would be perfectly acceptable for someone like Bill, who rationalized the winter wind coming through the cracks in the walls “as oxygen so your fire won’t go out,” or who could make funky handmade stoppers to hold in a window without lock or latch, who was happy to find an old wool coat to cut up for weather stripping around the door. “Finished” to Bill didn’t necessarily mean weathertight.

Bill never found adequate ways to convey to people the many design decisions he made, because he lived with them, adjusted and tested them over so many years. Here was a man who slept for a while in a yurt without a floor in Alaska to test whether or not floors were necessary, who designed buildings for many years without windows partly because he felt people should mostly live outdoors, who cut his woodstove down to size with a hacksaw so that it worked better in his space rather than find a different stove, who jacked his house up and put another story under it by himself.

“Do Less with Less”

It wasn’t just that Bill had the time and copious ingenuity to make these decisions; he was also someone who had fewer needs for comfort. His is not a hospitable place. It is often gray, raw, bone chilling. But when you are there a while you realize that Bill didn’t need much in his daily life. Dry socks, a sweater, a warm vest. Your clothes don’t need to be clean. The water you wash with doesn’t need to be hot. The breakfast bowls can each be wiped with a quarter-square of paper towel. The dishwater can be tossed from the window. You can go to sleep when it’s dark and wake when it’s light. You can put a bucket out by the door to collect the rain. Bill lived simply partly because his domestic wants were few and his ways spartan and partly because he had designed everything around him to be simple. A friend tells the story of how on her first visit he made up a bed for her in the downstairs of the Library Yurt, then went upstairs to his own room. He left her a little brass bell. “Ring it if you need anything at all, and I’ll come down and tell you how you can do without it,” Bill said. “Let’s figure out how to do less with less,” was another of his favorite things to say.

If Bill didn’t often deliver a yurt that others would call complete, imagining that they would complete it over years on their own, what Bill did give everyone he designed a yurt for was beauty. Bill had a more refined sense of beauty and proportion than anyone I’ve ever known, and his yurts were the fullest manifestation of his vision, of his belief in the marriage of beauty and function and in the unequaled grace and comfort of indigenous architecture.

Constructing the Roof

The most beautiful part of our yurt, to me, is the upper-story roof, which is the last piece we need to complete. It’s constructed with four layers of long tapered triangles of cedar, bent backward to make an elegant curve from the eaves to the skylight. Technically, Bill says, we’re building a curvilinear paraboloid roof, but how’s that for scaring away amateur builders from attempting it? For a long time Bill’s yurts had simple conical roofs, like the one on our first story, or they had a pleated roof where the boards met at right angles and created triangular windows at the eaves, like the Harvard yurt. But Bill loved the beauty of a roof that curved inward as it went up, rather like a vase or the lip of a Tibetan bowl. He noticed and loved that shape in objects, so he designed it into his yurts. The outward curve also allowed for a steeper roof, with more of an opening for a skylight at the top so more light could spill in.

We bent the long, thin cedar boards that would form the roof the first day of the workshop by soaking them, then stringing them with wires, like a bow, and they lay on the lichen in the rain, the fibers in the wood expanding with the moisture and slowly taking a new form. To put them up, we built a scaffolding—really a tripod stage—from the second story and from that sent up four long poles from which we tied two steel rings, a large one at the center point of the roof and a smaller one at the top. We screwed each cedar board to the top of the triangle windows, then wrapped it with a wire to secure it against the metal ring about halfway up, and finally rested its top against the upper ring. This was precarious at first, then slowly got stiffer and easier as we created a cone, then got harder again as we tried to cram all eighty-one slender boards into the circle. They all met at the top to make a tight complete circle—the compression band essential to the roof ’s integrity—but there were large gaps between the boards at the bottom. So we put on a second layer, interlaid with the first, until we had a complete ceiling.

Bill, who perceived Elizabeth’s emerging gifts as a carpenter, assigned her the building of a ring entirely made out of thick blocks of wood, a thing of great beauty and complexity that is to act as a spacer between this ceiling layer that we had just put up and the two roof layers that would go above them, with insulation in between. Saying at first that she had no idea what she was doing, with Bill’s confidence in her—which amounted mostly to leaving her alone to figure it out—and some help from Michael and Margaret she went forward. This was a feeling I was also starting to know.

Before this workshop I had no faith in myself to build anything more complex than a square lambing stall, and now, having struggled through so many tasks and learned from my many mistakes, there was almost nothing I wouldn’t at least try. Bill even called me “a builder” one day, which astonished me. I had a few more carpentry skills, it was true, but I think what I gained most was an absolute trust in myself to figure out something new. I realized that this must have been a skill that Bill learned early and honed over many years. Living alone into old age with so many practical problems to solve to make his life work, he had no choice but to be independent, inventive, and doggedly stubborn. It was that, or give up. I wouldn’t say that he passed this gift on to me—I have always been independent and stubborn in my own way—but his trust in my ability to figure things out was pivotal, as if he saw something in me that was dusty, cleaned it off, and held it up to the light.

Yurt Building and Relationships

But Bill’s encouragement of people, and his inconsistent use of it, had another side. Dan, who as much, if not more, than anyone else had carried Bill’s yurt design torch forward in the world but was overlooked when Bill invited friends to his yurt design symposium, shared with me the tender question, “Why did he never consider me? What did he see in me, if he didn’t see what I wanted him to see, what I valued in myself?”

Often I felt that Bill saw in us what was useful and meaningful to him, that he didn’t see people whole. Or to put it another way, it was as if Bill cultivated his friendships through his love of ideas and desire to design projects, not the other way around. This could hurt, if one wanted to be seen and treated first and foremost as a friend. Bill was good at nurturing friendships over time and space—his letter writing was legendary—but not always was he the kind of friend who showed a willingness to be flexible, to compromise, to incorporate another’s desires.

At his burial there was a poignant moment when three friends realized that Bill had written to each of them separately, assigning them some part of helping him with a new wheelbarrow design. The friend who made sculpture out of laminated materials was asked about glue, the friend who made boats was asked about Kevlar, and another who knew bicycles was asked about wheels. No one had the big picture except for Bill. They were all being put to use.

At the same time each of us cherished being asked anything by Bill, for he was one of those people whose attention one sought and desired. There was a way in which his constant questing and creating marked each of us close to him: if you had a good voice you were asked to lead the group singing after dinner, or if you were a literary friend you were asked to seek out the books on Bill’s ever-changing list of out-of-print titles to add to his library. We all loved these invitations and the intimacy they contained, but on the other hand you couldn’t easily take on a new role after that: to Bill you were always the singer or always the book friend, and so you felt both honored and unwholly seen at the same time. Learning to build made me feel more whole in Bill’s world; our relationship took on new dimensions after that.

Completing the Upper Roof

On the second to last day of the workshop our last major piece of work is to put the upper roof boards on, nailing their tops to this wooden ring. In many yurts Bill would use a wagon wheel or simple metal band for this top piece, or skip it all together if he didn’t have any reason to add insulation. Bill insists on carrying the wooden ring up the scaffolding himself and fitting it over the peak. He stands up through it, his white hair catching the sun, as if wearing as a skirt the entire elegant sweep of the roof below.

Bill spends the whole last day at the top of the yurt, balanced on the edge of the scaffolding, shirtless and hatless but with dark gray wool trousers, securing the final upper roof boards by trimming them to fit with his hatchet, cajoling and tugging them into place. This is where building one of Bill’s yurts becomes much more art than science; nothing ever fits into the circle evenly or exactly, and a certain amount of fudging with hatchet or knife blade is necessary to get it all to fit neatly into the compression arch that is so important at the top of the building.

After lunch Bill doesn’t even make the walk back into the woods for his nap but lies down on a giant pile of pine shavings on the floor and goes fast asleep as the rest of us tiptoe around. It’s unbelievable how much we have done in thirteen days. I’m grateful that Peter is able to be present at last on the site, shingling, taking photos, because there’s nothing else to forget now. What’s forgotten is too late to retrieve, and what has been retrieved is all we need.

Coming to Rest

Peter has always been good at honoring: people and occasions. He is good at expressing his gratitude to a group, and he has anticipated the ceremony he’d like us to have. He and I gather everyone late that afternoon, just before our final meal together. We sit in the yurt, amid the shavings and tools, the insulation that will go in the walls and the windows yet to be made. It’s far from weathertight, but it’s beautiful, stunningly so. The low afternoon light from across the water floods the room and creates soft curved shadows on the ceiling and patterns on the floor from the windows above. The second story is still open, so you can lean back and look up to the curved upper roof, delicately made, almost ethereal, with its bowl full of amber light spilling in from the skylight at the top and illuminating the wood. As Bill wrote in an article years ago, “the natural lighting of the yurt is its glory.”

Peter and I get up and thank Bill, hug him, somewhat at a loss for words. I feel exhausted by the physical and emotional intensity of the last two weeks but on a high, too, and very grateful. When it’s Bill’s turn to speak he says that he is sorry that he hasn’t been all that easy to work with, that he always wants to design something new and the new parts of this building only came together in the last couple of days. “So sorry if I’ve been tense,” he says, clearly uncomfortable. “Now I’m just intense,” he adds, and everyone laughs, a little awkwardly, knowing perhaps that there was much more to be said but also that this was enough.

Wren goes around the circle and hands out to each person a Veritas plumb bob in a cloth pouch. The brass objects have a nice heft in the palm. JoAnna comments that they represent to her what our time together felt like to her, finding your center. People share how much the experience meant to them, using words like “magical,” “powerful,” “unforgettable,” “whole.” I look at Peter and hope he is taking it all in.

Later, watching Bill walk away toward the shore with his simple bedroll under his arm, his back a little bent, I hope that he too has taken -bottom: 12pt;”in what this has meant to everyone. I sense he is ready for it to be over, ready to have some time alone, to have a rest. Now I understand, when he tells his stories about yurt workshops he has done, what an incredible feat each one of them has been. He is spent, and it’s not because he’s eighty-one. It’s because he has poured every ounce of his being into his creative process.

Buy this book from Chelsea Green: A Man Apart: Bill Coperthwaite’s Experiment in Living.