Monday, September 10, 2007

A Handmade Life....a book on my wish list

Review of A Handmade Life

Author: Katrien Vander Straeten
Published: June 27, 2007
A beautifully written and illustrated book about sustainable living and work for a better world

* The author

The author of A Handmade Life, In Search for Simplicity, William Coperthwaite, is a philosopher and anthropologist, and a designer of social as well as material constructions. He is a scholar - he has a Ph.D. in education from Harvard – and a teacher, albeit an unorthodox one. But he is foremost a physical kind of man, a skilled craftsman who built his own home and chops his own wood at his homestead in Maine, most accessible by canoe.

Though Coperthwaite lives “off the grid” – buying almost nothing, reachable only via mail to the local library – his sustainable living experiment is not an “exit strategy”. He welcomes visitors, travels to learn from other cultures, and is available for lectures and yurt-building workshops.

And of course he reaches out to all of us in his book, A Handmade Life, published by Chelsea Green in 2002 and newly out in paperback.

* The Democratic Axe

A Handmade Life has something of everything, but most importantly, it has hope. Though there is critical and honest analysis of a world in crisis, this is not a doomsday book. It has recipes for a better community – of humans and nature – that Coperthwaite himself has put to the test in over four decades.

“My central concern is encouragement,” he writes. He is reluctant to be called a teacher, but it is true that his most inspired writing evolves from his desire to better our lives. Still, like the best of teachers, he gently offers us the skills and tools for making better lives ourselves.

This he calls “democratic” and it is his greatest gift to us: the message that a fulfilling life is up to each of us – not big corporations, big government - and that we can do it. But do what? Preserve not things but the skills to make things, and the skills to make the tools to make things. And work. With those we can emancipate ourselves from machinery, mindless consumption, and unhealthy, unnatural and asocial lifestyles.

* Hand-made

This brings us to the keyword in the book’s title: Handmade. A “handmade life” is centered on “bread work”, that is, physical labor. Sounds unappetizing? Coperthwaite is convincing when he pleads for reintroducing work into our lives and even the lives of our children (read more here and here), and promises that it is the only foundation for a healthy body and a happy mind.

Thus the book seamlessly combines philosophy and reflection with how-to-build inserts on “The Democratic Axe”, “The Democratic Chair” and handmade toys. And let’s not forget the “Democratic House”: the yurt. It is a house you can build yourself, with your hands, at a small cost to your wallet and to nature. It is beautiful and long-lasting, as are all the tools, objects and lives that Coperthwaite promotes.

That said, this most inspiring heart of Coperthwaite’s work is also his weakest spot. In his desire to promote it, he can’t help but generalize the individual handmade life to a social level. In this he is less convincing. In the sections on the social distribution of work and pay, for instance, the book loses its marvelous exemplary quality and slips into abstract, redundant theorizing. Such social theorizing or “designing,” as Coperthwaite calls it, is out of place in this book. Luckily, there are only few such lapses.

* A simple beauty

The beauty of A Handmade Life lies in simplicity as its subject, method and presentation. Coperthwaite is a man of words both small – “I want to live in such a way that small gifts are meaningful” – and big - “We need poets who can discover and proclaim the beauty of simplicity while themselves living a simple, rural life of creative and honest labor”. But he makes sure that both kinds are democratic words that all of us can choose to use and apply to ourselves.

Peter Forbes’ stunning photographs documents Coperthwaite’s life and desire: a couple of hand-carved, curved spoons, Coperthwaite carrying a toddler, guiding his canoe.

Those interested in the Simple Life of Helen and Scott Nearing and the teachings of non-violence of Richard Bartlett Gregg will find Coperthwaite a thoughtful interpreter.

Sections of this book appeared in Manas and Mother Earth News. It is printed on recycled paper.

* Related articles

Coperthwaite on Educating Children: Non-Violent and Natural Learning

More Remedies for Education: Family, Community and Usefulness

Welcome To The Working Waterfront
Published By The Island Institute Monday, September 10, 2007

A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity
by William S. Coperthwaite

Photographs by Peter Forbes
Chelsea Green Publishing: 2003
Hardcover $35.00

Good design is part of Maine life. Think of all those old Cape-style houses, oriented so the winter sun warms their parlors; the clean lines of boats, bows angled to cut through rough water with maximum efficiency. Even the homely lobster trap is a triumph of form and function.

Bill Coperthwaite sees life as a design problem, where the definition of design goes beyond physical surroundings to encompass philosophy. Bad design, he says, penalizes us all. Chairs, for example, are produced in the way that is easiest and cheapest for machines to make. The result is that "we end up surrounded by furniture designed to fit the needs of machines."

Well, that woke me up, because my desk chair is none too comfortable. That kind of non-awareness, I realized, about our lives and surroundings lets us accept any number of injurious situations cited: water pollution, wars, violence, an educational system that stifles curiosity. It also encourages ignorance of the very large world around us, a world that is more and more arriving on our doorsteps and demanding loudly that we pay attention.

Coperthwaite, a Maine native and Bowdoin graduate with a doctorate from Harvard, has spent a lifetime studying other cultures, and in this thoughtful memoir he offers ideas about how we can incorporate into our thinking and our lives the wisdom of others - making an axe, collecting rain, weaving on a small loom - using qualities of self-reliance, proportionality and awareness. He has walked his talk by preserving a stretch of coastline way down east - living off the electric grid, utilizing primarily handmade tools, traveling by non-motorized boat. Others may find other routes; he asks only that we be aware, keep a sense of proportion, don't use more than we need.

OK. So this may seem just a bit esoteric. How does it affect "real" life?

No need to give up your TV; just be aware of how your choices to use resources - time, minerals, transportation costs, and so on - may also affect other people in your life, other countries, the planet. If, he says, we could imagine our society as an extension of our selves, we would be more careful not to cause harm. Cooperation, rather than competition, is one road, and in a harsh climate like Maine's, cooperation - among neighbors, friends, work associates - is a valued trait. The object, here, is a society "in which everyone wins." It is an effort exemplified by Harborside homesteader Scott Nearing, who wrote, "Do the best that you can in the place that you are, and be kind."

The book, which is beautifully produced (and publishing is a process that is anything but "simple"), offers numerous sidebars with anecdotes, instructions, accounts of encounters in far corners of the world, all of which seem particularly relevant to our ever-smaller world. And there are numerous marginal quotes from such as Thoreau, Gandhi and Emily Dickinson that offer small jewels of awareness and inspiration.

One quote from Hillel, who wrote in 100 B.C., seems particularly appropriate: "That which is harmful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole law. The rest is mere commentary."

Ironically, the stretch of land that Coperthwaite has sought to protect along Dickinson's Reach is now under threat of development as a golf course, which can be one of the most toxic and environmentally degrading forms of "development."

-- February 2004

Square peg in a round house
Yurt evangelist, 75, still spreads his gospel of self-sufficiency

By Letitia Baldwin, Globe Correspondent | December 8, 2005

BUCKS HARBOR, Maine -- It might seem tempting to think of William Coperthwaite, who has adopted a life and lifestyle in the Maine woods substantially separate from civilization, as a modern-day David Thoreau.

His Walden Pond is Mill Pond and his Concord is Bucks Harbor, a Down East village in Washington County. He lives in a three-story yurt reachable only by the sea or by a half-hour's hike along a woodland footpath bordered by bunchberry and sphagnum moss. Coperthwaite is highly learned -- he earned a doctorate in education from Harvard in 1972 -- and idealistic.

But unlike Thoreau, described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as a somewhat cranky, antisocial ascetic, Coperthwaite is a friendly, open-minded fellow who warmly welcomes visitors to his round house and invites them to finish the organic cantaloupe left over from breakfast. In mind and body, he is boyish, with a lean build, vigor, and curiosity that belie his 75 years.

A runner and pole vaulter as a Bowdoin College undergrad, he gets a daily workout chopping firewood, hauling supplies in his cedar canoe, pulling fir saplings from maple and birch glades, and performing other regular chores. To meet other needs, he splits firewood, collects rainwater, and walks or canoes in and out with the tides by way of Little Kennebec Bay.

Blue eyes twinkling beneath bushy eyebrows, and gray sideburns sticking straight out from his balding head, Coperthwaite exhibits a keen interest and sense of wonder in new technology. He marvels over a newspaper photographer's Canon and digs out the Casio Exilim card camera someone gave him recently to document utilitarian folk art at risk of being lost.

When he bought his 300 acres in this remote hamlet, whose year-round inhabitants number 250, in 1960, it was to embark on an experiment in sustainable living that is still underway. Doing much of the work himself, with friends pitching in from time to time, he built a smaller yurt down by the spruce-lined shore, and completed the main yurt and outbuildings later, in between teaching posts and travels abroad. Today, the outward-curving walls, hand-cut cedar shake roofs, and banks of windows under the eaves of the weathered dwelling blend with the landscape. A blue glass ball atop the cupola sparkles in the sunlight.

He lives in his rustic abode, which rises like a pagoda in a meadow, largely alone, save for the steady stream of visitors and friends; he was married briefly years ago, but the relationship didn't work out. He is untethered in other ways as well. Although a solar panel attached to the chimney provides light, the yurt is off the electric grid, and he has neither plumbing nor a telephone.

Coperthwaite not only lives in a yurt, a housing form conceived by nomadic Mongols on the steppes of Central Asia 2,500 years ago, but he has made it a cornerstone of his working life. He once built and lived in a yurt where the Harvard Graduate School of Education library stands today. He is founder and director of the Yurt Foundation, a nonprofit research institute he operates from his outpost. He has spent much of his time teaching others to construct the circular dwellings, and his pupils have built structures ranging from a public health center in northeastern India to a backyard playhouse at a Montessori school in Austin, Texas. Construction materials have varied widely from bamboo to plywood, depending on climate and setting. He also supplies building plans to those who want to construct the curvilinear structures on their own.

Despite his absorption with the ancient dwellings -- which when built right withstand violent winds and extremes in outdoor temperature, staying warm above minus-40 degrees and cool below 100 degrees -- Coperthwaite would tell you they are only part of his broader work researching folkways and subsistence skills that can be adapted to contemporary living. His thoughts and research are presented in ''A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity" (Chelsea Green, 2003).

''The main thrust of my work is not simple living, not yurt design, not social change, although each of these is important and receives large blocks of my time," he reflects in his book. ''But they are not central. My central concern is encouraging people to seek, to experiment, to plan, to create, and to dream. If enough people do this we will find a better way."

Born in the northern Maine town of Monticello, Coperthwaite majored in art history at Bowdoin. He was a conscientious objector during the Korean War and later taught at the North Country School in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the Meeting School in Rindge, N.H. At the latter, he and his math students came across a National Geographic article about Mongolia and pictures of portable yurts invented by nomadic Mongols. They were impressed by the indigenous design consisting of a collapsible circular trellis (picture an old accordion-style baby gate) that could be carried on camels and assembled in an hour. The wooden framework was set in a circle and the doorway lashed into place. Willow saplings were attached from the walls to a wooden ring at the apex, where a hole let light in and wood smoke out. A tension band was then tightened around the entire structure at the eaves.

The yurt was covered in multiple layers of thick felt made from beaten wet sheep wool. The shelters are still being used in much the same way today in a 5,000-mile expanse from Turkey to China.

The native genius, Coperthwaite says, lies in the use of the tension band to take the outward thrust of the conical roof. The thick rope, made of yak or horse hair, eliminated the need for internal posts, rafters, lintels, headers, and joists.

''They could increase the space in their circular tents by raising them on a low wall, providing support by tying a rope around them," he notes in ''A Handmade Life." ''The structure, made of light poles fastened with felt and bound together with bands of woven wool, was a brilliant solution to the needs of that harsh region's people."

Coperthwaite and his students modified the yurt by making its walls flare at the top, creating greater spaciousness within. Over the years, he has adapted the ancient design for permanent habitation. He replaced the collapsible framework with solid tapered boards. The tension produced by the conical roof and outward sloping walls is contained by a steel band encircling the structure. Windows added under the eaves augment the natural lighting supplied by the central skylight. Coperthwaite aimed -- and still strives -- to design attractive, inexpensive dwellings that amateur builders can construct for themselves in a reasonable time frame and maintain at minimal cost.

''My goal was to design this structure so that it could be built in stages to allow a family to start out with a very limited outlay of money, time, and energy, then expand the building as their resources grew," he writes. ''I aimed at an initial budget of $3,000. This figure would permit many people to bypass a mortgage, avoiding the usurious rates of the money lenders as well as their veto power over the design and time frame."

Inspired by Gandhi, American pacifist Richard Gregg, North Country School cofounder Walter Clark, back-to-the-land movement leaders Scott and Helen Nearing, and others in the 1960s, Coperthwaite says the yurt became a metaphor for his larger mission to create a more truly democratic society that would value folk wisdom and practices.

As he conducts a tour, Coperthwaite shows his spacious workshop where sawdust and wood shavings carpet the wooden floor. Much of his time is spent here making chairs, tables, bowls, knives, and other household items. All the pieces fill utilitarian functions but are beautiful to behold, whether they are crooked knife handles carved from a beech burl or brooms fashioned from birch shavings.

''If living is to be right, it ought to be beautiful," declares Coperthwaite, whose cupcake-shaped outhouse is a thing of beauty. ''So often it goes by the board."

The second floor feels like being on the bridge of a ship at sea. It takes a moment to adjust visually to the windows and curving walls, whose tendency to catch dust, unlike vertical walls, is Coperthwaite's only complaint of the form. A settee, its cushion fashioned from rolled-up strips of discarded sweaters, and leather sling chairs provide comfortable seating in the main living space. Gold raw silk covers one wall and adds warmth to the room on dull winter days.

''The Dickinsons Reach easy chair," Coperthwaite quips, referring to the sling chairs. ''Easy to build, easy on your pocket, and easy on your back.

Anyone can build them. If they're not comfortable, they're not worth building."

A sleeping loft occupies the third story. The airy space is sparsely furnished with a bed, a basket for hand-knit socks, and separate wooden bins for pants, shirts, windbreakers, and other garments. An even loftier perch -- a cat's cradle of monofilament fishing line -- has been cleverly created just below the skylight.

Outdoors, Coperthwaite points out his summer kitchen and other smaller yurts scattered around the property before leading the way down to the shore, where an old birch bark canoe and other craft are stored in a boathouse. He shows his outdoor shower -- a saltwater pool that fills and empties twice a day, hidden from view and shielded from the wind by a wall of flat fieldstones collected over the years.

''The more you have participated in making things around you, the more pleasurable it is," he muses. ''I think we have gotten away from that in our society."

This spring, Coperthwaite intends to visit Bolivia's Altiplano -- a high, rugged plateau inhabited by the Aymara and Quechua people -- to do research. But he has no desire to escape from his roundabout way of life.

''I am lucky in that I enjoy how I live and what I am doing," he says.

William Coperthwaite sells building plans for three basic yurts, ranging from 10 to 38 feet in diameter, for $25, $50, and $75. Revenue supports his research of folkways and traditions. He also welcomes correspondence. Write to: The Yurt Foundation, Dickinsons Reach, Machiasport, ME 04655.


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