Monday, September 10, 2007

Petraeus.....Statistics Do Lie

Brand Petraeus, by the numbers
As the general goes before Congress to report on the state of the surge in Iraq, a look at the story the statistics really tell.

By Tom Engelhardt

Sep. 10, 2007 | It was about this time of year in 2002, in the halcyon days of the Bush administration, that White House chief of staff Andrew Card offered a little political marketing advice to the world. In explaining why the Bush administration had not launched its "case" against Iraq (and for a future invasion) the previous month, he told a New York Times reporter, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

It's a piece of simple business wisdom, and when it comes to manipulating the public, the Bush administration is still sticking to it five years later. The corollary, which Card didn't mention, is: Do your market research and testing in the dog-bites-man news months of July and August. And that's just what the Bush administration did in the run-up to what will certainly be its victorious battle with congressional opponents to extend its surge plan into next spring and its occupation of Iraq into the distant future. (As present White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten said in a meeting with the USA Today editorial board last week, he doesn't think "any 'realistic observer' can believe that 'all or even most of the American troop presence' will be out of Iraq by the end of Bush's presidency."

The core marketing decision was, of course, finding the right spokesman for the product. As Robert Draper, author of the new book "Dead Certain," reported recently, the president was "fully aware of his standing in opinion polls" and so, earlier this year, decided that "his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, would perhaps do a better job selling progress to the American people than he could." As Bush put it, "I've been here too long. Every time I start painting a rosy picture, it gets criticized and then it doesn't make it on the news." Indeed.

So launching "Brand Petraeus" and providing him with some upbeat Iraqi news (Sunnis in Anbar province ally with U.S.) and numbers (violence down in August) were the two necessities of the summer. In July, the celebrity surge general, who had already shown a decided knack on earlier tours of Iraq for wowing the media, was loosed. Petraeus, in turn, loosed all his top commanders to enter vociferously into what previously would have been a civilian debate over U.S. policy and the issue of "withdrawal." This campaign, by the way, represents a significant chiseling away at traditional prohibitions on U.S. military figures entering the American political arena while in uniform. Like any top-notch P.R. outfit, the administration also put various toes in the water in August and wiggled them vigorously -- including offering rousing presidential speeches and radio addresses, especially a "Vietnam speech" to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. At the same time, an allied $15 million, five-week ad campaign was launched by a new conservative activist group, Freedom's Watch, led by former White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer. The ads, "featuring military veterans," were aimed directly at congressional opposition to the president's surge strategy. In the meantime, key pundits and experts like Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution (who helps produce that organization's anodyne, New York Times-published tabulation of numbers from Iraq) and former invasion enthusiast Kenneth Pollack (both of whom rebilled themselves as "critics"), not to speak of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and others, arrived in Iraq. There, they were given well-organized, well-scripted, Green Zone-style Pentagon-led tours and sent back home to write Petraeus-style news releases about modest, but upbeat, "progress."

Next, of course, came the full-scale September launching of the campaign. This involved a "dramatic" presidential secret exit from the White House and secret Air Force One flight to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq's isolated western desert, one of our giant "enduring" bases. With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and handpicked reporters along, Bush performed what was, as PressThink's Jay Rosen has written, not just a photo op but "a propaganda mission that required the press to complete the mission for him."

Finally, the military completed its early September groundwork by releasing a spate of new numbers from Iraq -- doubted by pundits and experts of many stripes. Military officials claimed (could anyone be surprised?) that, by their count, a miraculous August turnaround had occurred. And here's another shock: Credulous reporters like Michael Gordon of the New York Times swallowed, and front-paged, this one, too (though the Times also had a far more sober report the following day).

Under the circumstances you couldn't do it much better. And this week, we have the full-scale media spectacle of testimony to Congress by Gen. Petraeus and ambassador Crocker, along with the delivery of the so-called "Progress" or Petraeus Report, which, thanks to the Los Angeles Times, we now know -- though the mainstream media has made nothing of it -- was actually written not in Baghdad by the general and ambassador but in the White House.

Why anyone in the media or Congress takes this situation seriously as "news," or even something to argue about, is hard to tell. Think of it this way: The most political general in recent memory has been asked to assess his own work (as has our ambassador in Iraq), and then present "recommendations" to the White House in a "report" that is actually being written in the White House. You couldn't call it a political version of "the honor system"; but perhaps the dishonor system would do. Numbers in Iraq are a slippery matter at best, though again, why anyone pays serious attention to U.S. military numbers from that country is a mystery. On countless occasions in the past, these have been ridiculous undercounts of disaster.

In the midst of such chaos, mayhem and pure tragedy, of course, who exactly is counting? Nonetheless, wherever you look, numbers, however approximate, are indeed pouring out -- and when you consider them, there is no way on earth to imagine that the situation is anything but grim and deteriorating: first for the Iraqi people; second for the overstretched U.S. military; and finally, for the rest of the region and us.

So here, as Gen. Petraeus brings his product to a microphone on Capitol Hill, is my best attempt at "progress" by the numbers:

Number of U.S. troops in Iraq before the president's "surge plan" or "new way forward" was launched in February 2007: 130,000

Number of U.S. troops in Iraq by September 2008, if Gen. Petraeus' reported "drawdown" plan is followed: Approximately 130,000, according to a "senior official" quoted by the Washington Post.

Number of American troops in Iraq when President Bush declared "major combat operations" to have "ended" on May 1, 2003: Approximately 130,000.

Number of American troops Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and other Pentagon civilian strategists predicted would be stationed in Iraq in August 2003, four months after Baghdad fell: 30,000-40,000, according to Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks in his bestselling book "Fiasco."

Number of U.S. troops in Iraq in July 2007: 162,000; in September 2007, 168,000; later in the fall of 2007, an expected 172,000 -- each an all-time high in its moment.

Number of British troops in southern Iraq, May 1, 2003: 45,000 in four provinces.

Number of British troops in southern Iraq, August 2007: 5,000, all gathered in a heavily fortified, regularly mortared base at Basra airport; number of British troops expected to be in Iraq by spring 2008, 3,000.

Number of nations that have withdrawn their troops from the Bush administration's "coalition of the willing" in Iraq: At least 17, according to Poland is expected to withdraw its drawn-down forces by year's end, and other countries have been drawing down their minimal forces as well. Among the remaining powers in the "coalition": Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, El Salvador, Estonia, Mongolia and Ukraine.

Number of months before the Iraqi army can "independently fulfill [its] security role": At least 24, according to a report recently issued by a congressionally appointed commission of retired senior U.S. military officers. (Donald Rumsfeld, October 2003: "In less than six months we have gone from zero Iraqis providing security to their country to close to a hundred thousand Iraqis ... Indeed, the progress has been so swift that ... it will not be long before [Iraqi security forces] will be the largest and outnumber the U.S. forces, and it shouldn't be too long thereafter that they will outnumber all coalition forces combined." George Bush, November 2005: "Our coalition has handed over roughly 90 square miles of Baghdad province to Iraqi security forces. Iraqi battalions have taken over responsibility for areas in South-Central Iraq, sectors of Southeast Iraq, sectors of Western Iraq, and sectors of North-Central Iraq ... The Iraqis, General Dempsey says, are 'increasingly in control of their future and their own security -- the Iraqi security forces are regaining control of the country.'" Commander of Multi-National Forces-Iraq, Gen. George Casey, in October 2006: "And the third step is you make [the Iraqi army] independent, and that's what you'll see going on here over the better part of the next 12 months.")

Amount President Bush is to request from Congress in September to pay for his "surge" plan: Up to $50 billion -- in addition to a pending $147 billion "supplemental" bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this fiscal year. ("The decision to seek about $50 billion more appears to reflect the view in the administration that the counteroffensive will last into the spring of 2008 and will not be shortened by Congress.")

Cost of the war in Iraq per week, if this $197 billion joint request is granted by Congress: More than $3 billion.

Cost to Pentagon of shipping two 19-cent metal washers to a key military installation abroad, probably in Iraq or Afghanistan: $998,798 in "transportation costs," according to the Washington Post. This was part of a defense contractor's plan to bilk the Pentagon, based on its weak system of financial oversight.

Amount paid by the U.S. military to two British private security firms, Aegis Defence Services and Erinys Iraq, to protect U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reconstruction teams in Iraq: $548 million, more than $200 million over budget, according to the Washington Post based on "previously undisclosed data." The contracts to the two companies have a combined "burn rate" of $18 million a month and support a private army of approximately 2,000 hired guns, the equivalent of three military battalions.

Cost of Aegis' armored vehicles and the guards manning them: Approximately $150,000 per vehicle and $15,000 a month per guard.

Percentage of team members in the $2 billion U.S. civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) program with "the cultural knowledge and Arabic-language skills needed to work with Iraqis": 5 percent or just 29 out of 610 PRT members, according to Ginger Cruz, the deputy special inspector for Iraq reconstruction.

Number of U.S. criminal investigations underway for contract fraud in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan: 73, according to an Army spokesman.

Percentage of U.S. military deaths by roadside bomb (IED), 2004: Approximately 33 percent.

Percentage of U.S. military deaths by roadside bomb (IED), 2007: Approximately 80 percent.

Amount Pentagon invested in counter-IED jamming technology in the last year: $1.6 billion; $6 billion since the war began.

Amount needed to make a typical IED (which can be built from instructions on the Internet): "About the cost of a pizza," according to Newsweek magazine.

Cost for hiring Iraqis to plant a successful IED in 2005: $100.

Cost for hiring Iraqis to plant a successful IED in central Iraq in 2007: As low as $40.

Percentage of the West Point class of 2001 who chose to leave the U.S. Army last year: Nearly 46 percent, according to statistics compiled by West Point. More than 54 percent of the class of 2000 had chosen not to reup by January 2007. Over the previous three decades, the percentages for those departing the service at the five-year mark after graduation ranged from 10 percent to 30 percent. The major reason given now: wear and tear from multiple deployments to Iraq.

Number of U.S. Army suicides, 2006: 99 (more than one-quarter while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan), according to the Army, or 17.3 per thousand, the highest rate in 26 years (during which the average rate was 12.3 per thousand). And 118 U.S. military personnel have committed suicide in Iraq itself since 2003, according to Greg Mitchell, editor of the Editor & Publisher Web site; and Army suicide numbers do not, Mitchell notes, include "many unconfirmed reports [of suicides], or those who served in the war and then killed themselves at home."

Percentage of 1,320 soldiers interviewed in Iraq who ranked their unit's morale as "low or very low": 45 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times. Seven percent ranked it "high or very high."

Percentage increase in U.S. Army desertions in 2006: 27 percent or 3,196 active-duty soldiers, according to figures corrected by the Army, which had inaccurately been reporting much lower numbers. The rise for 2005 had been 8 percent. From 2002 through 2006, the average annual rate of Army prosecutions of deserters tripled (compared with the five-year period from 1997 to 2001) to roughly 6 percent of deserters, Army data shows.

Number of states authorized by the Army National Guard to accept "the lowest-ranking group of eligible recruits, those who scored between 16 and 30 on the armed services aptitude test": 34 (plus Guam), according to the New York Times. ("Federal law bars recruits who scored lower than 16 from enlisting.")

Percentage of Army recruits since late July who have accepted a $20,000 "quick ship" bonus to leave for basic combat training by the end of September: 90 percent, part of an Army campaign to meet year-end recruiting goals after a two-month slump. A soldier coming out of basic training is paid on average $17,400 a year.

Percentage of U.S. military equipment destroyed or worn out in Iraq (and Afghanistan): 40 percent, or $212 billion worth.

Percentage of Iraqi national police force that is Shiite: 85 percent.

Number of Iraqis in American prisons in Iraq: 24,500 (and rising), up 50 percent since the president's surge plan began in February, according to Thom Shanker of the New York Times; nearly 85 percent of these prisoners are Sunnis. (U.S. holding facilities at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and Camp Cropper near Baghdad are still being expanded.)

Number of foreign suspected jihadists held in those prisons: 280.

Number of juveniles, ages 11-17, held in those prisons: Approximately 800 (also 85 percent Sunni).

Number of U.S. reconstruction projects officially considered "completed" in Anbar province by July 2007: 3,300 projects "with a total value of $363 million," according to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; 250 more projects at a price tag of $353 million are supposedly underway.

Percentage of U.S. reconstruction money estimated to go to Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida in Iraq militants for "protection" for any convoy of building materials entering Anbar province: 50 percent or more, according to reporter Hannah Allam of the McClatchy Newspapers. ("Every contractor in Anbar who works for the U.S. military and survives for more than a month is paying the insurgency," according to a "senior Iraqi politician.")

Estimated number of full-time al-Qaida in Iraq fighters: 850 or 2 to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency, according to Malcolm Nance, author of "The Terrorists of Iraq," who "has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq."

Number of times President Bush mentioned al-Qaida in a speech on the Iraqi situation on July 24, 2007: 95.

Percentage of unemployed in the now-"secure" city of Fallujah, three-quarters of whose buildings were destroyed or damaged by U.S. firepower in November 2005 in Anbar province: More than 80 percent, according to local residents.

Percentage of U.S. military supplies carried on the vulnerable "Route Tampa," the 300 miles of highway from Kuwait to Baghdad: 90 percent of the food, water, ammunition and equipment, according to John Pike of

Percentage increase of alcoholics under care in Iraq: Up 34 percent in May-June 2007, compared with the previous year, according to the Iraqi Psychologists Association, based on a study of 2,600 patients and inhabitants of Baghdad's suburbs.

Amount spent by the average household in Baghdad for a few hours of electricity a day: $171 a month, in a country where $400 is a reasonable monthly wage.

Number of Iraqi civilian deaths in August: 1,809, according to an Associated Press count, the highest figure of the surge year so far. Surge commander Gen. Petraeus is evidently going to claim a 75 percent drop in sectarian killings as well as a drop in civilian deaths (especially in Baghdad) in his report Monday. To the extent that those questionable figures are accurate, they may, in part, result from the fact that, in the surge months, the ethnic cleansing of the capital actually increased significantly. Experts also believe the U.S. military's figures for "surge success" rely on carefully defined and cherry-picked numbers. The AP, in fact, claims that sectarian deaths have nearly doubled since a year ago. All such figures are, in any case, considered significant undercounts in a country where it is no longer possible to report anywhere near the total number of deaths from violence.

Average number of deaths per day from political violence in 2007: 62, according to the AP count.

Average number of deaths per day from political violence in 2006: 37, according to the AP count.

Number of daily attacks on civilians, February to July 2007: Unchanged, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

Number of Iraqis fleeing their homes on average during each surge month, February to July 2007: 100,000, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. The United Nations International Organization for Migration offers the lower, but still staggering, figure of 50,000 Iraqis fleeing their homes each month.

Number of internally displaced Iraqis during the surge months: Over 600,000, more than doubling the number of internal refugees to 1.14 million, according to the Red Crescent Society. (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has offered the higher estimate of 2.2 million internal refugees.)

Percentage of Iraqis who fled their neighborhoods in the surge months because of direct threats on their lives: 63 percent, according to the U.N. ("More than 25 percent said they fled after being thrown out of their homes at gunpoint.") Iraqis leaving their homes in Baghdad in the same time period "grew by a factor of 20."

Number of Iraqi "bus people" now in exile in neighboring lands: 2.5 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This is the fastest-growing -- and already the third-largest -- refugee population in the world.

Number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the U.S. in August: nearly 530, more than all those admitted in the previous 11 months. Number of Iraqi refugees estimated to be in Syria alone: 1.5 million.

Total number of Iraqis killed, sent into exile or turned into internal refugees: More than 4 million by a conservative estimate, or somewhere between one out of every five and one out of every six Iraqis. (There is no way even to estimate the numbers of Iraqis who have been wounded in these years.)

Total number of Americans who would have been killed or turned into refugees, if these numbers were extrapolated to the far more populous United States: 50 million, according to Gary Kamiya of Salon, a figure "roughly equal to the population of the northeastern United States, including New York, New Jersey, Maryland and all of New England."

Percentage of people across the globe who "think U.S. forces should leave Iraq within a year": 67 percent, according to a just-released BBC World Service poll of 23,000 people in 22 countries. Only 23 percent think foreign troops should remain "until security improves."

Percentage of people across the globe who think the United States plans to keep permanent military bases in Iraq: 49 percent.

Percentage of Americans who think U.S. forces should get out of Iraq within a year: 61 percent, according to the same BBC poll, including 24 percent who favor immediate withdrawal and 37 percent who prefer a one-year timetable; 32 percent of Americans say U.S. forces should stay "until security improves." In a recent Harris poll, 42 percent of Americans favored U.S. troops leaving Iraq "now"; 30 percent in a recent CBS poll (with an additional 31 percent favoring a "decrease").

Percentage of citizens of U.S.-led "coalition" members in Iraq who want forces out within a year: 65 percent of Britons, 63 percent of South Koreans and 63 percent of Australians, according to the BBC poll. Even a majority of Israelis want either an immediate American withdrawal (24 percent) or a withdrawal within a year (28 percent); only 40 percent opt for "remain until security improves."

Percentage of Americans who believe, "in the long run," that "the U.S. mission in Iraq [will] be seen as a failure": 57 percent, according to a poll by Rasmussen Reports. Only 29 percent disagree.

This article originally appeared on

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.