Here we are, our first week of living in a hut in the woods. Two years ago when we decided to make a lifestyle change, this is not what I envisioned. Not remotely. I didn’t know what a yurt was. And when I did find out what they were I thought fabric yurts were not particularly attractive, like something you’d stay in at a space hotel or the result of someone trying to figure out what to do with a surplus of tarps.
Two years ago we were living in a house we’d had built in a subdivision in New Hampshire. A house that never truly felt like ours somehow, but that we had lived in for 8 years, where we had our first two puppies, gardened and gardened and gardened some more, brought home a baby boy, where we gave birth to a baby girl… We had thought this was where we would live forever. That we would raise our family here and where they would come back to visit as adults. But of course perspectives change in the most unexpected ways.
When we originally planned a move it was motivated by setting roots into a “good school system” before our children were in grade school. We had been driving more than a half hour to get to a preschool program at a Waldorf school, a school that would really only be financially possible through kindergarten. We needed a more permanent, local solution that we felt good about. There were two school systems nearby that ranked at the top in New Hampshire. We assumed we’d move to one of those towns. I constantly scanned the housing market. For some reason nothing ever came close to feeling right. We wanted a house with a bit more land so we could expand our gardening. We could never seem to find that in these other towns without needing to dramatically increase our mortgage, something that would jeopardize our stay-home-dad and work-from-home-mom setup. And we couldn’t bring ourselves to “go backwards” and get a house that was somehow less than the one we already had. After all, we’d worked so hard to get where we were, right?!
Then a perfect whirling together of events happened. A sweet, gentle soul of a teacher came to visit Caden’s school from a town in Maine called Blue Hill, 4 hours north of us. A town that we had been to once, years before. My work from home job became extremely busy while my boss was on paternity leave. We were exhausted from that work stress, from driving two hours (back and forth, back and forth) each day of Caden’s preschool, driving in three different directions to get groceries, another direction to get eggs and farm products, jumping around to farmers’ markets, and being sleep deprived on top of it with 6 month old Aria. AND, the neighbors that our northerly windows faced were bickering with other neighbors, creating negative energy in the neighborhood. We needed a change. We didn’t know what, but this was not what we wanted, in so many ways.
The visiting teacher had me thinking about this little seaside town in Maine. She had spoken of it with such reverence, and I recalled it having a great reputation when we had visited before. I started googling and googling, well into the nights. Could it be possible that THIS was the place we were looking for?! We had never considered moving out of the area we had rooted ourselves after college. How could we leave our friends and move farther from most of our family? But perhaps, perhaps dramatic change was exactly what we needed after all. I could work from anywhere in the country. Why not take advantage of that?
What I found when I googled Blue Hill was a town with great school reputations, a strong community with exciting-to-us events like garden cold frame building workshops, mushroom identification walks, yoga classes, an old fashioned town fair, a natural food co-op, farmers’ markets, a big public library, crafting stores, inspiring farms to learn from like Four Season Farm, and the well-established Waldorf school… I reached out to a woman who had mentioned on a forum how much she loved living on the Blue Hill peninsula. She confirmed that it was very much what we were looking for. It was fascinating to hear that most everyone she knew had a vegetable garden, homebirthing was common practice, people in general just did whatever they could to be able to keep living here…
And then I found a house listing in an eco neighborhood there.
Open-concept, natural building, community subdivision setting, trails, pond, communal garden, group solar… It was more than I could possibly hope for. I hooked Josh in and soon we were making plans for a road trip. Only to find out that the wonderful plans for the neighborhood had crumpled with the turn in the economy a couple years earlier. These were big houses (the one we were looking at was 3,000 sq ft) and big cost and not many people could afford them in this rural area. The reason the one we were looking at was in our price range, it turned out, was because it was not quite finished and had been foreclosed on.
Still… we weren’t ready to give up. We made the road trip anyway. We visited the subdivision but could quite quickly see and feel how the foreclosures had impacted the neighborhood dream. There were people living in several beautiful houses. But the pond buildings were run down and covered with plastic, the solar plans were not likely to happen, the planned communal garden was a mess of saplings and weeds, the foreclosed lots were desolate…
I loved the actual house, light and airy and open with a winding central stair going three stories, fireplaces in the living room and master bedroom. It was so beautiful. But still needed quite a bit of work to finish. Plus, a big reason we wanted to move was to have more area to do our own gardening. This plot was only one acre with a lot of scrub evergreen and no good area to garden, plant fruit trees, have animals. Overall, it just wasn’t right enough and we left knowing this was not for us. It was sad, really. A lost dream of a new adventure, a new start.
But, it turns out not all was lost. We drove around the area, visited the natural food co-op, went to a local restaurant. We could feel something here in this area, something that wasn’t easy to see. We went home, but kept thinking about Blue Hill.
Then things started getting freaky…
- A local New Hampshire friend was talking to a customer in her store, a customer who turned out to be a Realtor from Blue Hill.
- Looking at a vendor list for a Blue Hill winter craft fair I noticed Black Dinah Chocolates, and wondered for days why that seemed very familiar. I finally went to my bookshelf to find a clipping I’d saved from Martha Stewart Living about a chocolatier who lived on an island in Maine. It was Black Dinah Chocolates. I had thought it so magical, the description of their way of living, that I had held onto it, not having any idea where this island was. It turns out their island is a boat ride away from Blue Hill and they have a cafe in the Blue Hill town as well.
- At this time I was also drawn to reread a favorite book, one that I don’t recall how or why I first purchased. Rereading it I got goosebumps as I started to recognize street name after street name, understanding suddenly that the book’s fictional Maine town of Dundee was well and truly based on Blue Hill. The descriptions, the street names, the nearby islands, all of it matched.
- We went to pick up our winter CSA share to find frozen blueberries from Brooklin, Maine, a town bordering Blue Hill.
By this point I was starting to feel there was something drawing me to this town, this area. Josh felt it too. We took another exploratory trip, during which I saw a post at the co-op for Village Green Timberframes.
We cut our frames and build our houses on the Blue Hill peninsula on the coast of Maine. Like the rest of eastern North America, New England’s native ecosystem is forest. So we build with wood. But we don’t see the forest as an economic resource to be exploited to the greatest extent possible. We treat it with respect, reverence even. We design and craft our buildings in a way that minimizes our impact on the land and its resources. How? We build with the materials at hand: pine, oak and spruce from the forest, granite and slate from the local geology, clay and sand from the soil underfoot. The “greenest” buildings are the ones that last the longest, so we rely on materials, techniques, and plans that have proven themselves over the centuries. We take no more from the land than we need, designing and building houses of a modest, comfortable size.
This. THIS was us. We started reading their blog and found so many resonant ideals. And were impressed by the builder’s ideals that went far beyond anything we’d considered, like choosing to live in a 500 sq ft home with two small children, hand pumping their water… We couldn’t imagine living that way, but could respect a builder who did given our previous builder experiences that seemed largely motivated by them getting as much profit as possible for their own mansion lifestyle. We planned another trip to meet this builder, Jim Bannon, and see his work. It was an experience unlike any I’d ever had. We were all captivated by a house that felt like you were in a fairy-tale book, this intimate connection with wood and earth, with the outside world framed perfectly in the windows like artwork. We knew we wanted him to build our home and we’d do whatever we could to make that happen.
During this trip we also visited the local Waldorf school. We were primarily considering this school for early childhood, assuming we would go to the local public schools from there for cost reasons, but glad to know there was Waldorf mentality in the town. Because truly, how could we afford a mortgage and private school on my one salary if we wanted to have a parent home for our children as well?
We met with the school director, a charming and charismatic man with a mesmerizing voice that Josh later remarked could hypnotize you into doing just about anything. He was warm and inviting and open. He talked so glowingly about the school, the foreign language integration, the violin exposure, the foraging walks… We saw snowshoes lined up outside of classrooms. Then conversation also led to how he and his wife had lacto-fermented their food for years when they didn’t have a refrigerator after building their own home. How they used a hand pump for their water. These were people we wanted to be around, we wanted our children to be learning from. It happened that he also knew Jim Bannon well, and highly recommended his work.
We then met with the kindergarten teacher, who turned out to be the same lovely woman I had met in Caden’s school before, the one who had initially started me thinking about Blue Hill. She and the classroom were a haven of warmth, simplicity, purposefulness, beauty.
We went home and put our house in New Hampshire on the market.
And waited. And waited. And waited some more. We began to get lost in a flurry of making the house look perfect (with two small children and two dogs doing their best to undo it) for house showing after house showing. There were so many “they’re very interested” responses, but no offers. We dropped the price several times, with no effect. We were frustrated and stuck, feeling so much like we were meant to be in Blue Hill and ready to get on with the rest of our lives there, but unable to do so.
Mid-summer we made another pilgrimage to Maine, looking at pieces of land to daydream of when we might be able to start building our own fairy-tale timberframe house. We also visited The Good Life Center, former home of Helen and Scott Nearing:
In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Helen and Scott Nearing moved from their small apartment in New York City to a dilapidated farmhouse on 65 acres in Vermont. For over 20 years, they created fertile, organic gardens, hand-crafted stone buildings, and a practice of living simply and sustainably on the land. In 1952, they moved to the Maine coast, where they later built their last stone home – Forest Farm.
Through their 60 years of living on the land in rural New England, their commitment to social and economic justice, their numerous books and articles, and the time they shared with thousands of visitors to their homestead, the Nearings embodied a philosophy that has come to be recognized as a centerpiece of America’s “Back to the Land” and “Simple Living” movements.
While we were there we visited a little yurt on the property, the first one I’d ever seen and the first time I’d heard the word even. It was made of wood and looked very small from the outside. But walking inside there was this fascinating feeling that happens when a space is cornerless, and the eye can just follow along the curves of the walls, the windows. And looking up to see a dome, the sky overhead…it was captivating. When the others had moved on I was moved to go back into the yurt and look again at a book that was resting on a bench. “A Handmade Life” by William S. Coperthwaite. What a lovely idea, I thought, but not exactly something feasible for people that were not especially handy. The subtitle, “In Search of Simplicity,” struck me and stuck with me. We returned home, and in the way things sometimes happen, the book came up in a conversation a week later. I’m all for paying attention to signs. I looked into the book, bought it, and started reading it in bits and pieces over the next several months.
This summer we’d also begun to scheme something we’d previously thought unimaginable. What if we lived with Josh’s mom in Maine while we waited for our house in New Hampshire to sell… We could hardly believe we were contemplating moving in with family when we were grown, established, successful adults?! She lived 40 minutes away from Blue Hill, but at least we’d be able to start setting in roots there in some way, continue looking for land, and would be able to get out of the house staging cycle while it waited to sell. Plans were set. We moved up at the end of August and Caden started at the Waldorf school in Blue Hill the next week.
So much of what we hoped, and more, materialized as we lived somewhat nearby. It was a different pace of life, a different way of being. It felt right. But still we were stuck, still we couldn’t get rid of this monstrous mortgage that shackled us away from moving forward with our plans. At the time we were also reading “A Handmade Life” and finding that it wasn’t the usual craftsman-oriented handmade reading. This was about a way of life that was purposeful, meaningful, centered and well-rounded. Our focus started shifting as these new possibilities entered our thoughts. Here was a way to build our own home, to be fully involved in this process and potentially not have a mortgage. To craft something ourselves. To build something with others and learn so much in the process. To cut things down to the basics and see what it felt like, discover what we well and truly NEEDed. We still very much wanted our fairy-tale timberframe home. But after months of being mortgage-bound, now we even more dreamed of never being tied to a mortgage like that again. It also opened up a world of possibilities, like enabling us to afford the Waldorf schooling we thought would be a great fit for our children, our family. Once we reached this realization that we wanted to try a mortgage-free path to a home, things actually started really happening.
- We found land that we loved. Seventeen acres of meandering streams, wooded trails, mossy undergrowth.
- The house in New Hampshire went under agreement and finally sold in an uncomfortable process that made us even more not want to go through that again.
- We visited Bill Coperthwaite at his home in Machiasport. He toured us around and we were well and truly captivated by his wooden tapered yurt. We started discussing a yurt building workshop with him.
We now had freedom, and a plan. We bought the land, feeling very certain this was where we were meant to be. And made a decision to use the wood we cleared on the property to build our yurt. Which meant extending our time frame to wait for the wood to dry. It was tough to wait, but we wanted to do this right, to not feel like we had to rush through. But we were still staying with family and wanted to get closer to the land, to really dig our hands and tools in to start carving out a home there. We tossed around the idea of renting, but in a way very resonant to when we couldn’t find a house in New Hampshire, we just couldn’t seem to find a rental that fit us.
We kept a book called “Yurts: Living in the Round” on our coffee table. We had bought it as a resource for yurts in general, as it delves into everything from Mongolian Yurts, to fabric yurts, to the kind of tapered wooden yurt that we hoped to build. Somewhere along the way the idea of taking even more into our control came up, of not living in someone else’s space, but making our own space to live in while we waited for our final home to come to fruition. We started talking with White Mountain Yurts… and of course, here we are now! In our 24′ mortgage-free Liberty yurt, on our land, in the woods in a clearing, scheming about our tapered wooden yurt and our gardens.
And in that amazing way the world has of coming full circle in so many ways….
* I spend a couple of mornings each week taking advantage of the wifi and working at the Black Dinah Cafe in Blue Hill, seeing those chocolate frogs in the case and thinking back to that article I’d read years ago.
* Last month we spent a weekend at the Good Life Center with Bill Coperthwaite, reroofing that first little yurt we’d ever seen, the one where I first saw his book.
* Our first dinner in our new space was brought by our son’s sweet teacher, the woman who came to visit his school in our previous life, and who now lives just up the road. She brought pumpkin & swiss chard lasagna, broccoli and red peppers, bread fresh from the oven with butter and raw honey, and applesauce they’d churned at school with maple syrup and cinnamon. It was so welcoming and delicious and perfect. And yet again made us all feel we were exactly where we wanted to be, finally.
* The blueberries that had appeared in our winter CSA in New Hampshire? Those blueberry farmers live 3 miles away from us now, and their daughter is in our son’s class too. Suddenly the world feels very small, inside and out, in a most interesting way!