A day with Bill Coperthwaite

If you could spend a day with any “famous” person, who would you choose?

I would spend the day with Bill Coperthwaite.  I have already spent days with him, including this past Saturday, but I would still give the same answer today.

Don’t know who Bill Coperthwaite is?  Until a couple of years ago, neither did I.  He is not someone you will see in the media headlines or on your television.  He did appear in the most recent issue of Taproot magazine, but in general he has a far more subtle kind of fame.  He is a proponent of building a better world through fewer specialists and more people doing, creating, working together.  To that end, he has written a book (A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity) and has led workshops to build tapered wooden yurts in more than 300 places around the world, from the Harvard campus to the Italian countryside.

He is a mentor of simple, purposeful living.  His fame is the kind that sends scores of people on a pilgrimage of sorts to visit him at his home tucked 1.5 miles away from where a vehicle can travel.  And that is what we were doing last Saturday.

This is where we started our journey:

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Leaving our car beneath this more than slightly intimidating boat in the only parking place left near the head of Dickinsons Reach Trail.  Usually you can drive a bit farther in, but the recent snow piles had yet to melt.

Soon we are only surrounded by woods, seeming to step back in time, be wrapped up in the possibilities of the future, and yet so very much only in this moment.  I am giddy with excitement.  So is my backpack.

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There is a feeling of leaving all of the weight of the modern world behind as we follow the metal yurt signs that point the way….

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Over craggy moors (I’m pretty sure they are commenting that perhaps I should be watching my footing here instead of snapping pictures)…

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Over bridges that may or may not be roofs for trolls…

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Until 1.5 miles later we see that first glimpse of something wooden but no longer part of the woodland we’ve traveled through…

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I can’t help but smile as we pass by Bill’s “90 year” woodpile…  Stacked 7 years in advance just in case he doesn’t feel like chopping wood once he reaches the next decade.  This man who slept in his tree house 40 ft off the ground the night he turned 80 years old…

We pass that wood pile and we have arrived.

As is usually the case on our visits, so have many other groups already today.  We walk into the lower workshop to see Kenneth, a teacher from the Carpenter’s Boat Shop in Pemaquid, Maine, demonstrating how to carve a wooden bowl to a group of children.  Bill looking on in his red gnome hat, an image straight out of an Elsa Beskow book.

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When the children’s group heads down to the waterfront to have their lunch around a campfire at the summer kitchen yurt, we head upstairs to hang out with Bill around his wood stove.  We share the lunch that hiked in with us.  He remarks on the deliciousness of the Tinder Hearth bread we’ve brought, sparking a conversation about the community-building and inspirational activities going on in that warm womb-like Tinder Hearth kitchen, where something like Bill imagined is being born – examples of purposeful, simpler, better ways of living.

The children sit down to color, first on the paper we’ve brought and then just coloring on the wood chips they find scattered everywhere from some earlier spoon carving.

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I can’t begin to explain what this experience is like.  We have the best time hanging out with this 83 year old man.  His mind is a treasure.  He randomly pulls out quotes, and when he can’t quite flesh it out, he pulls out his own book for reference, saying “I really should read this someday…”

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He tells of the various crafts or folk art he has collected from around the world, one of his passions being to preserve dying crafts.

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He will randomly break out into song, and even more frequently break out into joke.  He is funny, oh so quick-witted.  The visit is so very relaxed and easy.  We talk about our wood milling progress, details of our own yurt plan, his health.

Conversations ebb and flow as we wander here and there around Bill’s home.

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There are so many pictures not taken…

…of his giant shell that he uses as a wash basin

…his birch bark water bucket in the kitchen that was crafted in Siberia

….the little felted gnome tucked into a carved spot in a wall

…the antlers used as handles to pull yourself up stairs

…his methodical desk made to flow along the rounded walls

…the linen curtains that close with magnets to easily pass through

…the intricate hammock he picked up from crafters on the Yucatan Peninsula…

I do not capture all of these and more, because even to me the sound of the camera sounds so out of place and grating here.  This place where there is no hum of an electrical appliance, no distant sound of vehicles, where every single item is very decisively present given that it had to hike 1.5 miles in or come via canoe….  The camera gets tucked away and I spend more time taking it in, exploring.  Possibly something I should do more often, come out from behind the camera!

All too soon it is time to go, to reverse the hike and 2 hour drive.

On our first visit here back in 2011 (here is a post from that one), another visitor had conspiratorially whispered to me:

Can you even imagine living like this, miles away from anyone, with no running water, electricity, solar or anything?

Yes, yes I can.  It speaks to something in me that knows this is all we really need.  It is hard to leave.  The time there is a gift.  The time with this man even more so.  His influence completely changed the course of our lives and led us to this time where we are unequivocally happier than at any point in mine and Josh’s 20 years together.

We say our goodbyes, wishing Bill safe travels and good health, and retrace our steps…

First stopping at the outhouse yurt so Josh can take measurements so we can give a try at creating our own.  Pint-size yurt building practice…

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Then past Caden’s favorite, the pantry yurt looking like it’s a spaceship about to take off.

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And then we are heading down the trail, snowballs flying…

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By the time we are back to the boat-car parking lot, we’re tired but still very inspired.

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Goodbye to Dickinsons Reach, for now.

14 thoughts on “A day with Bill Coperthwaite

  1. What a beautiful entry! I so enjoy your writing see a published author in the future! What a nice trip and what terrific hikers! Thanks for the mention of the bread. As always it is both a delight to see your lovely family and to be part of your life explorations! Keep it coming just like Spring!

  2. Wonder, excitement reveals life lessons
    The audacity to strive for simple discoveries
    Abandon detraction by worldly production
    Imagination opens the heart shared experience
    Divorced expectations, accomplished vision
    Yours is the abundance of living

  3. really enjoyed your article and pictures. Curious about the levered “Machine” that Kenneth is using to carve the bowls. Any idea what it is called? More pictures of it? Thanks

  4. I had the pleasure of that beautiful hike in when meeting Bill for the 1st time a couple of years ago. On our trip in, I got to experience 4 birch trees recently felled by beavers (all had been removed by said beavers when we left a day later). I meeting Bill was an honor I remember eagerly and fondly. Gracious, quirky and entertaining and so comfortable to be around. I hope the oppertunity will present itself to visit Bill and his compound again soon.

  5. Anthropologist Anna Grimshaw, a Professor at Emory University has produced a four part documentary on Bill. It is titled “Mr. Coperthwaite: A life in the Maine Woods”. It is proven into seasons, the first part of which I saw this past spring. Well worth your time to find a showing of.

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