A Separate Peace; Machiasport man finds happiness living ‘the best way I know’

This story was published on Oct. 11, 2003 on Page S1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

The road to William Coperthwaite’s home is long and quiet and bucolic. It requires driving a half-mile on a grassy road lined so closely with wild shrubbery that, last month, a driver could easily reach out of the car window and pluck ripe blackberries from the bushes. When the passageway for the car ends at a stand of trees, anyone hoping to see Coperthwaite has to make the rest of the journey on foot along a snaking sawdust path – Hansel-and-Gretel style through the woods.

A mile and a half later, past a swamp, around rocky, mossy rises, and alongside woodpiles, Coperthwaite’s small compound of yurts appears in the distance. It looks like Middle Earth, with mushroomy roofs and earthy, overgrown greenery. But in fact, it is Coperthwaite’s Walden, the place where he works, lives, thinks and travels a good deal.

There is no electricity, no phone, no running water. Instead, there are windows, solar-powered lights, an outhouse yurt, a brook for water and a wood stove for heat and cooking. Phone calls are made during trips by car to town for groceries. Coperthwaite doesn’t grow his own food, nor does he have particular rules about what he eats. It’s a simple life, he says.

Like Henry David Thoreau, whose book “Walden” is about a two-year retreat in the 1840s to a one-room house at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., Coperthwaite, who began building structures on his Machiasport property in the 1960s, has written a book about his experiences, encounters and techniques. “The Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity,” recently released by Chelsea Green Publishing Co. in Vermont, is a compilation of personal essays, construction and tool guides, philosophical essays and glossy photographs by Peter Forbes about Coperthwaite’s experiment with simple living.

“It’s the best way I know,” Coperthwaite, 73, said of his lifestyle on a tract of land that covers 400 acres including waterfront along a serene harbor. “Each of us tries to live in the best way we know how. I want to contribute to the problems of the world as little as possible. I really believe we must find simpler ways to live or society will collapse.”

A native of Monticello, which is just north of Houlton, Coperthwaite spent most of his childhood in South Portland, where his father, a carpenter, stableman, blacksmith and farmer from Aroostook County, found work in shipyards during lean economic times. Coperthwaite, who proved to be both smart and athletic, studied art history at Bowdoin College. In his final year, however, he spent a semester in Europe and found a global perspective he had not encountered growing up in Maine in the aftermath of the Depression.

Coperthwaite finished at Bowdoin, but the most lasting lesson he learned was that formal education did not suit his temperament. His ideas were moving more in the direction of experiential education, and when he met Morris Mitchell, a Quaker, educator and pacifist who ran the Putney Graduate School of Teacher Education in Vermont, Coperthwaite stepped onto the path of a calling that would take him to Mexico, Venezuela, Scandinavia and throughout the United States.

Maine always has been the anchor, but Coperthwaite is hesitant to call his home state a major influence in his thinking: “I don’t know what the influences in Maine were. Growing up with a father who was good working with his hands gave me confidence building things. But I don’t know what Maine had to do with it. It’s just a coincidence really. I was quite ready to settle in Finland. I would have been happy to live in Mexico – until I realized that the Mexicans were chasing after our culture faster than anything I could do. I realized we in America are the problem, and I wanted to return.”

The major influences on his thinking, Coperthwaite says, are the works of nonviolence promoter Richard Bartlett Gregg (the two met and had a long correspondence), the philosophy of Mahatma Ghandi, and the homesteading of Scott and Helen Nearing, political dissenters and intellectuals who left New York City for Vermont but eventually moved to Harborside on Cape Rosier.

And of course, the writings of Thoreau, for whom Coperthwaite appears to be a philosophical offspring, hovered.

While studying Eskimo handcrafts and tools in Alaska in the 1960s, Coperthwaite developed a traveling museum of Eskimo culture, a presentation that interested recruiters at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Given his earlier experience with conventional schooling, Coperthwaite was skeptical about the constraints of academia, but struck a deal where he would move onto campus with his own yurt and conduct workshops in the circular space. He earned a doctoral degree for his dissertation on Alaskan culture.

During those years, Coperthwaite also was adapting designs for yurts to suit the climate at his home base in Maine. His dream – another adaptation, this time of the Nearing tradition – was to build a community of like-minded thinkers in Maine with the family unit at the center. Coperthwaite did marry in his 30s, but now lives alone. “It just didn’t work out,” he said. “Not everything works out in this life. As you get older, solitude becomes more of an attraction. And you’re related to a community through time.”

Indeed, Coperthwaite considers the collection of literary quotations in “A Handmade Life” – excerpts from writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Kahlil Gibran, Walt Whitman, Andre Gide, George Bernard Shaw, to name some – make up his inherited cultural, philosophical and political community.

The yurts, too, have connected Coperthwaite to a dialogue about global ethics and grass-roots efforts. Thirty years ago, he established The Yurt Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization that sells yurt plans and calendars, and schedules workshops in yurt building and seminars in social design.

Karen Frangoulis, a caterer and WERU radio personality, had one of Coperthwaite’s yurts built as a bathhouse on her Blue Hill property several years ago. It is 17 feet across at the widest point and has 21 windows. The cost, including Coperthwaite’s instruction, materials and feeding volunteers, was about $6,000. For her, the yurt represents intentional engagement and exchange.

“Bill inspires an environment where people use hand tools and can communicate with each other. It’s a community building spirit,” she said. “When it got built, I said, ‘This is too beautiful to be a bathhouse.’ I use it as a guest bedroom and a family of five from Holland stayed in it for one week.”

At the Shelter Institute in Woolwich, where Pat and Patsy Hennin have been teaching home design and construction for three decades, Coperthwaite is a considered a fellow traveler when it comes to self-reliance and self-determination through construction. The Hennins know that while Coperthwaite might be considered a master builder of yurts, his real message is about living simply and by hand.

“Our missions overlap in that Bill is trying to get people to take over their lives in the same way as we are,” said Patsy Hennin, whose three adult children have built homes on family property where they live, work and collaborate professionally – and personally with their growing families. “Bill really wants to simplify, and wants people to look at how meaningful a life they can have by examining little things. I think Bill is showing people by example, but he isn’t expecting everyone to live like he does. It’s an interesting life he has chosen. But it’s not the answer for everyone. It’s not so much the answer as the inspiration for us not to rush through our lives.”

Coperthwaite is adamant that the traditional nomadic structures are not his life’s work. He speaks of the lean of the walls, the circularity, the height of a yurt all creating “psychological space.” And he clearly loves the airiness, openness and freedom his home affords him. He has seven yurts on his property and has aided in building hundreds. But he does not want them to be a distracting factor in his larger message.

“There are other ways to live simply,” said Coperthwaite, who sat in a handmade chair carving a spoon from a block of wood. “But people have to work that out for themselves. I know people who live simply in the city and deal with the troubles of the city. More power to them. But I can’t say strongly enough that yurts are not what I am advocating or promoting. Yurts are a symbol of cultural blending. I am not living in some old way or some new way. I am interested in designing better ways to live. Some people think if you live out in the country like this that you are suffering. I’m not for suffering. I’m for questioning and developing. But this isn’t suffering. And I have nothing against technology. Technology has been here since the first person flaked a scraper. But as much as anything, technology is giving us better weapons right now. It’s time we slowed down.”

The yurts are not an end, he might say, but a means – one that appealed to Frangoulis, who has visited Coperthwaite’s compound many times.

“It’s about having a peaceful, nonviolent environment and being resourceful and learning about your inner resources,” she said. “I like that confidence that you get when you can eat a bowl of cereal with your own handmade spoon or carrying your belongings in a backpack that you made. What Bill has that I find so wonderful is that spark that he can’t learn enough. He wants to learn from all different people, from all different cultures. Like all the different ways you can knit a mitten. Not the best way, but the different ways. Yeah, I like that.”

To many in the workaday world, Coperthwaite’s lifestyle may seem too strenuous. He rises early to do desk work and then “bread labor” – the basic work of survival and maintenance of the property. The afternoon is spent in leisure time and quieter pursuits: crafting, reading, exploring, talking and resting. The ground-level shop is covered with woodworking projects and tools from all over the world.

If the weather is nice, Coperthwaite may climb up a tree, 45 feet into the air, to a treehouse where he sometimes has lunch looking over the harbor. Sometimes local children might join him. Or he may sit with friends to have lunch at a small summer kitchen yurt along the beach, where there is also a boathouse, several canoes and an outdoor, rock-tiled shower fed by a brook.

“Democratic tools,” useful ones that can be made simply and by hand, are often the focus of his imagination. “This is what I am really excited about,” said Coperthwaite, pointing to a mechanism that carves wooden bowls. “If the world goes all to hell, you might as well be doing something you enjoy.” In his travels, he has picked up ideas for building better tools, better yurts, a better life.

Much of Coperthwaite’s time is spent alone, although during the summer, he has visitors nearly every day. They want to hear about his close-to-nature lifestyle, or learn his craft skills, or help him clear a path or use a jungle knife to trim the bushes. He can grow weary of the traffic, particularly if the visitors are attracted to the oddity of the yurt village rather than the ideas behind the crafts and lifestyle. But everyone is welcome.

Coperthwaite also travels, mostly to teach under the auspices of The Yurt Foundation and is heading to India later this year to oversee the construction of a yurt there. Because he has no sewage system, he needn’t worry about the pipes freezing in the yurts.

“It’s a balance between work and play,” said Dave Hutchinson, who is homesteading on the old Coperthwaite land in Monticello and is a Unitarian minister in Houlton.

Hutchinson, who is related by marriage to Coperthwaite, was leaving the Machiasport property after spending the night and helping with chores. Even though they knew of each other, the two had met only the day before.

“It was bread labor in the morning and then we canoed in Mill Pond and had lunch on the shore,” said Hutchinson. “I was drawn to Bill’s long-term commitment to authentic, traditional living of a simple life with integrity and sustainability with a good dose of humor and practicality. He is a part of the shared world of ideas, from Scott Nearing to Richard Gregg to Ghandi, and is that link between the generations of thinkers. Bill is continuing that tradition.”

It’s hard to know the full reach of a man’s life, said Coperthwaite, or if anything he records will be of any use to this or future generations. But he hopes “The Handmade Life” will appeal and therefore inspire others to live their lives peaceably and by design.

“You have certain aims in life, things you think you should do,” said Coperthwaite. “Just look at Thoreau – how would he ever have known he wasn’t a failure? You do the best you can every day and hope good things will happen. Maybe a community will still happen here.”

Alicia Anstead is a Style Desk writer. She can be reached at aanstead@bangordailynews.net.

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