A Man Apart, Bill Coperthaite’s Radical Experiment in Living,
by Peter Forbes & Helen Whybrow
I met Bill Coperthwaite in 2007. I had recently read his book, A Hand Made Life, and was deeply impressed by his stories and practice, and the way he was trying to live out an answer to questions that, by our denial of them, define our culture:
“Can you have ‘culture’ without violence?”
“Is beauty useful?”
“Are justice, democracy, and peace possible if most all of our technologies require violence?”
Like Gandhi, Bill figured that whatever he could make for himself meant less dependence on an imperial master, but where Gandhi lived with hundreds of others in an ashram in India, Bill lived alone on a couple of hundred acres in Northern Maine, at the end of a mile and a half footpath. When he wasn’t at home building and designing, he travelled the world to build for others, and to seek out living traditions of craft and design.
I was in New England for work, but had some days between events. Instead of filling my time with more work, however, I decided to write Bill, and ask if I could visit. His reply included directions for finding the path to his place. I parked at a non-descript wide spot at the end of a country road, and followed a narrow path through forest, brush and beaver pond to a stunning house. Bill’s home yurt consisted of four tiers, large to small. Dividing each layer from the next was a ring of clerestory windows. The bottom ring, about 50′ in diameter, was filled with 8 years worth of firewod, hand cut, carried, and stacked, as well as tools and workspace. Above that were living quarters: library, kitchen, office. Above that, a bedroom. And above that, a tiny “aeirie,” all light, whose floor was woven out of cord, in geometric patterns. Light streamed into every tier from all directions, indirect and luminous.
I spent two days helping Bill replace one of the piers that held up his house, exploring the landscape, and admiring a seemingly endless array of handmade tools, brooms, utensils — even a scotch tape dispenser. Back home, I dreamed of a yurt. Two years later, I invited Bill to lead a workshop in which we built a beautiful 20′ diameter two-tiered yurt for a neighbor of mine. He introduced us to crooked knives and welcomed me into the art of spoon-carving. When the building was all done, he spent a day at our home, talking about books and poetry and helping us shuck our dry corn. The conversation continued as I drove him to a conference, and then to the airport.
I would have loved to spend more time with him, but opportunity and timing never coincided. Thanksgiving of 2011, he slid off an icy road, hit a tree and died at the age of 83.
Bill cultivated, largely by hand, a unity of home and life that freed him from participating in most modern consumer insanity. It’s a high ideal for many of us, including Peter Forbes, whom I’d met when he came out to photograph our yurt workshop. He’d known Bill for decades, so when he and his wife Helen came out with this book, I was eager to read it.
Of the two authors, Peter in particular was influenced by his relationship with Bill. In meditating on that relationship, he and Helen focus primarily on the experience of building a yurt together on Bill’s land, as part of a stewardship arrangement by which Bill was turning over his life’s work to a small group of friends, and encouraging them to share his land and vision while he was still alive.
Bill is not a “touchy-feeley” kind of guy, and our yurt-raising was less like workshops and more like going into the Stanley Cup finals with a team of strangers only some of whom know how to skate. That Bill manages not only to pull it off, but also build beautiful, well-made buildings is a powerful testimony to his approach. Needless to say, there can be difficulties, many of which revolves around Bill, not only as the jobsite foreman and architect, but also as the revered (and often gruff) teacher.
I think it’s worth declaring, at this point, that in a mechanized, industrial age, a hand-made life is not only anachronistic, it’s impossible. Even a life on the fathest fringe takes sustenance and energy from the mainstream. So Bill would talk about “blending” culture — when people at our workshop objected to his decision, at one point, to employ a crane to place the upper part of our yurt, he reminded us that he had not walked from Maine to Oregon. So, like any life, Bill’s was full of compromise — but those weren’t what he talked about. He spoke of principles, and design — the right way of doing things. But unlike so many social theorists who address such challenges with words and ideas, Bill addressed it with his hands. . How do things fit? And how do our tools, materials, and choices affect that fit?
An anachronism is something out of or away from time. Mostly, we assume that “time” consists of what the majority are doing. But time passes no matter what we do. Rather than trying to “save time” in order to spend and earn more money, Bill used his time to make many things, some large, like yurts, some small, like spoons, or the scotch tape dispenser on his desk. At one point, Bill decided to make a better landing area for his canoe (his primary mode of transporting materials). This was a design challenge that most would have addressed with dynamite and a civil engineer. There would have been a high price, to pay for the power and engines to do the work at speed. That work would have been “someone’s job,” done primarily for payment, and measured in days and dollars. Instead, Bill chose a sledgehammer, and spent one if not several summers slowly chipping away at Maine’s granite coastline. He said he would spend 20 minutes hammering, and 20 minutes reading a book. He measured the work in ideas and stories; things seen while resting, and a physical understanding of geology that could make a person feel like a true brother to wind, rain, and time.
His measure of success wasn’t dollars spent or saved, but usefulness and beauty. It made him rich in a way that used to be a norm, when people understood themselves and their work as part of a kinship with wind, rain, and time. I doubt that he lived in fear of the clock, and I know his relationships would not fit on facebook.
There are a lot of books about examples and exemplars, but I haven’t read many that talk about the process of trying to follow someone else’s lead, while trying as well to deepen a personal relationship, and to fit one’s self and family into a world that ignores the true measures like wind, rain, and time.
I think that’s what Peter and Helen were trying to do. However, while Bill had inspired Peter’s decision to leave a successful career in land conservation, he and his wife chose a place and path several hundred miles from Bill and his communitarian vision. It’s hard to try and participate in a vision held by a reclusive, if brilliant, curmudgeon; harder without sharing in the day to day work. Lacking such daily reinforcement, how do you measure success?
A teacher is like an old tree. He stands or dies by himself. With luck, there will be seeds and sprouts that we can nurture, even transplant. Maybe we graft old wood onto a new tree, and clone some fruit. But when an old tree is gone, it’s gone. The shading branches fall; the spring brings no new flowers. The gifts of a living love begin the slow process of turning to compost, while the next generation of seeds seek nourishment from what lives no more. The vision is the nourishment; it’s survival depends on each individual’s ability to realize for themselves the principles and ideals.
Questions remain: How to follow a good example? And how to follow when your exemplar is twice your age, comes from a world you can never know, and did things in his youth that stopped being possible before you were born?
Perhaps this is a fruitless — even foolish — question. We cannot follow in the footsteps of Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, or or even our fathers and mothers. Yet they shape our ideas about who we might be, or what we might do. Thoreau inspired Gandhi; Gandhi inspired MLK, and thus we sometimes shape our world with tools other than money and dynamite. And nurture a vision — and work — that we can share.
Martín Prechtel says that grief is praise for what we have lost; and that praise is grief for what we are going to lose. Peter and Helen share both in their memoir, and as Bill said of their desire to write about him, it invariably tells more about them than it does about him. But like all personal stories, it illustrates a unique answer to a shared question. And like any story, it can help us clarify our own struggles.
Bill’s inspiration and examples included Helen and Scott Nearing, neighbors, fellow homesteaders, educators, and radical social theorists. While travelling thru postwar Europe in his 20s, he stumbled into a voluntary work camp run on an ideal of Christian neighborliness. The founder, Pierre Ceresole, was dead and the work was being carried on by his widow, but more than half a century later, Bill cited Pierre as a teacher. There were other authors and titles he cited as teachers, companions, mentors.
Reading someone’s favorite books is a good doorway into deeper relationship. I started in on Bill’s list soon after I met him, but Peter and Helen quoted him as saying that during a dark time in his life, reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection had brought him light, a light that had held the darkness at bay ever since.
So I got a copy. Resurrection was Tolstoy’s last novel; it tells the story of Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff, a well-born member of the Russian aristocracy, and Katusha Maslova, a beautiful, illegitimate young woman, adopted by the prince’s aunts at the age of three, after her wanton, peasant mother died. While they employ her as a servant, they raise her as a lady. The confusion of social roles sets the stage.
Nekhludoff and Katusha find each other as teenagers, just discovering the beauties of the world, and feel themselves bound by an innocent and all-encompassing love. But Nekhludoff follows the path laid down for him, and after a brief fascination in university with radical ideas about property and society, joins the military and learns to drink, gamble, and wench. And while his old, deep feelings for the person Katusha remain, his military self sees her as a member of a servile class and thus an easy object for what Tolstoy calls his “animal” nature. After a few days of confused pursuit, he captures and then leaves the girl pregnant, and thinks of her no more. Ashamed and distraught, Katusha leaves the aunts, but she can’t leave her shame. Other men try to take advantage of her. Smoking and then drinking provide temporary relief from anxiety. Finally, she enters a brothel, where her beauty converts easily to money, clothes and a kind of revenge on the men who had used her so badly.
When one of her rich clients dies by poisoning, the perpetrators frame her. By chance, the prince sits on the jury at her trial. Recognizing her shocks him into understanding the direct path from his own immoral abuse of their innocent, inspired love to her degraded state of existence. Overwhelmed by guilt, he convinces the rest of the jury of her innocence, but the court condemns her on a technicality, and sentences her to hard labor in Siberia. Unhinged and over-wraught, Nekhludoff realizes that his boredom and dissatisfaction with society is directly linked to his participation in its moral depravity. He decides not only to reject privilege, but to return to his youthful ideals, give up his properties, and, as atonement for his sin against her, to marry Katusha, and if she will not have him, to follow her to Siberia to soften her sentence as much as he can.
As Nekhludoff follows his heart into Russia’s prison system, he encounters people who fall into just a few categories: innocents, like Katusha, condemned on technicalities for crimes they didn’t commit; poor people who get caught breaking unjust laws designed to prevent them from simple things like gathering wood or grazing their animals or selling consumer goods without a license; poor people who turn to crime after understanding that the law is only a foil for clever folks to use for their own purposes, and finally two other groups including poor and affluent alike: these are the people who see the injustice of the law and seek higher authority, either in religious principles, or social theories — so-called “radicals” and “fanatics.” Seeing all this, and moved by love for Katusha, he asks, “who gives anyone the right to condemn anyone else, when all of us are guilty of immoral acts?” Perhaps the whole story revolves around that point.
While Tolstoy delivers stinging criticisms of the church and organized religion, he ends the story with Nekhludoff reading the gospels, and deducing 5 simple rules of behavior:
- Beyond the prohibition against murder, a prohibition against anger itself, as the source of violence and abuse.
- Beyond the prohibition against adultery, he proposes indifference to beauty, as an “animal” motive for animal acts; and permanent fidelity to one’s mate.
- Never bind yourself by oath.
- When attacked, turn the other cheek, forgiving and bearing all offences.
- Love your enemy; help him; serve him.
After reading the book, I wondered how it was that this story and this book had provided the light that Bill needed in his life? You’d find many of Bill’s teachers in the “spirituality” aisle: Emily Dickinson, Pierre Ceresole, George MacDonald — but Bill didn’t talk about Spirit or God; he was not a member of a church, and he didn’t subscribe to a spiritual program. He did live by a set of principles that did not reduce down to dollars, or hours; nor was he subject to the false elevations of status, which he could easily have claimed by converting his PhD in education into a professorship somewhere. Did he identify with rich, privileged Nekhludoff, who chose a path contrary to his family and social position, and stuck to it? Perhaps he identified with Tolstoy’s many criticisms and analyses of a society that makes of violence not only a norm, but an economic engine. Tolstoy also, however, spends a fair bit of ink describing how people learn from their circumstances; he connects the logic of context with the logic of learning, and describes how individual choice determines outcome.
Helen, who met Bill as her husband’s mentor, didn’t really choose her relationship — it came as a package deal with the husband. She was admittedly cautious in her approach to a reputedly “difficult” person. Not long after they started building, however, she realized that if the yurt was to have the separate space they’d promised to their young daughter, it would be up to mom. So, with trepidation about whether he’d allow “his” design to be modified, she approached Bill. In response, he drew a picture of how he thought it could fit, and said there was probably enough lumber. Then he left her on her own. So she partnered up with a more experienced builder, and they did it. What she drew from the experience, I think, was not what Bill taught (if anything), but that he had perfect faith in her capacity to learn.
That kind of faith is a fundamental principle by which societies live and grow; it is perhaps the sole nourishment for native human genius. It teaches us what we need to learn in order to do the work we’re uniquely suited for. It’s not a lesson you can learn in school, where we’re divided and ranked against each other, according to false criteria that have little to do with who we are and what we want. In lieu of faith, school offers fear: “don’t step out of place, or else…” Or else what? What happens if we step out of a mechanistic, industrialized society? Will we lose our humanity? Our kinship with others? No! We’ll lose only mechanized social “function” — we’ll be bad consumers, we won’t help “grow the economy” — but we may gain kinship with wind, rain, and time, and a culture built by beauty instead of violence.