A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity by W. S. Coperthwaite & P. Forbes

Philosophy and practice of living by hand. 144 pages, paper. Published by Chelsea Green. More on book's interactive page...


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Winner of The Nautilus Award 2004 in Ecology/Environment, Honoring Distinguished Literary Contribution to Conscious Living and Positive Social Change. Photos by Peter Forbes.

If you believe in learning by doing, here is my personal recommendation for an important book to add to your Library. Sadly, the author died in a car wreck in November, 2013. One of the nicest obits I’ve read so far is on Steven Foster’s blog (http://www.stevenfoster.com/herbalblog/) — Kiko Denzer

Bill Coperthwaite lived in one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever stepped into – also the only round house I’ve ever been in that really works. He filled it with many wonderful things he made, by hand, or books about things that others have made. Perhaps most surprisingly beautiful was the hand made scotch tape dispenser that sat on his writing desk. When I admired it, he said “Why must I have some large ugly plastic thing on my desk?” His book asks and answers similar questions about everything in our lives:

“Can you have ‘culture’ without violence?”

“Is beauty useful?”

“Are justice, democracy, and peace possible if most all of our technologies require violence?”

For 50 years, Bill walked the same mile and a half trail from the road to his home – or canoed the waterways to town (his body was transported home by canoe, too). When he had to carry heavy stuff down the trail, he used a hand-made wheelbarrow with a Chinese-inspired shoulder strap that makes the load almost effortless. Why don’t all wheelbarrows come with such straps!? He cooked and heated with wood, which he cut by hand (using just a cord and a half a year). His most basic, useful, and important tools for daily living – his wooden house, bowls, and spoons – he made himself, by hand. The winter before I visited, he had made brooms, examples of which stood at the ready in various corners.

When someone gave me his book, I was at first suspicious. It was big, with large-format, glossy color photos of beautiful landscapes, tools, and buildings. But then I started to read, and found the thoughts, experiences, stories, and designs of a man who had spent the better part of (then) 70+ years working by hand and with others. He knew why he did it, and it was nourishing to find someone who could carefully and lovingly explain many things which I had felt, and known, but not often heard (much less said myself):

“The quality of a thing comes from the knowledge and beauty it carries more than from its expense.”

“The home is the center of education and emotional security, two of the essential elements of a healthy society. More and more, the functions of the home have been taken over by the school, but a school is no substitute for family, no matter how fine the instructors or expensive the equipment…. There is no foundation more crucial than the sensitive care of the young in building a sane society. What mental insolvency has overtaken us that we can allow the core of our culture to be so denigrated and weakened? What a failure of design!

He also gave me practical directions for the simplest shaving horse I’ve ever come across; a crook knife that I could make with nothing more than a hammer, a vise, a file, and a drill; and a “democratic axe” as well as numerous toys and games that have made handy games and/or lessons for both kids and adults.

His wise voice reminds us that life is personal, intimate, beautiful and passionate; that the beauty of nature is, despite science, still miraculous; that the singing of the birds is more important than asking why they sing. So consider all the “stuff” you take for granted as “essential” to life: car, house, plumbing, wiring; glass, steel, and concrete; paper, ink, and printing. What would it be like to undertake the adventure of living in such a miraculously beautiful world with tools that are equally beautiful and miraculous?

Bill was a native “Mainiac” who spent much of his life researching folk-art and subsistence skills around the world. In addition to designing, adapting, and building hundreds of yurts, he also helped to illuminate and inspire uncounted numbers of trained and untrained builders. He had a doctorate from the Harvard School of Education, and taught in a variety of innovative settings. His Yurt Foundation promoted sensible and economical self-reliance through workshops, lectures, and publications. Perhaps others will continue to offer his beautiful calendars.


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