Bill Coperthwaite & the Arts of Culture

A review of A Man Apart, Bill Coperthaite’s Radical Experiment in Living, by Peter Forbes & Helen Whybrow

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.…

New translations! in Spanish and German: Hornos de Barro; Lehm Backofens

Thanks to muddy friends Ian Miller, Christo Markham, and Xavier Rodriguez, there are now German and Spanish editions of Build Your Own Earth Oven. The German edition is published by Stocker Verlag, (click here). The Spanish edition is published by EcoHabitar (click here).

A few words of thanks are in order: Ian’s first oven inspired him to start a bread business and build his own natural house; when his (Austrian) wife Andrea got accepted for an educational program in her homeland, he wrote me out of the blue, proposing an oven book for a German speaking audience. He took on the project, found a publisher, did the translation, and made it happen.…

Combining Earthen and Masonry Techniques in Wood-Fired Oven Construction

Is it made of earth or brick? This is a common distinction in the world of wood-fired ovens and comes with a whole slew of assumptions. “Earth ovens are cheaper, easier to build but less durable.”  “Brick ovens are expensive, harder to build but more professional and will last longer.” The oven build documented below is an exploration of the combination of these techniques to leverage the advantages of each. We use earth where its sculptural quality allows us to perfectly mold it to the shape that we desire. We use brick where it will give a good durable surface for cooking and in the entrance way to withstand the abuse of heated and passionate cooking.…

Gift books for Christmas: Make a Rocky Mountain Dulcimer

“In the end, we shall have had enough of cynicism, scepticism and humbug, and will want to live – more musically.” This quote (Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo), came to me from a friend, just before Christmas, 2012, as I was finishing this gift book about how to make a gorgeous-sounding 3-stringed instrument from scrap wood and cardboard. Details and story in the book, so more people can make their own music with their own neighbors. There’s an onscreen (pdf) version below, and a youtube video of Ray and Shirley playing for you. A $10, (full color!) paper version is also available from the bookstore. For the free download, click here.…

Cob oven ‘zine from Jorie Kennedy and Lizzy Rieke

Below notes and gifts from Jorie Kennedy, who I met when she was apprenticing at the North American School of Natural Building, last year (2011). You don’t need a book to make an oven. Best is a friend who’s built one, but for friends she hasn’t met yet, Jorie put her oven love into this “hot-n-dirty oven lovin guide.”

Here are the notes she sent about it:

“My beautiful friend Lizzy (Rieke) and I (Jorie Kennedy) wrote this zine on how to make your own basic cob (earthen) oven.

“We dream of offering natural building, carpentry, and metal working skills to communities that don’t have easy access to them.…

Ovens, builders, a new (oven) book for German readers

Out of the blue one day I got a phone call from a guy named Ian Miller. He said he had built a few ovens, baked a fair amount of bread, was married to an Austrian and (among other things) interested in translating Build Your Own Earth Oven into German. With that began an adventure that is now resulting in a new (German!) edition of the book, published by Stocker Verlag, out of Austria (they also publish Austrian permaculturist Sepp Holzer, which makes it even more of an honor). Very interesting to let go of the book and let someone else take it all apart and put it all back together again in a language I can’t read or speak.…

Learning by Doing

This is an exerpt from The Best of Making Things – A Handbook for Creative Discovery by Ann Sayre Wiseman.

The phenomenon of of learning belongs to the child, not to the teacher. We do not teach a child to walk – one of many skill potentials in all beginners. At best, we stimulate discovery, desire, and curiosity; encourage and whet the appetite; provide space; and anticipate readiness to exercise the inevitable.

Learning by experience is profound knowledge, more deeply recorded in the memory than theory or speculation. The most direct, immediate, and satisfying path to knowledge is visual and manual experience linked with the urgency of interest.…

Terra Preta and “the Biochar Solution”

The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, by Albert Bates A review by Kiko Denzer

Living trees lock up carbon, and burning releases it. That’s the conflict-ridden equation of global warming. Albert Bates has been at the front lines of the warming conflict since his 1990 title, Climate in Crisis. In this book, he defines “biochar” as “charred (pyrolized) organic matter intended to be applied to soil in farming or gardening,” and argues that partial burning of waste wood and other carbonaceous matter can effectively “lock up” carbon and store it underground in a human-fired echo of what Gaia did when she converted ancient forests into coal and oil.…

Dig Your Hands in the Dirt: A Manual for Making Art out of Earth


As you might suspect, a book with this title features many photos of barefoot kids happily stomping in the mud. Mud huts and mud pies conjure up pictures of primitive peoples and childish pleasures. But then you realize that the kids aren’t in Africa, but in Washington DC, Chicago, Portland (Oregon), and Berlin. And they aren’t all kids!

Looking past the pictures of giddy, muddy fun, here is substantial and serious inspiration and practical lessons for artists, teachers, students, and designers, as well as builders interested in natural materials like adobe (and, more recently, it’s British counterpart, “cob.”)

The book begins with a color section of stunning murals based on traditional south African pattern design, a monumental labyrinth and sundial, a whole earthen park (in Berlin), large-scale sculpted benches and structures, model villages and even tiny bird-houses of mud sculpted on woven frames.…