Posted by brooklinemama
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
The author of A Handmade Life, In Search for Simplicity, William Coperthwaite, is a philosopher and anthropologist, and a designer of social as well as material constructions. He is a scholar - he has a Ph.D. in education from Harvard – and a teacher, albeit an unorthodox one. But he is foremost a physical kind of man, a skilled craftsman who built his own home and chops his own wood at his homestead in Maine, most accessible by canoe.
Though Coperthwaite lives “off the grid” – buying almost nothing, reachable only via mail to the local library – his sustainable living experiment is not an “exit strategy”. He welcomes visitors, travels to learn from other cultures, and is available for lectures and yurt-building workshops.
And of course he reaches out to all of us in his book, A Handmade Life, published by Chelsea Green in 2002 and newly out in paperback.
A Handmade Life has something of everything, but most importantly, it has hope. Though there is critical and honest analysis of a world in crisis, this is not a doomsday book. It has recipes for a better community – of humans and nature – that Coperthwaite himself has put to the test in over four decades.
“My central concern is encouragement,” he writes. He is reluctant to be called a teacher, but it is true that his most inspired writing evolves from his desire to better our lives. Still, like the best of teachers, he gently offers us the skills and tools for making better lives ourselves.
This he calls “democratic” and it is his greatest gift to us: the message that a fulfilling life is up to each of us – not big corporations, big government - and that we can do it.
But do what? Preserve not things but the skills to make things, and the skills to make the tools to make things. And work. With those we can emancipate ourselves from machinery, mindless consumption, and unhealthy, unnatural and asocial lifestyles.
This brings us to the keyword in the book’s title: Handmade. A “handmade life” is centered on “bread work”, that is, physical labor. Sounds unappetizing? Coperthwaite is convincing when he pleads for reintroducing work into our lives and even the lives of our children, and promises that it is the only foundation for a healthy body and a happy mind.
Thus the book seamlessly combines philosophy and reflection with how-to-build inserts on “The Democratic Axe”, “The Democratic Chair” and handmade toys. And let’s not forget the “Democratic House”: the yurt. It is a house you can build yourself, with your hands, at a small cost to your wallet and to nature. It is beautiful and long-lasting, as are all the tools, objects and lives that Coperthwaite promotes.
That said, this most inspiring heart of Coperthwaite’s work is also his weakest spot. In his desire to promote it, he can’t help but generalize the individual handmade life to a social level. In this he is less convincing. In the sections on the social distribution of work and pay, for instance, the book loses its marvelous exemplary quality and slips into abstract, redundant theorizing. Such social theorizing or “designing,” as Coperthwaite calls it, is out of place in this book. Luckily there are only few such lapses.
The beauty of A Handmade Life lies in simplicity as its subject, method and presentation. Coperthwaite is a man of words both small – “I want to live in such a way that small gifts are meaningful” – and big - “We need poets who can discover and proclaim the beauty of simplicity while themselves living a simple, rural life of creative and honest labor”. But he makes sure that both kinds are democratic words that all of us can choose to use and apply to ourselves.
Peter Forbes’ stunning photographs documents Coperthwaite’s life and desire: a couple of hand-carved, curved spoons, Coperthwaite carrying a toddler, guiding his canoe.
Those interested in the Simple Life of Helen and Scott Nearing and the teachings of non-violence of Richard Bartlett Gregg will find Coperthwaite a thoughtful interpreter.
Sections of this book appeared in Manas and Mother Earth News. It is printed on recycled paper.
Complex Man Builds a Case for Simplicity
BOOK REVIEW: Hannah Merker
October 10, 2004
"My house," William Coperthwaite tells John Saltmarsh (author of Scott Nearing: The Making of a Homesteader), "has its origins in the steppes of Asia. My felt boots came by way of Finland from Asian shepherds. My cucumbers came from Egypt, my lilacs from Persia, my boat from Norway, and my canoe American Indian. My crooked knife for paddle making is Bering Coast Eskimo, my axe is 19th-century Maine design, and my pickup is 20th-century Detroit. We are a cultural blend."
There are many quotations from the back-to-the-land philosophy in Coperthwaite's book, A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity, plus near-achingly beautiful photographs - Coperthwaite's hands, a paddle in late-afternoon reed grass, hand-carved wooden bowls, Coperthwaite on a high granite cliff at dusk with his canoes at the edge of the tide below, shovels upright in snow, the cedar shakes on what he calls indigenous architecture, his yurt home on an island off the Gulf of Maine.
Coperthwaite's words to Saltmarsh summon his approach to living, his lifelong pursuit to attach to the land, take from world cultures an elementary educational essence that anyone, anywhere, can apply to life. In the spirit of back-to-landers Helen and Scott Nearing, Thoreau, and the infinite precise wisdom of Emily Dickinson, Coperthwaite explores what true simplicity is, means, in more than just philosophical thinking.
He has over decades worked at practical applications. He gathers his own food, builds furnishings, tools, that he needs. He lectures on handcrafting basic life necessities, such as clothing, home, tools (of great beauty), always with utilitarian and lovely design as part of the process.
Perhaps he is most known for his advocacy of the yurt, with its implications for social change. He does state clearly that, "the main thrust of my work is not simple living - not yurt design, not social change, although each of these is important and receives large blocks of my time. . . . My central concern is encouragement - encouraging people to seek, to experiment, to plan, to create and to dream. If enough people do this, we will find a better way."
Idealistic? Perhaps . . . yet even the skeptical among us is drawn into this beautifully crafted book - its fine paper, moving, intimate photographs, the words of others going back centuries carefully placed with the text.
We see the author napping in a rocky field, teaching children to fish: ("When a man teaches his son no trade, it is as if he taught him highway robbery" - from The Talmud). He teaches a young girl how to use a shaving horse, gather wood chips. He chops his own wood, for warmth, lights old lamps in the evening, pumps water from a well, carves a set of spoons in a simple, arched design.
The book wanders over the realms of Coperthwaite's input on political and social needs (and, very much, the "things" we do not need), the influence we should consider of folkways and folk craft. Language, for instance, is inherent in such thought, manifest in myriad ways, "a fitting symbol of the folk genius of our ancient ancestors. We should treat this inheritance gently, tenderly, with love and affection, with respect and admiration, like an elderly friend."
He has adopted the yurt as the symbol for his Yurt Foundation, the shelter, with its ability to be taken down, traveled with, reset, used by nomadic Mongolian herdsmen, adapting this structure of fabric, poles, rope, to modern needs and materials. It's a contemporary orchestration highlighting "the genius, skill and sensitivity to design embedded in folk cultures."
"I want to live in a society where people are intoxicated with the joy of making things," Coperthwaite notes near the end.
On the same page are words from the writings of Marcel Proust: "The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new places but in seeing with new eyes."
Not all of us are moved to carving our own chairs, our own axes, paddles, homes, canoes. Many of us bake our own bread (a marvelous simple recipe of just four ingredients is on page 28). There is a truth not mentioned here! Simplicity is not always simple.
I wanted to speak with this man. He does not have a telephone. Messages can be left with his local mainland-based library. And so I left one. Coperthwaite is in China now, exploring further old folkways. (He has lived for lengths of time with Eskimos, Finns, others.) My message awaits his return - next month? Next year? Patience is part of his philosophy.
Hannah Merker of Bristol is a free-lance writer.
Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.