It might seem tempting to think of William Coperthwaite, who has adopted a singular life and lifestyle in the woods, substantially separate from civilization, as a modern-day David Thoreau.
His Walden Pond is Mill Pond and his Concord is Bucks Harbor, a Down East village in Washington County, Maine. His three-story yurt is reachable only by the sea, or by a half-hour hike along a woodland footpath bordered by bunchberry and sphagnum and hair cap moss. Coperthwaite is highly learned -- he earned a Ph.D in education from Harvard in 1972 - and idealistic, having moved out of the mainstream decades ago to pursue simplicity and self-sufficiency.
But unlike Thoreau, described by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson as a somewhat cranky, anti-social ascetic, Coperthwaite is a friendly, open-minded fellow who warmly welcomes visitors to his round home and invites them to finish up organic cantelope leftover from breakfast. In mind and body, he is a boyish man whose lean build, vigor and curiosity belie his 75 years. A runner and pole vaulter as a Bowdoin College undergrad, he gets a daily workout chopping firewood, hauling supplies in his cedar canoe, pulling fir saplings from maple and birch glades and performing other regular chores.
A cornerstone of his existence, not only in his choice of housing, but in his life's work or mission has been the yurt first used by nomadic Mongols in the central Asian steppes 2,500 years ago. Coperthewaite, built a yurt as a study center where the Harvard Graduate School of Education Library stands today, founded and directs the Yurt Foundation, a nonprofit research institute, from his far-flung Maine home. Much of his time has been spent teaching others how to construct the circular dwellings ranging in function from a public health center in Northeastern India to a backyard playhouse at a Montessori School in Austin, Texas.
Construction materials have varied widely - from bamboo to plywood - depending on the climate and setting. He also supplies building plans enabling people to construct the curvilinear structures on their own. But Coperthwaite will tell you he's not just about yurts. His absorption with the ancient dwellings - which when built right withstand violent winds and stay warm in minus 40 degrees F and cool in 100 degrees F - is part of his broader work researching folkways and subsistence skills around the globe from the fabrication of broad hachets on Japan's island of Shikoku to hand-carved bowls in the mountain region of Kazakhstan, which can be adapted to contemporary living. His thoughts and research are presented in A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity (Chelsea Green). Peter Forbes, former Northeast Director of the Trust for Public Land's Center for Land and People, illustrated the book, capturing Coperthwaite and his life in the Maine wilderness, in elegant color photos.
"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," he reflects in his book. "But they are not central. 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."
Coperthwaite bounds down the stairs and ushers visitors into his rustic abode rising like a pagoda in a meadow at the end of the 1.5-mile trail. The weathered dwelling, with its outward curving walls, hand-cut cedar shake roofs and banks of windows under the eaves, blends with the landscape. A blue glass ball atop the cupola sparkles in the sunlight.
Blue eyes twinkling beneath bushy eyebrows, and gray sideburns sticking straight out from his balding head, Coperthewaite exhibits a keen interest and sense of wonder in new technology; marveling over a newspaper photographer's Canon and digging out his own humble Casio Exilim card camera someone gave him recently to document utilitarian folk art at risk of being forgotten and lost forever around the world.
Born in the northern Maine town of Monticello, Coperthwaite majored in art history at
Bowdoin. He claimed conscientious objector status during the Korean War and later taught at the North Country School in Lake Placid, N.Y. and the Meeting School in Rindge, New Hampshire. At the latter, he and his math students came across a National Geographic article about Mongolia and pictures of portable yurts invented by nomadic Mongols. They were impressed by the indigenous design consisting of a collapsible circular trellis - picture an old accordion-style baby gate - that could be carried on camels and assembled in an hour. The wooden framework was set up in a circle and the doorway lashed into place. Willow poles were attached from the walls to a wooden ring at the apex, where a hole lets light in and woodsmoke out, all the way around. A tension band was then tightened around the entire structure at the eaves.
The yurt was covered in multiple layers of thick felt made from beaten wet sheep wool. These moveable shelters are still being used much the same way today in the vast, semi-desert steppes stretching 5,000 miles from Turkey to China.