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A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity
by Katy Purviance on 02/23/10 @ 10:17:45 am
Categories: Books | 785 words | 1560 views

I just learned about William Coperthwaite and his book, A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity

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

If you believe in “learning by doing,” here is my personal recommendation for an important book to add to your Library. – Kiko Denzer

William Coperthwaite lives in one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever stepped into – it also happens to be the only round house I’ve ever been in that really works. He has filled it with many wonderful things he has 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 the past 47 years, Coperthwaite has walked the same mile and a half trail from the road to his home – or has canoed the waterways to town. When he has to carry heavy stuff down the trail, he uses 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 cooks and heats with wood, which he cuts by hand (he uses 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. Last winter he made brooms, several examples of which stand 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 (now) 77 year old man who has spent the better part of his life working by hand and with others. He knows why he does it, and it was nourishing to find someone who could carefully and lovingly explain many things which I have 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.

Here is a wise voice to remind you 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?

William Coperthwaite is a Maine native who has 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 has also helped to illuminate and inspire uncounted numbers of trained and untrained builders. He has a doctorate from the Harvard School of Education, and has taught in a variety of innovative settings. His Yurt Foundation promotes sensible and economical self-reliance through workshops, lectures, and publications. They publish a beautiful calendar that is available for $12 from The Yurt Foundation, Dickinson’s Reach, Machiasport, ME, 04655.

Peter Forbes is a long-time leader in the American land conservation movement, both through his work with the Trust for Public Land and his talks, writings, and photography.

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Know of some others I can add here? Let me know. Have you already visited some of these places...or planning on it? Let me know and I will feature your story and your photos here!

I am starting a new kind of architecture school. Unlike most architecture schools, you wouldn't have to submit GRE scores or good grades or letters of recommendation. You wouldn't have to put the rest of your life on hold for 3 to 5 years. You wouldn't have to accrue tens of thousands of dollars in debt. At my architecture school, anyone could come for a few weeks and learn how to build a house with their own two hands. My teachers would take skills and concepts from some of these other workshops I've listed above... except classes would be held year-round to make it easy to fit into your schedule. I would have a number of different campuses around the country that would teach building designs appropriate to the local climate. And I need your help. Can you donate land for a campus? Can you dotate books for a library? Can you teach a workshop? Can you provide start-up capital? Let me know.

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