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Two-tier yurt with Bill Coperthwaite

Here’s the lovely, two-tier yurt that Bill Coperthwaite helped us build last October. It’s on the grounds of the Ancient Arts Center near Alsea, just a long leap over a couple of ridges, into the next drainage south of us (the Alsea River). We’ll finish the woven willow and mud walls this May. If you want to come help, we’ll be having two workshops, 1st and last weekends in May. (see for more info)
It took us ten days to get this far. Nearly all the cross cuts we did with hand saws (most were compound angles). The first time I met Bill, he was putting a new post under his own yurt, in Maine. I got to help, and while we cut various things, he said he was still learning how to use a saw, after nearly 70 years! With his help, I learned how to make a straight cut through a 4×4 (finally!) I had always assumed that with two lines, one vertical and the other horizontal, I ought to be get a straight cut. When I didn’t, I assumed the fault was due to my lack of skill or some technical magic. Well, technical magic it was: you need a third line! Every cut since has been (almost) perfectly straight. Slow motion gets you there faster. Amazing, now, to notice how few people use all the teeth in the blade when they cut with a handsaw. If you only use the middle third of the blade, you can push and pull very fast, and feel like a machine, and make big mistakes quick. When you use all the teeth, you go slow, so the blade stays securely in the cut. Meanwhile, the saw rakes the wood with two or three times as many teeth, cuts much faster, and you can put your attention where it belongs, on the line you’re cutting to…
Hanging Yurt
It shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me that we built it from the top down, but I didn’t think about it until after Bill asked for materials I’d planned to get later. We discussed raising the top tier onto it’s support pole by hand, and some were surprised when Bill suggested a machine, since he’s the “do-it-by-hand” guy. After he reminded us that he’d arrived by jet plane, we rented a telescoping forklift. We happened to have a rigger named Skelk on the crew, who arranged the ropes, and a neighbor, Russ, who had moved a lot of big, heavy things and had also just gotten a crane operator’s license. As soon as the rest of us got out of the way, Russ and son set it down on the locust center pole just as pretty as you please. After the whole thing was up, Bill mused that “you could probably cut that post out completely, since the roof and cable are holding everything in place anyway…” As he also pointed out, however, “do you really want to see exactly how many rivets you can take out of the airplane?”
Zak Inside
Perhaps the most beautiful part of the building is the interior surface of the upper roof, which consists of two layers of 3/8″ fir boards. We carefully tied the first layer of sticks into the requisite curve, making a series of lovely bows, which we secured top and middle by tying them to steel rings. We nailed them around the eave. The tension in the boards would have twisted the whole thing, so after we cut the strings, we screwed the second layer down to the first, which fixed it all firm. Each shingle was hand cut to fit. That was a lovely day’s work for a team of about 4, with Bill leading from top center.
Inside Yurt
After the top was done, the rest happened pretty quick. Bill’s gift is to organize a large crew (17, in our case) so that everyone always has something worthwhile to do, and so that all the pieces are cut to size and ready to go when needed—similar, I imagine, to the leader’s role in an old-fashioned Amish barn-raising. He also knows the design well, and dreams in numbers—even when there were surprises, he spotted and fixed them quickly. He didn’t relax until we were all done. The highpoints, for me, were postscripts: sitting around our table—me, Hannah, two boys, and Bill, shelling corn into a big bowl. Also a long ride in the car, during which Bill talked about Emily Dickinson and other authors who have kept him company over the years. And finally, the ride to the airport, and complex thinking about little things, details of life which escape our notice—unless they’re absent—and then we lose the whole kingdom for want of a nail, or a shoe, or a spoon. If more of us spent more time and attention on making good nails and shoes and spoons, we’d have less want, less violence, less war. It’s an easy message, but a demanding discipline.

The Work of Art

It has always seemed to me that the central activity of humankind is art, that our common job consists of fitting each and every one of our unique and individual selves into a whole life and landscape, into our communities, into our common stories. (Irish pun intended) features some essays about that work — the day-to-day making and fitting […] Read More..


For bowl carving, Bill invented this simple jig that sits on a bench to hold your bowl-blank, and greatly eases the job of hand-carving a bowl. He has also adapted the traditional Swedish pulling harness for the crooked knife, reducing it to a cord and a toggle handle with which to pull the knife. Read More..