William S. Coperthwaite • 1930-2013

By Steven Foster.

“I want to live in a society where people are intoxicated with the joy of making things.” — William S. Coperthwaite • 1930-2013.

Bill Coperthwaite, Yurt Foundation
Bill Coperthwaite making a birch broom, strip-by-strip.

William S. Coperthwaite, age 83, was gathered on 26 November 2013 in a one-car accident not far from his home at Dickinson’s Reach, Bucks Harbor, near Machiasport, Maine. Bill Coperthwaite was one of those ageless beings one could not peg to a generation. His lifelong passion was teaching others to learn by connecting their brains with their hands to create useful objects, be that a crooked knife, a dwelling, a boat or a poem.

Best-known as the conceptualizer of the modern yurt, he was inspired by the utilitarian design of the Mongolian yurt seen in a 1962 issue of National Geographic. Bill took the basic design concept—a round simple building whose structure was maintained with a tension band—turning it into a practical modern dwelling for simple living. He built over 300 yurts throughout the world, each one incorporating variations on the basic structural design concept, producing temporary or lasting structures of extraordinary beauty.

Bill Coperthwaite, Yurt Foundation
Bill Coperthwaite inside a laced panel folding yurt at the Common Ground Fair in Maine, 1978. We built two yurts in two days, designed to fold, put in a pick-up truck and take to an event.

A designer, thinker, writer, builder, and student; above all, Bill was an educator. He built his first yurt at Buck’s Harbor in 1964, a simple open weave structure with a birch bark roof. He lived off the grid on one of the last undeveloped bays on the Maine coast. In 1960 he purchased 500 acres, with nearly five miles of coast line. He joked that he only had fifteen-hundred dollars, so at three dollars per acre, it was all that he could afford. To visit Bill, one had to hike in about 2 miles or travel 3 miles by sea to reach his home. He had no phone. He had no email address. In his adult life, he had no electricity (though he was not adverse to stopping by for a visit and catching a movie on TV).  It was wise to write a few weeks ahead of time before planning a visit. Bill Coperthwaite traveled the world seeking out the best artisan of a particular knife form, basket, box, boat, chair or other utilitarian object. In the early 1970s, soon after receiving a doctorate in education from Harvard University, he gathered-up Eskimo artifacts from museums in the United States and Canada and took them on a traveling exhibit to Eskimo villages in northwestern North  America. William S. Coperthwaite is the author of A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004 hardcover; 2007 softcover).

Bill Coperthwaite, Yurt Foundation
Bill Coperthwaite mooring Son Fjord boat, October 1978.
Elixir Farm Yurt, Brixey, Missouri. Bill Coperthwaite, Colin Foster, and Clear Spring School students, 2003.
Yurt built at Elixir Farm, Brixey, Missouri in workshop with Bill Coperthwaite, Colin Foster, and Clear Spring School students, 2003.

On a personal note, I met Bill when I was 17 years old, while working at the Shaker Community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. A larger-than-life personality, with thoughtful and energetic inspiration, he had a profound impact on my life. From 1974-1978, I helped in the construction of six yurts in New England, and 35 years ago this month, I met up with Bill to assist at a yurt workshop in Reeds Spring, Missouri. That is how I arrived in the Ozarks. In 2003 he returned to the Ozarks and led a yurt workshop for my son, Colin, and his class at the Clear Spring School. The boat pictured below is named for the Norwegian fjord on which it was built, Son Fjord. Bill built this square-rigged single sail, two person oar-powered, fishing vessel. It was extraordinarily stable, fast and maneuverable. One person operating the vessel with oars could speed past two people pumping hard with paddles in a canoe. He talked me into investing $200 in the boat. Rich memories of Bill flood my mind—his hearty sparkle-eyed laugh and Yankee prudence; conversations now silent, questions unasked. I have an envelope from him in my unopened mail. I can only answer with a joyous smile for having known this extraordinary human.

Bill Coperthwaite, August 1979, photo shoot highlighting design and lines of the counterweighted, narrow-feathered, Norwegian oars.
Bill Coperthwaite, August 1979, photo shoot highlighting design and lines of the counterweighted, narrow-feathered, Norwegian oars.
Norwegian Son Fjord, built by William S. Coperthwaite. A calm morning on the Atlantic Ocean, Yurt Foundation, Dickinson’s Reach, Bucks Harbor, Maine. ©1978 Steven Foster.
Norwegian Son Fjord, built by William S. Coperthwaite. A calm morning on the Atlantic Ocean, Yurt Foundation, Dickinson’s Reach, Bucks Harbor, Maine. ©1978 Steven Foster.

Go Wild

By Steven Foster.

Basin Spring, Eureka Springs, ArkansasThe fading light of an earlier sunset glows pumpkin orange through the brilliant fall foliage. There’s something about the light at this time of year that portends winter’s comfort warmth. The harvest is in. The chorus of geese en masse cuts through cold clear nights. Chiggers and ticks are mostly gone. Solitary cold blooded reptiles slither toward their winter dens, where they will huddle together for the winter. Time to head back to the woods.

We all need a little more contact with nature.  In just one generation our collective kids have lost touch with nature in favor of electronic screens. Part of the problem is risk-adverse adults telling kids that nature is dirty and dangerous. This is the perfect time of year to encourage kids (of all ages, you included) to get out and spend 30 minutes a day romping or roaming—just being in nature.

Starting around 2004 scientific studies began to appear showing children are  spending less time in nature and how that impacts their health and psyche. A recent three-year study by the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) measured “connection to nature” in 8–12 year olds, finding that only 21 percent of children had any connection to nature. Surprisingly, urban children had a slightly higher rate of nature connection than rural kids; girls (27%) versus boys (16%) were engaged in nature. In 2005, in his book, Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books), author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder.”

On Friday, 25 October 2013, a new documentary film premiered in London, Project Wild Thing, a feature-length documentary by David Bond,  self-appointed “marketing director for nature.” In conjunction with the film’s release, the Wild Network was launched with nearly 400 organizations in the UK, promoting the idea of urging children to swap 30 minutes of screen time per day for 30 minutes of outdoor activities.

I went to the Project Wild Thing website and signed this kid up to commit swapping 30 minutes of screen time for wild time.  Now which one of my four or more electronic screen on at any time shall I give up for 30 minutes? See: www.projectwildthing.com.

The Nature of Autumn Color

By Steven Foster

FallColors-10126357For me the fragrance of fall is that of new beginnings. The metaphor of new beginnings is usually reserved for spring; but I think of spring as a season of awakening. The start of a new school season, the dawn of cooler weather, the inception of fruiting, and yes, the arrival of a new football season, are all new beginnings that I associate with autumn. Somehow the smell of autumn triggers memories for me that in turn spark feelings. Fall fragrances evoke a longing to know when to be still to take-in the embroidery of the chromatic flush that will take us through winter’s dull tones. The season to enjoy the brilliant colors of autumn is upon us.

Sweet Spring in AutumnWhen we look at total color patterns, big waves of yellow are moderated by orange, and if everything works as predicted, followed by a short brilliant burst of red. However, some of our earliest turning woody plants such as gum trees (Nyssa species) and sumacs (Rhus species) are in the red spectrum, defying autumn color norms. The first big wave of glorious yellows and reds are from sugar maples (Acer saccharum). Color also depends upon the mix of vegetation, where trees grow, and where they originate. The sugar maples, for example, are associated with northern deciduous forests, and often occur on north-facing slopes. Our mixed oak-hickory upland forests usually present a dull pastel of browns and yellows. Trees in valley floors, such as sycamores along water ways, tend to turn earlier than trees on ridge tops.

Sassafras leaves
An unusual five-lobed Sassafras leaf

There is no single, definitive answer to the question of why trees turn color. Much of our understanding is physiological. Healthy leaves with good leaf volume in later September help to predict good autumn color. If we are generally free from rain, wind and overcast skies for the first three weeks of October, we will have better color. We want cool, bright, sunny days with no freezing temperatures. A major factor among a myriad of variables is the diminishing length of the autumn day, hence the amount of daylight. Production of chlorophyll ceases, and as the green chlorophyll degrades, sugars and anthocyanadins (the vast group of compounds responsible for color combinations of fruits, leaves and flowers) begin to dominate the leaves, aided by the variables of moisture and temperature changes. The recipe changes from year-to-year and species-to-species. This is conventional wisdom.

In the last 20 years an entirely new field of study—plant-animal interactions—hints of Diospyros virginiana, persimmonbroader mechanisms, a more wholistic view, beyond mere physiology. Fall colors are integrated in nature signaling to fruit-loving animals and insects that fruits are ready to pluck, thus aid in seed dispersal. In some trees, the colors may send a signal to insect herbivores that feeding time is over. The new science of autumn tree color suggests the process is a mix of defensive, seed-dispersing, signaling, and physiological functions all working in symphonic harmony to create the intricate beauty we enjoy.

When to expect the peak of fall color, you ask? Trying to predict the peak of fall color is not as easy as predicting when the next Full Moon. Autumn color, while falling into a predictable time range is subject to the variables of light, cold, heat, moisture, and the little understood symphony of all of nature working in concert. If you record peak color days over time, predictable patterns will repeat themselves. Short of keeping a journal, our digital devices record the date we snap an image in the metadata of the image itself. I bought my first digital camera in 2004. Since the fall of 2005 in the Ozarks near the Arkansas-Missouri borders my best  fall foliage photos (dates as recorded by digital camera) are taken during the last week of October through the first week of November. Therefore, my prediction for peak foliage this year along the counties skirting the state borders is precisely October 26th (give or take a week).

Predictions aside, our role in the process is simply to enjoy the beauty of nature.

©2013 Steven Foster, adapted from my “Eureka Nature” column in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper for 3 October 2013 and 8 November 2012.

Images of the Petra Siq

By Steven Foster

Here’s a link to 96 images I took along the Siq at Petra. The Siq is a narrow gorge split between mountains forming the main passage into the Nabataean city of Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Jordan. Along the way one sees an impressive carved water channel and carved symbols of Nabataean gods. The natural sandstone is of spectaular beauty. Petra is an ancient city believed built by Nabataean Arabs around the 300 B.C.E., though remains of a neolithic settlement 10,000 years old are found at this extraordinary site where local Bedouin tribes lived among the ruins into the 1980s.

Seven Wonders of a Bucket List

By Steven Foster

PetraWhen considering the “new” seven wonders of the world (created by the New Seven Wonders Foundation) as a popularity poll, I find it astonishing that the only single remaining of the original Hellenic seven wonders of the world, the Great Pyramid of Giza (honorable mention) didn’t make the cut, while an Art Deco concrete statue in Brazil did. I have visited three of the seven “winners” including the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, and most recently, this month the ancient Nabataean Arab capital of Petra in Jordan.

Seven wonders (whether new or old) only begins to scratch the surface of what to see on Planet Earth. The first list of seven wonders of the world was created by Greek scholars—Herodotus (484–425 B.C.E.) and Callimachus of Cyrene (305–240 B.C.E.).  Their “seven wonders” was inspired by the number seven in Greek traditional symbolizing plenty and perfection and the known celestial bodies of the time. The Giza pyramids are all that remain. The home of Callimachus, the Greek city state of Cyrene capital of Cyreniaca in  present-day northeast Libya, is famous in an historical herbal context as the home of a plant known as Silphion (Greek) or Silphium (Latin) which I would categorize among the seven botanical wonders of the ancient world. It survives as an image on Cyrenian coins. The root was worth its weight in silver. Famed as an herbal contraceptive of the ancient world, it was harvested to extinction.

If you really want to pad your bucket list, the best one stop shopping is UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list which includes 981 properties/locations of  cultural and natural heritage of value to all of humanity. The list includes 759 cultural, 193 wonders of nature sites, and 29 mixed (cultural and natural) locations. That means to cross off that entire bucket list, I need several winning grand prize lottery tickets. I’ve only been to 39 World Heritage sites (less than 4 percent).

Like Machu Picchu (landscape aspect images) which I’ve visited four times, Petra cannot be seen in a single day. Situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea (which surprisingly is not included on the World Heritage list), Petra has been inhabited since prehistoric times by Arabs, Greeks, and Romans, among others. Although two millennia old, the Roman ruins at Petra look decidedly new compared with earlier ruin at this extraordinary seat of human history inhabited for at least 10,000 years. It has been a stopping point for nomadic Bedouins since it was abandoned by Crusaders who built a fort there in the 12th century. The famous, Khanzeh el Faroun (Treasury of the Pharoah) a façade more than 150 feet tall, carved out of the rose-red sandstone contains no Nabataean architectural elements, but reflects Alexandrian and Hellenistic design traditions. A place of extraordinary human and natural beauty, put Petra on your bucket list. I will be happy to be your guide.

Expanded from Eureka Nature column in the 26 September 2013 Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper