SEDGWICK, Maine — Melanie and Josh Wehrwein and their two young children, Caden and Aria, have lived for more than three years in a small fabric yurt on a patch of rocky land carved from the spruce forest around them.
There, they tend the large garden, haul their water, bathe in front of the wood stove or in the simple outdoors shower and spend a lot of time at the big wooden table at the center of the round room. It’s snug, but it’s home — at least until they can finish the three-story wooden yurt they and a community of friends are building on the other side of the garden.
They can’t wait.
“The smell of the wood is what gets me,” Melanie Wehrwein said of the new yurt, which the couple believes is one of the biggest in the world. “The softness and beauty of the lines. It feels so right and so normal to us. Sometimes we forget that it isn’t.”
Though it may not be exactly normal in American culture to live this way, yurts — a traditional, circular Mongolian home — have a small but passionate group of fans in the western world. They know about yurts thanks to the life and work of Bill Coperthwaite, an Aroostook County native who lived for years in a wooden yurt in Machiasport and who was a lifelong advocate of the building style. He died 2½ years ago at the age of 83, but his love of yurt building lives on, and the Dickinsons Reach foundation he started to promote yurts continues today.
“The fact that you can say ‘yurt’ and people know what you’re talking about — that’s because of Bill Coperthwaite,” Peter Forbes, his friend and biographer, said recently. “I’ve never met a person more true to himself. He was just so true to his own sense of what the good life meant. … He lived very, very differently from the way most Americans lived. That is why he is so inspiring to us. You can make your own life. The making of your own life does not require money. It only requires ingenuity, and everyone can do it. That’s why it was revolutionary.”
‘A Handmade Life’
The Wehrweins met Coperthwaite as they were deciding to change in their lives by moving from the New Hampshire suburbs to rural Maine. Six years ago, Melanie and Josh Wehrwein and their kids were living one version of the American dream: a 2,500-square-foot house in the middle of a subdivision. The high school sweethearts figured they would stay there forever, raising their family and putting down roots in the house that Josh Wehrwein, 41, described as a “rectangle with vinyl siding.” But Colin, now 9, was a colicky baby, and because of that they started to really look at the way they ate.
“That got us thinking about a lot of things,” Melanie Wehrwein, 39, said. “The stepping stone was food. We joined a CSA [community-supported agriculture] and started a big garden.”
They wanted to have chickens, but that wasn’t allowed in their subdivision, and when Aria, now 6, was born at home, the family felt like maybe they no longer belonged in that particular world.
“We were starting to feel that we just didn’t fit there anymore,” Melanie said.
Josh’s mother lived in Maine, and she told the couple about the Good Life Center, the former homestead of Helen and Scott Nearing in the village of Harborside. They visited and walked into their first yurt, a small one that Coperthwaite had built for Helen Nearing. It wasn’t quite love at first sight.
“I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I want to live in one of these,’” Melanie said. “It was just a neat looking building.”
But she picked up Coperthwaite’s book, “A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity,” and when the same book was brought up in a conversation later, she looked into it more and ordered a copy.
“I really liked what he had to say,” Josh said.
“I think it opened our eyes to another way of living,” Melanie added.
Story of a teacher
Coperthwaite was born in Monticello, a small town north of Houlton, and studied art history at Bowdoin College. He later earned a doctorate in education from Harvard. He traveled the world, living and working in Mexico, Venezuela, Scandinavia and throughout the U.S. and was inspired by a 1962 National Geographic article about traditional Mongolian yurts. Coperthwaite found that yurts had a rich potential for creative design yet provided people with a simple, inexpensive dwelling they could build themselves.
He built one himself in the village of Bucks Harbor, down a mile and a half trail through the puckerbrush. Although he lived alone, he was happy to meet the people who made the trek to see him. Coperthwaite lived on less than $5,000 per year, according to Forbes, and his life proved you don’t need a lot of money to have a good life.
“His legacy is the reminder that in our modern American culture we can still create our own fulfilled, unique, valuable, meaningful lives without selling our souls to things we don’t believe in,” Forbes said. “Every person has within themselves the capacity to live a fully realized life.”
The people who walked down the trail to meet him and to learn from him — upward of 200 per year — often found he became one of the most powerful figures in their lives, Forbes said.
“There wasn’t a phone you could call. You had to write him. You had to follow up. You had to drive and get there, and you had to walk down the trail,” Forbes said. “But if you did those things, you would find someone unlike anyone you’d ever met. He was just living it. He was living the change every day.”
Working for food for thought
Melanie Wehrwein, like many, met Bill Coperthwaite because she wrote him a letter and asked if they could come up to his home. She and Josh were intrigued by his figures on how accessible and inexpensive it was to build a yurt — even people like them, who had never before built anything substantial.
“I couldn’t read a tape measure five years ago,” Josh Wehrwein said.
They wanted badly to move to Maine and live a more intentional life and had even bought their property in Sedgwick. But it was the Great Recession. Their house in New Hampshire wasn’t selling, even though they kept dropping the price. Money was tight, and they figured they couldn’t hire a crew to build the timber-framed house they originally dreamed of. So the Wehrweins walked down Bill Coperthwaite’s path to get to the homestead he called Dickinsons Reach and started asking him questions.
“When we said we were interested in building one of these yurts, he said, ‘ooooooh,’ and perked right up,” Josh recalled. “At that point, he became a mentor.”
The family got to know Coperthwaite well as he helped them design the three-story yurt. They moved into the fabric yurt on their property temporarily, until they could build it. In the end, their yurt became his last design.
“There was a quote on his door: ‘Will work for food — for thought,’” Melanie said. “It was really perfect for him. He was always scheming and creating. His big thing was encouragement. He was always encouraging people to create. He said he wanted people to be intoxicated by making things.”
When Coperthwaite died in a single-car crash in November 2013, the three-story yurt existed only in the designs and in the giant piles of milled lumber at the Wehrwein’s property — 12,000 board feet. The family, grieving their friend and mentor, wasn’t sure when or even if that yurt could rise.
“We didn’t think we would be able to build the yurt after he died,” Josh said. “I didn’t know how this was going to happen.”
Coperthwaite’s burial happened at Dickinsons Reach a few days after the crash. One of his friends and yurt makers who attended the burial picked up the plans for the Wehrwein’s three-story yurt and brought them home to look at them further. He then got in touch with the couple and offered to help organize a workshop to build the yurt, and people — Bill Coperthwaite’s friends — came in droves to help.
“Those people are some of our best friends in the whole world now,” Melanie Wehrwein said, adding that bringing people together in this kind of powerful way is part of their mentor’s legacy.
She said that if they could have known six years ago, before leaving New Hampshire, meeting Coperthwaite and deciding to follow this particular path, how hard it would be at times, they might not have done it.
“But I’m so glad we did,” she said. “I don’t feel like we were really fully living there. And now I feel like we’re very deeply living.”