RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.
It was a good day, that day long ago when the gentle prodding of friends prevailed, and I heeded their advice to go into the woods, find and experience the yurts they had been telling me about. I did.
On a walk one day, I met a man who created a unique life in the woods. It was made by his hands from the bounty of Mother Earth, all wet and gooey, with hints of all the seasons of the year rolled into one place. It was there to be shared, experienced and, in a sense, cherished. Given the chaotic way of the world today, it was something to behold and admire, to see another person utterly full of life, living simply.
Yurts date back to the time of the Mongols and, today, come in many sizes and are made from various building materials. It is an ingenious way to construct a shelter because its round shape not only supports but also provides the essentials of protection and warmth, and Bill Coperthwaite was a master when it came to yurts. He lived life on his own terms. He was unique in every way and so was his life.
The walk in was not difficult. In fact, it is a walk to savor step by step while finding traces of the man who first walked this path. A marker hangs above the trail, a piece of curved metal in the recognizable shape of a yurt; a chair suspended from a tree offers respite; small stacks of firewood placed along the path await winter’s arrival; and the beauty in the light that cascades through the trees is a companion. A bridge is crossed, taking the traveler closer to perfection, and then, you are there.
The structure rises from the woods unexplainable and beautiful all at the same time. To be honest, I thought a spaceship had landed and I was seeing the landscape of another world. It is another world, his world. The large circular structure is shaped like a diamond sitting on the ground. The yurt has large sides protruding like outstretched arms in welcome and windows running around its entire circumference; the view inside is 360 degrees of Maine magic right before your eyes.
Coperthwaite’s home was open, and instinctively I stepped in to look around. Scanning the interior, I visually touched everything, wanting to observe the tiniest of details and accommodations of a man extremely simple with the way he lived. There were tools everywhere, books, notes and drawings, well-worn clothing here and there, boots and some more boots, all amid piles of wood chips, shavings and sawdust. Gadgets and tools adorned the inner wall and appeared to be mostly all hand made or improvised by the mind of someone who took the time, learned how something worked and then altered it to make it fit his need.
While looking around, a young man exited a path from deep in the woods, I stepped out, and we quickly exchanged greetings. He asked if I knew Coperthwaite, and I said, “No, not exactly.” He then asked if I would like to meet him. Before I could reply, we were already headed back to a grove of trees Coperthwaite was readying for his next project. We shook hands, and he welcomed me and moved quietly while talking. His white hat, which I have since seen countless times in photos and on film, sat upon his head, faded by the sun and drenched in perspiration, and dripped time as we spoke to each other.
Our talk was of simple things: the way a poplar sapling bends, the challenges of a life this far from the common everyday things we take for granted, and the peace and quiet afforded him each day. He was also a teacher as his eyes lit up when any question was asked about the structures dotting the landscape, how something works or the myriad of tasks for which such a tool could be used. It was a talk that, in the number of words spoken, said very little, yet filled me up to the brim with information, knowledge and satisfaction in finally meeting and now knowing him, to a degree. There is a fine layer of separateness that you just know will never be penetrated. It is in all of us, it was there that day. But that’s fine; I was here at this moment in time.
Thoreau once walked into the woods one day and decided to live there, in the shadow of trees, with the pond as his friend and nature his deity. He succeeded in sucking the marrow out of life, and so did Coperthwaite. Even though Coperthwaite is no longer with us, he still lives in his story as told in chapter and verse held within the spaces of his structures and this place. All one has to do is visit and read it for themselves. I have, many times.
I also believe that the ground at Dickinsons Reach, which was named for his favorite poet, swells with emotion when visitors arrive and conversations begin. Those voices are imprinted into the fabric of everything there and, in turn, make the place better and richer. Stories told of a man who came into the woods, made a life for himself and then gave of that life, simply by giving himself to others. Planting the seeds in both deeds and words by sharing what he knew, what he learned and, most importantly, inspiring others to look within and perhaps one day find their own Maine woods.
It was a good day.