William Sherman Coperthwaite, September 17, 1930 - November 26, 2013
William S. Coperthwaite, architect, author, maker, visionary social critic, and homesteader, has died. My own family has lost both our sail and our anchor, and today there are thousands of Mainers and New Englanders who grieve the same loss.
A man who inspired many thousands by his life led close to nature and in opposition to contemporary society, Mr. Coperthwaite was often compared to Henry David Thoreau. Similar to Helen and Scott Nearing, who were his friends and mentors, Mr. Coperthwaite led a 55 year long experiment in living on the coast of Maine where he created a homestead of wooden, multi-storied yurts, a form of architecture that he adapted from Mongolian culture and helped to make popular in the United States. More than an architect, Mr. Coperthwaite embodied a philosophy that he called democratic living which was about enabling every human being to have agency and control over their lives in order to create together a better community. The central question of Mr. Coperthwaite's life and experiment has been How can I live according to what I believe?
He wrote in his 2004 award-winning book A Handmade Life, "The main thrust of my work is not simple living not yurt design, not social change, although each of these is important and receives large blocks of my time. But they are not central. My central concern is encouragement encouraging people to seek, experiment, to plan, to create, and to dream. If enough people do this we will find a better way."
His homestead on the Maine coast was his philosophy made visible, and many thousands of people made the 1.5 mile walk to see it, to be inspired and to learn from him by working alongside him. Intentionally avoiding electricity from the grid, plumbing and motors, he showed thousands that it was possible to live more simply and that this would be good for themselves and the planet. Mr. Coperthwaite's influence was reached not by him giving lectures and writing, though he did both, but much more so through the example of his life. When his many visitors saw what he had created and how he lived, they directly experienced the importance of beauty, self-reliance, and nonviolent ways of living.
Born in Aroostook County Maine, Mr. Coperthwaite received a scholarship to attend Bowdoin College and after graduation he turned down another scholarship to Annapolis Naval Academy to claim conscientious objector status in the Korean War. Bill did alternative service with the American Friend Service Committee where he connected with the teachings of American pacifism. Bill would become close friends with Richard Gregg, a central figure in that movement. Though they had 50 years difference in age, Coperthwaite and Gregg found a strong bond and Gregg introduced Coperthwaite to the work of Mahatma Gandhi and to Helen and Scott Nearing, legendary social radicals who had pioneered their own experiment in self-reliant living in Vermont and later in Maine. The influence of pacifism, nonviolence and simple living would lead Coperthwaite far out in to the world to learn from other ways of living, particularly handcraft traditions. In 1966, William Coperthwaite would earn a doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education based upon his research with Inuit people and their arts, handcrafts and traditions.
Though he traveled through Asia, Europe, New Zealand and the Americas building yurts and researching hand-crafts and other experiments in democratic living, William Coperthwaite always returned to Dickinsons Reach, the name he gave to his 500-acre homestead in Machiasport, Maine to honor his favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. Knowing that his life was winding down, Coperthwaite planned ahead and created a community of friends to take over this fabled and revered homestead and we will bury him there on the land that sustained him and inspired thousands and thousands of others. Always eschewing privilege and titles, Coperthwaite never used the title and preferred to be called Bill by one and all.
Bill will be remembered by his friends for his commitment to his principles, his deep love of life and people, and his great intellect, humility and humor. Our nation has lost one of the links in the chain of great people working quietly with all their unique powers to foster a better world.
Peter Forbes is a farmer and writer in Vermont who collaborated with Bill Coperthwaite on the book, A Handmade Life.