William "Bill" Coperthwaite of Machiasport died in a single‑car accident on slippery roads at the age of 83 on Tuesday, November 26, in Knox County. The Washington County man was known internationally for his philosophy of living with simplicity and integrity, and shared his vision with thousands of people who visited him at his 400‑acre property, where they learned to build yurts, learn how to use hand‑tools and while doing so catch the broader meaning of his work. "My central concern is encouragement -- encouraging people to seek, to experiment, to plan, to create, and to dream. If enough people do this we will find a better way," he wrote in his 2002 book, A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity.
Coperthwaite spent most of his 83 years in his search for simplicity, not resting on his doctorate laurels from Harvard, but instead reaching out to other cultures, visiting and learning from others, starting a life‑long journey of collaboration between people where the role of teacher and student constantly shifted. On part of that journey early on he collected artifacts from the Inuit and created a traveling museum for them during a time when much of the culture was being lost. Many of those artifacts and others collected over the years, as well as experiments of his own on handmade tools and versions of such implements as wheelbarrows and axes, are at his property in Machiasport.
Taz Squire, a former board member of the nonprofit Coperthwaite started, The Yurt Foundation, remembers visiting the property as a toddler with his brothers. His mother, Nan Bennett of Machias, had read an article by Coperthwaite. Paths crossed, and Taz and his brother Erik were among many children and adults who frequented Coperthwaite's property to help build yurts, dig wells, maintain the trail in and learn about the beauty of making handmade tools and living with intention. Bennett says, "It was amazing to me what he accomplished in his lifetime. He walked the talk." And in this day of industrial and technological complexities, she notes, that's "pretty amazing."
Taz and Erik were among those who gathered on Saturday and Sunday, November 25 and 26, to dig their friend's grave and bury him in a simple, handmade pine coffin. Erik and another made the coffin with hand-tools, "since that's what Bill would have wanted," he explains. Both brothers remember well their early childhood visits. They say that through Coperthwaite they learned that there was more to the woods and the waters than hunting and fishing, "that there were things of beauty that you could make yourself," says Erik, "counter‑clockwise from the industrial nation" all around them. Taz explains, "Bill brought another aspect to the woods C-- intention -- a different sense of life."
When Taz heard the news of his friend's death on November 26, he worked feverishly to pull together the funeral -- gathering others from far and wide; setting the paperwork in motion; making sure his friend's body arrived at the Machias funeral home in time for a simple burial involving no embalming or cremation, which were Coperthwaite's wishes. "It all came together," Taz says, when a group of about 18 gathered on Saturday and spent from 9 a.m. to mid‑afternoon digging the grave in the hard marine clay. What made it all easier, in a way, Taz explains, was Coperthwaite's decision about five years ago to change the nonprofit Yurt Foundation to an LLC. A long discussion at that gathering ensued about carrying forward his work under the new structure, but he talked also about his death and what death meant to him.
In A Handmade Life, Coperthwaite writes, "Let us plant trees on graves, turning our graves into parks and orchards and forests. ... Peter Freuchen tells of an Eskimo sitting on his grandmother's grave trying to absorb some of her wisdom. What a beautiful idea! What a fine setting for the absorption of the essence of Grandmother's spirit." During the two‑day ceremony of burying their friend, some of that spirit was shared. Taz explains, "Every pick‑axe throw was hard, but it was an amazing process. Creating a piece of work around it [Coperthwaite's death and burial] eased the mind and during breaks allowed for emotion to come out." He adds, "That type of circle that allows us to enjoy life has a rhythm to it. It was something learned from Bill."
Saturday evening the boats were prepared for their journey. On Sunday morning two canoes lashed together catamaran‑style set off to carry the coffin to the burial site, which otherwise was a two‑mile trail hike. Taz notes that the canoe catamaran technique followed Coperthwaite's tradition of bringing many supplies into the property over the years. At daybreak the high winds had calmed, creating a space to paddle safely. "It worked perfectly. We came in at high tide and coasted in silence to the beach where a group of people were waiting." The graveside service allowed anyone who wanted to do so to offer words to their friend. Two words were mentioned repeatedly: grace and intention.