Remembering SB Bill Coperthwaite

[On my desk is a hand-carved wooden bowl given to me as a token of gratitude following the publication of his book A Handmade Life. It’s been fourteen years since the publication and more than a decade since Bill’s passing, but the bowl remains on my desk, a daily reminder of all his life stood for. If there was a house fire, it’s one of the first things I would grab. SB SM]

On the Nightstand

by Stephen Morris

Bill Coperthwaite had the ability to reach out and touch you. He showed up in my office looking for someone to publish his book, a memoir published eventually to much critical acclaim under the title A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity (Chelsea Green, 2007). Coperthwaite is a teacher, builder, designer, and writer who homesteaded off the coast of Maine, living a life of independence, integrity, and radical simplicity. It is a monk’s existence that has attracted those on an inner quest throughout the ages.

I explained to him that while his lifestyle was admirable and romantic, attracting a non-stop stream of acolytes to his rough-hewn world, it did not translate directly to commercial success in conventional publishing. More people want to know about the sex lives of celebrities or the latest diet fad than the rewards of a life without the trappings of conspicuous consumption. At the same time, I professed my personal admiration for his life choices.

I explained the economics of book publishing. Unless we could be guaranteed to sell a certain quantity of books, it didn’t make sense for us to publish a story, no matter how worthy. He was quick to come up with a solution.

“So, all I’ve got to do is sell this number of books in advance, and you’ll publish it?” I nodded. Off he went.

The long story/short is that he accomplished this feat, and he did it not through the benificence of a wealthy donor or a foundation, but rather by sending long, hand-written letters to the many pilgrims who had made the journey to his rock bound, wind swept home. They were glad to support someone who provided the inspiration and courage to experience life without the crutches that we have adopted as the necessities of modern success.

Giving birth to A Handmade Life was not an easy task, but it was rewarding. As the finish line (printed books) approached, Bill again showed up at the office. “Here’s something I made for you,” he said, handing me a small wooden bowl so imperfectly perfect that it glowed with the reverence of wood. Now, some ten years later, it sits on my desk, holding paper clips and paraphenalia … works real good … and reminds me daily of a man who inspired so many with his simplicity.

A Man Apart is Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow’s loving tribute to their mentor Bill Coperthwaite. In this intimate and honest account framed by Coperthwaite’s sudden death and brought alive through the month-long adventure of building with him what would turn out to be his last yurt Forbes and Whybrow explore the timeless lessons of his experiment in intentional living and self-reliance. They also reveal an important story about the power and complexities of mentorship: the opening of one’s life to someone else to learn together, and carrying on in that person’s physical absence.

While mourning Coperthwaite’s death and coming to understand the real meaning of his life and how it endures through their own, Forbes and Whybrow craft a story that reveals why it’s important to seek direct experience, to be drawn to beauty and simplicity, to create rather than critique, and to encourage others. This is a great read for anyone seeking to answer the question “How can I live according to what I believe?”

2 thoughts on “Remembering SB Bill Coperthwaite

  1. Reading about this remarkable man while sitting in my camp in Rangeiey, Maine brings me back to when we bought it in 1981. Nine miles in on a dirt road ours is one of 27 camps built circa 1900 by loggers and guides.
    Idealistic to say the least, we asserted there would be no phone, no TV. Just a kitchen and two very old and inefficient Franklin stoves to share thoughts, read and play games in front of.
    So for a few weeks a year we could, and still do, enjoy the quietude of this wonderfully remote place on a lake.
    Fast forward and now we have a propane gas fireplace (the Franklins or any other wood burning stove wouldn’t pass our insurance company’s safety protocols), a landline phone(not much cell service), a satellite dish for internet service but no TV. Yet. My oldest son will be installing one for his kids next spring.
    Oh well, the best laid plans…..
    One has to admire Mr. Copertwaite’s, and others), dedication to a life lived simply.

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