Yurts - Round and Unbound by Becky Kemery
In the view of philosophical mathematicians, numbers and their associated shapes represent stages in the process of becoming … Each has a life of its own and a unique role in the cosmic myth … Each represents a different problem-solving strategy in the cosmic economy.
—Michael S. Schneider, “A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art and Science”
A place to come home to. A secure roof overhead to shed summer rains, and walls that protect from winter winds. Most people would think “house”. I prefer the concept of “shelter”, which allows my home to be moveable. And it doesn’t have to be square.
For a while I had the nickname Yurt Woman. That was because I lived in a particular form of semi-permanent, round shelter. Not a tent, not a teepee, but a yurt. Yurts were originally nomadic shelters used on the high plateaus of Central Asia. Having proven themselves over centuries, they remain one of the oldest indigenous forms of shelter still in use today.
In Mongolia the frame of the yurt is covered with felted wool; here, the covering is canvas. The yurts I’ve lived in (three of them) had lattice walls six feet high encircling a 24-foot diameter space, with a conical roof leading to a skylight at the top. Pacific Yurts, an Oregon company, fabricated one yurt; a woman who later became my friend built the other two. In all three yurts I lived in the woods, near a creek or river. The sound of rushing water washed through my ears 24 hours a day. Birds woke me in the morning. At night I fell asleep looking up through the skylight bubble at the moon and stars.
My favorite yurt—in fact my favorite shelter experience of all time—was a yurt in the Cascade Mountains located just 50 feet from the Breitenbush River. A magical path led through lush woods to Adirondack chairs at the river’s edge. The floor of the yurt was made of cob (clay, sand and straw, a mixture similar to adobe). It had a radiant heating system, meaning there were pipes running through the cob floor that carried hot springs water and warmed my feet—and the yurt—through the snowy winter months. In the center, under the skylight, was a 10’x12’ rectangle of sand, not cob; a rubber hose of hot springs water wound its way through. I placed reed mats over the sand and it became a favorite spot for women friends on their moon time to come, to curl up on the soft warmth with a good book.
Shimmering sheer fabric hung from the roof rafters across the foot of my bed. On the opposite side of the yurt was an air mattress on the warm floor, a space occupied by guests who came and went about half the time that I lived there. I’ll never forget all the gatherings that happened. Twelve community members sitting in a circle toasting and grinding spices by hand during a new-moon ritual with a visitor from South Africa. Faces glowing in the light of dozens of candles as twenty or more friends came together on various occasions to play music, sing and dance. The faces changed, as did the events, but the magic … oh, the magic. It was something I’ve never experienced, never could have, in the right-angled, rectilinear places most of us call home.
There is a reason that ancient nomadic tribes chose to live in circular spaces. The reason goes beyond the consummate efficiency of the circle (which allows for the largest possible floor space using the least amount of materials and minimal exposure to the elements). Beyond the fact that circular structures provide less wind resistance. Even when the Native American tribes settled into square structures, they continued to use round spaces for rituals and meetings.(1)
The Oglala Sioux elder, Black Elk, offers an explanation
Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round …. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is in a circle from childhood to childhood and so it is in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop.
There is something about the very shape of the circle that provides us a “glimpse into the wholeness, unity, and divine order of the universe,” says mathematical philosopher Michael Schneider. “The circle is a reflection of the world’s—and our own—deep perfection, unity, design excellence, wholeness, and divine nature.” (A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe, p.4) Somehow the very shape of the circle connects us at a primordial, cellular level, to the unity of all things—to our inter-connectedness with each other and our connection to the whole.
The yurt, or ger (rhymes with “air”) as the Mongols call it, was birthed in the context of Shamanism, an ancient consciousness that held to the connectedness of all things and sought to maintain balance therein. Every aspect of the ger and life within it has spiritual connection and significance, from the placement of the door and furnishings to the central fire and the direction in which one walks inside the ger.
The internal floor plan of the ger, every ger, is based on the four directions, much like the Native American Medicine Wheel or the Navajo hogan. The door of the ger always opens to the south; the north side is sacred. Yin and yang are east and west, the masculine side being to the west, the feminine in the east. Family possessions are laid out according to this floor plan. Women’s tools (for cooking, weaving, etc.) are kept on the east side. Riding tack, saddles and the tools that men use are hung on the west side. If there is an altar it is to the north. The fire in the middle is the sacred center, doorway to the world beneath. Smoke rises up through the skylight smoke hole, doorway to the world above. Mongolians believe that these worlds must be kept in balance; it is the balance of all things in the one, the circle.
Perhaps spending time in circular environments might help shift our fragmented, linear consciousness to a way of being in the world that is more whole, connected and cyclical. Children growing up in or attending school in yurts, for example (and their number is growing), may well develop a consciousness quite distinct from those who spend their school hours, days, and years locked away in buildings of squares and rectangles. It will be interesting to observe the difference over time.
Yurts: an Oregon Love Affair
So how did Mongolian nomadic shelters wind up in North America? It’s another of those unique Oregon stories, Oregon via the East Coast. In the early 1960’s Harvard doctoral student Bill Coperthwaite saw a National Geographic article by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas about his visit to Mongolia (Mongolia at the time was closed to most Western visitors). Photographs of Mongolian gers inspired Bill. He designed his dissertation (in education) around building wooden yurt structures with groups of students. He went on to establish The Yurt Foundation and over the years has helped hundreds of groups build yurts as educational or community projects. One of the students working on the first projects with Bill was a gifted 17-year-old named David Raitt. Inspired, David went on to pursue yurt design and building as his passion and vocation, building yurt communities in New Hampshire and California and establishing California Yurt Works.
Across the continent from Bill Coperthwaite, a group of visionary hippie tree planters called the Hoedads were living in the woods and replanting Oregon’s forests. Hoedad Charlie Crawford (mathematician on sabbatical) decided the yurt would be a perfect Hoedad shelter, being comfortable and cozy and also portable. Charlie modernized the yurt structure to include aircraft cable around the top of the lattice walls, and produced numerous canvas yurts for the Hoedads under the name Centering Shelterworks.
It was Alan Bair who put canvas yurts on the map. Picking up where Charlie left off, Alan started Pacific Yurts (www.yurts.com) in Cottage Grove, Oregon, and introduced innovations like NASA insulation and architectural fabrics. While continuing to perfect yurt design, Alan and his team spread the word about yurts locally and nationally, eventually marketing canvas yurts worldwide. It was Alan who first sold yurts to the Parks Department for use in campgrounds, yet another Oregon initiative that has become a national movement.
Back east again, architectural student Morgan Reiter caught the yurt bug in the 60’s while visiting a community with yurts designed by Bill Coperthwaite. The combination of Morgan’s study of indigenous architecture with exposure to Bill Coperthwaite’s and David Raitt’s designs inspired Morgan to build a yurt for himself when he moved to Oregon. Friends asked Morgan to build them yurts as well, and Oregon Yurtworks was born. Oregon Yurtworks uses a pre-fabricated frame-panel system for building wooden yurts that reduces the costs for clients and keeps the wooden yurt homes, while not exactly nomadic, still more portable than their conventional counterparts. Oregon residents are in the unique position of having convenient access to both canvas and wooden yurts, made by local companies.
Canvas yurts are great for modern nomads and people in transition. Typical of nomadic shelters, they use minimal materials and are light on the land. The wooden deck for a yurt takes carpentry skills and few days to complete, but putting up the yurt itself takes less than a day (my 20’ Pacific Yurt took 5 people about 5 hours to get up), and taking it down and loading it is about the same. The Mongolians spend 30 minutes to an hour putting theirs up, but then they do it many times a year and are better practiced at it.(2)
Yurt dwellers often find themselves in challenging situations typical of nomads attempting to live within a settled culture. Building officials may try to run yurt dwellers out of town, or make them comply with restrictions designed for permanent housing. Nesting Bird Yurts, a yurt company in Port Townsend, Washington, has made building code issues a priority. It is possible to purchase a yurt from Nesting Bird that complies with applicable Uniform Building Code restrictions, and the company works closely with clients seeking to comply with local building codes.(3)
Settled cultures historically have tended to misunderstand nomads and to try to control their wandering ways. One might say that trouble between settler and nomad started when farmer Cain, son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Abel, a nomadic herder (Genesis 4:1-16). Bureaucracies in every age have tried to force nomads to take on settled ways and become more “controllable”. A tragic example of this is the First Nations of this land, who fought to maintain their nomadic existence but eventually were either eliminated or placed on “reservations”. In a similar vein, Stalin decided in the 1930’s that the yurt dwelling Kazaks of the Soviet Union should become cotton farmers; they resisted and a quarter of their population (of 4 million) were killed; 80% of their herds were lost as well. They are now cotton farmers and live in square concrete-block housing.
In studying the ways of nomadic cultures I have become convinced that contemporary Western culture, especially, needs to learn from nomadic ways. The simplicity of life, connection to the natural world, and sense of community that the ancient nomadic cultures maintained are things we must learn if we are to live harmoniously and live well on this planet.
Take simplicity, for example: numerous books on simplicity are being written right now, but nothing matches the simplicity that inevitably occurs naturally when carrying one’s possessions from place to place. For nomads, possessions are of necessity few; each item must serve multiple purposes and is chosen with care and an eye to beauty. This is an extraordinary alternative to our settled consumer society where families must rent storage units to hold their excess possessions.
Likewise, nomadic cultures do not overpopulate; their way of life will not sustain it. Nor will it sustain injuring the earth with impunity. Nomadic herders only survive because they have learned how to live in harmony with the natural world and with the animals that sustain them. The cruel horrors that western agribusiness enacts on farm animals would be unthinkable to these people, who treat their animals with a love and respect that is beyond our cultural comprehension (e.g., singing to them, celebrating them in song and dance, and caring for the weak and sick ones by the fire).
People become nomads in modern Western culture for the same reasons they do in every culture: the freedom of the road, the call of Spirit, the need to travel for work (origin of the term journeyman). Different now is the means of travel (Volkswagen bus and airplane instead of gypsy cart and camel); communication is much easier with voicemail and the internet. We still meet up with each other when in same vicinity, and we gather with the tribe every summer season for barter faires and music festivals and in the tent cities that spring up annually in wilderness and deserts across the land, events like the Oregon Country Fair and Burning Man and the Rainbow gatherings. Here we share the stories of our journeys, trade goods and, in the evenings, gather around the fire to sing and dance, recite poetry, sometimes talk politics and often drum through the night. Participants are a mixture of full-time nomads, semi-nomads and nomads-for-the week; they are all participating in nomadic events and the ways of nomadic culture.
And the Yurt? The yurt is a gift, an ancient nomadic shelter that has been made available to modern culture, thanks largely to Oregon visionaries. Versatile, beautiful, and spiritual, it gives us an option for shelter that is gentle to the planet. In its combination of ancient design and modern materials it is a fitting symbol of 21st century nomadism. Yurts provide the opportunity to live in the round, to expand our consciousness, and we are fortunate in Oregon that, if we choose to settle, we can move from a nomad shelter to a more permanent wood panel yurt.
Whatever form of shelter we choose, it is important to incorporate shapes that hold us well and assist our evolution and that of our families. And it is important, for us and for the planet, to learn from nomads old and new, to respect nomadic culture and help create a system where nomads and settlers can live mutually complementary lives.
Becky Kemery is currently hiding out in north Idaho working on a yurt book she is writing with co-authors David Raitt and Annie Raitt, but she may well be a nomad again by the time you read this. If you have stories about yurts or know of interesting yurt situations, let her know at [email protected]. Her new web site (www.yurtsource.com) will be a comprehensive yurt resource page and should be online in July sometime.
1. The Anasazi, considered the foremost architects of the ancient tribes for their multi-storied apartments and city formations, built round kivas for their sacred ceremonies. Tribes in central California were still building roundhouses for community gatherings just fifty years ago.
2. It is also possible in a dry climate to set a yurt up on the ground. For extra warmth in the winter you can dig down six inches, put down plastic sheeting, fill it in with sawdust, and place your yurt and rugs over that. A yurt community in Jackson Hole, Wyoming has lived this way successfully for many years. (It also helps to have a rock-filled trench around the perimeter of the yurt for drainage.) For further information see “Yurts in Cold Climates” in The Last Straw Journal, Issue 32, Winter 2000.
3. Jenny Pell of Nesting Bird Yurts is available for questions on this topic.