After years of living a city life, and feeling the effects of a lost connection with my rural roots, I went back to live in the country to work with trees. There was no big plan. One of the more romantic ideas was to plant a musical woodland - maple and rosewood for guitars, spruce for violins etc. It was a shortlived idea dreamed up in a Spanish city where trees in their pollarded contortions, were a decorative backdrop to city life. .
That was nearly twenty years ago and although the musical arboretum was the first and the most misguided of many ideas it raised the question early on as what my place could be in the countryside after so long a displacement.
My way back along this natural path started with green woodwork, which at the time was beginning its slow renaissance inspired by the late Bill Hogarth, and led by Mike Abbot, Hal Wynn Jones and others.
Unlike modern carpentry, the starting point with green woodwork is the tree itself and not a stack of timber in a DIY store. Learning the names of our native trees and their properties, their stories and management, about coppicing, pollarding, the underwood and the wildwood, the countryside slowly started to be more familiar and less strange. All of a sudden a new world opened out and a walk in the woods was never the same again.
Green woodwork follows the grain of the wood, mirroring the natural curves of the tree. It retains that link with what it was as a tree right through to what it will become.
Working with what you find growing in your local woods rather than what has been imported and industry graded, teaches you a new way of seeing .You learn to use the knots, the awkward bends of the wood, the spirals caused by honeysuckle on a hazel rod for example; your eye learns a new greenwood language.
Children of almost any age can work with green wood; I spent many hours supervising children as young as three as they whittled pointy sticks with teeth gritted determination. (Despite the length and sharpness of the blade, a drawknife, if properly handled, is a very safe tool).
To start with we didn’t use a tape measure but instead used body measurements so that the chair, stool or yurt would be made using your own proportions just by taking a measurement off your hand or outstretched fingers. You could be numerically dyslexic and still make stuff.
My first yurt followed some months after these discoveries, and became, without ever intending it, the first of many. I lived in it for a year and after a short while people started asking me to make others. Local shows and festivals were the lifeblood of rural crafts before the Internet appeared and it was through one of these that a chance meeting led to a visit to the ancestral home of the yurt in Central Asia.
The Ancestral Home of Yurts
I had heard of whole valleys on the far western borders of Kyrgyzstan covered with yurts as far as you could see. This National Geographic picture of the country that I held in my head was romantic but wrong. If the Kyrgyz had not turned their backs on their nomadic life completely, the process was well underway by the time I got there. Independence from the old Soviet Union had meant that that the export market for sheep, the mainstay of their economy, had collapsed. With so few sheep it was no longer viable to spend the summer months up in the mountain pastures in their yurts.
In the countryside the yurts that once crowded the valleys were now more frequently erected by the roadside as cafés or stalls selling mares milk (kumis), watermelons and coca cola.
In the city, the yurts were often left unassembled in apartment corridors and old garages, and erected only for weddings and funerals.
The visit to Kyrgyzstan was followed by two trips to Mongolia to learn about the Ger with its low flat profile, straight roof poles and supporting poles (bagana) in the centre, very different from the Central Asian Yurt with its tall, steep, domed outline with bent roof poles and open central space.
Similar moves were taking place in Mongolia with a third of the population living in and around the capital Ulaan Bator, but many Mongolians still lived in their gers even in the city itself. The connection to their nomadic roots is still very strong and it was not unusual to meet university students who could whittle from a piece of wood, spin wool, do embroidery, sew and of course they could all ride a horse, though most now didn’t need to.
Traditionally yurts and gers are made from wood (willow, larch, birch) for the frame and sheep’s wool felt for the covering and are held together with horsehair cord, rope and rawhide. The animals the nomads depend on and the earth they live on provide the materials they make their homes with.
The decoration inside can be plain or ornate, the wood painted or carved, the tent bands woven, the wall hangings stitched and embroidered.
The interior lay out reflects a distinct social order, there is a place for women, place for men, a place for honoured guests, for the shrine, and for cooking, there is respect given to the elders, a reverence for the wheel,“the eye to the heavens” and the stove, always in the centre where the four elements, earth, air, fire and water meet.
The two bagana (central supports) in a Mongolian ger should not be leaned against. They are usually made of birch, a sacred tree and are a symbolic link between the earth and the sky.
The manufacture and decoration of yurts and gers, the way they are used embody a whole culture, a culture that has a deep respect for the earth, for the role of the family and the ways the two come together.
If the migrations in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan were towards the cities, a move in a different direction was underway in the UK. Escape to the Country TV, Country Living Exhibitions and River Cottage recipes fuelled our appetite for rural life as people were moving to the country in search of more fulfilling lives.
As this interest in country living grew, so too did an interest in yurts; more people wanted to buy them, make them, live in them, run schools in them, dance and tell stories in them, and to holiday in them.
Yurts as nurturing spaces
So if we weren’t turning into nomads what exactly was the appeal of these round tents? Our ancestors lived in round houses of one sort of another and perhaps deep down we find the round space and communal family living, supportive and nurturing.
The yurts we make at Yurtworks are from wood that has grown locally, and while some machines are used in the process they are made principally by hand, with the marks of the hand tools left on the wood. They are made from ash (the Norse “tree of life “) and although they have some modern components so that they work well in our climate they retain the spirit of their Mongolian and Kyrgyz counterparts.
When someone speaks or sings in a yurt you tend to listen more intently. The domed roof provides a good acoustic and words are not lost down corridors or your eye distracted by corners and windows. When you are inside you are properly inside not gazing out at the view.
Living in a yurt involves the whole family usually in a single room, and when you share a space so closely you have to be organised, respect each other and work together. Our experiences of yurt living began when our youngest was 13months old. The cold nights of May were kept at bay with layers of woollen blankets. The night feeds led to fires being rekindled accompanied by the call of owls in the oak trees nearby, then snuggling under the covers again to awaken with the yurt warm and ready for the coming day.
Both our children of 4 and 15 years still enjoy yurt life. The circular space means we are always together, within sight which is very reassuring and creates an immense sense of security. Opening the door to a diverse and beautiful landscape, brings a sense of connection to the earth, the animals here and to our ancestors. A chance encounter at dawn as a deer listens to the wind unaware of other eyes watching.
It is a very powerful reminder that we share this land with so many other creatures and that we are a small part in the jigsaw.
The daily tasks can be shared out, the collection of wood, lighting the fire, fetching water, lighting candles , drying clothes, washing, cooking etc. It all takes longer and it is no less repetitive than in a house.
Evenings are marked with the ritual of lighting lanterns, a magical light with shadows dancing on the roof space. Stories and songs bring a gentle close to a busy day. Adapting life to daylight hours is a welcome change, allowing us rest time, free from other distractions which a house provides.The solar lighting, a useful aid when cooking, reading and doing paperwork is our only source of electricity.
When the manual tasks, the so called chores, take up more time the distinction between work and life becomes blurred.
This is one of the myths perhaps, this idea that there is the right balance between work and life as if they were different from each other. It has taken me a while to realise that work, when you can bring your heart, head and hands into what you do, IS life. Work is not always soulless toil and life is not a quest for some kind of hedonistic utopia.
As the Mongolians and the Kyrgyz continue on their paths away from their nomadic lives towards the cities and their own industrial and technological revolutions, many in the west are starting to journey in the opposite direction to make their own old earth connections.
If we carry with us a sense of humility and a belief that we can be a life giving presence in Nature and not a destructive one, perhaps we shall find our place there again.
Tim Hutton and Naomi Parslow