Saturday, 25 August 2012

“Yurt Living: How yurts bring us closer to nature”

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.

Green Woodworking

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 caf├ęs 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

Published in Juno magazine June 2012

Monday, 30 April 2012

Yurts on Film

 I recently watched Tulpan (Tulip) a great film about a young Kazakh man returning to the steppe after his military service with dreams of owning his own yurt, marriage to the elusive Tulpan, and owning his own flock of sheep. It is a beautiful film of a man's determination to return to live on the land, a land of extreme hardship right on the edge of life itself. He turns his back on the navy and the city, to live in this beautiful almost barren plain which almost everyone else has already abandoned, to suffer the humiliations of his brother in law who ensures that this rite of passage is not an easy one.
Other films with yurts....

1.Urga -  A Russian truck driver breaks down in the middle of the Mongolian steppe where he meets Gombo a mongolian nomad and an unlikely friendship develops.
2. Tulpan
3. Mongol - A great epic of a film about Chingis Khan's early life, lots of yurts, horses and blood.
4.The Story of the Weeping Camel
5.The Cave of the Yellow Dog

There is also Troy and The Golden Compass which use yurts albeit fleetingly in one or two scenes, there must be many more films or references so  please add any unusual, interesting or trivial  yurt stuff that you come across.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Frontier Stoves from Cornwall

The Frontier stove is made by Camping Solutions, in Cornwall, initially developed for disaster relief agencies, it incorporates plenty of features that make it a useful bit of kit for the domestic market as well. Long gone are the days of roughing it in drippy nylon tents. The advent of bell tents, safari tents, domes, pods and yurts, shows that we like our camping a little bit more comfortable than previously and if this means taking some of the mod cons camping then so be it. I personally draw the line at the kitchen sink, but a stove, that's a bit different, a stove can make the difference between misery or magic, divorce or devotion. It is easy to dream of sitting around the campfire in the evening with stars overhead, but due to the weather or overzealous regulations it is not always possible to have a campfire outside. So a lightweight stove like this is a perfect solution.

The Frontier stoves are very compact: the three legs fold up under the body of the stove, all the lengths of flue slide inside the fire box and even the small ember tray below the door can be unclipped and put inside to prevent it catching or getting lost. Packed up, it only measures length. 450mm x d.200mm x w.250mm. and assembly takes a matter of minutes. It even has its own carrying handle.

I was concerned that the size of the flue (60mm) would not provide adequate draw but in practice found it was easy to light and no problem to keep in, of course, like all fires and stoves, the drier, more seasoned wood you put in it the better it will burn. There is a baffle on the first section of flue to limit the draw and the door latch has a small catch to allow more draft through the door. The flat top is perfect for boiling a kettle on or frying up some eggs, constructed from mild steel it takes very little time to heat up to a useful cooking temperature.

There is no reason why it should only be used inside a tent or other structure, it is also just as useful outside in the same way that you might use a barbecue. The five lengths of flue are self supporting (although they would be safer supported ) and they do get hot, being uninsulated, so you would need to be mindful when there are children about. The stove itself heats up very quickly, so again you would need to be cautious with children running about, but that applies to all fires. The tripod legs are locked in place and provide a very stable support.

The Frontier Stove is unlikely to replace the wood burners in more permanent settings, but would be ideal for temporary camps especially if you were running some bushcraft or similar outdoor activities and you needed an indoor/undercover source of heat and cooking. The price of £129.99 plus £9.99 p & p from makes it a useful bit of kit that will keep you warm without burning a hole in your pocket.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Low Flying Butterflies at Risk.

Although the rare pearl bordered fritillary butterfly has been here for some time we haven't been able to do as much as we would have liked to encourage it, a little bit of ride clearance here and there, some bracken control etc. However we have recently signed up to a 10 year land stewardship scheme with the aim of doing more to help it survive. This will involve increasing the stocking rate on the farm, making more rides through the bracken and brambles, cutting back some of the scrub growth and some more coppicing of the overstood hazel stands.

There are a number of reasons for the butterflies demise, most linked to the way the land is managed, among them is the decline of violets , the principle food plant; the spread of dense scrub due to an absence of foraging/browsing animals hasn't helped either, and the overgrowth of traditional coppice into small woodlands presents high barriers that the butterfly cannot fly over or around.

The english countryside has been managed by man for so long there are no pockets of wilderness left and while it is often over managed or badly managed, I am broadly speaking in favour of any kind of management that will increase rather than diminish the biodiversity of an area. It is true the pearl bordered fritillary with its reluctance to fly high, requiring low level heathland without too many obstacles like hedges and woodland to hinder it, will not be quite as versatile as its more adaptable cousins like the silver washed fritillary, but it will be a great challenge to see if we can bring a greater variety of life to this hillside and help the butterflies at the same time.
With only 2 months left before the nesting season starts we start work this week. If you live locally and would be interested in helping out for a day or two please get in touch.