Sunday, March 19, 2000
Last weekend I helped raise a tipi with some friends near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
On a flat step above a bend in a river we camped out the previous night, sitting round the campfire making s’mores and drinking wine from mugs. The stars were out above us, and as the moon set behind the hill opposite we picked our way down the steep path to the river.
Lying on our backs on the flat-topped boulder on the bank, a shooting star traced a stitch of light above, and we heard the freezing water slide by beside us. If you really listened, you could almost catch a tiny whisper of the world’s quiet roar. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
The next day, with snow nestling amongst the cacti on the north-facing slope across the river, we set to work on the tipi. None of us quite knew what we were doing, but with instructions printed from a Welsh tipi website, we lashed the first three poles together, and raised the tripod against the azure sky.
I sat whittling sticks for the pegs (which don’t work well in sandy soil, it turned out – metal pegs are a much better if less romantic choice), and as my friends placed the other poles in place it seemed as if the frame had somehow always been there, on that step above the river.
There were certain customs to be observed in the building. The opening faced eastwards – away from the prevailing winds, and towards the morning sun – and when all the poles were in place, they were secured with rope that was walked clockwise four times around the frame – one revolution for each of the seasons.
We threaded the lifting pole into the canvas cover on the ground, and then lifted it into place at the back of the tipi and unfolded the cloth, wrapping it round the poles like putting a coat on an impatient five year-old.
OK, so the cover didn’t quite match up at the front at first – there’s lots of room for misadjustment in an 18’ tipi – but after moving some poles forward and some back, we were done.
The smoke flaps, the oval opening, the tops of the poles criss-crossing, the soft light inside as we all stepped in and stood there, splintered, scratched and happy – marvelling at what we’d made.
Made? Or revealed? It was as if the tipi knew how and where it should be built, and we’d simply helped it along. More like archaeology than construction. From a pile of sun-bleached wood and a mildewed bundle of cloth we’d uncovered something noble and determinedly right. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
And my modest point? My extrapolation from the specific to the general? My thought to leave you with? None, really. I just wanted to tell you.
(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, March 2000)