Tipi life offers unique rewards, challenges

By: Hannah Lantz

Looking up, my gaze is involuntarily funneled to an oblong patch of sky beyond an opening high above me. The silky-smooth blonde surfaces of the poles erected in the shape of a cone have a way of guiding the eye upward as effortlessly as smoke. I am standing in a tipi, a reality that no longer seems out of the ordinary.
Deciding to work at Dancing Crane Farm for the summer satisfied two pronounced passions in my life. First, lending a hand would enable the farm to reach its full potential to make a difference in the health of the community I called home. Second, spending time living cyclically and realizing the true reason for every season would teach me my place among all the elements that provide for my existence.
So began my search for housing options in Skandia. Possibilities came and were rejected. Some were too far away from the farm and others took too long to construct. A serendipitous listing on craigslist decided my future as a tipi dweller, and it was an experience in simplistic, although not simple, living from there on out.
With the hand-sewn canvas cover for the tipi purchased sans the polls for the frame, I set out to cut the necessary trees in early April. A week later, I had my twenty-three fifteen-foot poles cut, stripped and drying with snow still on the ground as well as many sticky, stubborn sap blotches covering my skin. By the end of the month, each pole was carefully sanded and the process was complete. From the beginning, the labor-intensive work insured my attachment to and pride in what would eventually become my home.
In mid-May the tipi was raised, a process said to take a single adept Native American woman only twenty minutes. For three amateurs, it took most of a day.
The poles had to be crossed in the correct pattern and tilted at the correct angle to accommodate the canvas, a feat harder to accomplish than to say. Then, the inner lining that creates a kind of wall—originally used to prevent casting shadows on the outer wall that enemies could target—had to be hung and secured with rocks at the base.
When the outer canvas was finally erected, I sat alone in the center with the last warm rays of softly diffused evening light filtering in, foreshadowing the tranquility that would be found by living in such a space.
The first few weeks in my new home yielded cold nights reaching lows of twenty-five. My little homemade barrel stove valiantly roared with determination to warm its territory. Most late evenings found me nestled among blankets and pillows against my willow-rod backrest contentedly watching the firelight flicker warmly on the canvas walls. Holding the fire all night was a different story, and I quickly learned the value of an ozan, a kind of fabric drop ceiling that helped to keep the heat in the sleeping space.
At the same time, work on the farm was getting off to a frustrating start with hard frosts in June threatening to destroy the previous two months of seed starting. Days ended with covering seedlings in the greenhouses using double layers of remay. The volatile nature of the Upper Peninsula growing season was becoming clear to me.
The arrival of spring is never more tangible than it is when living in a Native American tipi. Everyday another bird’s arrival added depth to the morning serenade I was treated to when no thick walls separated us. Leeks and fiddleheads comprised an edible landscape of which I partook on a daily basis, and subtle fragrances from emerging cherry and apple blossoms found their way into my home. As the weeks passed, the deer grew accustomed to the tipi as part of the landscape—and I would hear them snorting just outside the canvas at night and eyeing me curiously as I emerged in the morning.
Rain, the abundance of which I sincerely appreciated on behalf of the farm, was both welcome and dreaded. It is suffice to say that repeated soakings of all your belongings is frustrating and makes for an unsatisfying, wet, cold night’s sleep. Consequently, were I to call the tipi home again, I would sacrifice the magnificence of the long poles shooting skyward for the shorter utilitarian version that can be covered with a rain cap.
When summer came, it brought with it a sense of urgency to get plants and seeds in the soil. The fields were filled, row-by-row, plant-by-plant, and I soon realized there would be no square inch of the two acres under cultivation that I would not know intimately. I celebrated the soil on the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands that proved my direct connection with the vegetables that would feed me.
The namesake cranes of the farm flew into my view from the tipi often, walking with their families through the field and calling in long, low waves of otherworldly purring.
Other smaller creatures like caterpillars and spiders began to share my home, and I had to rethink the socially ingrained attitude that they did not belong in my space. With the warmer weather, the stove could be moved outside, freeing up the center of the sixteen-foot diameter living space.
At the peak of harvest, I carried in armloads of Bright Lights Swiss Chard, Rainbow Carrots, Candy Onions and Dragon’s Tongue Beans with the pride of a squirrel that had put in its time collecting and would now reap the benefits in the dead of winter. Three meals a day could be had entirely from the bounty of the farm.
Douglas William Jerrold said, “If you tickle the earth with a hoe she laughs with a harvest,” a reality I delighted in firsthand every time I sat down to a meal and secondhand when I passed along the laughter to customers at markets.
Farming and tipi life are similar in their ability to incite pointed examination of life. Neither hides its mechanisms behind sterile facades for the sake of ease or comfort, and I found this to be satisfying on a physical and spiritual level.
Gone were the neatly packaged bags of “baby” carrots, but they were replaced with the full-bodied flavor of purple varieties just popped out of the ground. No more did I have water at the turn of a handle to waste at my leisure. Hauling it illustrated the unnecessary depth of my consumption, and I soon wondered why I had ever used so much.
Simplistic living meant more of my time was spent providing for myself than ever before, but I felt more alive, happy and healthy as a result.
Now the end has come all too soon. The glade where the tipi once stood is empty as I pack up to head out on a 100-day adventure in India. The circumstances of my life are not likely to find me living in a tipi on a farm again, but I always will be able to draw from the experience. No matter where I live, my newfound sense of responsibility to lead a conscientious lifestyle will forever serve me well. Fresh food and simple living are at the heart of a good life, and I feel lucky to have made that discovery.
—Hannah Lantz

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