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Life in Tipi Valley (2)

Advantages of Living in a Tipi

(A further extract from Chapter 8)

The tipi has a long history. I've been told how they've found the remains of conical tent dwellings going back 30,000 years or more. However, the plains Indians of North America didn't start living in tipis until about 1800.

Before that they lived in crude, conical structures. They pulled the short poles on sledges behind their dogs, so those tents were much less tall. What you can pull behind a dog doesn't amount to the sort of noble tipi structures that we now have. When they acquired horses they moved to the plains and they lived around the edge of the plains and their hunting parties moved out into the plains for certain seasons, and back again. That's when they devised the tipi. And that famous American plains Indian culture with its tipis flourished only for about seventy years. Now the tipis have been taken over by us.

We never pretended we were Indians. A lot of people, even the Indians themselves, make a mistake on that one. They think that if you've got a tipi, you must be playing at being Indians. But that's ridiculous. When those Indians move from their tipis, into houses, does this mean that they're playing at being White Men?

The real reason that we were living in tipis was that they're inexpensive housing. A tipi costs about £150 for the canvas, and often you can find the poles for free.

It may be hard to find that £150 when you're on the dole, but once you have got your tipi you've got inexpensive housing. The cheapest bricks and mortar flat costs about two hundred times that, about £30,000.

We were living in tipis because they are practical. They don't blow down even in the worst of Welsh gales, if you pitch them properly. A tipi is dry. No matter how hard it rains, you're still going to be dry. This is especially true after I invented the hat to go on the top of it. The hat is a large square of canvas which hangs above the smoke vent to keep the rain out. The tipi is still an evolving structure. As time goes by it will doubtless develop in other ways as well.

There are other advantages to living in tipis. They are suited to community living because tipis allow you to plan your community moment by moment. Where a group of ordinary people decide to set up a community or commune, the normal thing is to go for a large house, spend a lot of money on the house and there's usually very little land comes with it because all the money has gone on the house. Then these typical community people find that they've joined up with the wrong people and they've got to get rid of the wrong people before they can get the right people, with all the problems that that entails.

For example, communities often find they have a gender imbalance, and they haven't got a spare room, and how are they going to work out that one? I once was invited to a big community house on the west coast of Wales and they'd got some wonderful things going on, a pottery, gardens, greenhouses, they were a really well run middle class community living in a large house.

But when we sat down to dinner I noticed that there were 17 men and two women. I said, 'It seems to me you've got problems here, how are you going to solve them?' And they said, 'We don't know how to solve the problem becuse the house is full, there is no more room, somebody's got to go if we're to sort it out but nobody wants to go. What's the balance like at Talley?'

I said, 'We've got 18 women and 21 men.'

They said, 'Well, how do you achieve that?'

I said, 'It's quite simple, when we want to invite someone new to join us, we just build another tipi and stick it on the end of the row.'

This mobility of the tipi is very important. If people are camped alongside people they've had enough of, they can move. Political problems can be solved by moving structures. And you'd be surprised how much politicking goes out of the window when you’re able to move your home a hundred yards. That can make all the difference in the world.

Another advantage with tipis is that the land to put them on is relatively cheap because you're getting it at agricultural rate. We bought the land in Tipi Valley at three or four hundred pounds per acre. We were allowed to spread it over ten years so that makes it forty pounds per acre per year. That's pretty good.

A tipi has what I call real housing costs. There is the cost of building it, but apart from that, getting your fire and water are a labour of love. A traditional house costs, say, £40,000. Where on earth does that come from for ordinary people? To get it, before you know where you are, you are catching the 6.30 from Esher every morning. But at the end of the day all the tipi dweller or the house dweller has is the roof over his bed, his water and his heating. And the tipi dweller has done it in his way.

People who live in tipis are changed by living there. In a tipi one doesn't find a gas cooker in the corner like in a bedsit, or in another room like in a house. You live and cook with the fire in the centre of the tipi. Cooking and sharing the meal becomes a central ritual. The fire itself is magical and when you can sit around a fire you don't need to have a television. The flames will provide you with all the images and visions you need. The cooking isn't going on in the corner or in another room. The people who will eat the food are sitting round watching. The meal is something you actually see going into the pot. It's something which you're actually stoking the fire for.

Tipis are circular. There is an Indian saying which is that nature tries to be in circles. The earth is a ball. All of nature lives in circles. The tipi is a circle. It is also a cone. On a spiritual level the tipi sets up the upward and the downward spiral of life. You can forget about doing your yoga or your T'ai Ch'i. The tipi does it for you.

Tipis are gregarious. I wouldn't ever recommend that someone live all on their own in a tipi in a field somewhere. Tipis like to congregate and so do the people who live in them. They like to get together in the evening for music and drumming. They are an alternative culture. No telly. So once you have a tipi you start evolving a different culture to the one you had before. You talk to one another.

From the point of view of children, in a house the adults are towering four foot or so above them. Adults are big creatures, a long way up, for a child. But when a baby is born into a tipi, the adults sitting on the ground around a fire are not that far away. And when a child is two or three and walking around it is almost eyeball to eyeball with the adults sitting on the floor.

In bricks and mortar life, how much does an adult see of what the children are doing? But in a tipi, sitting on their bums round a fire, the grownups are always aware of what the children are doing. And the children will learn about what the grownups are doing and what's going on in their world.

I believe that the children of tipi people come to have a very confident view of their own position in society and of their relationship with adults. An interesting statement was made by the local MP when he went round the tipi circle in the field at Glastonbury Festival; 'Their children look unnaturally happy', he said. He was probably right. Are we to believe that the children of householders look unnaturally unhappy? When adults sleep side by side with the children, all tucked up into the same smokey chimney, the relationship of the adults to children, and relationship to the family structure is very strong.

I remember a newspaper reporter at Tipi Valley saying to a young girl who lived in a tipi with her mother and three brothers and sisters, 'Wouldn't you rather be living in a house?' And she said, 'No, I don't want to live in a house, I would have to live in a room on my own and I wouldn't like that.' A room of her own was the last thing she wanted. She wanted the company.

Two other rituals enhance life for people living in tipis. Going to get the wood to burn on the central fire, and going to get the water. Going to get the wood, that walk, searching for the wood, is one of the most important times of the day. Doing it like that means that a fire isn't just a fire. Once you've lived with a fire you learn that there are the different sorts of wood that produce a different sort of fire altogether. So you're learning what woods you need and where to get them. You're not just looking for any old piece of wood. You're looking for special bits, that are right for burning. The cutting of the wood, the chopping of the wood, is all part of the daily ritual of living in the tipi.

And so is going to get the water. You don't have taps. You get your water from a well or stream and so you become very aware of water. In Wales it's also coming out of the sky much of the time. Our water at Tipi Valley comes out of a well, or the sky, not out of a tap. You take off the lid of the well and the tadpoles are jumping around, newts flashing away in all directions and the little spiders rush across, there's a great deal of natural activity until finally you've got a pool of clear water. That water which plays so big a part in our lives even dries up sometimes in summer. That certainly makes you very aware of it.

In the Sweat Lodge, (I'll talk more about that later), there's the alchemical wedding of fire and water that produces the steam that gets our bodies clean, and that gives us our rebirthing. That's when you see the tipi people in the winter streaking naked across the field to the water.

There are always twenty days in the year when you wish you were living anywhere but a tipi. Fortunately the twenty days don't come together. For the other 340 days you know exactly why you're in a tipi and wouldn't live anywhere else.

The tipi is a 'serious person's tent'. If you are going to live in a tent for 12 months of the year, that tent has to be really practical. If you are going to bring up your family, birth your children, in a tent in the middle of winter, that tent had better work. If you are going to live a noble lifestyle, then you must have a noble home. A tipi is noble.

A tipi is more than something to keep the rain off your bed. It's a spiritual and social tool.


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