Yurt Life by Jack Cheng

Photograph by Lisa Abrams

I don’t know who Jack Cheng is, but Robin Sloan brought his email newsletter to my attention in his latest email newsletter (are you sensing a theme yet?).

In one of Cheng’s missives, he reflected on a short stay in a yurt. His three day stay sounded a little short to me, to provoke so many strong opinions, but then mine and Lisa’s six(?) day stay last year provoked a lot of strong feelings in me, so who am I to question him? From the sounds of things, the yurts we both stayed in sound like they had quite similar facilities.

M.’s yurt is a more permanent adaptation, in between a traditional yurt and a Bucky Fuller aluminum house. It’s closer to a cabin, actually; has electricity and varnished wood floors and is entered via a smaller rectangular shed that holds a kitchen and shower with running water, and a composting toilet.

I spend three days in the yurt. I wake at dawn every morning because the light floods in through the oculus, the clear plastic domed circular opening in the center of the roof. I meditate under the light, go out for hikes and food, listen to records, take a nap in a hammock. After three days in a yurt, rectangular dwellings seem mildly oppressive. Corners seem silly.

Anyway, along with the enlightening discovery that you need to work physically to process fuel to warm your living space, and that your body clock very quickly adjusts to daylight hours, I enjoyed Cheng’s reflection upon getting home, and found much that I agreed with in his words:

I come back to Brooklyn and have a Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway moment. I realize: I am so wasteful. I leave the faucet on when I brush my teeth and keep the thermostat set too high. In the yurt everything demands conservation: The leftover water in the kettle after making tea I use to rinse out dishes. Each scrap of paper is kindling for the stove. It’s only when you leave your natural habitat that you realize how much it shapes you, and you can watch documentaries and read fiction and go on the internet but the physicality of a new mode of life always carves deeper. One of the most personally meaningful things I’ve heard recently is: “Act your way to new thinking, don’t think your way to new action.”

I, too, remember feeling like I had a renewed appreciation for limited supplies of water or firewood. It wasn’t a completely brand-new sensation; I have this almost OCD-like need to always have a spare supply of something.

When I smoked, the idea of smoking my last cigarette at a time that getting more would be tricky was a nightmare. Even now, I will leave a small portion of whatever in the bottom of a packet because the idea of not having some spare seems terrible. Hell, I even make sure I only ever have the volume turned up to two below maximum when I’m truly blasting out some killer jams because I need to know I can just turn it up slightly higher if I need to.

Ok, so “almost OCD-like” is perhaps beating around the bush.

But, like Cheng, I remember coming home from our stay in the yurt thinking a little more about leaving the tap running too. And, since moving house recently, I’ve tried to be really super efficient at recycling; more than I ever have been before. It’s easier nowadays – but I can’t believe how much of what I buy simply says it can’t be recycled! Like the label almost says outright, “When you are finished with me, you have to put me in a hole in the ground where I will stay, unchanged, forever.”

It’s insane.

But I’m not about to become some green-fingered hippy. Cheng just reminded me that I want to stay in a yurt again some time this year. Chopping wood for warmth and waking up to the light of dawn is my idea of heaven.

Finally, that mantra at the end of his post – “Act your way to new thinking, don’t think your way to new action.” – it’s haunting me. I think I’m going to have to adopt it. Thanks, Jack.

PS: Regarding the title of this entry: who else now has Range Life by Pavement stuck in their head? Just me? I want a yurt life… If I could settle down…