When I bought my first tipi, I already had an all weather tent, a good set of bender tarps and a choice of two caravans to live in. What did I need a tipi for? None of that mattered. I fell in love with the sheer beauty of it.
The beauty goes far deeper than appearances. The circle is an organic, healing shape, powerful medicine for anyone who has been shut up in rectangles for half a lifetime. Contact with the earth is not a metaphor in a tipi. When I sit down I can feel the skin of our mother under my bum. I look up and see the circle of poles reaching up into the air to meet the patch of sky through the smoke hole. In the centre of the circle the flames of an open fire dance their dance of life. From where I’m pitched I can hear the gurgle of a nearby stream falling asleep to the sound on a quiet evening.
A tipi is a highly practical way to live outside. In fact, with a tipi beauty and practicality are one and the same. The idea of something being useful but ugly, or beautiful but useless, is largely a product of our unbalanced industrial society. A tipi is strong, roomy, weatherproof, easy to pitch and above all has a fire inside. It was developed by the people of the great plains of North America, and it is hard to improve on a structure which has enabled people to thrive in such a harsh environment.
Ways to use your tipi
There are many ways of using a tipi, from a weekend tent to a permanent home. Some people keep one just for fairs and festivals and, though this can hardly be called tipi living, it’s a good use for one. A tipi adds dignity and grace to a scene, and provides a space where people can get together, make tea and music and dry themselves when it gets a little wet outside.
A tipi pitched in the garden of a house can provide an extra bedroom, a refuge from the rectangular confines of bricks and mortar, or a meditation space. But if it left up for a long time, it must be well used, as it will rot without a fire being regularly lit inside to dry the canvas.
Living in a tipi year round is tough. Personally my health isn’t up to it, so I used to spend some eight months of the year in one and the other four in a caravan. But there are many people who have no other home. In Wales, there is a village of over 100 people living in tipis; and there are several such communities in France, Portugal, Germany, Italy and New Zealand. There are also individual tipi dwellers dotted around the countryside, even, I’ve heard, in the north of Scotland.
Being part of a tipi village, where all of your neighbours are living the same lifestyle, is perhaps a more complete way of tipi living than being the only tipi dweller in the locality. The tipi village in Wales has now reached its optimum size, and there is surely a need for new villages to be started in other parts of the country.
A cultural context for tipi living
We live in a society, which is out of balance. The intellect is glorified over emotion and intuition; material wealth is emphasised to the point where it becomes the main aim in life; humans are cut off from all other living beings on earth - which are patronisingly lumped together under the heading of 'nature'.
Living outside can redress this balance, without rejecting what is good in our culture, and there is no better way of living outside than in a tipi.
It is also a good feeling to live in a home you have made with your own hands. There is of course a lot to be said for buying your first tipi - getting to know what they are all about - before embarking on self-build. It’s a personal choice.
What size tipi?
The first thing to decide will be size. This is always spoken of in feet, and refers to the distance from top to bottom of the cover at the front. The diameter of the floor space is a foot or two less than this.
The smallest size for tipi living, as opposed to a toy, is 13 feet. This is just about big enough for one person to live in with comfort, but gets a bit tight if you have visitors. Fourteen to sixteen feet is a good general purpose size, and eighteen or nineteen feet makes a home for a family of four or five people. Bigger than that, up to 25 or 30 feet is what is usually referred to as a 'big lodge', normally only used as a communal space in a tipi village.
Which materials are best for tipi building?
Most tipis are made of pure cotton canvas treated with a rot and waterproofing compound. There’s also a material called Regentex, part cotton and part artificial fibres, which is much longer lasting; but I’d never live in a Regentex lodge myself. The weave is made up of thousands of little squares about a quarter of an inch in size, and from the inside these are really quite visible. Squares and artificial fibres are just the sort of thing that I live in a tipi to get away from.
Want to buy a second-hand tipi?
When buying a second-hand lodge, you need to have a good look for rot. Its not much help to simply ask how old it is. If its been up for a year in a wet part of the country, a tipi may only last five years. If its been taken down and stored for the winter, or pitched only in drier climates, it may still be as good as new. And one that’s only been used for festivals could easily last a lifetime.
Sources & Resources
Patrick is one of Britain's most experienced and respected permaculture teachers. He will be teaching a Permaculture Design Course 16th-28th June 2013.
"The experience of living close to the earth in a tipi, combined with my training in agriculture and a lifetime of gardening makes me the teacher I am," says Patrick.
For full details: http://www.patrickwhitefield.co.uk/pdc.htm
This is an extract from Tipi Living by Patrick Whitefield (e-book edition)
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