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Some assembly required

A Grammar for

Yurt Living

By Elizabeth Enslin



A few days before Halloween, I wake to the first snow and stoke the wood stove. Early light reveals a mess inside: paw prints on the rug, bags of potatoes and garlic piled under the windows, a jumble of dishes and spices on the counter. I pull on my boots and walk around the outside to look for the espresso maker in the sink. This is why I’m ready to leave in a few days to winter in Portland.

I imagine how I’ll answer the question that waits for me among friends: “What’s it like living in a yurt.”

“It’s round, comfortable,” I say. I skip over chaos and list some amenitiesfuton, bookshelves, propane range, woodstove, chairs, table. I draw the outside inthe stars visible on clear nights through the dome, coyote howls and fledgling owl squawks heard through fabric walls. From there, I wander outside to introduce rattlesnakes under eggplants, bears in apple trees, a cougar on the road.

“But the yurt: what’s it like inside?”

“Right. Well, it’s round. Cozy. Blends with the landscape.” Should I tell how my heart pounds when I drive up over the rise and see it against the backdrop of the Grande Ronde Canyon and Blue Mountains?

“Getting back to life in the yurt …”

“Okay, it’s round …”




Yurt as seen from the garden

A shaft of sunlight illuminates a doe in the orchard below. She chews, watches me watching her, and reaches for another fallen apple. The haunting glow reminds me why three years ago we decided to anchor our fantasies of rural living to this remote, old ranch in northeastern Oregon, and why we now spend half of each year in a yurt.

Before building a permanent house, we wanted to sample the seasons, get to know the land and surrounding community, ruminate on retirement. We considered size and comfort, simplicity and strength, aesthetics and affordability in temporary housing options and agreed that a yurt promised the best compromise. One practicality clinched the deal: a yurt requires no building permit in Oregon.

Like most contemporary yurts in North America, ours is not the traditional felted version nomads of Central Asia developed to follow their herds across the grassy steppes. Delivered as a kit, it retains the innovative structureroof beams resting on a tension cable over a lattice wallbut replaces felt with synthetic, waterproof materials. It also includes windows.

Over several weeks from autumn to that rainy spring of the first year, Jerry built a platform and floor while we stayed in a tipi. Then, in two days he and my son erected the yurt. I excavated wet sod, planted vegetables and steadied beams and ladders when needed.

We lost a few hours when one of the men (who will remain anonymous) slid off the roof and fell on his head. A return of memory and mostly sensible speech averted a 50-mile drive to the nearest hospital.

Although the fabric  needed more securing, the yurt stood ready on the last day of May, moments before thunder cracked overhead. We dragged some gear, snacks, and an 85-pound standard poodle inside and closed the wooden door. We huddled by a propane heater in the cavernous space, inhaled the aroma of new fir flooring, and waited for disaster. Winds howled and pummeled the shuddering walls with hail. Through what seemed like hours, we marveled at warmth and dryness. “Not even a leak,” one of us said every few minutes. “Not a single leak.”

Since then, yurt living has become an ongoing dance between filling 314 square feet with homey comforts, conveniences and pleasures, and yearning for the ever-receding perfection of that first night when the miracle of a dry, empty space was all we wanted.



All the creature comforts

Clouds block the sun again. My fingers grow numb breaking dirty dishes out of ice. The espresso maker isn't here; Jerry must have washed it last night. Good thing, because the pipes are frozen.

I ponder a fleeting image: an outline of a box. It’s like the one my high school English teacher used to draw on a chalkboard to explain above, below, in, through, around.

Prepositions: that’s why I can’t answer the yurt question. We don’t live in a yurt; we live around it.

Imagine a photograph of the yurt. If I take it from the south, I’ll have to include the solar panels and the back of a refrigerator on a small porch. But I’ll frame out other structuressome not so prettythat make yurt living enjoyable: a work table, propane camp stove and grill, satellite dish, dining table and chairs, outdoor sink, and a 20-foot shipping container stuffed with tools and detritus.

For morning inspiration

Nearby is a garden enclosed by deer and elk fencing. Short walks away are a five-gallon bucket sawdust toilet, a teepee for guests, a pump and pressure tank at the spring to push water through black polyethylene pipe to our outdoor faucets, and the official telephone connection that serves 1,500 feet of unofficial cable.

In summer, when outdoor work and play consume our days, the yurt provides sufficient shelter. We prefer to cook and dine outside. We enjoy cool morning walks to the latrine and look forward to outdoor showers in late afternoon, when the sun has heated the water in the unburied pipe.

But by October, the difference between “in” and “around” yawns wide like the canyons that separate us from our kind neighbors here.




The sun returns and I see three more deer ambling down the slope above the bare aspens. They stop, stare at me, then continue towards the apples.

I smell espresso brewing and hear the creak of Jerry folding up the futon. Confident again that this is where I want to live year-round some day, I grab a clean cup from the dish drainer and head back inside.

Perhaps we can talk about a house over breakfast.



Elizabeth Enslin received a 2009 Individual Artist Fellowship award from the Oregon Arts Commission. Her literary nonfiction appears in The Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, Opium Magazine, Fringe Magazine, The Truth About the Fact, In the Mist, and Oregon Literary Review. She is currently finishing an ethnographic memoir on living as an anthropologist and family member in Nepal. Learn more at


The author's son Max, trying out new red shovel

Shovel … Truth … Get the Drift … Scoop

By Richard VanGrouw



Despite a thrown shoulder and spousal discouragement, I lace old hiking boots and slip into a worn jacket. The back door swings an arc in the accumulation of new snow, an angel with one wing. As the door latches behind me on cozy homeliness, I find myself in a half-lit world where sounds are muted, where the dimmest glimmering lights are swollen and fuzzy with refraction. I lift my shovel from where it leans against the garage, and pause. The tick-tick-tick of falling snow seems louder, more distinct, than automobile wheels rolling on the avenue.

Bane of the thin-blooded, West Michigan winters with their pure unbroken coats of fresh snow also can inspire. White pines droop along the dunes. Rooftops stand taller under thick icing. And for me, no wintry symbol carries as much meaning as shoveling. For me, it parlays peace and tranquility and solitude, a sensation that warms up to joy as the cold air stirs dust in my lungs and the lights from warm living rooms across the way illuminate a blizzard of tiny diamonds twinkling down. It invokes a sense of isolation and a sense of accomplishment. It is an opportunity to deny the inevitable, to claim temporary victory over inexorable forces of nature. It is practically a religious experience. Sisyphus is happy.

Up and down the avenue, I can hear the hum and throb of snow blowers as neighbors conduct their own personal excavations in search of pavement beneath the drifts. I don’t deny the appeal of internal combustion. However, my affection for the old-fashioned shovel is not rooted in some tree-hugging granola carbon footprint reduction ideology. My reluctance to invest in power yard tools is not rooted in eco-extremism. Once upon a summer, at another house in another town, I did nurture such nobility. I bought a well-used manual push mower for the lawn. When I paid my $15, I ignored the distinct chuckle of the Mr. Fixit who sold it to me. The prospect of pushing a purring manual mower struck me as romantic and nostalgic and conservative and minimalist, a whim some latter-day Thoreau might indulge. I sharpened the mower’s blades with a file and soaked its moving parts with oil. It was heavy and hard to push, but it seemed to work well enough. After a couple of passes, however, it became apparent that the mower was incapable of navigating the shallowest divot. It stopped short on any unevenness in the turf whatsoever, bludgeoning my abdomen with its handle. After 30 minutes of toil and sucker punches to the midsection, drenched in sweat and grease, green and bristling with a coat of grass clippings, roiling in a rage of defeat, I lifted that moribund antique over my head and swung it down into the sod. I struck again. I began to pound at the lawn, again and again, a modern day John Henry who had neglected his Prozac. The next day, calm and resolute again, I drove to the nearest hardware store and bought a 7.5-horsepower self-propelling gas-guzzling Scotts mower that I have used ever since.

Perhaps psychoanalysis is warranted. The origin of my aversion for power lawn tools clearly can be traced to my childhood. In the household where I grew up, mechanical snow removers were for the rich or the soft. My father didn’t get a snow-blower until both my brother and I had moved on and out. At that point, Dad retired the only shovel I remember him ever using. It was a heavy steel model. Its black blade was a shallow convex curve, like a plow. Toward the end of its life, the shovel’s business edge turned ragged and jagged and rusty, worn by decades of scraping against concrete. Because for my father, no shoveling job was complete until the pavement was utterly devoid of snow.

My father was a shoveling fundamentalist, a puritan. He pursued his passion for clear, dry sidewalks with the fervor of the born-again. Every winter’s day after work, and many mornings when time allowed, he was out there in the dark, in his oversized unbuckled rubber galoshes, hunched, scraping and scooping, always down to bare cement, always with straight, crisp edges where dormant grass met the sidewalk. An enduring winter memory of my youth is the sound of Dad shoveling in the darkscrape, silence. Scrape, silence. Scrape, longer silence. During heavy or prolonged snowfalls, he would head into battle as soon as the first trace of new snow had gathered. When he came inside between sorties, he stood at the dining room window, staring outside at the enemy, fists on hips, and sighed, loudly and repeatedly.

The crazy neighbor lady was nearly as obsessive about snow removal. Mrs. Essenberg got along with almost no one, as far as I could tell. She rented the apartment upstairs in her house, but could never keep tenants. They said she accused them of poisoning her water and committing other imaginary felonies. I cannot testify to the veracity of those claims, but I know Mrs. Essenberg lined the windows of her house with aluminum foil, presumably to thwart attempted espionage by her neighbor’s boys. My father and Mrs. Essenberg were sworn enemies dedicated to preventing encroachment across the front lines of battle. He seethedand she knew he seethedwhenever her lawn sprinkler shed droplets on his side of the property line in the summer. Once she trimmed some branches from a tree that straddled our respective territories and the law had to be summoned to sort it all out.

One winter brought an especially heavy snowfall. Maybe it was the persistently overcast skies, maybe it was inevitable. But that winter the latent ire between my father and Mrs. Essenberg came to a head. Her lot and our lot backed up to a municipal alley that provided access to our garages. A thin strip of neutral territory, perhaps three feet across, separated our garage from Mrs. Essenberg’s. After a snowstorm on a Saturday, my father and Mrs. Essenberg were alarmed to discover each other shoveling plow dross in the alley behind their garages. Snow from previous falls was piled precariously high along the peninsular property line. At some point, Mrs. Essenberg heaved a shovel load on top of this peak; some stray clumps skated wormily down onto our land. My father witnessed this trespass, scooped his own shovel full and tossed it back over the pile onto Mrs. Essenberg’s side. Mrs. Essenberg aimed her next shovel load directly at my father, who retaliated, softer sex be damned. And there they were: Two grown adults, hurling snow at each other in an alley. That story, that vision, is entrenched in family lore.

As a boy I was discouraged from shoveling the sidewalks at our home; my standards of excellence fell well short of house rules. However, I was good enough for others, so I earned a few dollars and a few blisters shoveling walkways and driveways for neighbors whose tolerance for mediocrity surpassed that of my family’s. One neighbor down and across Nineteenth Street, Mr. Van Zylen, paid me $5 on occasion to clear his walks and drive. I had special reason to succeed at this task that went well beyond a measly five-spot. Behind the perpetually closed and locked door of Mr. Van Zylen’s garage resided a mint condition 1961 Borgward Isabella, a sensuous sports car with a wood-trimmed interior and a flawless creamy complexion. I was a teen of recent legal driving age, so many of my peers had their own cars, or at least access to one. My situation was decidedly more pedestrian. Mine was that postmodern American rarity, a one-car family. My life was a gambol. And there was Mr. Van Zylen’s Borgward, unused and, I forced myself to believe, unwanted. In my vivid imagination, Mr. Van Zylen would take pity on my transportationless plight and offer me the Isabella for a songmaybe as a trade for shoveling. I dropped hint after obvious hint. I even asked to lavish the Isabella with a sponge bath in the summer. In hindsight, I suppose I should have felt guilty about coveting another man’s wheels. Despite increasingly suggestive and transparent hints, Mr. Van Zylen never offered me the car. Eventually my Isabella fantasy dissolved, I grudgingly rescued a 1972 Chevelle from sure banishment to the junkyard, and Mr. Van Zylen developed Parkinson’s disease and died. I have no idea what happened to the Borgward.

Back then shoveling to me seemed brute labor, an inglorious means to some inevitably material end. I shoveled the way you take medicinedo it quick, get it over with, get on with life. It took years and a homeless man named Gary to heal this misguided strategy. Down the avenue from the house where my wife and I now reside stands a liquor store. Homeless Gary lived in a stockade that surrounded a Dumpster outside this establishment. Sometimes, for beer money, Gary asked if he could shovel our driveway and walks. He charged a fair pricefor the job, not by the hourand did good work. I got more out of this charity than clean sidewalks. I definitely got more out of it than Gary did. Watching him shovel was an epiphany. Gary stood more or less erect with the shovel in front of him and walked, with an occasional sideways stumble, but always with slow and steady purpose. He didn’t hunch over and fling snow in a maniacal frenzy to remove all the snow in a single pass the way I always had done. He walked, simply walked, pushing the shovel ahead of him, from one end of the walk to the other. Whatever snow happened to gather in the shovel on each pass, he picked up and dumped. He paused to push up his thick clouded glasses. Then he turned and walked back the other way, pushing the shovel in front. Back and forth, back and forth. He never broke a sweat or pulled a muscle or strained his body or brain in any manner whatsoever that I could discern. True, razor-straight edges provide their own reward. But Gary taught me there’s no shame in mediocrity either. Good enough often is.

Even if valuable lessons are eternal, teachers are not. One dark night Gary was pushing a shopping cart across a busy street, five miles from our neighborhood. A car hit him and he died at the scene.

So tonight I stand at the top of the driveway and survey the task that confronts me. I listen to the restless muted whine of snow blowers up and down the glowing avenue and feel the snowflakes stroke my bare cheeks. I grasp the shovel in front of me and begin to walk slowly toward the street, feeling warm and calm. Perhaps the act is a coping mechanism against futility. Nature will endure, after all. No matter how meticulously or religiously or often I clear the driveway, even down to the pavement, and long after I care to do so or am able to do so, the snow will continue to fall. For tonight, even as the snowfall continues, I relish the calm.


Rick VanGrouw is a writer, editor and recovering journalist. He lives near Holland, Michigan, with his wife and son.



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