Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Glimmer into the Pastoral

Our Yurt in the southern French Alps.

We live in a yurt. Up until last Summer, I didn’t even know what that was, until I visited our sheep-cheese making friends Marie and Samuel, who live in a yurt with their two little boys on the other mountain near us. I thought when I first saw it, what a cool and cozy place to call home. But, I never thought I would get the opportunity to experience the same, until we built one together last month here at the bee farm in Villetale Haute, France. 

The yurt, also called Ger, is part of the Mongolian national identity. Ger also means home. It is a nomadic, circular, dwelling space. Being nomadic people, the Mongolians moved from place to place 2 to 4 times a year to find good pastures for their herds of animals. Everywhere they went, their home went with them, so it had to be portable. It is basically a big wooden tent held together by tension between wooden poles connecting to wooden walls and a central ring. Felt blankets, made with the wool of their sheep, cover the wooden structure for insulation and a tarp covering protects against rain and snow. 

The story of our yurt actually begins further back in time when around last March, Jorris and Philippe took a long road trip to purchase the yurt from a couple here in France. They had it shipped all the way from Mongolia, years ago, and up until we purchased it, their kids were living in it. They also spent some time in Mongolia. 

I, still in California, was not there for that road trip, but I had arrived for the building part of it. Though, it would be another few months before actually assembling the parts, so the wooden pieces, felt blankets and sheets sat underneath the solar panels, protected from rain and patiently waiting for their new home as well.

Jorris takes a break from leveling the earth to pet Kan and Pat. 

During those months of waiting, Jorris, with blisters to prove it, spent hours after his already many hours of bee work, to level the earth, with a garden tool that looks like a pick axe. Pioche is what we call it in French. In this instance, I’m delighted to say that my French is better than my English. 

This part of the building process, setting the foundation, was perhaps the most crucial of the entire process. Since our yurt is situated on a mountain slope, it was important to level out the earth so that our yurt could properly stand upright. And, since it is in such a beautiful spot and too precarious for the tractor with the big hand shovel to drive there and do the work, it had to be done by hand, like everything else here. 

With the foundation being leveled slowly each day, blisters, and a few breakdowns in between (because living in a camper car for too long can do that to a couple), Pedro arrives to push us towards the finish line. 

This is Pedro from Guatemala, Master Carpenter and fellow wwoofer. 

Meet Pedro, whom I’ve introduced in a blog post last Summer. Pedro is from Guatemala and one of kindest, most hard working people I’ve ever known. He does the hardest kind of hard labor work with utmost patience and grace. I’ve seen him carrying huge logs of wood on his back, twice his height. I’ve seen him use the pioche, cutting away at earth and rocks for hours at a time under the hot sun, never complaining and always in good spirits. Pedro is appreciative for everything in life and always saying, “gracias” for each meal we all share together and for everything which deserves thanks. He’s just that kind of guy. In those every day moments in life where we assume “thank yous,” especially to those whom we live among, familiar with, or our loved ones, Pedro always makes the effort to make it heard. He works with great patience and gratitude. As a fellow wwoofer, he leaves his family of three kids and wife behind for a few months back in Guatemala, so he could help with building up the farm, including our yurt. And Pedro is that kind of guy who can fix/build anything which can be fixed/built. 

Jorris and Pedro installing the floors. 

So, after the earth had been leveled by Jorris, the next step was a foundation for which the floor of the yurt to be built on. Pedro took about a week to gather log posts from the woods, measure, cut, burn the bottoms (to kill insects which may rot the wood), and set them into the ground for the yurt to sit on. After the foundation was set and floor was built on top of these wooden-poles, it was time for the three of us to begin assembling the yurt. 

Usually, it takes 5 to 10 people to set up a yurt, we did it with 3. And used a few trees and ropes to hold big pieces from falling over, like the middle round ring opening with two posts and which the wooden poles of the yurt attach too. It’s the focal point of the whole structure. We also used this method with the doors. And, one of my main jobs was to help secure pieces down. Together, all three of us attached the wooden poles to their square-peg holes at the top of the ring to the wooden lattice-walls. The challenge was having an equal amount of tension between the two. The pole connects to the wall with a piece of little yak hair-braided string, or rope if the hair was missing, which is tied at the end of the poles.

Yak cartelage used to connect wooden lattice walls. 
The walls of the yurt are made of wooden lattice frames. 

The walls are made of expanding wooden lattice frames, of which the cross-hatchings are connected by dried yak cartalage. Usually there is only one door frame, but our yurt is exceptionally big, with two, so we have a door and door which we use as a window.  A rope tied around the lattice-walled frames holds the circular shape of the yurt in place. 

Other braided yak-hair ropes are used to tie pieces of wood together, such as the central ring (a.k.a crown) to the poles holding it up. This type of rope making is the traditional way of the nomadic peoples of central Asia. 

A bundle of braided yak-hair rope.

The yak-hair rope holds together the crown to poles.
The crown is the center of the yurt.

The yak was cherished by the Mongolians, like the buffalo were to the Native American Indians. The yak provided everything, from food such as meat, milk and butter; clothing, boots, bags; to lighting (yak butter was used to light candles); as fuel, (their droppings provided fuel since few trees exist in the Himalayan landscape). These magnificent animals carried loads of wood and other necessities while traveling from place to place in search of the next best pastures for their herds of goats, sheep, horses and even camels.  


Racing against what seemed like imminent rain and despite some falling roof poles on heads, with re-adjustments we were able to find the appropriate tension between the walls, roof poles, and crown. And with the addition of the compression of the structure by the weight of the felt and covers, our yurt stands tall and proud, even against rain and thunderstorms pretty well, so far. 

The frame of our yurt.

Sheets and wool blankets provide insulation and compression.

From the inside. 

Life in a yurt means living simply, close to the earth, with only the basics. It also means nature lives with us. I found the inside wall of our yurt glowing one evening when I awoke to go the bathroom, finding the lightning bugs dotted and glowing on the sheet walls. These lightning bugs mark the start of Summer, illuminating the mountain nights here for a few months. The flies, however, are less welcomed and Jorris and I, though respecting and understanding the interconnectivity of life, set up a fly trap of this sticky tape to catch some, making our yurt a little more comfy, sorry flies.

Other than the pesky flies, we can’t really complain. We have an extremely long electrical connection to the main farmhouse, so we do have electricity and lights, computer, and believe it or not, even Internet works up here, which is how I am able to pleasurably write this post from my home. 

Home sweet home....

Teapot of wildflowers, homemade candles, mini French car & wild collections. 

Cutest little antique oven we found at the Recyclerie. 

Found and 2nd-hand furniture from the Recyclerie, c'est pa mal (not too bad).

2nd-hand sofa with blanket birthday present from our neighbor to Jorris.

Our view.

These luxuries we are so grateful to have. With these luxuries of electricity and Internet, and perhaps even soon our gas stove will work if we find the right gas-connecting part, we live far from the truth of how the Mongolians lived thousands of years ago and how some still live today. However, the sense of living humbling, with the rhythms of nature in a very basic structure, built without synthetic materials or chemicals, still resonates within the yurt, and in turn, within us. 

Although we are not vulnerable to the elements as the Mongolians were during their precarious mountain migrations through snow, ice and droughts, with little food reserves, and herds of animals to worry about, it feels like such a privilege to be getting at least a glimmer of that pastoral life. 

Hand-painted designs from roof poles above. 

As I lay in bed and admire above the beautiful hand-painted colorful designs of lines, swirls and other geometric shapes, all derived from sacred ornaments, I feel like we dwell in a sacred place and are somehow a part of the beautiful Mongolian culture, of the people which live so closely with the land and its animals. 

These design patterns within the yurt are symbols representing strength, powerful beasts (lion, tiger, garuda, dragon), as well as the five elements (fire, water, earth, metal and wood). These are believed to be the unchanging elements of the cosmos. And these patterns are used to bring strength and offer protection to the home. Other patterns symbolize long life and happiness. Design within a yurt also integrates Buddhist culture. Shapes, colors, ornaments of the pillars and poles are in alignment with styles found within Mongolian Buddhist monasteries. 

The alkhan knee symbolizes unending strength and constant movement.

The most common geometric pattern is the “walking pattern” or alkhan khee. This is the blue symbol on the tarp above the front door of the yurt. It symbolizes unending strength and constant movement. I love what it stands for and hope that it will translate somehow deeper into Jorris’ and my life together in our yurt.


Pedro, though reserved and quiet, has some great stories to tell. I love to hear all about the culture and life in Guatemala from him. He brings to life a land I’ve never been too, and through his genuine stories, I almost feel like I have. 

Again, I feel so grateful for having been given such opportunities that I have had growing up. Going to school with electricity and chairs and tables were standard, nothing to even think twice about or worry about not having. Not in Guatemala. Pedro has built chairs and given other furniture of his making to the school in his neighborhood. When he talks about the lack of work, the poverty, the lack of electricity for some, the lack of opportunities, the way some people live, it’s hard for me to fathom. 

One afternoon over lunch, he told me of the circle of regret, of the Spanish verb lamentar. The dictionary defines it as to mourn, lament, bewail; bemoan. Many in Guatemala who are poor spend their days lamenting over the sadness and struggles they face, wondering why things are the way they are, with flooding feelings of regret for the past, and unfortunately commonly accompanied by drinking or drugs. 

But Pedro believes only in looking ahead and making things great with what is possible. He works and lives with a positive mind set and a belief in his dreams.

He draws his index finger tip along the rim of my plate at lunch and explains that life is a circle and that it only moves in one direction, only forward, not back. It’s a simple fact, but sometimes, a hard one to accept in reality. 

I think it’s normal to wish for certain things to have happened in our pasts, perhaps believing they would have made for a better present and along the circle, a better future.  We can all let precious time escape to lamentar. It’s easy to lose oneself to the past or future, but what about the present moment? 

It would be a lie to say that this idyllic life in southern France is only a Fairytale of always-happy endings and ever-perfect moments under blue skies; well it is, but it’s also so much more. It’s hard, messy, exhausting, emotional, bee hives are heavy, working all day at a market is long, filling thousands of jars of honey is mind-numbing yet meditative; and it’s annoying when you’re hanging your clothes to dry on the line and it begins to rain when you used to have it easy with a drying machine in the city; and it’s isolating when you literally live on a mountain with few friends and not your usual yoga classes full of the friends whom you miss so get my point. 

If you had asked me where I saw myself in the future a year ago, I would not have answered, in a yurt in the southern Alps of France working on a bee farm with my audacious cohorts Jorris and Philippe, quite the contrary. We make a good team though, and roll with it all, through the Fairytales and Nightmares. 

Seasons come and go, wwoofers come and go, the lightening bugs will come and go, Pedro will go back to Guatemala, one day in Winter, our yurt, a symbolic circle of life in and of itself, will be disassembled. But alas, here is where the circle has taken me, and for better or worse, I’m here; and life is beautiful.

*Photos by Tiffanie Ma

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