Minimalism to the Extreme

By Patrick Clark

Patrick Clark will be joining us for a series on extreme minimalism, chronically his experience choosing to live tiny closer to nature. I hope you enjoy Patrick’s unique contribute to the blog. This is Part 1…

When I think of my proverbial ‘happy place’ it is out under the big blue sky either in a desert, wind swept prairie, or mountain top. It isn’t any one place. It is the world. It is all those incredible places of roaring wild nature that I have not yet seen, as well as just one place that the sun rises a little different every day and the stars travel across the sky a little different each night.

I had already figured out how to pack enough basic necessities to hit the road or the trail for several days, visit friends, do fun things. Abandoning the need to be somewhere, at least for awhile. But there was this huge riff between being on my road trips and backpacking trips and being back at the house.

I had whittled my lifestyle and belongings down to one car full of knock down, modular furniture. My friends said all I needed was a modular house to go with it.

I started thinking about minimalizing my lifestyle so I could spend more time in these places. I guess you could say I had wonderlust. But it was more than that. I wanted to experience nature more directly. I wanted to FEEL more. It seemed like there must be some place in between a solid house and a backpacking tent that would protect me sufficiently but not numb everything out—not box me in.

I started thinking about how structure and function are intricately related to a design. It was a good way to occupy myself during that one hour lying awake in the middle of the night. Just how far could a person take minimalism? I mean, not as a way of deprivation. But how far could a person take minimalism as a valid lifestyle, ‘style,’ or practice without compromise and hardship?

partially set up tipi

And I didn’t want to be on the road all the time. I still had to work and maintain my responsibilities. I wanted a base on the land that put me up against nature but didn’t require I travel and move camp all the time.

What is a house really for anyway—from a systems approach? For me, the main thing a house provides is psychological stability and a place to put things. But I found I felt more ‘at home’ in the park or on the trail. What was that all about? What happened was, something shifted in my consciousness.

I reached a point where I really did feel like I took everything with me that was important wherever I go. I no longer needed that psychological stability or reference point of returning somewhere. In fact, it was exciting to actually not go ‘back’ somewhere. I was already somewhere. And I really loved being in sacred places in nature as well as visiting people I loved to be with. So having an abode to pay for and maintain became somewhat of a noose around my neck.

inside of tipi

Two things about minimalism are 1) less finances required to maintain my lifestyle and 2) less time dealing with belongings and property (maintenance and upkeep). So how could I design a lifestyle that would provide the maximum opportunity to travel, explore the world and be in nature?

If my ‘home’ was really in my heart, then theoretically at least, I could be at home anywhere. So if that was the case, then the only thing lacking was a system to take care of my needs like clothing, food, and shelter.

I talked to a few friends about my silly daydreams, and usually the response was something like, “Oh, I couldn’t do without my creature comforts.”

And I was baffled. I would tell them they were taking it the wrong way. Actually, it was the opposite. How could one ENHANCE life by letting go of the parts that aren’t actually serving and or are hindering one from a more satisfying experience? I was talking about putting creature comforts BACK IN.

In cold or wet weather, it is comforting to be indoors. But on a sunny day or a starry night, the outdoors are where the ‘creature comforts’ are. You can’t have it all. And actually, I wasn’t all that sure wet and cold was all that bad. All of nature has something to offer, a beautiful gem or gift each of it’s own unique power. That’s why the Teachings of the Four Directions and the Medicine Wheel are all about taking in and appreciating the whole of life, and finding our own place in the whole. Winter is strong medicine. Why do we shut it out?

ceiling of tipi

I felt like civilization had gone too far. I was feeling so cut off from a huge part of life. The ever flowing stream of beauty and energy I felt from the night sky or the water singing over the rocks. Why couldn’t I just be out there all the time? If it was as simple as maintaining food, shelter and clothing, then what kind of system could provide that realistically?

I was feeling like my house was overbuilt. I mean, it protects from weather and is a warm, dry, safe place to live. But I found myself constantly trying to get away from the house so I could smell the fresh morning fog, or watch the sunrise, or listen to the birds.

But…but…but…what about the fears of nature—bugs, rain, cold, physical hardship? These ran up against the feeling of being cut off from nature. Do these problems really exist? Could I face my fears of nature and overcome them to find I had been my whole life hiding from nothing and missing what was really important to me?

Something in me wanted to become a warrior. I would have to become that to leave the soft warm bed and consistency and comforting routine of a ‘home’. Actually, over the period of several years, I had been training my body/mind to become strong and resilient. It kind of started with exploring how to be able to sleep on hard surfaces. (See Sweet Dreams on a Hard Surface).

The quest took me to other areas of research related to diet and metabolism and regenerative energy. I was not getting any younger. I had to figure out how to make my primary vehicle last longer and perform better. I had more I wanted to do than I could do in the average lifetime. And living outdoors and on the trail required stamina and energy beyond the modern lifestyle.

I kept turning up amazing revelations and discoveries, such as finding how to sleep well anywhere feeling refreshed and energized, how to optimize blood sugar so I never crashed, how to get my body to generate heat so I could stay warm outside even in the dead of winter. (Stay tuned for upcoming articles). And the one theme that ran through all these health breakthroughs was: put the body in as much of it’s primordial, natural habitat as possible. Use resistance alternating with rest and recuperation, eat foods grown only in the climate and in season where I live (Paleolithic Diet), follow the natural cycles of the sun by avoiding artificial lighting, and don’t believe the limitations placed on you by other people and the established paradigms.

With this new way of thinking that was growing in me, I realized a systems approach to minimalism actually starts with the body. That is the lowest common denominator, the center of the universe, the thing the other things need to revolve around. If you break down building biology to its most basic component, it is the body. And comfort is not always the best thing for the body. Resistance is also needed—actually essential for vitality. All of these principles and insights from various places were creating a whole system that was building my new lifestyle. My sleep was incredible, my eyesight was getting better so I could see things without glasses, I was calm, my mind was sharper, my body was getting strong and robust. As I kept casting off more and more trappings of civilization, I felt better and better. All this technology and trouble over gadgets and flashy new inventions was highly over rated. The more I explored minimalism and primitivism, the more I saw–there were NO DISADVANTAGES. At what point did we get the wool pulled over our eyes?

If my house was mostly a storage unit and kitchen, was there some middle ground between a house and no house that would provide a direct experience with nature?

Cultures who were or are nomadic are a really great place to start. Why reinvent the wheel? When we think of design for buildings and furniture, the realm of nomadics is not even considered. Nomadic dwellings are in a realm of design that crosses the borders between textile and hard materials. It is neither clothing nor is it carpentry. It is akin to a kite that has exteme needs for the two opposing elements of lightness and strength.

But the dwelling was only a PART of the design. The real design challenge was a system for getting basic processes accomplished like cooking, bathing, sleeping and washing the clothes.

As silly and perhaps flawed as my childlike musings were, I could not help but think how flawed everything around me already seemed. We spend all day in the house and office, then go out for a little walk in the park. Why couldn’t it be the other way around? Like–we go in the office or house for a little bit everyday, and spend the majority out where the incredible life is overflowing with beauty and abundance? Especially with laptop computers and cell phones, what is still keeping us all indoors so much?

Follow more of Patrick Clark writing here.

Tipi poles curing in sun.
Tipi poles curing in sun.

It was worth a try. I didn’t have to prove anything. I would just test my hypothesis. It might work, or I might just get some insights into why it didn’t work.

And would I be ashamed to tell people I lived in a tipi? I mean, wow, look at that. Would they call me ‘homeless’? Would they say I am stooping too low, and have more potential than that? As if the house proves something about one’s abilities. Of course houses have been used for status symbols since time immemorial. But here I am, not believing in status structures, and worried about my self-esteem. So if judgement of others is the only thing left blocking me from following my creative process—I wouldn’t give in.

I was out combing the mountain for 25 foot long birch trees. They had to be about 3” diameter at the bottom and 1.5” diameter at the 15’ mark. I could not find a one to fit the description. They were way too fat on the bottom and not long enough. Then I found out they only grow that straight and tall on the NORTH FACING SLOPE. Bingo! Now I was in business.

Suddenly, the whole forest came alive! All these materials FREE for the taking. It was like a giant shopping mall. I felt so primivial, aboriginal. I felt like a man! The provider…Wandering around, observing nuances about trees I never even came close to noticing before. These trees were like company. I didn’t feel alone. I was establishing a relationship with these beings. Carefully choosing each one and asking permission before cutting it down and dragging it several hundred yards to the soon-to-be camp. The next step was skinning them with a drawknife. They needed to air-dry for four weeks before using them. My old woodworking skills that I let go of years ago to join society and find a career were now coming in handy.

A house made of sticks, canvas, and dirt floor isn’t going to provide much protection. What would it be like to be within inches of the rain? How would I keep the floor from becoming a swamp?

I was about to re-create history–to re-live my own personal idea of aboriginal technology. Could it be possible that something so old and primitive and flimsy would actually find a use in a modern setting? Or would it prove to be completely useless and impractical? Or would I find out modern living is worth leaving? I wanted to give it an honest evaluation from an experiential design and anthropological perspective. I believe it falls in the realm of Ethnographic Research. If nothing else, I would go too far…end up with my face in the dirt literally, and then find my way back to the right amount of protection from the elements.

I spent hours reading and re-reading the techniques for harvesting the poles and living in and erecting the tipi. I became fascinated with old historical photos of tipis showing these amazing people living in the most austere and serene settings. Now the entire Library of Congress Collection is online and available to us all. I could be a part of that. I even found an old film from 1920 showing actual tipi interiors and how the Native Americans set up their material culture. That was especially helpful in the SYSTEM for maintaining life in this nomadic way.

24 thoughts on “Minimalism to the Extreme”

  1. Good for you for testing your boundaries and exploring what is most important to you! Deciding how we are going to live our lives is one of the most important decisions we will ever make, yet so many people never actually make that decision. They let others make it for them.

    Extremes can be helpful. Very often in life we do not know where the line is until we cross it, or we do not know where our “sweet spot” is until we have been on both sides. Extremes can teach us so much if we are open to learning, but far too often people are too scared.

    Maybe you will answer this later, but I do wonder why you chose to go with a Tipi over a tent. I would think a tent would travel better from place to place. Maybe though you are not planning on traveling much; you did mention you have a job.

    I look forward to the next part!

    • I actually do have a tipi liner and I use it in winter but I love to roll up the sides the rest of the year.

      I am a BEGINNER at setting up and living in the tipi. That’s kinda how this story is unfolding, from a beginner’s point of view. All these tips of how to improve the experience are highly welcomed, as I will be pushing it to more and more extremes.

      As far as choosing a tipi instead of a tent–that will be an upcoming story…but for a short answer–the tipi is like a castle compared to a tent. I have a canvas tent too–that I use for traveling/backpacking. Again, story and photos to follow.

  2. Patrick: You don’t mention above, but did you buy your tipi or make it yourself? Either way, there are some things you can do to make it more comfortable and keep with tradition: According to this well-researched book “The Indian Tipi: Its History, Construction” by Reginald Laubin, the tipi had at least one more piece of canvas surrounding the interior to a height of 4 feet, and folded at the bottom to form a lip, to keep the tipi warmer, and to improve the draw of the fire. It is worth investigating this addition. Can’t wait to read more about your adventures!

  3. Not to detract from Patrick’s excellent discussion and pictures on tipi living, but I’d like to add my thoughts.

    I have a tipi and I travel alone (I’m cranky enough to enjoy being alone, and old enough not to care). I’ve lived in my tipi for up to a month at a time, and 2-3 weeks a lot. It has sheltered me from 80+ MPH winds in Oklahoma and torrential downpours in Florida, and temperatures from 22 to 105 degrees. It is a perfect structure for the environment it evolved in: the semi-arid grass lands of North America. It is a design that has been honed by thousands of years of people LIVING in it without all the esoteric BS all tipi owners (me included) tend to pile on it – living in a tipi was not thought of as an adventure; it was home. Babies were born there, nurtured to adulthood, grew old and died there. It is minimalist not because that is a good way to live, but because that’s what nomads must do to be light and mobile. It was not a lifestyle, it was life.

    The Laubin book has been given much too much credit. There are several historical errors in the book, and its didactic approach has led to a whole school that believes his was is the only way. It decidedly is not. For a much better balanced and realistic appraisal of the structure I highly recommend “Tipis – Tepees – TeePees” by Linda Holley and “The Tipi” by Adolf Hungrywolf. Linda is a friend, and keeps a site and a Yahoo Group that will provide more good information that can be digested in a month.

    For the women who have commented, historically it was the women who owned the tipi and all the domestic contents. The women scrapped and tanned the hides; sewed the cover; and unpacked, pitched, took down and packed the tipi and poles for travel. A buffalo hide tipi cover might weigh 250 – 400 lbs. depending on its size (Even my canvas cover weighs 70 lbs). The men would not touch it. I think as modern members of the dominant culture we don’t appreciate the scope of what that ownership meant. If a woman became dissatisfied with the man living in her tipi all she had to do was pile his belongings on the ground outside her tipi and she was done with him. He’d better hope his mother would take him in.

    • Hey Diana… enjoyed your remarks on the topic of solitude… and Tipi living. Years ago on a quiet BC island, my poles were given to a woman friend to set her Tipi so that her baby would be born within.. these poles were chosen, cut, peeled and cured with love ~~comforting now, to revisit the view from inside…and looking out through the doorway. Lately, musing on those Halcyon days!

  4. I enjoy your writing style. I could never live like this but enjoy other people’s stories about living closer to nature. This reminds me of Thoreau.

  5. I hope you didn’t have “Wonderlust”, but Wanderlust instead.

    Nice rediscovery of the respect for trees and the old ways of working with what the forest provides.

    Your characterization of the indigenous people’s life as ancient, primordial, old, aboriginal or even minimalist is a cultural bias based on the thinking that the way we have lived for only the last 200 years or so is the norm and the 200,000 years of man’s existence before that was not.
    The lifestyle we attribute to being normal now is an aberration of cheap and abundant energy and will be but a flash in the pan of human history, as we find/deplete the energy sources in a mere blip of time.
    You ought to read/listen to Derrick Jensen to help put things in perspective.

  6. Thankyou so much. I really enjoyed reading your story. Im living in a tiny caravan at the moment and I spend most of my days outdoors… You’ve given me much to ponder. I really admire your courage in asking these questions…Best wishes to you

  7. I enjoyed reading the parts about what went into making a tipi and the lifestyle with it. I am particularly curious about the reference to ‘better eyesight’. But feel compelled to mention that Tipis can get quite smokey and perhaps some form of a chimney could be beneficial.

  8. Thirty three years go my family and I lived and traveled in our tipi, from Canada to Mexico.
    We were harassed, chased from forest to forest by the authorities, and generally scorned by the public. (no we were NOT Rainbows!) My children were born and raised in the outdoors and sheltered and nurtured in the tipi. There was no other home schooling system other than the Calvert school, which was basically an adoption of the Austrailian outback system, and we managed. 75 mph winds, four foot snows, gathering firewood for the sheepherders stove, it was all a part of our wonderful lives. We had no debts, we lived within our means and even though the tipi has passed on, we still live by the same principles and they have served us very well.
    Now my children are grown and carry all those life lessons with them and I am proud and happy. Approaching 60 years and still paring down, striving for simplicity in my small home.
    And I’m thrilled to see the young generations are finally catching on to the joys and lessons of the simple life.
    By the way, if you want a good read on the “original” folks of simpler, debt free living read Helen and Scott Nearing’s books.

  9. Love the way you have taken life in hand, and not let the “norm” block out the desires of your heart, and your creative learning. Will begin a journey of my own soon, and your story is inspiring to read. God bless you . j

  10. That was so beautifully written from the heart. I love nature and the feeling of grounding and the smell of fresh air.

  11. perhaps you had BOTH wonderlust AND wanderlust. i certainly do have both. wanderful story. I definitely look fwd to next installment. keep on enjoying and exploring! tk

  12. hey patrick! another fine book is Tipis and Yurts- Authentic Designs for Circular Shelters by Blue Evening Star pub’d by Lark Books. thx for what you’re doing to help shift the consciousness on the planet. you inspire.

  13. oops! i just googled the book i recommended and the reviews on the amazon site mostly slammed the book. maybe i’ve got egg on my face and i don’t even eat eggs. still love your story and look fwd to more. paz y luz :)tk


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