Millennial in a Tipi – One PSU Senior’s Experiment in Sustainability

Oct 10, 2017

There are roughly 4,200 undergraduates at Plymouth State University.  2,200 live in dormitories – 1,999 in off-campus housing - and one student, PSU Senior Kate Burgess, who lives in a tipi.  NHPR’s Sean Hurley went to visit Burgess at her tipi - and sends us this.

In early September, a few nights after moving into her tipi on a hillside meadow overlooking a lake, 21 year old Kate Burgess performed an Opening Ceremony of sorts.  She played her turtle flute and then read Chief Seattle’s famous reply to Franklin Pierce’s offer to buy two million acres of land from the Native Americans.

Burgess and tipi.
Credit Sean Hurley

"Every part of this earth is sacred to my people,” Burgess read, “Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. This we know. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” 

She sat out under the stars and listened to the wind and the crickets. “And I think I heard some loons actually on the lake that kind of echoed up here,” she says, “And no humans!”

She sang a Spanish lullaby- and then Kate Burgess went to bed.  

Kate Burgess inside her Tipi, singing a Spanish lullaby.
Credit Sean Hurley

“I made a tipi when I was probably 7 years old,” she tells me, “and it's still standing in my backyard.”

Burgess shows me a picture of that first tipi – a handful of sticks propped against a tree – and then takes me on a tour of her current, second, tipi – a 12 foot high “upside down ice cream cone” as she calls it, that she ordered online.  “These are the smoke flaps,” she says, “but basically to get air into the tipi, you’d move these poles out to the sides. Traditionally if you were gonna have a fire in the tipi, that’s what would be letting all the smoke out.”

Burgess made her first tipi when she was 7.
Credit Sean Hurley

She opens the flap door and we head inside. The floor of the tipi is a blue tarp.  “I had a carpet in here before,” Burgess says, “which was a terrible idea I realized because it just flooded like day two.”

Most mornings, she wakes early, walks across the field, and then by car or bike travels to Plymouth State University where she’s crafted her own major in Adventure Education and Environmental Science.

Living in the Tipi and writing about her three month experiment in sustainability is her senior project.  “I want to include the educational aspect, the Native American component, the sustainable living component,” she says, “and combine all those together in one concise package.”

When Burgess graduates in December, she hopes to get a job teaching kids about the environment.

But to do that well, Burgess felt she had to get her hands a little dirtier than they were.

“I realized I was being kind of hypocritical to be you know so invested in sustainable living and agriculture and making choices about the car I drive and the food I eat,” she says, “but I'm not really practicing what I preach - and I was like, well, if I'm going to be teaching this to kids, I should try get that experience so I'm not lying to these kids when I say how important it is.”

Opening the smoke flaps.
Credit Sean Hurley

But sustainability itself – as an actual practice – is something Burgess says she’s only just begun to understand.  “I'm not using much water. I'm not using electricity,” she says. “I've noticed a big decline in the amount of resources that I'm using on a day to day basis. After this I know that I'm going to be able to live without electricity for a while without a lot of water. I can live in these kind of standards and not have to use as much as I was before.”

But water and electricity, she thinks, are just the beginning. “You know sustainability is something that I've been wrestling with, like what does it mean?” she wonders. “How do I quantify that?”

When she finally takes her Tipi down in early winter, she hopes to have her own working, personal definition.

I ask her about the coming cold, the snow, her fears. “Every time there's a little chill I start to think about what it's going to be like in December,” Burgess says.

Burgess says she wakes now to the sun, not her alarm clock. She’s slower in the mornings. Slower at night.
Credit Sean Hurley

But her main concerns have always been wind, water and isolation.  The tipi blowing over – it hasn’t – the tipi flooding – it has, twice. “I haven't had that lonely feeling yet,” she says, “which is another thing that I was worried about. You know just feeling so isolated.”

Burgess says she wakes now to the sun, not her alarm clock. She’s slower in the mornings. Slower at night. “I definitely feel closer to nature which is calming intrinsically,” she says. “The day is still really busy but I can always kind of sigh with relief when I realize where I'm coming home to.”

She repeats one of Chief Seattle’s lines: “Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

In a way that’s his definition of sustainability, she tells me. And somewhere in that space between Native American wisdom and modern science, Kate Burgess hopes to find her own. 

Follow Kate Burgess's progress on her blog.