I am a lover of symbols – for objects that have one meaning, but point towards another layer of meaning beneath them. For Mongolians – and for other tribes of Central Asian nomads as well – the yurt seems to be such a symbol.
“Nomadic life is marked by eternal circles,” writes Alma Kunanbay in the same Smithsonian essay I mentioned earlier, “the circle of the sun, the open steppe, the circumference of the yurt, the horned circular scroll of ornaments…The completion of one circle leads to the beginning of the next.”
Before diving into my first vortex of research last week, this was something I’d already observed about my own experience of yurt living – how it’s really a series of concentric circles: from the circle of Salt Spring (an island that isn’t quite circular, but still) to the circle of fir and pine trees surrounding my yard to the circle of the yurt itself, endless layers of rings ever narrowing like an hourglass to their connecting apex – the fishbowl bubble of a window in the roof. And it’s there that it all begins to widen again, from the circle of the globe window to the greater globe of the sky above.
Sitting here beneath the window now, I find it has an almost spiritual effect – the bowed glass forever pulling at your gaze, your eyes magnetically drawn to the billowing clouds and branches and, at night, the panoply of stars and occasionally the moon itself. Even the yurt’s roof poles, all angled towards the window in perfect parallel lines, seem to say the same thing: look up, look up, look up.
And so what I was most thrilled to learn last week is that when it comes to my obsession with the circle at the center of my roof, I’m rather late to the game – that Mongolians and their Turkic neighbors have always placed a special amount of significance on the crown of their homes.
Instead of a plexiglass bubble, they have a carved wooden ring called a tono, or shanyrak in Turkic, which acts as a smoke hole. While the rest of the yurt may be replaced – the willow lattice walls, the roof poles, the felt – the crown is passed down for generations, typically from father to youngest son. “It is a symbol of home and family and represents an opening up to the world,” writesthis article.
While my own crown is considerably less decorated than its Central Asian counterpart, it still serves the same purpose. It serves to bring the outside world in, while at the same time bringing me to a deeper sense of connection with the world.
It is this blurring of worlds I will miss the most when it comes time to leave Salt Spring – an eternal circle I will endeavor to keep living under, no matter where I call home next.
Off Assignment: What are we looking at?
Candace Rose Rardon: It’s a street in Chinatown, San Francisco. I sketched it for an assignment about “traveling around the world” within San Francisco. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in Asia, so it felt right to begin in Chinatown, under the lanterns.
OA: How long did you sit there?
CRR: I’m a very slow artist, so I spent about five or six hours at this scene. I found just about the only bench in Chinatown, on Grant Street, right outside a place called the Wok Shop. As soon as I sat down, one of the shop’s employees—a man named Randy—came out, and people started milling around me. It takes me a lot longer to sketch when people enter the moment.
OA: People come right up to you while you’re drawing?
CRR: Totally. What’s always struck me about art—these two kinds, writing and drawing—is just how differently strangers react to them. If I sit and just take notes in a notebook, not a lot of people are going to come up and ask me what I’m writing. But the minute I start drawing, it’s like moths to a flame.
I once spent a week sketching in Cartagena, Colombia, and got to know many of the city’s municipal workers: a security guard at the Plaza de San Pedro Claver; the trash men who swept the streets; a coffee vendor named Wilmet. Everyday, they’d be like, “What’d you sketch yesterday? What are you going to sketch today? Let me see.”
OA: Why do you think that is?
CRR: A sketch is a very tangible interpretation of a place. With a writer’s notes, people have to take time to read them, but with art they can literally look at the picture and react. There’s a possibility of live and direct comparison: They can see my interpretation as it unfolds, find the connection between what’s moving me to create, and what I’m creating.
OA: And do people usually give feedback?
CRR: Yes—which I find hilarious. I remember sketching on the steps of the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, and a Nepalese guy came up, and he’s like: “But you left out the trash can!” Strangers have no qualms about offering their critiques.
OA: It’s almost like you’re getting to play observer, disguised as a person at work?
CRR: Exactly. Art is very neutralizing. Nobody gets alarmed when you’re sitting there making a picture.
I remember in Bosnia, there was this one street that I was sketching, and people just kept coming up and pointing to the buildings I was drawing and saying, “That’s my home,” or “This is my neighborhood,” and it was such a fascinating way to say back to them, I care about your home. Because that’s what the process of art can convey: care. You’re investing so much more time and attention than someone taking a digital photograph.
OA: So you feel a drastic difference—between photography and sketching?