Occasional Paper 5: Mr Coperthwaite – a life in the Maine Woods

Anna Grimshaw, Emory University
Bill with magnifying glass
In 1960, Bill Coperthwaite bought 300 acres of wilderness in Machiasport, Maine.
Influenced by the poetry of Emily Dickinson and by the back to the land movement of Scott and Helen Nearing, Bill Coperthwaite was committed to what he called“a handmade life.”   For over fifty years until his death in 2013, he lived and worked in the forest. He was a builder of yurts, and a maker of spoons, bowls and chairs.
I met Bill Coperthwaite not long after I bought a house in Machiasport.   He was, of course, well-known to local people, many of whom affectionately recalled childhood adventures of exploring and working in the woods with Bill.   But he was also something of an international figure, drawing visitors to Dickinson’s Reach from different parts of the world. His distinctive way of living in harmony with the landscape was a model for those committed to forging simpler, less technologically dependent, modes of existence. As Bill approached his eightieth year, I asked him if I could film him over the course of a year. I wanted to create a detailed record of his life and explore how it unfolded according to the seasons.
Winter yurt
There were a number of particular questions – questions of anthropology and filmmaking — that I was thinking about as I began the project. What can the medium of film offer in understanding a life founded in material practice?   How might film reveal the specific ways that Coperthwaite crafted his world – not just what tasks he carried out but how he carried them out? Could image, sound and movement evoke the distinctive texture and rhythm of work in the woods differently than a written account?
At the same time as I was asking what film might offer in terms of exploring the contours of a certain life, I was also considering how I could make my own practice reflexively mirror that of my subject. By this, I mean trying to craft an interpretation of Coperthwaite’s world from the inside, so to speak – that is, following Taussig’s notion of the mimetic and seeking, as he put it, “to take hold of something by means of its likeness” (1994). Hence, like Bill, I approached my task as a fundamentally improvisatory one. Just as his handmade life was a work in progress, continually unfolding as a series of responses to the creative possibilities and limitations of the material landscape, I too conceptualized my filmmaking in the same terms.
Although I had a point of departure and a temporal framework for my inquiry, I was unsure how the filming would develop and where it would lead. At the outset then, the substance and form of the work was largely undefined. It was to be generated through the ongoing encounter between Bill and myself.  When I began the project, I committed myself to shooting over the course of a year, since it seemed to me that any understanding of Bill Coperthwaite had to have at its center the question of seasonality.   Hence I filmed him at four separate parts of the year. From the outset, it was obvious that each season was indeed going to be very different — marked by distinctive tasks, rhythms of work, qualities of light, and by the changes in the color and texture of the landscape.   My original plan was to edit the different seasons together into a piece with a running time of around 60 to 90 minutes. I knew, however, it would be a challenge to assemble a year’s material into single film of watchable length. Of course, this is a common problem for all filmmakers as they confront hours of rushes. At some point you have to distance yourself from the material in order to start working more critically with it; and, in so doing, you experience a sense of loss as you relinquish the fullness of the original footage in favor of a crafted narrative structure.   Paradoxically it may also involve giving up that which presents itself easily as “the story” in the hope that a more open-ended excavation of the footage will lead to something more interesting and enduring.
In charting the uneven and often uncertain process by which the work evolved, I want to explore how a particular interpretation of a life was constituted through a practice of making.   It involved working through moments of hesitation, seizing sudden insights, tracking intuitive connections – a constant shuttling back and forth between different possibilities until a shape began to emerge from ongoing work with the materials. Crucial to it was the discovery of what filmmaker Herb Di Gioia once described to me as the “light” of a piece.
 Mr Coperthwaite: a life in the Maine Woods is a single work with four films or parts that has a running time of 237 minutes.  Each of the four films, Spring in Dickinson’s Reach, A Summer Task, Autumn’s Work and Winter Days, is self-standing, complete in and of itself. But the complete work is intended to be watched according to a seasonal chronology.   The content and structure of the individual films were shaped with the whole in mind and the succession of different seasons is integral to the work’s broader narrative movement.
The first film, Spring is the longest, running at 85 minutes. It provides a context for the three parts that follow.   Here I introduce my subject, Bill Coperthwaite, through a detailed description of the landscape in which he lives, his activities and interactions with visitors.
This first film is the most extended of the series and depicts Bill’s world in the broadest sense. However, as I edited it, I became increasingly unsure about continuing in the same way with footage from subsequent seasons. To do so was tempting, since the detail of Bill’s work in the woods over the course of a year was varied and — I reckoned — consistently interesting. But despite my initial assumption that I would proceed in this way, I began to see that such an approach would not necessarily take us much further in terms of a portrait of Bill Coperthwaite. Indeed it might well inhibit a richer understanding, since it promised only “highlights” and engaged an audience with a series of activities rather than asking it to reflect more expansively on the meaning of a particular life.
More significantly, however, Bill himself had proposed a compelling interpretive framework for the project. In the course of editing the spring film, I realized that his recitation of extracts from Lewis Carroll’s poem, Father William, opened up a particular way of thinking about his life as it had unfolded over the course of our year’s collaboration. Specifically, it enabled me to work much more creatively with the idea of seasonality. At the same time, it suggested a means for bringing together the project’s different parts into a single, coherent whole that might present something beyond what might be described as “a year in the life of” Bill Coperthwaite.

The completion of Spring in Dickinson’s Reach as the opening film of the series was crucial, for it laid the foundations for the piece as a whole and enabled me to clarify the fundamental contours of the project. This film established, literally and metaphorically, the scope of Bill’s world. And, once in place, it freed me to craft the summer, fall and winter materials with the resonances of Carroll’s poem in mind. Material process, activities and the tasks that defined Bill’s life — while still important — were no longer the primary focus of my editing. Instead they were selected and presented as a means of raising questions about a particular life as it was being lived in the Maine woods. This shift in my interpretive perspective I sought to reflect in the form and content of the subsequent films.
A Summer Task was intended to stand in sharp contrast with Spring in Dickinson’s Reach, signaling a significant interpretive turn in the work. Unlike the opening film, the second film was self-consciously not constructed around a range of scenes but instead documents one event in painstaking detail. As such, it offers a different sort of insight into Bill’s life than the viewer might expect, given the structure and content of the first part. Setting up a contrast by means of the narrative structure (as well as by content) was important to my thinking about parts one and two. But, as I did so, I was also mindful of the next sections to be assembled, the fall and winter films.

Once I started editing the remaining pieces — later called Autumn’s Work and Winter Days — I felt increasingly sure that focusing on a single task to the exclusion of everything else in my summer footage was correct. Moreover, the role of this particular film within the larger series was becoming much clearer. It was the completion of the fall film, however, that convinced me that the provisional contours of the summer film worked. The fall film also served to anchor securely the interpretive framework with which I had been working. For here Bill — without being aware of it at all — brought the different strands of the project back to Carroll’s poem. It was one of those unexpected, but thrilling, filmmaking discoveries that generated what Di Gioia referred to as the “light” of the piece. It subtly and effectively shifted the emotional shape of the piece as a whole.

 It also simplified my task as an editor, instantly clarifying the structure of Autumn’s Work and drawing my material (indeed the footage of all four seasons) toward a small yet revelatory moment.   My task in Winter Days was to allow the final part, in its own quiet way, to underline and amplify this moment – and prepare the ground for leaving Bill and his life in the woods.

Once all the parts were assembled through a rather uneven process of tacking back and forth, it was a relief to find that they had finally come together as a single piece around the notion of temporality. In Spring in Dickinson’s Reach, time is presented as a successive series of episodes, each with its own rhythm but, progressively, the film charts a shift from the beginning of spring (cold, damp and barely green) to the beginning of summer (hot sunshine).   A Summer Task explores temporality as a single extended moment. The task in which Bill and his cousin Steve are engaged is followed as an unbroken process. But built into this linear movement are shifts and changes (activity, rest, thinking, discussion) in the continuous unfolding of time. Autumn’s Work explicitly addresses temporality through a reflection on age, as Bill counts the rings of a felled tree.  Winter Days amplifies the reflective mood of previous part and proposes time as a kind of opening up or expanding moment. This final film evokes meditative time, with the quiet days of winter filled with small tasks that are never completed. A visit by a family returns us the first film and questions of old age and youth.
Although after more than a year of editing and re-editing, it was a relief to find that the four films had finally coalesced into a single, coherent piece, the work was over four hours in length.  However, given that each segment was both part of a larger whole and conceived as a discrete episode with its own concerns and narrative structure, it no longer seemed impossibly long or unreasonably demanding.  One of the challenges, however, was to alert viewers to the ways that temporality was threaded through the different films and through the work as a whole. It meant persuading them that the experience of the work – the temporal experience – was integral to its meaning.
Some anthropologists have found the work puzzling because it is focused on a single individual and fails to satisfactorily explain anything. Others are daunted (or bored) by its length, unused to devoting as much time to watching and thinking about a film as they may to a book. Ethnographic films, it is assumed, are to be viewed in a single sitting.  The length of the piece was not a failure on my part to be disciplined with my material; it was at the heart of what I found myself addressing – the creative possibilities of biography through film.
Who is Bill Coperthwaite?   I sought to raise this question by working with the distinctive features – sensory, material and temporal qualities — of the film medium, crafting my own practice after Bill’s own “handmade life”.   In many ways, this approach lay closer to fictional film than to traditional documentary – that is, I encouraged my viewers to be curious about my subject, to be attentive to small details and clues, to work with the particular textures and qualities of materials presented. At the same time, I expected they would discover things for themselves and point out aspects of my subject that I hadn’t noticed. Crucially, I wanted them to imaginatively enter Bill’s world and engage in making sense of a life unfolding through the film. Central to this was duration. Film became then a medium not for the recounting of a life, for the construction of a retrospective, linear narrative.   Instead it enabled me to weave together different temporal registers and to bring viewer, subject and filmmaker together in an exploratory movement through the world.   When the work ended, I hoped that viewers would continue to reflect on the nature of time and the shape of a life. Perhaps, it was this uncertainty or lack of clear resolution that prompted one of my anthropological colleagues, at the end of a screening, to impatiently ask: “what’s the take-home?”
Anna Grimshaw, February 12, 2015

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