The old lost road through the woods

One of 2018’s finest films and one its most haunting novels touched on problematic returns to nature. What can archaeologists learn from these two, beautifully realised, works?

The importance of the maker’s perspective has become a well-worn path for archaeologists and curators in recent decades. Buoyed by the resurgence in nature writing and a booming gift experience market, craft-skills have become a popular way to engage modern audiences in aspects of pre-industrial life. From Ray Mears to Kirstie Allsopp, the importance of making has gained an impressive momentum. But where is it taking us?

Television programmes showing how we can live off the land – survive and then prosper – naturally provide public archaeologists and curators with food for thought: here are things that we can not do, but people who lived thousands of years ago could – do not underestimate them or over estimate us. And that is fine and good, until we start to question our own relationship with nature, comparing ancient with modern, us with them: ‘If only we could live the way our ancestors lived…’, ‘We have lost sight of nature…’, ‘We use to be closer to the land…’, are all expressions of the same sentiment that Kipling mastered over a century ago:

‘You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods …
But there is no road through the woods.’

While those perspectives hold truths, they are overly romantic and nostalgic, carrying the potential for regressive compulsions. The problematic desire to ‘go back’ to nature was the subject of two of two impressive works of art in 2018: Debra Granik’s feature-length film, Leave No Trace, and Sarah Moss’s short but lingering novel, Ghost Wall. Although they share many similarities – both having a troubling father/daughter relationship at their emotional core, for instance – they also offer very different perspectives on how to trace a line from the past, through nature to modernity.

In Ghost Wall, Bill – a bus driver by day – takes his wife and his seventeen-year old daughter, Silvie, on an experimental archaeology field-trip to Northumberland organised by a well-intended professor of pre-history. Bill’s insistence on authenticity and connecting with ‘our’ pre-historic ancestors at every opportunity is portrayed by Moss as the mechanism of Bill’s control over, and abuse of, his family – to devastating effect. In Leave No Trace, a father suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by his experiences in the US military, attempts to live off grid and beyond the nets of modernity. As the film unravels it becomes clear that this lifestyle is not right for his daughter whose individuality and agency has been forgotten.

If the harshness and discipline of the past defines Bill’s parental role in Ghost Wall, the forgiving beauty, solace and calm of the forest is what ultimately permeates through both father and daughter in Leave No Trace. Towards the end of the film they find themselves in a makeshift settlement deep in a wooded grove; a place that manages to capture the essence of the natural world without foregoing what is characteristically human: people, music, some technologies and the comfort of more things than we can comfortably carry, things that are as  embracing as they are entangling.

Appeals for an unadulterated past, one untainted by modernity, politics and technology is attractive for some reasons. They may seem more ‘neutral’, ‘true’, and ‘authentic’. But, paradoxically, they can represent denial and suppression, the rejection of agency and the flow of time in favour of connections between static points in time. But there are also dangers in romanticising conditions that do not benefit the health, education and equality of a society at large.

If archaeologists and curators are to make best use of their opportunities to engage with the past in the present through environmental issues and self-sufficiency and sustainability, a careful path has to be found through the woods. It is one in which the appreciation of nature is not tinged with nostalgia or bottled within a vacuum, but is instead allowed to merge with the contemporary world and its many problems, challenges and potentials. It is a hard path to trace, as Granik and Moss have shown us so hauntingly.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Laura Purseglove, Graham and Lynda Taylor for the conversations on this and related topics. The verse from The Way through the Woods was published by Rudyard Kipling in 1910. The Ghost Wall, written by Sarah Moss, was published by Granta inn 2018. Leave No Trace was released in 2018, it was directed by Debra Granik and written by Granik and Anne Rosellini and was based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock.

Image: Mugdock Woods in December 2018 (author’s own photo).

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