The film “Land”

I went to the cinema yesterday for the first time since 2019, to see “Land”, starring and directed by Robin Wright, in which her character, Edee, moves to a remote cabin in Wyoming following a tragedy in her former life. I think a lot of the reviewers have missed the point and in this post I dig deeper to explain how it worked for me, and how that’s based on the whole idea of living in a cabin in the wilderness.

I hadn’t planned to see the film but I was in Manchester for the first time this year and I had enough spare for its 90 minutes. I went through Victoria Station on my eventual way to the Vue cinema at the Printworks. The flowers and other tributes from the recent anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017 were still there, and I still had that grief at the back of my mind when I saw the film, in which grief is a major theme.

Memorials to the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017

The film is an emotional journey set against the dramatic mountain landscape. The elements of suspense are in trying to understand the characters’ back stories as the clues accumulate. This post contains spoilers about Edee’s backstory. The further you read, the more spoilers. But there are no major plot spoilers here which are not revealed in the film’s own publicity, including the trailer.

The basic premise is that Edee is a lawyer who has suffered some terrible tragedy and leaves her life in Chicago and her concerned sister Emma behind. She presumably sells up most of her belongings, packs up what she needs in a rented car and trailer, and drives to the northwest of Wyoming, on the edge of the Shoshone National Forest which is adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. The movie itself was filmed in 29 days in Alberta, Canada, at an altitude of 8000ft, and it really shows.

Here she buys a large area of land: enough to be on a mountainside and own everything in the foreground of your view. To be unbothered by trespassers. That is what Edee wants as she is seeking to get away from people. She even arranges with the estate agent to have the rental car taken away when she arrives.

Her property has a log cabin on that mountainside with the majestic view, in which an old man lived and left all the tools needed for survival, including a rifle which she shies away from. The cabin used was built on site specially for the film.

We start to see flashbacks to Edee’s former life with her husband and little boy. We assume they’ve died and this is why she has withdrawn from society. She also imagines them there with her, enjoying the forests and river and feeling at home and happy there, as she struggles with it all.

She has brought supplies for the winter, but she finds her life at the cabin very difficult. For example, she is dependent on firewood for heating, but flounders as she tries using a saw and an axe to turn a small tree trunk into usable logs. She tries using a book about hunting and fishing to supplement her supplies, with mixed results. Even the rather grim and derelict outdoor toilet is daunting.

The setbacks accumulate as predators and winter draw in, but she is eventually helped by a hunter who lives in a nearby town: Miguel, played by Demián Bichir, with a rich and hard to place accent that’s somewhere between his native Mexico, French Canadian, and Native American. They agree he will teach Edee to trap and hunt, and then he will leave her alone.

Miguel teaches Edee how to hunt

You could make another film using those elements. Probably one with Reese Witherspoon earlier in her career: helpless city woman flees to a cabin in the woods, flounders around with axes and fishing rods, but is helped, befriended and then loved by a taciturn local man, who himself learns how to open up his feelings. I wonder if these thoughts were lurking in the minds of some unimpressed reviewers?

With Miguel’s help she does indeed learn to live on the land she has chosen. She becomes confident and competent, and can finally lead the isolated and self-reliant life she came to the wilderness to experience. This next clip summarises where she’s got to, and how she sees it. Edee says: “I want to notice more. Notice everything around me more. Know more about here. Be able to survive here and appreciate it.” Miguel responds that she can indeed survive there alone now.

Edee and Miguel

This is not a romantic comedy though, and their relationship progresses no further than deep but arm’s length respect and affection, and intermittent meetings. Eventually she is able to move forward, and make contact again with her sister Emma.

The film has 69% on Rotten Tomatoes, with generally favourable reviews but some negative and lukewarm responses. Some of the reviews have accused the film of being predictable, which has some merit. But their case isn’t helped by the apparent universal missing of the point.

Here we get to a major spoiler. For me, the key image of the film is a drawing by Edee’s son Drew. It’s shown in passing in the trailer, and you can see it here. It’s revealed when Edee gives it to Miguel. I’m guessing it’s the most precious thing she has.

“Where I want to live”

Drew’s drawing shows her dead husband and son fishing in a lake, beside a cabin in a forest, as Edee looks on smiling. The title is “Where I want to live”. I don’t mind admitting that I filled up at this point, alone in a completely empty COVID-compliant cinema. Edee has clearly been trying to live the life her son wanted, based on time spent with his father in the wilderness. An environment that she did not understand or feel comfortable in. She wants to experience that life to better understand her dead son. That’s why what eventually brings her peace and the ability to move on is to “be able to survive here and appreciate it”.

There is also a theme of kindness and redemption, especially due to Miguel’s own back story of grief, and the old idea of withdrawing from society to work through your problems yourself: Miguel even refers to her as his “hermit friend” at one point. Many of us have experienced first hand the healing power of time in nature, both before and during the pandemic.

The final spoiler is the nature of her husband and son’s death.

They were killed in a mass shooting, which explains Edee’s initial reluctance to pick up the previous owner’s rifle despite living in bear country. Perhaps that also explains my deeper emotional connection to Edee’s journey, coming straight to the cinema from those memorials to the mass killing at the Manchester Arena.

The film is in British cinemas now and will no doubt make it to streaming services here in due course. The landscape has a role of its own in the movie, but it’s not shown in sweeping, immersive shots which demand a viewing on the big screen. I’m glad I did see it in a cinema though.

Finally, Robin Wright has given this revealing interview about the production and themes, which goes beyond some of the usual chat show interviews she’s had to do in promoting it.

Bid launched to bring hutting back to East Lothian

“An intitiative dating back to the 1920s could make a comeback and see a hut built in a woodland near Gifford. The concept of hutting in Scotland dates back to between the First and Second World Wars. Now, plans are with East Lothian Council which would see a hut built in the southern section of Wynd Wood, to the west of Gifford.”

“Win the wilderness” TV series

BBC Two is currently showing a six-part series “Win the wilderness” in which British couples are competing to “win” a log cabin and the surrounding land in Alaska. It’s really an extended selection process to allow the American couple who built the cabin in the 1990s to choose who would be best suited to taking it on. More on the BBC website.

Plotlands story in the Independent

“A last hurrah for plotlanders, Britain’s interwar guerrilla housebuilders.
In the chaos and poverty of interwar Britain sprang up a hardy breed of guerrilla homebuilder: plotlanders. Foreshadowing both trailer parks and modern squatters, they constructed semi-permanent dwellings on land not needed for agriculture – near motorways, in woodland, on cliff edges. Godfrey Holmes celebrates the spirit and ingenuity of true property pioneers”

Observer story about hutting in Scotland

Another positive story, from last week’s Observer:

Now a ‘hutting’ revival is predicted after the Scottish government signalled that later this month it will change legislation to exempt huts from building regulations, allowing people to put up these most simple of second homes in the countryside wherever they can rent or buy a plot of suitable land, subject to planning permission.

Guardian story about woodplots

Story in the Guardian today about people buying woodplots and doing interesting things with them:

If you go down to the woods today … you might find a school, a photographer’s studio, or a carpenter’s workshop. Britain’s forests are getting a new lease of life

Rewilding and permaculture at the Hay Festival

Yesterday I was at the Hay Festival and went to sessions about rewilding and permaculture. This was my first time at the festival, although I’ve been going to Hay-on-Wye’s second hand bookshops since I was young. The annual book festival is about ten days long and takes place in tents and covered walkways in a field outside of town. There is an official book shop and some stalls, but it’s mostly discussion sessions and talks. Some of these are plugging someone’s new book, but others are about other interesting topics.

DSC_0002 After a bit of an explore, the first session I went to was also the first of the festival and was entitled
“Elements of re-wilding: perceptions and prejudices”. It took the form of a panel discussion led by Rob Yorke, with Sophie Wynne-Jones of Wales Wild Land Foundation and Bangor University, Julia Aglionby of the Foundation for Common Land (i.e. land with commoners who have a right to use it), and Minette Batters the deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union.

I’m interested in rewilding for several reasons. It includes reforesting land.  The likely missing, native species we’re talking about have intrinsic value, like restoring a painted-over fresco. Keystone species can dramatically improve natural checks and balances, such as beavers building dams which mitigate flash floods downstream. Three species may be significantly reduced which are bad for saplings and suppress the natural regeneration of native trees from seed, either in re-established forests or to replace felling in existing woods: pine martens control grey squirrel numbers, and lynx control deer and rabbits. Rewilding moves the British landscapes closer to their naturally wooded state, which people will engage with more, and start to rewild ourselves. I believe more basic “accommodation” like wild camping and hutting have a role in that.

Rob Yorke had a list of prepared topics to provoke discussion, and started with definitions of rewilding, and then things moved on to differing land uses, environmental benefits such as flood control, climate change, and even the EU referendum. One theme that kept being emphasised was the desirability of avoiding conflict and trying to find consensus, rather than the sometimes stronger language that you see. I had a feeling that phrases such as George Monbiot’s “White Plague” description of the impact of sheep on the landscape were in people’s minds when saying this.

Consensus and compromise are good, but they are a two-way process, and it became increasingly clear that Minette Batters and Julia Aglionby were dragging us away from rewilding step by step. Eventually the idea of reintroducing pine martens for their own sake and for the way they suppress grey but not red squirrels was countered by the idea that we might just not bother and be satisfied with conserving the refuges the reds have been reduced to.

Simultaneously, farmers had to be acknowledged as the custodians of the landscape who take a multi-generational view in contrast to politicians and the public; and yet the 25 years for tree planting to take full effect could be deployed dismissively when discounting trees for flood control. Consistently, the message was “management”. A managed landscape that must continue to be managed. It’s understandable that people whose uneconomic lifestyle is subsidised by the more productive elements of the economy in return for “management” of the landscape are attached to the word. But it’s missing the point in a discussion about rewilding, where the intent is to see how far we can let go.

The discussion took a more worrying turn when Minette Batters got on to the subject of lynx. She’s clearly horrified by the idea, and the thought they might take lambs, and deployed some unfortunate and untrue arguments. In particular, she claimed that “we” had decided to remove lynx from Britain because they are dangerous to people (and to the aforementioned lambs.) This was picked up by the Telegraph reporter present (or planted by the NFU?) with the lurid headline “Releasing lynx into wild puts ramblers in danger of attack, warns NFU“.

I’m struggling to believe that Minette Batters is ignorant of the European experience with lynx. Humans aren’t attacked by lynx. If you attack a lynx it will defend itself, but they actively avoid humans. The whole idea was implicitly undermined elsewhere in the discussion: we weren’t even to consider lynx as a way of controlling badger numbers (which are crashing the hedgehog population) because there was no way a lynx could tackle a badger.

In retrospect I should have made more of an effort to get the audience microphone and object to the falsehood that lynx endanger humans before the discussion moved on. But it illustrates that an untrue statement can conveniently shut down a debate in the moment, and then get spread by other media to a wider audience (with comments turned off, too.) People do say some very harsh things about the NFU’s behaviour, and this is the first time I’ve seen it up close. Unfortunately Minette Batters is ignoring replies to her comment via Twitter, despite happily tweeting away about other things.

So all in all I felt it was a wasted opportunity to really get into the subject of rewilding, and that being nice and trying to find a consensus doesn’t work when this kind of thing is going on in the room.

Next I went to “Permaculture and climate change adaptation” with Thomas Henfrey (who has a new book out), Maddy Harland and Andy Fryers. There were some interesting overlaps with rewilding. One striking example was the Tamara village in Portugal where reforestation was part of improvements in water availability throughout the year, where previously cork oaks had been replaced by eucalyptus, accompanied by a collapse of lynx numbers incidentally. Permaculture shares with rewilding a recognition of natural systems  and the way their elements fit together and cannot be broken down into separate parts and controlled.

DSC_0013 DSC_0007Back outside, the Woodland Trust have a stand at this year’s festival, and were fielding waves of children from the school coach trips that had been organised, in between the sessions they all seemed to disappear in to every hour or so.

DSC_0057Hay is normally a different kind of town anyway, and the festival accentuates this. On the road between the town and the festival field, ad-hoc cafes and shops pop up, like this one in a front garden. There’s also a convenient car park next to the festival run for Macmillan, which you can pre-book.

DSC_0026 IMG_3589 DSC_0021The weekly market in front of the castle still goes ahead, now in the hands of the Hay Castle Trust after it was sold by Richard Booth, who started Hay on the path to becoming  a “book town”. His old bookshop is now in other hands, but he started again with the much smaller “Richard King of Hay” bookshop.

There are fewer shops than there used to be, and I’m guessing that’s the internet. I used to scour second hand bookshops but now use sites like if there’s something out of print I need. Searching rather than browsing I suppose you could say. However, just as vinyl records have survived despite cassettes, CDs, DAT, MD, MP3s, and now streaming, people still enjoy the experience of browsing and reading physical books.

DSC_0041This last photo is taken from Hay Bridge, showing the wooded banks which include the Wye Valley Walk. Across the bridge is the main site of the How the Light Gets In festival which runs at the same time as Hay Festival itself. They have a helter skelter and a big wheel (amongst other things) though.

Sun 29th May update: Ben Eagle has posted another first hand account of the rewilding panel at Hay. Minette Batters of the NFU still hasn’t retracted (or defended!) her falsehoods about lynx.

Thu 2nd June: another first hand account (“What would Eat a Badger? Rewilding at the Hay Festival“), from Graham Strouts at Bangor.

BBC “Out of doors” episode on hutting

BBC Radio Scotland’s “Out of doors” did a half-hour feature on hutting this morning, including interviews at the 2016 Hutters Rally in Kirkcaldy, at the new hutting site on Forestry Commission land near Saline, and with Lloyd Khan during his visit from the US. The programme touched on some important issues surrounding owning hutting land or renting, how hutters at a site can organise themselves, how hutting might catalyse regrowth in rural communities, and planning and building control.

I thought it was interesting that over thirty-five landowners were already looking to provide hutting sites. When you’re talking £500-£1000 per year for the ground rent of a hut on Forestry Commission land, it’s easy to see why landowners are interested. This is why I’m always banging on about planning permission: as soon as you start to get that sorted (as the Thousand Huts campaign is doing), the raw economics of huts and the low cost of suitable rural land (less than £2000/acre) start to make it all happen.

You can listen to it on its page on their website via BBC Radio iPlayer for the next 29 days.

Added Sat 21 May 2016: today’s episode of “Out of doors” had a discussion of the costs of building hut in the last few minutes. Last Sunday’s episode of “Landward” on BBC Two Scotland also had an item about hutting about 16 minutes in.

Shed of the Year 2015, grand final roundup

It’s been more than a fortnight since the grand final episode of Channel 4’s 2015 Shed of the Year competition but the #shedoftheyear tweets are still being posted, and there was a lot of newspaper coverage in the day or so after the final was broadcast.

The episode began with the “Cabins/Summerhouses” and “Workshops/Studios” shed categories. For the first category, I liked Teasel’s Wood Cabin and the Pixie Cabin. For the second category, I liked the Cabin of the Green Man, and its mention of chainsaw carving. I always like anything about the Green Man anyway.

My overall favourites were Cormac’s Bothy and the Corrugated Cottage from the first and second episode, but the judges’ choice and series winner was the Inshriach Distillery from the previous episode.

During the programme, #shedoftheyear was again one of the top hashtags for the UK, and this itself generated some confused responses:

Stories about the result appeared across the spectrum of newspapers, including the ones in The Independent, in The Scotsmanin The Daily Mail, and in The Daily Star. The Telegraph produced a gallery of photos from the competition. As a pub shed, the winner was also picked up by the drinks trade press.

This breadth of coverage was itself reflected on Twitter:

Businesses made use of the hashtag, some with interesting content to promote:

As did Glasgow University Archives:

And beach hutters:

Finally, the hashtag prompted this gem from the city of skyscrapers:

Watching the stove vs watching TV

Last week we were at the log cabin for Sunday and Monday, and I brought my computer which has a plug-in TV tuner so we could watch Episode 3 of Shed of the Year. It was good to watch it, but it felt very out of place.

Our log cabin is deliberately simple and it gets us away from the kind of urban, electronic environment we have at home. There are no electricity, water or sewerage services, and very patchy cell phone reception. So we have a wood burning stove, a sink with water from a water carrier,  and camping gas for lighting. Nearby is a composting toilet with another water-carrier wash hand basin. We do have a digital radio for the cabin which we can play music from our phones through too, and it runs off 12V batteries charged by a solar panel.

Once it’s getting dark after we’ve finished whatever forestry or tinkering or sitting in the sun we’ve planned for the day, entertainment in the cabin has been a mix of reading, listening to music, cooking and eating and drinking, listening to the radio, and above all talking to each other.

It’s hard to explain but really simple things like keeping the stove going and boiling a kettle become interesting: when it’s more than just flicking a switch and waiting for the click, because you have to split the logs you set aside a year ago, then keep an eye on how they’re burning, and wait for the slow build up of the whistle. Everything in the cabin is at a slower pace and we manage to enjoy doing nothing in particular for hours on end.

But as I said, last week we had television as a guest for an hour. It was like having one of the visitors that come to the wood, say hello, have a chat, and then head off  in their car as soon as they can. The ones that don’t want to get muddy and wander off through the trees.

So we finished watching “Shed of the Year” then put some music back on, and later the radio. Radio seems to “get it” somehow. It doesn’t expect you to look at it when you’re messing around with the hotplate from the stove for a start. It’s usually our only connection to the outside world while we’re there.

Sunday was the day of the Greek bailout referendum and we tuned in to hear what was happening. No fancy graphics and footage of leaders getting in and out of cars. Just one person at a time talking to you over the airwaves about what’s going on. Very fitting for the log cabin again. Before the midnight news on Radio 4 was Mark Tully’s “Something Understood” about “Desire Lines”. It included Peter Seeger singing “Little Boxes” in 1963 which starts:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

Which is very much what we’re not about too.