Bill Coperthwaite Summer Film Series

Summer Film Series: Virtual Library Program

This summer, Porter Memorial Library presents an online film series: Mr. Coperthwaite: A Life in the Maine Woods, a film in four parts by Anna Grimshaw.

These four films, completed in 2013, chart the homesteading life of local pioneer in yurt building, Bill Coperthwaite, as it unfolded through the seasons.

The filmmaker, Anna Grimshaw, a visual anthropologist and professor for Emory University is a resident of Machiasport.

The film series will begin on Friday, July 10 with the first film in the series. The link and password for each film will be available here on the website during the two weeks for each film. Please see the schedule below and look for the link and password during the two weeks scheduled for each film.

Film link and password posted below.

Film Series Schedule

Helpful hint for getting to the film:
Copy and paste both the film link and the password directly from this page since it is easy to type numbers incorrectly, and Coperthwaite is very tricky to spell.

Friday, July 10 – Thursday, July 23:
Spring in Dickinson’s Reach (83 minutes)

Friday, July 24 – Thursday, August 6:
A Summer Task (47 minutes)

Friday, August 7 – Thursday, August 20:
Autumn’s Work (47 minutes)

Friday, August 21 – Thursday, September 3:
Winter Days (58 minutes)

***Click on this link to open the fourth film.
Password to View Film: Coperthwaite 2020

Notes on the Films from Filmmaker Anna Grimshaw

Time is an echo of an axe
Within a wood.
(Philip Larkin)

Introduction to the series

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, he was committed to crafting what he called “a handmade life.” For over fifty years until his death in 2013, Bill Coperthwaite lived and worked in the forest.  He was a builder of yurts, and a maker of spoons, bowls and chairs.

A meditation on time and process, Mr Coperthwaite: a life in the Maine Woods offers an intimate portrait of a remarkable life — one shaped by nature, work, poetry and the rhythm of changing seasons. Coperthwaite emerges as a Thoreauvian figure for our time. He reminds us of the central, but often overlooked place, of nature in American culture.

The film series charts Coperthwaite’s life as it unfolds over the course of a year. It explores the changing character of work through the seasons and the distinctive temporality of specific tasks.  

At the heart of the series is Bill Coperthwaite himself. The filmmaker offers a biography of sorts — not in the conventional way of a recounting of a life but by asking us to attend closely to its living. Who is Bill Coperthwaite? How do we understand his life? What does it mean to dwell in nature? 

Notes on the Filmmaking Process

Mr Coperthwaite: a life in the Maine woods is a film in four parts. These notes can be read before watching it, afterwards, or they can be ignored altogether. They are not offered as an explanation of the film but are instead offered as a brief guide to its structure and component parts. The four parts are self-standing, complete in and of themselves. At the same time, however, each one has been crafted with the whole in mind. The final piece emerged slowly and somewhat haphazardly. Its shape owes as much to moments of unexpected discovery as it does to the logic of seasonal practice.

From the beginning, I was concerned to create a single film that would be more than just a record of activities or highlights of a life. Since I was committed to working with my subject over the course of a year, I gathered a lot of footage. But as I reviewed my materials, I realized that one of the major challenges I faced as a filmmaker was how to use seasonality, with its different moods and rhythms, to generate a rich, textured portrait of a particular life as it unfolded in the Maine woods.

In order to explore the creative possibilities of my material and to resist the urge to prematurely compress the footage, I decided in the first instance to edit four separate parts – one for each season. I did not want to worry too much about the length of each section until I had figured out the shape of the piece as a whole. Once all the four parts were assembled, I recognized that they had come back together into a single piece. The problem was that it was over four hours in length!

Each of the films engages questions of time but does so in a different way. In varying the lengths of the four parts, I sought to express the nature of work through the seasons and the distinctive temporality of specific tasks. Spring in Dickinson’s Reach is the longest film, running at 83 minutes.  It establishes, literally and metaphorically, the scope of Bill Coperthwaite’s world. In contrast, A Summer Task is tightly focused and follows a single activity in painstaking detail.  Autumn’s Work charts the passage of time through a change in the seasons as Bill makes preparations for winter. Winter Days draws the viewer into the quiet space and routine of the year’s end.

Mr Coperthwaite: a life in the Maine Woods is filmed in what is called an “observational” style.  Working with a handheld camera (shooting, taking sound and editing myself), I avoid the usual documentary conventions of interview or narration. I hew close to the rhythm and texture of Bill Coperthwaite’s life as it unfolds over a year. My “handmade” approach attempts mirror Bill’s own way of making his life in the Maine woods.

Symphony: a sounding together, usually four movements characterized by different forms and exhibiting alternating moods and tempo. A symphonic work is marked by a recurrence of particular themes. There is both constancy and change.

Notes on Each Film:

Spring in Dickinson’s Reach: Spring in Dickinson’s Reach provides an introduction to the unique environment that Bill Coperthwaite has crafted in the Maine forest. Beginning in early spring, the film follows Coperthwaite through his daily tasks as he tends to his surroundings as one season gives way to another. He pulls weeds, sharpens knives, whittles away at spoons, clears downed trees – an intensely private man whose solitude is occasionally interrupted by the arrival of visitors, young men eager to learn and to share their passion for tools and for making. Through the intimate camerawork and careful attention to detail, we are drawn into a remarkable world – one that is painstakingly built and maintained by Coperthwaite. In its simplicity and integrity, we find a rare beauty. It stretches from the magnificent wooden yurt, to the workshop, boathouse, forest paths, dense canopy of trees and waters of Mill Pond.

A Summer Task: A Summer Task examines the rhythm and tempo of work in the forest. The film follows Bill Coperthwaite and his cousin, Steve, as they fell and haul trees to build a bridge and begin charting a new trail through the woods. It situates the viewer in the heart of the forest. Through the crafting of distinctive moments of rest and activity, of skill and improvisation, the film explores a complex, collaborative process as it unfolds in time. No longer the energetic men of their youth, Bill and Steve struggle against age and natural obstacles with a wry humor and stubborn determination. Through a single task, the film opens up questions about time, work, ageing and the ongoing process of life.

Autumn’s Work: Autumn’s Work follows Bill Coperthwaite as he prepares for winter. Wrestling with a large felled tree amidst its vast tangle of branches, Bill slowly and methodically breaks it down into expertly sorted piles of wood. He spends his days alone, tackling the great trunk with a cross-cut saw that once belonged to Scott Nearing. He works and rests, the gentle shifts of breeze and light hinting at the passage of time and the changing of seasons.  In an unexpected moment, Bill reflects on the age of the tree and his own age. It serves as a poignant reminder of the span of life and the inseparability of man and nature.

Winter Days: Winter Days evokes the stillness and quietness of the forest in winter. Life is lived close to the stove. It’s a time for small tasks and chores – making a wedge, sewing a pocket, the darning of socks.  But the film also offers glimpses of a world beyond. The arrival of a family, animated by the energy and curiosity of children, brings us back to reflect on a “handmade life” and questions of age, generation, solitude and community.

About the Filmmaker:

Anna Grimshaw grew up in northern England. Trained as an anthropologist and filmmaker, she bought a house in Machiasport in 2004. For the last ten years, she has been documenting different ways of life in this Downeast community. She began her project with Bill Coperthwaite, spending a year filming him in Dickinson’s Reach in order to capture his different routines of work through the four seasons. Many people in the area remember Bill fondly and have memories of the long walk through the woods to visit him at his yurt. Bill was an avid reader and active patron of the Porter Memorial Library. 

In addition to her Coperthwaite work, Anna has also made a film about clamdigging, At Low Tide. She has just completed seven films that chart a year in the life of a Bucks Harbor lobster fisherman, George Sprague. The series is called George’s Place.