A Year In A Field

A Year In A Field (2023)

Starting from the winter solstice, 21st December 2020, experienced documentarian Christopher Morris visited a barley field near Land’s End in Cornwall every day till the following winter solstice, tracing with his camera the seasonal, cyclical changes that occurred over these twelve months. Here, a year in a field is compressed into about 85 minutes, so that Morris’ film essay, subdivided into four parts (two solstices, two equinoxes), encourages us to observe time differently. 

Our observation is focalised through more than one viewpoint. Of course there is the lens of Morris’ camera, taking in the field from all angles and in all weathers at all times (including sequences shot with night vision); but there is also, in the centre of this field, a menhir known locally as Boscawen Ros or the Longstone (which is what ‘menhir’ literally means in Cornish). It is a 4000-year-old monument that Morris personifies as a ‘sentinel’, while referring, in further mild anthropomorphism, to historical events that it has ‘witnessed’ from its vantage overlooking the busy shipping lane of the English Channel and the North Atlantic. So if the documentary is Morris’ “quiet, unnoticed one-man vigil – a small direct action of stillness”, then he is sharing it with the monolith. In other words, the Longstone itself offers another perspective, encompassing not just the present day, or that year from December 2020 to December2021, but an ancient history stretching back thousands of years, and a future that will long outlive us. Boscawen Ros is both the main ‘character’ of A Year In A Field, and a silent witness measuring millennia in minutes, or even moments. 

Time is, along with ecology, one of the principal themes here, as Morris’ narration looks back to the “alien civilisation, not from outer space, but outer time”, that erected the Longstone for reasons about which we can now only speculate, and back further still to the geological conditions that, some 270 million years ago, engendered the “granite of feldspar and quartz” which, a very long time after, people would quarry to build Boscawen Ros. Morris even discusses the much earlier formation of the Earth itself from a collision of two planetary bodies, whose violent merging would generate “the magnetic fields and shields that make all life possible.” This is a long view of life on Earth, in which recorded human history, even humanity itself, and indeed this neolithic orthostat, have existed only for the (relative) blink of an eye.

Via his voiceover, Morris is able to weave through the imagery a free-associative chronicle of supposed human progress (in all its ephemerality), and the self-destructive effects of our accelerating consumerist trajectory which is (under)mining and ruining the very planet that has been sustaining us. His discussion of the postwar Doomsday Clock is accompanied by an image of the Longstone’s shadow seeming to point directly to the moon (like a sundial), as though to emphasise how our duration on Earth can be calibrated by more than one kind of timepiece.

Indeed the Longstone, often filmed with sun or moon or aligned planets above, is figured as being like the Monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), mysteriously marking our (d)evolution. Meanwhile Morris’ commentary on our life out of balance, triggered by cosmic and mythic history as much as by current local and global events, evokes Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982) – as is cemented by the introduction of rapid timelapse photography near the end, to the accompaniment of a shift in Sarah Moody’s otherwise folkish score to the electronic and choral progressions that unmistakably mimic the minimalist music of Philip Glass. Yet where Reggio carefully contrasted antique Indigenous wisdom and modernist folly, Morris’ trump card is to suggest that Boscawen Ros may itself have been raised as a primitive “fuck you to nature” and a marker for the beginning of humanity’s end.

Menhirs often figure in folk horror, whether in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Peter Graham Scott’s TV series Children of the Stones (1977), Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth (2021), Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men (2022) or Chris Cronin’s The Moor (2023) – all films that, in different ways, explore the uneasy nexus between pagan times and present day, between anthropology and physics. A Year In A Field is doing something similar, locating our species in a vast, stonily indifferent cosmos, and suggesting that we, like everything else, will be swallowed in the ruinous turbulence of a change that we are ourselves expediting.  

Meanwhile the stone, though still (standing) in a way that perhaps makes it antithetical to the kinetic demands of a motion picture, is itself subject to gradual erosion by the elements and slow consumption by lichens, while the smaller stone (not mentioned in the film) that once accompanied Boscawen Ros was moved years ago from its place by a farmer. Given enough time, nothing lasts forever – and so Morris’ film is an anticipatory elegy not just for us, but for the planet that we inhabit and manipulate to our own ends. While in no way the centre of the universe, the stone is used by Morris as a measuring stick for who we are, where we have come from, and where we are headed. Accordingly A Year In A Field is a bleak, beautiful slice of life and time capsule, bittersweetly commemorating all at once the wonder of the natural world and the impression – baleful, brutal and short – of the anthropocene

Inspired by Michael Allaby’s 1981 book A Year In The Life of a Field (1981), this is ecological activism conducted through aloof observation and extremely passive resistance. Like its unofficial companion piece Enys Men, which was similarly set and shot in Cornwall, A Year In A Field was a production designed to have an unusually low impact on the environment (two tonnes of CO2 emissions as opposed to the 500 for the average feature), and so presents itself, modestly and belatedly, as an exemplary alternative for the future. 

strap: Christopher Morris’ static yet activist film essay positions a Cornish standing stone as marker of the anthropocene’s beginning and end

© Anton Bitel