“Nothing is quite beautiful alone,” wrote the great transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, succinctly elucidating the reason so many of us enjoy a walk in the woods. A lone tree, a pond, a deer—each in isolation is defined by the eerie absence of a context. The woods are no single thing, nor are they a sum of parts—each piece only makes sense in place. This is just as true of the humans passing through them. Emerson, and many after him, found that he was not just in the woods but of the woods. His reflective brushwood constitutionals revealed the natural state of oneness with the natural world around him. For him, nature was divine.
In Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, we first meet Oregonian carpenter Mark (Daniel London) halfway through a meditation session at his home, in that verdant part of the West Coast where it has always just stopped raining. He’s distracted by some bugs, and his own tickling fringe, and the noise of the neighborhood kids playing in the street. That’s the problem with meditation: you’re stuck inside your own head. It’s hard to lose yourself because everywhere you turn, there you are. You and your noisy thoughts. Above Mark, effortlessly resting on parallel telephone wires, some birds watch in silence.
Mark’s phone rings, and the meditation is interrupted by his old friend Kurt.
Everyone has a friend like Kurt (Will Oldham). You might call him a bum, or more romantically a drifter: no fixed address, lives out of a van, packs a bong with fluent muscle memory. He seeks out oneness on the road, moving between farms, parties, and forest trails with an incurable wanderlust. He makes dishevelment an aesthetic of its own: an ever-retreating hairline is matched by a mustache curling forward across his top lip, framing a glimmering boyish bucktooth.
Then again, everyone has a friend like Mark. He’s the kind of guy that’s easy to get along with, and just seems to have it all inexplicably—enviously—together. He’s popular, and can handle a conversation about politics. He’s settling down now—he has a dog, a baby on the way, and volunteers for a local arts program. He’s even set up a spot in the backyard where he can fit in some meditation.
The two men are old friends, and it’s time to check up on how that stands amidst all this change.
Kurt invites Mark for a night of camping in the Cascade Mountains, near a wooded hot spring. Before meekly placating Tanya, his heavily pregnant wife, Mark says okay. He could use some times in the woods. They hit the road.
In an 1838 letter to President Martin van Buren, Emerson opened with a gambit that he knew would appeal to the famously gregarious president: “By right, and natural position, every citizen is your friend.” This stubbornly positive idealism—that sees an entire nation as a group of friends—was the backbone of his romantic outlook.
Emerson’s friend Walt Whitman saw the perfect country as a place of manly love—that is, love between men. The job of these American men was to “withdraw from precedents.” America was a project, and its natural landscapes were places for experiments in love and friendship, isolated from the deadening lane markers of society and its fashions. Whitman, Emerson, and others shared an understanding that this sort of living out in the woods would leave them somewhat ostracized from the civilized world. That was the price of an honest manly love.
Kurt, a transcendentalist pariah in this tradition, loves the woods for their “otherworldly peacefulness.” As a pilgrim and a partygoer, he’s come to know the country’s natural landscapes well. Mark bristles at the thought of a life he’s missing out on: Free, self-reliant, out on the open road to make friends and make love wherever he wants.
Change the perspective and Kurt is the one missing out: Mark has put down roots and is of value to his community. He makes a difference to the hometown that fostered them both. With a thought of Tanya left at home, Kurt perhaps picks up on the suggestion that his wayward lifestyle (and those of Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, et al.,) is just another benefit of male privilege.
But it’s a weekend for friends, and though their paths have diverged, the two share a manly love of their own. Kurt tells Mark that he was inspired to see his old friend because he dreamed of him. As a way to confess admiration, this is both matter-of-fact and adorably revealing. In other words, it’s exactly how straight men say that they love each other. We can’t be held accountable for our dreams, so they are perfect tools for pointing out our desires, passions, and anxieties. A dream is an object of study apart from our conscious selves, and yet inextricably embedded within the self too.
Kurt’s vagabond education has taught him not to trust these borders between self and other. Whereas Mark appreciates a break away from the city, Kurt decries even the distinction between forest and city: “it’s all one huge thing now.” Self and other, internal and external, man and friend—why should they be separated? It’s the sort of thing Mark used to get, too, before he settled down.
Kurt took a physics class but insists that he already knows the theories, even if he doesn’t have the numbers to explain them. In fact, he has his own theory that the universe is in the shape of a falling teardrop—the cosmic view of a man who can’t make sense of his own unhappiness. His inability to describe the theory doesn’t bother him; he is contemptuous of intellectuals that hold too fast to words and numbers as if they are the truth and not merely a reflection of it. Like Whitman’s unlearned astronomer, he is content to simply look up “in perfect silence at the stars.”
As the sky darkens and the men grow drowsy with beer, Kurt sheepishly admits that he would rather share Mark’s tent than sleep outdoors. Mark consents, pointing again to the external and factual: “It’s a two-man tent.” In the city such proximity of sleeping men is a proposition, but out here it’s a wonderful necessity. No questions asked. There is a third party, of course: Lucy the dog, in the privileged position of man’s best friend. She’ll be joining them in the tent. Like a child reconciling his unbound imagination with the rules of the game, Kurt presents one more fact to settle the tension: “She’s a girl.” Female and non-human; the perfect buffer between men.
We know that men talk. They talk about what they know, as well as about what they don’t. They are given platforms regardless, and induced to talk at length and without pause. They talk about women, and over women, and even sometimes to women. On Mark’s car radio, men talk back and forth about politics, fabricating debate where there is none, finding ever more ingenious ways to justify the sounds of their own voice.
Words between Mark and Kurt, though, only serve to halt their manly love. They are tools to deflect and defend, an import from the city, clumsy artifacts of masculinity irreconcilable with the honesty of the natural man that Emerson sought in the woods: “He whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other.” Whereas silence is anathema to marriage (Mark’s periodic phone calls to Tanya are a requirement), male friendship is rarely about what’s spoken.
In a letter to Emerson, Whitman wrote that “those things most listened for, certainly those are the things least said.” As both a poet and a lover of men, Whitman knew the treachery of words to represent our desires. His “subtle electric fire” burning for his male friends was fit for the canopied forest bed but not the chattering gossip of city streets.
Mark and Kurt set up a campfire and play at pioneers with a toy gun. Kurt takes a gamble on a moment of honesty: He wants his friend back, or maybe his youth back, and he is vexed that they are not what they once were. He is living in quiet desperation, anguished by a gulf that has opened up between two men who should be one. Mark protests that nothing is wrong, and Kurt quickly relents. We’re fine. He’s just being crazy. Ignore it. Pretend he never said anything. Let’s go back to being men. Talk about something else.
This is the closest the two friends come to verbalizing difficulty. It’s not something they are accustomed to doing. Words were given to straight men in order to maintain power, not to share weakness. This is the strange thing about manly love: It demands vulnerability, and that means putting down your weapons. So these men come together and decide not to talk, for a change.
Their journey takes them past the bounds of language and into a space of mute mindfulness. When they get lost in the forest’s samey highways, the only road sign they find is literally blank. It’s still doing its job in pointing the way: move away from words, and towards those things least said.
Finally, they reach the hot springs. As with the tent, any sexual potential in their nudity is masked by necessity. The dense woods practically beg for manly love. They settle in and soak. In place of words, we get the teeming life of the forest in all its detail, far beyond the reach of any scribe but present to the attentive cineaste. A flinching jay on a skinny branch. A rubbery slug thrusting over moss. Sunlit leaves reflected in running water. Reichardt puts us amidst these same rhythms that have been playing for centuries, where everything is connected, and even approaches something you might call oneness.
Kurt breaks the silence with a story that seems to have no structure or purpose, but which hinges, once again, on a dream (trying to describe a dream is the quickest way to expose the limits of language). Mark’s listening face is a picture of peacefulness, as he finally loses himself in the voice of his friend. Manly love is not so different to meditation after all. It requires attention, and silence, and appreciation of things unsaid. It works best out in the woods.
Oneness is not about solitude. If we are the world around us, then we are not apart from our friends at all. His story done, Kurt pushes even further the social limits Mark brought with him: He gives him a massage. After a moment of squirming resistance Mark accepts his friend’s hands on him, his tension sinking into the water of the spring. Not alone, and quite beautiful. Manly love triumphs.
The men return to their respective homes not having verbalized any life lessons or reconciled buried tensions. They simply took a walk in the woods, practicing the custom of friendship. Kurt will travel on, the experimental romantic, and Mark will go back to his garden where he seeks out oneness with the teardrop-shaped universe. Above both, like men who hover on the edges of words seeking a course to one another, birds rest on parallel telephone wires in perfect silence.