Faithful Representations: The Bible That Vanished Without a Trace

Secularization Deep in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest

Guest Contributor / 7.15.20

Thankful for this post from Rachel Arteaga:

In the spring of 2004, the Oregonian reported that police in Portland had found “an elaborate camp dug into a steep hillside” in Forest Park, a 5,200-acre woodland conservancy just within the city limits, where a man and a young girl, presumably father and daughter, had been living undetected for years. Their provisions included a tarp, sleeping bags, and tools. Among the debris of their off-the-grid life there were also well-worn books: a stack of encyclopedias and a Bible. The man identified himself as a military veteran and a devout Christian. He and the girl were in good health; her body conveyed no sign of abuse or neglect. For her age—12 years old—she seemed well-spoken beyond her years.

The authorities considered ways to keep the two together while also drawing them back into society. A local took them in and gave the man work and shelter on his large rural property. The Lutheran church in town opened its doors to the strangers, and the man and his daughter attended services on Sundays as well as other gatherings throughout the week. They expressed gratitude for this generosity. But the man also described a feeling of unease about the attention and media coverage, and by June, the papers reported that the two had “vanished into the spring air of Oregon’s coastal range.”

They have never resurfaced. But they have entered our cultural imagination, first through the intrigue of news articles, then in a 2008 novel inspired by their story, titled My Abandonment, by Peter Rock, and most recently through that novel’s adaptation into director Debra Granick’s intricate 2018 film Leave No Trace. In the novel and the film, the hidden and unknowable lives of two very real people are richly imagined in fiction. But it cannot be said that these are faithful representations. In them, the man and his daughter do not carry a Bible with them; they do not speak its verses; they do not express religious convictions or identify as Christians. In reviews of the book and the film, this difference between the original reporting and the fiction goes unmentioned. It seems that the artists who produced these renderings felt that religion wasn’t centrally important to the story. And perhaps, because the scene is set in a region widely understood to be deeply secularized, the characters would seem estranged from their own surroundings if they were portrayed as religious figures.

I have lived for most of my life in the Pacific Northwest. In our region, there is a pervasive sense that formal religious beliefs and practices are distant realities. As scholars have shown, people here often, and more often than elsewhere in the United States, self-identify as having no religious affiliation. And we are indexed in the national imagination as untethered from many cultural and historical traditions more broadly. Professor Stephanie LeMenager describes the ways in which the northwestern states are especially vulnerable to a particular kind of contextual misunderstanding: “literatures of the region often write it off as either a depressed resource colony or a countercultural project,” she writes. “Both representational strategies conceive the Pacific Northwest as largely outside of history.”

On this blank canvas, outside of time, a sense of self rooted in an ancient religious tradition is the last thing that anyone would expect to find or feel obligated to portray. So, in the novel and the film, we find questions of social marginalization, impoverishment, precarious self-sufficiency, the lasting traumas endured by veterans of American wars, and the potentialities of freedom and vulnerability embodied in the figure of an adolescent girl. These topics are all explored with devastating clarity and nuance in My Abandonment and Leave No Trace. But questions of faith, doubt, religious tradition, and theology are set aside.

An attention to the patterns of inclusion and omission, depiction and erasure that we see in novels, films, and other art forms can help us to better understand why the Pacific Northwest is persistently the most culturally underrepresented region in the United States. If the people who live here are understood to be living outside of history, to what traces of shared knowledge, experience, or belief are their stories connected? Are there traditions and communities across time and geographical distance to which they might be deeply tied? Or, in our cultural imagination, do we prefer to abandon them to their own remote, obscure, and untraveled paths?

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My Abandonment movingly depicts a shared inner life between a father and a daughter. In its representation of the encyclopedia as the center of their shared existence, the novel insists upon a secular framework for our understanding of its two main characters. By repeating this creative decision, the film completes the erasure of religious identity in the story, emphasizing instead other unspoken, unwritten valences of meaning in the lower-class margins of whiteness for which Debra Granick’s work is known. Watching Leave No Trace, I felt my heart pulled into the intimate familiarity of the landscape and the faces on the screen. I also felt it pulled in another direction, toward the question of what else might have been depicted there if Christianity, as it is often subtly practiced in the Pacific Northwest, had been at the center of its creative attention. For example, as it was practiced in my own family when I was a child.

My father’s family was from West Virginia. A few years after he was born, my grandparents uprooted themselves from the forestlands and farms of those low mountains and traveled to the furthest reaches of the Pacific Northwest. They built a house beneath the shadow of hurricane ridge, in Port Angeles, Washington, and it was in the woods and alongside the rivers between that logging town and mine that I learned as a child what it meant to live in what my grandmother called God’s country. To live in this region, the least churched stretch of land in a nation famous for its steeples, was to live in direct communion with the created world, and through that world to make your own path to God. That path did not necessarily lead to the front steps of a church. But it did involve the Bible—a book on the shelf, a repository of what was taken to be true and real.

Granick’s films—from Winter’s Bone, set in the Ozarks of Missouri, to Leave No Trace, set here beneath my feet—come closer than anything else I have seen to an accurate representation of the unspoken values that my family passed down to me. The communities in the Ozarks and the Appalachian mountains are not the same, but white poverty pervades them both. Self-sufficiency as a statement of personal dignity underwrites them both. There is a resonant logic between them, about the choices made by desperate people who nonetheless live by a code that outsiders do not understand. These descriptions also hold for the logging towns of the Pacific Northwest. I recognize in these films the culture that my family passed down to me, and I see it as clearly as I can see my father’s face in certain expressions that pass across the face of my young son. And yet, because they do not include depictions of religious belief, I also see in them a reverberating emptiness.

There was a Bible in the encampment in Forest Park; it has since vanished in the re-tellings of this story. How has this detail gone unnoticed by those who have read the novel and seen the film? Many readers and viewers certainly would have done what I first did when I learned that the story was based on true events: searched for and read through the newspaper clippings. Among an abject scarcity of material objects, there was a sacred book. From the paucity of recorded statements, there was a testimony of Christian faith. This discrepancy—a word to use lightly, as truth and fiction can never be reconciled in any case—is a meaningful one.

Perhaps the secularization of this story simply reflects the personal convictions and creative inclinations of the novelist and the filmmaker. It may also respond to the prevailing secularized assumptions of contemporary audiences. And it is also possible that the secular versions of the story seemed even more realistic, more fitting to its context, than reality itself. The Pacific Northwest remains the most culturally opaque region in our nation. The project of representing it fully and faithfully, with all of its unexpected and nuanced details, is still underway. But we might also ask ourselves a larger question: why do any of us find it so realistic, and so believable, that these two people would be walking through this world not only with no social ties to anyone else in it, but also without hope or belief in a world beyond this life?