A plot of land in Waldoboro – and how different people view it – is the subject of “Thirteen Ways.” Image courtesy of Ian Cheney

My wife, Emily, and I recently moved to a house in Auburn that came complete with three-quarters of an acre of land. Hardly the wild country, our little dip of suburban land (called, affectionately, “the gully”) sits largely unexplored, its marshy spring and impenetrable snows and no-doubt buggy summer depths content to adorn our first home with its untroubled rustles, peeps and the occasional tinkle of unseen water. Just another patch of Maine earth in an underpopulated state full of such quiet, unremarkable places. 

Maine filmmaker Ian Cheney’s family has another – a small patch of undeveloped land in Waldoboro. Taking his camera there, he films his mother explaining how they’ve owned the land for nearly 50 years, a wry recounting of a long-ago truck accident (blamed on, yes, a deceptively steep gully) perhaps explaining why the parcel still grows wild, and untouched. 

That’s just one of the 12 segments that make up Cheney’s newest documentary, the subtly mesmerizing “Thirteen Ways,” which screens at Portland’s PMA Films on Thursday at 6 p.m. Taking its title from the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” quoted at the start of the film, Cheney’s movie invites 12 disparate people (scientists, artists, a forester, a hunter) to simply walk this small, nondescript piece of Maine land, and see what they see. 

As it turns out, they see a lot.  

Shot over 12 months of varying Maine weather, the individual subjects point out things that interest them to the unseen Cheney. A glaciologist in winter excitedly pulls up a chunk of river ice to show the difference between the “sky ice” and crystalline “stream ice” below. An environmental scientist takes core samples of the dirt and explains how our various medications and other chemicals seep into different layers of the soil according to their magnetic charge. A visual artist takes deep sniffs of the omnipresent pine boughs before announcing that she’s found the perfect patch of ground to do a little dance. (“Oh, I found some poop!” she later exclaims, excitedly, pointing to a pile of woodland scat.)

In their brief forays into this patch of Maine land, the subjects, little by little, show how their chosen paths in life lead them to explore different paths through the happily multifaceted little plot. The hunter – also a guard at the Maine State Prison – explains how walking the woods helps him decompress from the daily grind of violence and fear, while relating how an elevated stand of trees is “good from a tactical sense” for deer looking to stay ahead of predators. An astrophysicist hardly moves at all, merely scooping aside a handful of leaves to extrapolate how the teeming insects therein relate to the impossible scarcity of life on a cosmic scale. Cheney’s little son totes his own (magnifying glass) lens around, doing little kid stuff before staring down his father’s camera and demanding that Cheney “listen to space,” the echoes of animals and wind all around them. 

For Cheney, an accomplished and award-winning documentarian (“King Corn,” “The City Dark,” “The Most Unknown”), “Thirteen Ways” treads familiar thematic ground. Curiosity. Wonder. Nature. Perception and perspective. The film’s modest, 70-minute runtime is, like the small piece of ordinary Maine land at its center, packed with unexpected discoveries. Vole tunnels between the snow and the frozen ground, and leaf miner tunnels made by impossibly flat bugs devouring their way through the layers of a leaf. Inexplicably orange deer pee. A hidden, hibernating larvae in a goldenrod plant. (“Wait, did you just eat it?” Cheney asks a no-nonsense biologist.) 

But as important is what Cheney’s camera sees in the people who’ve come to see. The forester – also a musician – delightedly improvises a natural beat with fallen sticks. Another biologist uses the improbable life cycle of the lowly fern to debunk anti-LGBTQ bigotry by explaining how the natural world is, in fact, far from binary when it comes to sexuality. (“So those are my reflections on the fern,” he wraps up his dissertation, with expert comic timing.) A paraglider soars above the land in his buzzing contraption, yelling through his microphone about feeling like a bird, all while the land itself recedes into a blurry green carpet. Finally, a nighttime time-lapse of the Maine sky squats unattended as it captures the impossible nightly glory of stars moving across its field of view. 

Maine has many things, and little unbroken stretches of land are plentiful. “Thirteen Ways” allows one filmmaker and 12 observers to show just how many ways there are to see the same place, and how much you can truly see there, if you choose to finally put on your boots and look. You’re the 13th.

“Thirteen Ways” screens at 6 p.m. Thursday at PMA Films, Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland. It runs 70 minutes, and tickets are $9, $7 for members or students with ID. To see more of Ian Cheney’s work, check out wickedelicate.com.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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