Barkskins by Annie Proulx - book review

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 13 July, 2016
Annie Proulx: “A writerly nod to the human interplay with climate change.”

Annie Proulx’s new book is a response to the environmental changes we have both inherited and created.

About 30 years ago, Annie Proulx was driving on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when she came to a place “that had once been a town but had shrunk to a single grubby laundromat at a crossroads”. It was a landscape of “endless bushes and scrub growth”, and on it stood a sign that read: “In this place once stood the finest white pine forest in the world.” There wasn’t a single pine in sight.

Moved by the image of desolation, she began to conceive a novel that would eventually grow into a giant, sprawling epic, a 714-page lament for the world’s forests.

It was a grand project, many years in the making. Barkskins, Proulx says, “is a writerly nod to the human interplay with climate change, what some in the humanities and arts are beginning to think of as a cultural response to the environmental changes we have inherited in the so-called Anthropocene”.

She began with research, vast tracts of it. Her editor, she noted, had to get her to cut down a lot of it: sadly, some sections on New Zealand’s kauri forests got the chop.

So we set off into Barkskins, penetrating its enormous tangled expanses of research, its subject so weighty and noble that it seems to demand not only a trove of literary prizes, but some sort of special nod from the universe, an award from God perhaps.

It’s not too bad, after a while. You get into the swing of it. You might even abandon rebellious grumbles about the oppressive atmosphere, the sense that you’ve signed up for a tramp so worthy that no one dares complain about the gruelling conditions.

It would just be so wrong to quibble, so frivolous to hope for any lightening up or a break from the history assignment. A kind of guilty self-censorship starts to spread like a creeper: what kind of amoral aesthete or fascist or climate change denier would one be to look at Barkskins simply as a work of fiction and find it wanting?

The central character, as Proulx describes it, is the forests. The human characters are “there to carry the story of how we have cut and destroyed the wooden world”.

So the central characters, the mutely accusatory trees, dominate the fictional terrain. Trees can’t be subjected to any kind of “critique”. They can only exist: beautiful, silent and wronged.

It’s an intergenerational forestry saga, beginning in 1693, as French immigrants Charles Duquet and Rene Sel arrive in New France to work as woodcutters for a powerful and brutal seigneur. Their life as indentured labourers is harsh and their business is destruction. The M’ikmaw Indians can only observe as the Europeans treat the environment with reckless disregard for sustainability, clearing the forests for farming.

Colonisation leads inevitably to dire consequences for the indigenous people, as their traditional hunting grounds are destroyed and they succumb to illnesses brought by the immigrants.

The destruction of pristine lands proceeds with each succeeding generation, as technology advances and fortunes are made from the timber industry. Barkskins covers centuries of exploration, colonisation and industrialisation, ending finally in 2013, as the world’s ecosystem faces an uncertain future.

Proulx’s saga of environmental ruin is yet another baleful reminder of human folly and vulnerability: we destroy, yet ultimately we destroy ourselves. As Yuval Noah Harari noted in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

BARKSKINS, by Annie Proulx (Fourth Estate, $36.99)

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