Barkskins are people who respect and engage with the natural world in a way that most humans do not: not in a relationship of dominance but one of mutual reliance.  They are the greenies and the scientists and the replanters and those who know no matter how big a forest is, its yield is not infinite and we can destroy something centuries-old in just a human lifetime.  Annie Proulx’s new novel is a multi-generational epic, spanning generations and continents, examining capitalism and immigration and family politics but always, always returns to the trees.

I had just finished, and loved, Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole when I discovered her first novel since had come out – 14 years later.    I don’t think it really mattered what it was about, what mattered was she was weaving her magic again in full-length fiction.  And it is a long book: at over 700 pages it covers the story of two French immigrants to Canada – René Sel and Charles Duquet – and the journeys of their descendants.  They are loggers, and their family returns to the forest time and time again through different ways and means with different stories.  But these families emerge to be a tool for Proulx to tell the history of our relationship with our environment; more specifically, the forests.

For René and Charles, the forests of New France are a symbol of wildness to be conquered, almost a moral impetuous to prove the organisation and industry of man can defeat the dangerous and untamed.

“René felt the power of the ax, its greedy hunger to bite through all that stood in its way, sap spurting, firing out white chips like china shards…As he cut, the wildness of the world receded, the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human life to animals, trees to flush and bones to grass shivered as each tree fell and one by one the web strands snapped.”

And of course this attitude of conquering extended beyond the forests to the native peoples.

There is a current throughout the generations of barkskins who aware of this web of the world – the interconnectedness between animals and their environment – and how fragile it is.  Throughout the centuries strands are snapped, and the conquers do not heed the warnings of those aware of the importance of this world.  Reading from the 21st Century, we know where this unquenchable consumption has led us which perhaps in a literary sense impedes the book: when we hear a character advocating the idea replanting after deforestation, for example, we know wins the argument because we know where we are now.

And while it is an important story, and an epic one, at times it is not told well.  I love what this is about, but the how let it down.  We skip across whole generations; the entire adulthood of a boy we spent time with in his formative years is surmised in a sentence as Proulx moves us on again.  It is increasingly apparent that the characters are fronts for the real story of the forest, which is fine, but the disregard with which they and their progeny are treated by Proulx can get tiring as we meet yet another generation after the last one is dismissed.

Of course, new generations’ loss of information about their ancestors is an analogy for how quickly humanity forgets its lessons.  A forest destroyed on one continent does not apparently provide lessons for this forest of New France or, later, New Zealand.  Just as there is frustration in the younger generation dismissing the learnings of their parents, there is a larger frustration with the individualism of humanity and their insistence that their consumption is special, or worthy, or different.

“Decomposition seemed as violent – the collapse of leaf structures, cells breaking down, liquefaction of solid wood into an mold squirming with lively bacteria and animalcula seething and transforming into energy. Yes, and insects and larvae, worms and rodents and everywhere the famous ants who ruled the tropics. He almost understood how the incomprehensible richness of Amazonia made humans clutch and rend in maenadic frenzies of destruction. Such a forest was an affront, standing there smirking.”

I wish there were more barkskins in this novel, but this is a historical fiction and we know from our history that there have not been nearly enough.  The novel is a multi-generational family epic, as well as a heavy tome illustrating painfully exactly how we got to this place with our environment.  Proulx’s latest novel is almost not a novel but a moral instruction based in history to help us move forward to a better relationship with the earth.

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