In her latest novel, “Barkskins,” Annie Proulx sees the forest for more than its trees.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Shipping News” and “Brokeback Mountain,” uses that insight to lament not only the disappearance of the world’s woods, but the greedy mindset and morality that allows, and even demands, that it happen.
Exhaustively researched for both time and place, the 700-page book tells an epic, sprawling tale that starts in the late 17th century with the travails of two Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, who have just arrived in New France (today Canada). The story follows them and their descendants on crooked paths through the trees and 300 years of cutting what was once thought to be the infinite forests that shaded much of North America and the world.
Proulx uses those families of characters and the demise of wildly diverse forests to highlight the biggest true story of our time, climate change, and the critical roles played by the woodsman with an ax and a rapacious society.
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“I have been concerned about and interested in global climate change for the past 20 years or so and wanted to write about this momentous shift,” Proulx, 81, said in a recent email interview. “But the subject was simply too vast and disparate, so I decided to look at one contributory part of climate change – deforestation.
“I also wanted to show the change in attitudes toward ‘the forest' – from inimical vegetable mass that had to be destroyed, to our recognition that the forests are vital agents in climate change by their ability to absorb and store atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
Proulx said the inspiration for “Barkskins” and its long and oft times tragic journey through three centuries of cutting came from personal experience.
“I had observed firsthand the death of the lodgepole forests in Wyoming’s mountains when I lived there,” she said. “That was certainly a catalyst for the story.”
But the story goes well beyond wood chips and board feet to grind its ax on a history of humans’ nature that compels us to act in our own self interest to such a degree that our common wealth of natural resources is eventually destroyed.
“The largest question for me was to wonder what there is in many (if not most) human beings that makes us believe that we have a right to plunder the natural earth?” Proulx said. “What is there in us that blinds us to the ecological damage we do? Why can’t we recognize we are hastening our own end as a species? Is this the fatal flaw in humanity? These questions underlie the story.”