Barkskins by Annie Proulx: An epic (and ongoing) story of extraction

In Book Reviews, Climate Change, Conservation, Fiction, Trees by John Yunker


Barkskins: A Novel

Barkskins tells the intertwined and intergenerational stories of the natives and immigrants of the North American territory once known as New France.

Because this novel takes place over more than 300 years, there are quite a few stories to tell; I found myself frequently consulting the two lengthy family trees in the appendix to keep track of the many characters that come and go.

But the primary (and most tragic) character of this novel is one with no dialogue at all.

As Annie Proulx noted in a recent interview with  The New Yorker:

For me, the chief character in the long story was the forest, the great now-lost forest(s) of the world. The characters, as interesting as they were to develop, were there to carry the story of how we have cut and destroyed the wooden world. There was the real tragedy, and there was no way to make it seriocomic. But rather than calling it an environmental novel I think of it more in the sense of a writerly nod to 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.

For early European settlers, the trees were a gold rush with no end. The patriarch of one family tree, Charles Duquet, devotes his life to harvesting as much of this gold as he can. And in a pivotal scene he sheds light on the rage that  fueled his rise from poverty to timber baron:

Inside Duquet something like a tightly close pinecone licked by fire opened abruptly and he exploded with insensate and uncontrolled fury, a life’s pent-up rage. “No one helped me!” he shrieked. “I did everything myself! I endured! I contended with powerful men. I suffered in the wilderness. I accepted the risk I might die! No one helped me!”

Ultimately, there would be too many Duquets arriving in search of unlimited trees and land; natives suffered this violent and slow-moving disaster firsthand. As a Mi’kmaw elder observed:

“We are sharing our land with the Wenuj and they take more and more. You see how their beasts destroy our food, how their boats and nets take our fish. They bring plants that vanquish our plants. Most do not mean to hurt us, but they are many and we are few. I believe they will become as a great wave sweeping over us.”

Proulx, like Cormac Mcarthy, has a dark sense of humor that expresses itself through the bizarre and unpredictable ways many of the characters meet their demise. I sometimes felt like I was watching Game of Thrones in the sense that just as I become attached to a character he or she would be quickly expired.

In a work of this scale, it’s not surprising that some characters and scenes feel rush or underdeveloped. Proulx was forced to cut a good 150 pages out of the book, which could be a reason why some chapters feel this way. I would have gladly read another 200 pages.

I’m in awe of how Proulx balanced documentary like detail with a plot that takes readers not only across time but halfway around the world. It’s easy to attach “epic” to any novel that weighs in at more than 700 pages, but when I say this novel is epic, I’m talking about what Proulx set out to accomplish, and ultimately did accomplish. Where Sometimes a Great Notion is a testament to the forests along the coast range of Oregon, Barkskins is a testament to all forests.

Despite the overarching sadness of seeing so much beauty and innocence wiped away, there is hope. And it is the young who offer it up. Like the son of a compromised logger, Charley, who asks one day:

“Father, how do you feel about this logging enterprise? Better and better?”

“I give it my support, as we start replanting a year after they get out the cut. It is a balanced process.”

“I can’t image what you think will replace two-thousand-yer-old redwoods–Scotch pine seedlings? And what of the diversity of the soil? Erosion? All those qualities you once cared about? Are you cutting old-growth fir and cedar and planting pine? You mentioned Oregon and Washington.”

Living near the redwoods, where only 5% of these majestic trees remain from a forest that once stretched a thousand miles along the Pacific coast, we came all too close to losing it all.

Proulx dedicates this novel to “barkskins of all kinds” which includes not only those who fell trees for profit, but those who study them and those (we meet near the end of the novel) who devote their lives to protecting the trees we have left.

With each chapter, each passing generation, this book gains a presence that you don’t fully appreciate until you are near the end. At least I didn’t. As I approached the end, chronologically the present, I felt the weight of all that was lost. But I also felt a growing sense of optimism for what people are doing today to save what is still here and to regrow what is lost.

Barkskins: A Novel