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What's a forest for?

Book review
Reviewed by Stephen Kaye

Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Scribner.

In past books, Annie Proulx has written about the decline of New England farming and the generation that left the rocky soils to wander around the country in search of work: she wrote about a remote seaside village in Labrador filled with colorful characters of endearing richness,  the industrialized hog farms of the Oklahoma panhandle, the tough customers that work the logging camps, the cattle ranches, the rodeos, the oil rigs, all with a sense of inevitable failure, the immensity of adversity, hard luck, and calamity.

Six years ago I heard Annie Proulx talk about what would be her next book. It was going to be about the northern forests. She mentioned driving across northern Michigan to see what was left of the boreal pine forests that once covered the Upper Peninsula. That book, Barkskins, is now out to less than enthusiastic reviews.

I found the book sustaining despite its 700 plus pages and the somewhat tedious account of two families who started out at the same time and place in Nova Scotia. She follows them through the early colonial period and through the 19th and 20th centuries to the present period of environmental awareness.

Proulx was motivated by the destruction of the forests of the New World, both in North America and, surprisingly, New Zealand. It seems that wherever man found forests, his instinct was to cut them down.  Timber interests did it for greed, and her characters had a lot of it. They cut trees because it was the thing to do—a way to make a wage, a way to claim and reconfigure his own landscape in the New World. It was a way to clear the land for human settlement, a way to make easy money, to build an enterprise and wealth.

Her characters were often aware that destruction of the forest was an assault on nature, would damage the habitats of wildlife, would alter the landscape, but economic determinism was always the more powerful force. 

One protagonist was the Mi’kmaw Indians; the other descended from French-Dutch-Indian stock. They shared a common ancestry that in the end come back together in somewhat forced resolution to a rambling history that was always about trees, their destruction, and their role in the lives and deaths of the characters.

Proulx does a lot more than tell a story. She asks some big questions. Could we have done it differently? Was the economic imperative imposed by the institution of private ownership?  The Indians lived in and with the forest. They didn’t have to cut it down. It was the white man, the European settler who had the destructive instincts.  Only when the forests had been almost totally destroyed in North America what we did began to sink in.

One can say the trees were the victims, but so were the men who cut them down. For the most part they got their just deserts; the trees had their revenge. The life of the woodmen was short and brutish. The cities that were made of the forest timber burned: the fires of Chicago and San Francisco spared not the timber merchants. Hubris is rewarded with nemesis.

The book presents an explanation of what happened to northern forests. She examines the motives, the apparent necessity to destroy a natural resource.  She describes how the more enlightened thought the resource was renewable, and how they were surprised to find they were wrong: the forests did not regenerate. In the end, the timber family recognizes that what they cut in a year or two might take a thousand years to regenerate.

The book ends on the theme of regeneration. Proulx asks: Is it too late? With the melting of the ice cap, is all lost? The effort to regenerate is a tiny one, a glimmer of hope surrounded by dark clouds.

In truth, 21st century man is still unaware the role of the forest. When we think of forests we think of Brazil or Southeast Asia, forgetting that our own forest once covered much of North America and that what remains is still of value. But recent history shows we don’t know about our forests: the trees or wildlife or the role of forests within our ecosystems.

We live in ignorance at our peril. No one makes the case better than Annie Proulx.