Annie Proulx’s 85th birthday came around on the 22nd August. Perhaps best known for ‘Brokeback Mountain’, her short story about Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist’s intense relationship against a backdrop of violent homophobia published in The New Yorker in 1997, Proulx’s seventies were spent writing her deforestation novel Barkskins, published in 2016 and recently adapted into a National Geographic show.
Proulx’s ecological concern runs through much of her other work, particularly her trilogy of short story collections Close Range: Wyoming Stories. But Barkskins is her most lengthy treatment of the subject, tracing over three hundred years in the lives of two families and the trees amongst which they live and work, from colonial North America to the present day. Though both men begin as barkskins logging in the forests of New France, René Sel’s family becomes interlinked with the indigenous Mi’kmaq, while Charles Duquet establishes the Duke and Sons logging empire. Barkskins displays not only Proulx’s characteristically sharp commentary, impeccable research and curiously dark humour, but also her appreciation of the capacity of novels to offer complex depictions of future climate issues without erasing historic or current injustices.
The historical and mythological references in the novel are eclectic. Proulx grounds the contemporary issue of deforestation in elements of medieval mythology such as Yggdrasil the World Tree, the Old Norse ‘forest of the world’. Proulx’s presentation of forests as gothic, anthropomorphised spaces where ‘tree limbs arched over the silent earth like the dark roof of a tomb vault’ draws on traditional fears of the woods, as do descriptions of ‘the half-imbalanced men who came in from the isolation of the woods. The forest had made them strange – “woods-queer”’. Yet, Proulx’s overwhelming attitude towards forest is one of awe, as one character rapturously declares: ‘I am sure that wild natural woodlands are the only true forests. The entire atmosphere […] a grand wild orchestra. A forest living for itself rather than the benefit of humankind.’
Like much of her work, the novel ruthlessly assesses the harmful effects of capitalism and globalisation on both people and the environment. Proulx emphasises an ambiguous dichotomy in the destruction of New Zealand’s kauri forests as global logging expansion arrives in the country, affirming ‘the forest was there for them.’ Here expressing the view of the loggers that the forest exists for human purposes, this phrase also acknowledges that the forest is also ‘there’ for humanity in its provision of medicinal resources and, ultimately, in its role in the maintenance of a suitable climate for human life through the capture of carbon dioxide. Building on these human concerns, Proulx engages with recent discoveries in dendrology, such as the discovery of forest networks which enable ‘communication’ amongst trees, and a similar wave of interest in nonhuman and plant life in literary theory.
As we continue to maintain discussions of the ongoing injustices of American and global systemic racism and exploitation in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the issue of environmental justice becomes all the more urgent. This is a central concern of Proulx’s novel, which examines the historic correlation between the losses faced by North American indigenous groups and forests as an issue of environmental justice. She draws attention not only to their shared destruction but also to the amnesic attitude with which these assaults are recalled. One of her central characters, the Nineteenth Century logging company director Lavinia Duke, chooses to continue the disinheritance of those members of her family with indigenous ancestry. This injustice, alongside Lavinia’s obliviousness to the destructive consequences of deforestation, complicates her position as a woman pushing boundaries of gender prejudice, as Proulx seamlessly reveals the complexity of achieving environmental and social justice simultaneously.
With her equal attention to the realms of historical detail, the cutting-edge of literary experimentalism and the not-so-distant future of climate change, Proulx’s work is consistently timely and progressive. As the UK government introduces climate policies supporting tree planting schemes as part of the aim to be carbon-neutral by 2050, amidst widespread global forest fires and agricultural deforestation, the significance of Proulx’s epic novel swells. If you want to celebrate Proulx’s work on her birthday, hug a tree, or better yet, plant one.
Image: Aaron Burden via Unsplash