“The forests are infinite and permanent.”
Nature’s sounds, smells and raw beauty permeate much of Annie Proulx’s fiction. Proulx elevates nature to the status of a “character” in her work. And this is true of her latest novel, Barkskins. In it she explores European settlers’ stubborn failure to understand the impact of their assault on North America’s forests, an ignorance sustained for centuries by greed, arrogance, and willful blindness. Along with the trees the settlers decimated the indigenous peoples’ ways of life and means of survival. The settlers’ and Indians’ conflicting attitudes toward nature is the main theme of this big, ambitious novel that crosses continents, enlists many dozens of characters, and spans centuries.
The multi-generational histories of the fictional Sel and Duquet (later “Duke”) families frame the story, which opens in 1693 when a group of French immigrants, among them Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in Quebec territory. The men are hired out as indentured servants to a fellow Frenchman who holds a land grant from the French government, and he puts Rene and Charles to work clearing his land. Charles soon runs away with the intention of making it rich as a fur trader but Rene stays on, earning his freedom and some land of his own after a few years. Like the other European immigrants, Rene believes that clearing the land is a matter of survival, the only protection against becoming the prey for hostile animals and Indians lying in wait inside the forests. It’s a zero-sum game: forests must be cut and the land used for growing crops and grazing animals. Clearing the land means possessing it.
…when a White Man comes and cuts the oppressive encroaching Forest, builds a House for his Family and Shelter for his Beasts, the Indians complain that he takes their Land, Land they have done nothing to improve, but rather have allowed to ever thicken with more and more Trees. They do not understand that the White Man who struggles and strives to reduce the Forest’s grip has exerted his God-given Right to claim the cleared Land as his own.
Rene’s wife Mari, a local Mi’kmaw Indian, is unable to reconcile her husband’s destruction of the forest with her beliefs. To the Mi’kmaw all things found in nature—rivers, rocks, animals, plants and trees—are deities. This animism espouses a spiritual affinity with nature; it’s sacrilege for man to alter it. The idea that nature is immutable is incomprehensible to the settlers and as a result, the Indians suffer.
They stood opposed on the nature of the forest. To Mari it was a living entity, as vital as the waterways, filled with the gifts of medicine, food, shelter, tool material, which everyone discovered and remembered. One lived with it in harmony and gratitude. She believed the interminable chopping of every tree for the foolish purpose of “clearing the land” was bad. But that, thought René, was woman’s talk. The forest was there, enormous and limitless. The task of men was to subdue its exuberance, to tame the land it grew on – useless land until cleared and planted with wheat and potatoes.
Charles Duquet, meanwhile, gives up on the fur trade and decides that the quickest and surest path to wealth is to supply Europe with much-needed timber to construct ships and buildings. A consummate opportunist, Duquet positions himself to wed a wealthy Dutch ship owner’s daughter in order to have a ready means to send North American timber abroad. Realizing that he will need sons to create a timber dynasty, Duquet adopts three sons to work alongside his biological ones. Rene’s and Mari’s sons also follow in their father’s footsteps, taking jobs as tree cutters or “barkskins.” The Sel and Duquet bloodlines eventually merge when Beatrix Duke, granddaughter of Charles, and Kuntaw Sel, the grandson of Rene and Mari, have children together.
The settlers bring eventual and certain death to everything in their tree-leveling path: plants, animals, Indians and entire ecosystems—the very fabric of the natural world. Proulx focuses on the Indians’ tragic fate by illustrating how the destinies of the Sel and Duke families sharply diverge over just a few decades—the Sels fade into poverty, alcoholism, and despair while the Dukes amass great wealth and prosper. It is not just the Indians but all of us who have lost something irreplaceable from the settlers’ heedless deforestation, a destruction too complete to self-correct naturally.
Men were chopping pine in hundreds of places. The big softwoods fell. New seedlings burst up on cutover ground but now there was a break in the density of the woodland, and as new trees sprouted, the species succession shifted a little in each cutover tract. The forest began to alter in small ways. It still lived but it was not what it had been. Few noticed.
By the time sufficient people did notice, all attempts to rebuild the forests fell far short of replicating what had once been.
…natural woodlands are the only true forests. The entire atmosphere – the surrounding air, the intertwined roots, the humble ferns and lichens, insects and diseases, the soil and water, weather. All these parts seem to play together in a kind of grand wild orchestra. A forest living for itself rather than the benefit of humankind.
As the novel draws to a close, Proulx brings her story full circle. The modern-day descendants of Mari, the Mi’kmaw woman, dedicate themselves to learning the ways of their tribal ancestors in an effort to re-establish man’s symbiotic relationship with nature rather than acquiesce to a constant war against it.
Without question an enormous amount of research went into writing Barkskins. Each short chapter is replete with arcane nuggets of fact, such as the types of tress that have religious significance for New Zealand’s aborigines, and how a fire coal stored inside a clay filled clam shell can stay hot for days. Except for a few false notes (in particular a very clumsily sex scene, comes to mind), each of the book’s seven hundred pages demonstrates Proulx’s mastery of straightforward yet deeply imaginative prose.
In the last week of her life Beatrix had the illusion that she was suspended in an immense bowl of water. At first the water was as easy to breathe as air, but gradually as the mass in her stomach pressed on her lungs it became viscous as old honey. The bowl was similar to the yellow crockery bowl in which she had mixed bread dough. Occasionally she surfaced and in the distance could see its pale rim. Some days the water was limpid and yielding, others, shot through with strong orange currents of pain. Underwater storms raged, and then she had tried to draw up her legs to protect her throbbing gut from the lightning strikes.
Despite Proulx’s strong writing, Barkskins lacks momentum, and its length makes this more evident than it otherwise might be. The narrative is episodic rather than tightly plotted (apart from a bit of intrigue about the rightful heirs to the Duke family business, and even that quickly dispensed), and as a result the tension that would enliven the novel’s slow, sleepy pulse is missing. Proulx’s most admired works of fiction—her novel The Shipping News and short story Brokeback Mountain—are understated, intimate expositions of place and character. Barkskins is different: it inhabits many, diverse locales (Quebec, Newfoundland, Maine, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, London, China, New Zealand, and Brazil, among others) and subordinates in-depth character exploration to the narration of centuries-long family histories. Many of the settings and personalities feel shallow. Missing is the interiority of the characters, an evocation of how individual perceptions create subtle shifts of thought and feeling.
Unlike Quoyle in The Shipping News or Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, these actors leave no blood on the page, no mark on readers’ consciousness. With Barkskins it seems that Proulx cast the net too wide, overlooking what can be captured only by going deeper, bringing up to the surface the attributes of storytelling that excite and move us.