Proulx and the Forest

Barkskins     Annie Proulx     (2016)

In the year 1693, we meet the original “barkskins” of Annie Proulx’s gigantic novel.  René Sel and Charles Duquet are poor young Frenchmen who take their chances in agreeing to cross the Atlantic and serve for three years as loggers in return for a promise of land of their own. Arriving in the maritime regions of New France (now Canada), René and Charles are stunned by the brutal weather, the vicious mosquitoes, and the virgin forests of unimaginable magnitude.


The two axe-wielders take divergent paths in the wilderness. René Sel sticks with his backbreaking job, reluctantly marries a native Mi’kmaq woman, and dooms his descendants to lives of hard labor in the forests to which they are constantly drawn. The Sel family gets stuck in a racial borderland between European and indigenous cultures and never thrives.

Charles Duquet, however, quickly abandons the tree felling and makes his fortune, first in furs and then in lumber, changing his name to Duke along the way. Charles is the consummate shark, founding a dynasty and a business empire.

Over the three hundred years that Proulx follows these two fictional families, both the Dukes and the Sels exploit the forests—the Dukes through land deals and the Sels by actually chopping down tree after tree after tree. The branches of their families occasionally brush against each other. (The characters are so numerous that I needed to flip frequently to the genealogical charts at the back of the book.) Sometimes Proulx pauses and develops a character in depth. At other times she tosses out names and moves on with her plot.

In the end, the main character of Barkskins is the forest—that vast forest that stretches across much of the North American continent at the beginning of the book. Although the species vary as the barkskins and lumber barons move westward, clearing the land, I think Proulx sees all the trees of North America as part of one mystical body. She’s at her most eloquent in describing this character.

When the surveyors in her story get to what will become the state of Michigan, they find sugar maple, beech, yellow birch, oak, hickory, pine, hemlock, spruce, and fir in forests so dense that the paths of the Native Americans are almost impossible to follow. The huge diameters of the trees are a challenge to the technology of the period. I pored over the descriptions of my home state’s trees, in awe of Proulx’s rich language.

She is, in effect, writing a eulogy for the North American forest, which has become a victim of human depredation, part of a global destruction of the environment. As Proulx takes us through the centuries, we see the respect that native hunter-gatherer societies had for the natural world give way to the Europeans’ demands for tillable land and space for cities. Feeding and housing hordes of immigrants increasingly take priority. The forest sighs, weeps, groans, and dies.

The human toll exacted by the felling of those hundreds of millions of trees is not ignored by Proulx. Gruesome deaths, either directly or indirectly related to the timber industry, abound. I found these deaths difficult to stomach; picture the possibilities with axes, lumber mill saws, huge jams of logs rolling through river rapids, and the menacing branches of toppling trees.

This is a glorious but tragic novel, a moral statement about the failure of humans to be stewards of our planet’s abundance. Yes, Proulx’s ending is weak, her narrative seeming to dwindle like the forest itself. In 1693 no one could imagine that the North American forest would ever end. The tragedy that Proulx documents is not one cataclysmic event that's easily recognized. Rather, it’s the loss of one tree after another, until the forest is gone.