Chop and Burn

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Barkskins by Annie Proulx
    Fourth Estate, 717 pp, £18.99, June 2016, ISBN 978 0 00 723200 0

The ‘barkskins’ of Annie Proulx’s huge and hugely unsatisfying novel should by rights be trees – things that have bark for skin – but she attaches the word to people who are involved with trees in whatever capacity, destructive or protective. She preserves a certain amount of ambiguity, just the same, delaying the word’s appearance in the text until after the 200-page mark (‘He invited the overwrought barkskins to a nearby tavern for a drink’) and spelling out its range of meanings in an area of the text that most readers can be relied on to skip, the bottom of the dedication page: ‘For barkskins of all kinds – loggers, ecologists, sawyers, sculptors, hotshots, planters, students, scientists, leaf eaters, photographers, practitioners of shinrin-yoku, land-sat interpreters, climatologists, wood butchers, picnickers, foresters, ring counters and the rest of us.’ ‘Wood butchers’, a dismissive term for incompetent carpenters, seems an odd inclusion – why should carpenters be so disparaged when loggers and sawyers go uncriticised?

The answer may be the reluctant admiration for cutters and processors of wood aroused by the vast amount of research Proulx has done into the history of the timber trade, despite her ambition in this book to restore a sense of the sacredness of the forest. The jobs involved, physically demanding and dangerous, were often undertaken by indigenous people whose culture had not thought of trees as an exploitable resource before the arrival of the white man (here normally written as ‘whiteman’). Carpenters don’t run the same risk of being crushed, impaled, drowned or burned alive as those who handle timber at the earlier stages of its journey from forest to market.

Barkskins can fairly claim to be a family saga: René Sel is introduced on the first page, Charles Duquet (later Duke) on the second – both of them arriving in New France (later Canada) to work as indentured labourers before settling on the land they earn by their work – and members of both families are still present in the book seven hundred pages later. René Sel marries a Mi’kmaw woman called Mali (really Mari, but she can’t manage the ‘r’ sound), a happy union even if the idea was not his. René’s master, rising in the world, made an advantageous marriage and wanted to regularise his household by passing on his previous mistress to someone who couldn’t say no. Duquet runs away from the harsh conditions to which René manages to adapt himself, and founds a timber business, adopting three sons whom he trains up as deputies and successors. When a natural son – Outger – is born, Duquet regards him from the same untender perspective, as just another lieutenant in the enterprise that obsesses him.

Whenever there is a fork in the path – is she writing family drama or business chronicle, history of American trade or lament for the dispossession of the Mi’kmaw people? – it’s Proulx’s habit to set off down both routes, until the whole project ramifies uncontrollably. The exploitation of the forests of North America is a vast enough subject, but she feels the need to take characters to New Zealand at two historical moments to enrich a record that was already in danger of bursting. She struggles to find a cut-off point, with the first section of the book set in 1693, the last in 2013. This great wash of time neutralises any sense of continuing drama, diluting even sharply drawn characters. There’s sometimes an element of the gothic, even the grotesque, in the portrayal of members of the Duke family: Outger is a scholar of indigenous medicine well on the way to madness, while Posey Brandon, who marries a Duke of a later generation, is not merely vivacious but sexually hungry, having been taught the bedroom arts in a particularly feral configuration by her own father. Proulx seems uncertain how best to incorporate such characters into the feast without their pungency overwhelming everything else, and there’s plenty of anticlimax along the way. After the death of a distinctive character – which happens every hundred pages or so – the pulse of the narrative slows almost to the point of stopping. The business meetings held at such moments may have an element of family tension, but they also serve the demands of a book that is at least as much chronicle as novel, and needs to keep up with events. The resulting discussions don’t make for convincing dialogue: ‘There is increasing murmuration that the colonies should join together and flout England. We already do so flout when it comes to timber and shipbuilding, to smuggling and to molasses. The constant promulgation of punitive acts and taxes do threaten our region’s livelihood. If we were not the creature of England we would thrive greatly.’

In a historical saga the generations function as the rungs of a ladder, but here the ladder is rather dauntingly extended and the rungs are unevenly spaced, and not uniformly sturdy. The author’s obsessive commitment is to her research and the historical record, rather than the architecture of the book or any developing relationship with the reader. Unnamed people without a connection to the narrative somehow earn a place in the text:

a logger whose cheap boots fell apart during the spring drive, another who did not regard a slice of raw pork dipped in molasses as the acme of dining, the man laid up for six months by a woods accident immobile in bed while his wife took in ‘boarders’ who stayed in the house less than twenty minutes, a drought-ruined Kansas family eating coyotes to stay alive.

Proulx is still doggedly introducing new characters ten pages from the end of the book.

One of the startling pieces of information relayed in Barkskins is that in the 18th century the timber business was less than one four-thousandth as profitable as the West Indies trade in sugar and molasses. The supply of timber wasn’t a luxury but a strategic and political necessity; you can’t build a fleet out of sugar cane. It took fifty acres of oak to produce a single 74-gun warship – and a mature white pine looked like nothing so much as a mighty mast waiting to be set free of its sheath of bark.

Anyone who felled such trees was harvesting not just timber but hundreds of years of growth. Even those whose lives were spent in this business occasionally wondered at its wastefulness, since a relatively small proportion of what was cut could be transported and no one considered replanting for the future. Later, when settlers were claiming territory, it was standard practice to clear land by burning, as if standing forest was merely an obstruction to the important business of building homes. The rival claims of logging and settlement, which government made some attempt to regulate, led to horribly inventive stratagems:

The Homestead Acts of the 1860s were sweet gifts to Duke, which hired perjurous ‘settlers’, who camped on the land for a few days, nailed up a feeble shack of a few boards – the ‘house’ – shoved two empty whiskey bottles between the boards for windows, ground a heel in the dirt to indicate a well and claimed a homestead. Others toted around a dollhouse with windows, roof and floors, put it on the site and at the Land Office declared a house ‘fourteen by sixteen’, not mentioning that the measurements were in inches rather than feet. Still others had the smallest allowable ‘house’ on skids that was hauled around to the various claims and designated a livable shanty. Duke bought up huge blocks of land in these ways, rushed in, cut the timber and then gave up the homestead rights. No one objected; they were smart American businessmen going ahead, doing what businessmen did.

The complexity of the environment being exploited, and the rapidity with which conditions changed when the trees were cut down (the fertility of the soil lessening, for instance), was something learned either with agonising slowness or at appalling speed. One Maine timberman, as recounted in Barkskins, put his mill at the bottom of a steep hill covered with pines right to the water’s edge, planning a very neat operation, the logs being conveyed down the hill on a slide to the mill, the resulting lumber loaded onto ships docked directly in front. But a denuded hill behaves differently in a spring thaw – in this case gathering itself ‘like a cat’ and rushing down in a landslide of mud, burying not only the mill but everyone who worked there, and sinking the ship that was waiting for its load.

There are plenty of descriptions of forest landscapes both spoiled and unspoiled, not just in North America but in New Zealand, where the kauri tree attracts covetous eyes as a consequence of its massive size and the great height of its trunk before the first branch appears. There is also a brief excursion into desert country, to prove that Proulx doesn’t depend on foliage to convey beauty: ‘The sun rushed up in a tide of gilt that became the flat white of noon, then the torpid decay of visibility in an evening dusk still throbbing with accumulated heat.’ There’s sawmill lyricism to balance the wilderness rhapsody and elegy, bringing the acknowledgment that the precision of making and naming has its own allure:

The millman threw the lever and with a wet clatter water dumped onto the wheel outside and the muley saw began to gnaw slowly through the log with a steely nasal sound. A rain of sawdust fell below, the air thickened with the smell of pine, earth and hot metal. Lavinia saw how the log carriage was pulled forward by a cable and at the end of the log another small wheel gigged the carriage back. Two edger men put the fresh-cut boards on top of the log, Joe Push reset for the next cut and the saws began to bite again, removing the bark-edges from the passenger planks.

The voice of caution, if not yet of ecological worry, is sounded here, towards the middle of the 19th century, by Dieter Breitsprecher, the brother of a senior Duke employee, who marvels along with everyone else at the arboreal plenty of America but, as a German, has experience of something unknown in the New World: forest management. He feels more affinity with the indigenous people than the incomers, not least in their attitude to time:

In Europe people consider the past and the future with greater seriousness. We have been managing forests for centuries and it is an ingrained habit to consider the future. Americans have no sense of years beyond three – last year, this year and next year. I suppose I keep to my old ways. I like to know that there will be a forest when I am gone.

Proulx has a weakness for silly and/or overexplicit names, such as Theodore Jinks and Sextus Bollard, and the name Breitsprecher, meaning ‘wide speaker’, is only slightly more sophisticated, conveying his eloquence and breadth of perspective, but Proulx nevertheless makes him work as a character rather than the novel’s voice of conscience.

He even provides a late-arriving love interest for Lavinia Duke, the first woman in the family to take an actual interest in the business. Lavinia is strongly armoured against romantic approaches, seeing them as overtures made to her status rather than her person. Her change of heart is adroitly managed, and so is her partial retraction of feeling soon afterwards, before they are married, when Dieter is injured in a railway accident. This vulnerable man cannot protect her and when she sits by his bedside she turns her face slightly away and speaks to the wall or window. The marriage goes ahead – she turns down his suggestion that they spend their honeymoon contemplating the ravages of deforestation in the Mediterranean – and is a success in the lower emotional key now prevailing (prevailing on her side, at least). Breitsprecher joins Duke in the company name and conservation becomes one of the concerns of the evolving enterprise. Apart from anything else, though Lavinia doesn’t exactly share this thought with her husband, it’s an effective disguise for a rapacity that continues undiminished. Environmentalism and greenwashing, so close in age, must almost be counted as twins. They appeal to different sides of human nature: the need to know the worst and the need to be told everything is all right.

Barkskins is a chronicle of spoliation, of the degradation of an immense habitat, though those who did the despoiling were confident that the forest was infinite, that it was somehow eternal even when visibly retreating. This note is sounded again and again, without seeming to be heard by anyone in the novel. From the perspective of the original Sel, René, ‘The forest was there, enormous and limitless. The task of men was to subdue its exuberance.’ He believes that ‘his countless axe blows were nothing against the endless extent of the earth’s spiky forest crown.’ From the settlers’ point of view, ‘the forest was a grand resource and it was both the enemy and wealth.’ A good century later a Duke still could make the serene declaration: ‘I am not interested in fifty years hence as there is no need for concern. The forests are infinite and permanent.’

*

These aren’t new preoccupations for American literature. In ‘The Bear’, a novella that forms part of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, published in 1942, the conflict between the wilderness as a fact and as a necessary symbol is played out in the apparently endless hunt for Old Ben, a bear with a mangled foot and a ‘long legend’ of destructiveness that haunts the imagination of young Ike McCaslin:

It ran in his knowledge before he ever saw it. It loomed and towered in his dreams before he even saw the unaxed woods where it left its crooked print, shaggy, tremendous, red-eyed, not malevolent but just big, too big for the dogs which tried to bay it, for the horses which tried to ride it down, for the men and the bullets they fired into it; too big for the very country which was its constricting scope.

Impossible that Old Ben should live for ever, unthinkable that he should die.

‘The Bear’ is full of significant objects and creatures, including an inherited silver cup (Holy Grail or poisoned chalice) and a snake crawling with symbolism – ‘the old one, the ancient and accursed about the earth, fatal and solitary’. Even so, Faulkner comes at the question of how paradise was lost by a sophisticated double route, invoking both territorial and family guilt. The indigenous people’s right to the land was revoked by God the moment they imagined they could sell it. McCaslin explains: ‘On the instant when Ikkemotubbe’ – the original vendor – ‘discovered, realised, that he could sell it for money, on that instant it ceased ever to have been his for ever, father to father to father, and the man who bought it bought nothing.’ The family guilt involves the sexual (and most likely incestuous) exploitation of slaves.

There’s no question that Proulx knows a great deal more than Faulkner about First Nation people. For a start she understands that buying land was not a notion that had any substance for the indigenous inhabitants, who had no sense of the profit motive, the newcomers’ unflagging ‘zeal for surplus’. Value for Mi’kmaw people was a matter of context: everyone knew that a burial place should be honoured with a beaver skin, except the white man who would take it away to sell, on no better basis than that finders were keepers. Mali Sel’s children are cheated of the house René bequeathed to her, but though this is a manifest injustice it’s also clear that there is a limited overlap between the two cultures’ assumptions about what property is. Elphège, Mali’s eldest son by her first husband, tries to reassure Achille, his half-brother, that nothing has been lost: ‘Brother, it is only a whiteman house. You do not wish to be tied down to a potash kettle like such a one. Let us go. We will hunt and fight. We will not burn trees into dirty ashes.’ As a métis, half French as well as half Mi’kmaw, Achille has a certain lurking regard for rootedness and the fruits of labour (‘He could not just walk away after so much chopping and burning’), but there’s no alternative to moving on.

In Barkskins, as in ‘The Bear’, there’s an extended family whose far-flung branches occupy very different places in the world. When Ike McCaslin comes into ownership of the family plantation at the age of 21, he renounces the tainted inheritance – or rather, following his own logic, he declares that there is nothing to renounce since God had revoked the original title the moment Ikkemotubbe tried to convert land into something else. Ike tries to live with the bare minimum of possessions and feels an obligation to make amends to descendants of those who suffered on the plantation, the human beings who were won in a card game or swapped for ‘an underbred trotting gelding’. There is a close connection between Proulx’s Dukes, wealthy despite various business reverses, and the dispossessed Sels, though few people are aware of it: one of Outger’s eccentricities had been to marry a Passamaquoddy woman, her name not recorded. Beatrice, their daughter, married Kuntaw, Achille’s son and consequently René’s grandson. Family trees are provided at the end of the book – in fact these are the only trees in Barkskins that seem to prosper as the centuries go by.

A little before the Civil War, Lavinia Duke, ailing and worrying that she may be the last of her line, starts to look through family papers and to hire genealogists to do research for her. One of them brings back disquieting news. There are indeed candidates for the inheritance, or as it suddenly seems, rivals, since these ‘still-unidentified Indians’ in Canada are blood relatives of Charles Duquet, while Lavinia, descended from an adopted son, is not. Lavinia is rapidly cured of her curiosity about family, saying: ‘I think you need not disturb the Canadian situation. We will consider the investigation closed.’ The moment the genealogist has left she throws his report into the wastepaper basket. Her secretary, who was present at the meeting, carries the basket through to the front office, saying she’ll empty it into the stove, but only rattles the stove door before carefully stowing the papers at the back of a cupboard, hidden beneath her rain cape. This tiny jolt of drama, a moment almost of Wilkie Collins plotting, doesn’t seem extravagant as a long-service award offered – in lieu of a gold watch – to the reader just reaching the 550-page mark, and perhaps considering retirement.

It’s another century, and another hundred pages, before this plot element shows further signs of life. Sophia Hannah Breitsprecher Harkiss becomes only the second woman in the family to take an interest in the business, but unlike Lavinia she is only desultorily looking for something to do. By this time the company deals mainly in plywood and is being undercut by rivals selling cheaper Canadian wood, though to everyone’s surprise the seedling nurseries, Dieter’s legacy, turn a handsome profit. ‘She saw herself as the family intellectual; she took Book-of-the-Month Club selections and often read at least the first chapters of the books that arrived.’ (Satire isn’t Proulx’s strong suit.) Almost before she has settled on her role in the family firm she buys two Chanel suits. Her chosen position is as archivist of the business, and her husband and brother humour her, allowing her the title and an office, which she decks out (image being all) in oil-rubbed teak, with a beige wool carpet and a big Eames chair. In the course of putting together her flimsy book, hardly more than a pamphlet (Breitsprecher-Duke, the Story of a Forest Giant), she comes across papers to do with Lavinia’s genealogical search.

Her brother looks into the mystery, and immediately wishes he hadn’t, since his inquiries alert the genealogist’s son, by bad luck a lawyer, to a source of profitable mischief. At last this juicy bit of plotting comes off the back burner – yet in fewer than ten pages it has boiled dry. The threat to the Dukes is headed off. The Sels never learn of their connection to wealth and power. After so much preparation, including specifying the genealogists’ clothes and accessories – one wears ‘a pleated shirtfront with a turndown collar and a wide silk tie drawn through a heavy signet ring’, velvet coat and velvet trousers; the other carries ‘a fine stick with a gold knob in the likeness of a gorgon’s head’ – it’s perverse to abandon a plot line that might pull together a novel whose corsetry badly needs tighter lacing. Perhaps reconnecting the Sels with their heritage of entitlement seemed too Dickensian, but the Dickensian can be subverted, and subverted plot expectations have to be a better bet than plot expectations slowly built up, then abruptly abandoned.

The novel winds down in a minor key of reconnection, with the young cousins Jeanne Sel and Felix Mius making contact with Sapatisia Sel, not primarily as a result of family feeling but because she is knowledgeable about the Mi’kmaw use of medicinal plants, even though she maintains they are no longer effective in a degraded environment. Jeanne and Felix’s lives changed after attending a lecture given by a militant eco-conservationist, and, managing to overcome Sapatisia’s prickliness, they are taken on by her as interns. Her interest is in overlapping ecosystems and our ‘difficulties in understanding the fabric of the natural world’. She has faith in the regenerative power of the forest, until a visit to the Greenland glaciers brings her, and the book, to despair.

*

Part of the difficulty in understanding our place in the world is an eagerness to assume that ‘harmony with nature’ is a real possibility rather than the name each culture gives to its pattern of depredation. Proulx may know a great deal about the Mi’kmaw and their ways, but it doesn’t stop her from being sentimental about them – one of her epigraphs blames Christianity for destroying animism and making it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference ‘to the feelings of natural objects’. So when René Sel wields his axe, ‘the wildness of the world receded, the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human lives to animals, trees to flesh and bones to grass shivered as each tree fell and one by one the web strands snapped.’ This is clearly not the way René sees his job, but it is offered as a universal truth outside of time and culture. When Proulx describes each tree as sending up ‘a fresh fountain of oxygen’, this can hardly be a 17th-century perspective, either of a Frenchman or a Mi’kmaw.

Mali speaks a broken English that presumably is intended to represent a broken French, though it may remind the disrespectful of Yoda in Star Wars: ‘Goose catch learn them. Many traps learn. Good mens there hunting. Here only garden, cut tree learn.’ A similar idiosyncrasy of speech recurs with another Mi’kmaw speaker a century later: ‘Name my Jim Sillyboy. Help burn people’ (he means people with burns). When Mali’s children and grandchildren speak among themselves, though, the impression is of a stylised noble utterance, whatever the actual emotional tone of the exchange:

‘Truly, Father,’ said Kuntaw, ‘this is the country of insatiable biting flies. No one could live here. Only birds.’

‘We are here. We are alive,’ said Achille. ‘But did we not rub ourselves with grease and ashes we would not last long.’

We’re not far here from James Fenimore Cooper’s linguistic register in The Last of the Mohicans (‘Are the Hurons dogs, to bear this? Who shall say to the wife of Menowgua that the fishes have his scalp, and that his nation have not taken revenge?’). When Mali’s son Theotiste announces, ‘More and more I do not care to stay longer in Odanak,’ the dignified tone and slightly stiff deployment of time markers seems to anticipate Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and his statement at his tribe’s formal surrender: ‘From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more for ever.’

From the beginning of the book the Mi’kmaw are contrasted with the Iroquois: the Mi’kmaw specialising in healing, the Iroquois in killing. ‘Iroquois women had severed Monsieur Trépagny’s leg tendons, then had sewn him up tightly, closed every orifice of his body – ears, eyes, nostrils, mouth, anus and penis – and that after two or three days Monsieur Trépagny had swelled like a thundercloud and burst.’ The reader is left to assume that this highly labour-intensive method of killing is no more than an exercise in cruelty, but why should this area of culture be less rich in symbolic meaning than any other? Part of that meaning, from the point of view of immunity from supernatural vengeance, may be to cause death without actively inflicting it – not cruelty but caution. The Iroquois are cast as savages without nobility, the Mi’kmaw more or less as embodiments of the Rousseauian ideal. It is mentioned at one point that it was the white man who taught them misogyny, something not part of their traditional culture (‘It is the old Mi’kmaw way to know women are of equal value as men’), and those who are attracted to their own sex are celebrated as having a double spirit. Even so, the Mi’kmaw too have elaborate – and no doubt culturally saturated – ways of killing. We are told that Mi’kmaw women tortured a captured sailor: ‘They burned his feet with fiery brands, his legs, his privy parts. They cut him until he was pouring blood like an April freshet, then thrust his charred feet into an iron pot of boiling water.’

After a Frenchman introduces a handful of cattle and horses to Nova Scotia, which rapidly eat all the nutritious and medicinal plants within a day’s walk, one of the Mi’kmaw elders (puffing at his lobster-claw pipe, filled with wild tobacco) advises:

If we Mi’kmaw people are to survive we must constantly hold to the thought of Mi’kmaw ways in our minds. We will live in two worlds. We must keep our Mi’kmaw world – where we, the plants, animals and birds are all persons together who help each other – fresh in our thoughts and lives. We must renew and revere the vision in our minds so it can stand against this outside force that encroaches.

When your world changes but your worldview persists, it only means that your ‘harmony with nature’ was an act of imagination, though a very stubborn one, able to survive any amount of contradiction by the facts. As time goes by, Mi’kmaw people find themselves continuing to inhabit symbolically a habitat that no longer exists.

Traditional life takes on the quality of a re-enactment. Instead of a young man hunting a moose in the old way, and becoming symbolically adult when he kills it, he must travel long distances to find one, so that a rite of passage that used to be part of normal experience becomes something that must be planned for, an expedition and a quest. Kuntaw, Mali’s grandson, prefers being an ‘Indian guide’ for the benefit of rich white men to the other options available, filling up an inauthentic performance of tribal behaviour with his own good faith. He does his best to keep the old ways alive in his family, yet finds it impossible to teach his own grandchildren everything he knows because they don’t live ‘inside the Mi’kmaw life; it was more than knowing how to use certain tools or recognise plants. What he taught was not a real life; it was only a kind of play.’ Kuntaw’s performance of Mi’kmaw values is so successful that it earns him a death scene in keeping with it. At the end of his long life, Proulx all but kisses him goodnight:

Kuntaw died on the most beautiful day in a thousand years. The October air was sweet and every faint breath a pleasure. Wind stirred and he said: ‘Our wind reaching me here.’ A small cloud formed in the west. ‘Our small cloud coming to me.’ The hours passed and the small cloud formed a dark wall and approached. A drop fell, another, many, and Kuntaw said: ‘Our rain wetting my face.’ His people came near him, drawing him into their eyes, and he said: ‘Now … what …’ The sun came out, the brilliant world sparkled, susurration, liquid flow, stems of striped grass what was it what was it the limber swish of a released branch. What, now what. Kuntaw opened his mouth, said nothing, and let the sunlight enter him.

He melts, not just into what writers no longer call the Great Spirit but into the narrative voice, shedding both the limitations of his body and the shackles of inverted commas.

Proulx must have been thinking about evolution and survival in the many years it took to write Barkskins, but her idealisation of the Mi’kmaw damages her argument. At peak population, or so the book says, the Mi’kmaw numbered about a hundred thousand. To be crude about it, a hundred thousand hunter-gatherers spread across a vast tract of Nova Scotia couldn’t do much damage to their environment even if they had the most rapacious philosophy on earth. Before the white man came, they were living on the narrow margin of interest that this cold and inhospitable terrain would yield to people who invested their lives in it. The white man had a different notion of harmony with nature and spent the capital of the territory instead, confident of his ability to find fresh supplies of raw material once he had exhausted what he first saw. It seems silly to pretend that habitat destruction is a matter of individual attitude, of entitlement to plunder nature or submission to its mystical laws, rather than numbers. Mi’kmaw people survived for so long not because they were virtuous but because they were few.

When it comes to the Mi’kmaw knowledge of medicinal plants – or ‘pharmacognosy’, to borrow a pretty word from the text – Proulx actively sells short what she most admires, presenting it as a timeless wisdom when it’s almost the opposite, a cultural treasure that constitutes a technology for survival. (Since this was a female domain, it’s also a practical reason for the equal status of women.) From inside Mi’kmaw culture, there may have been a poetic logic that suggested the trial of a particular remedy, but from outside – the only viewpoint available – what matters is that it worked. It’s no different from the discovery of aspirin. It was magical thinking that suggested that the willow (whose Latin name survives in the phrase ‘salicylic acid’), growing as it did in cold wet places, would provide a cure for cold and wet conditions like rheumatism, but that had nothing to do with its efficacy.

The knowledge, amassed over centuries, of which tree barks held which virtues in decoction, which fungi should be worked into salves, which moulds would prevent infection and which would not, conferred an evolutionary advantage, though this wasn’t a heritable characteristic but a transmissible set of skills. Their pharmacognosy may be the reason for the existence of the Mi’kmaw, since a group that had the ability to survive accidents, injuries, burns and wounds would have the edge over a group that did not. It also shows that the Mi’kmaw were not in a union with nature, since it was their culture that kept them alive.

Sapatisia Sel urges her team to adopt ‘the viewpoint of the forest’, and it may be that Proulx herself is attempting something of the sort in Barkskins, but the moment something is voiced or imaginatively inhabited it becomes culture and not nature. In any case, if the forest did have a viewpoint, it could only regard a book as an obscene object, whether its author advocated militant eco-conservationism or regarded the natural world as an asset to be stripped. It wouldn’t make a difference that this particular book was certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), which seems just another repetition, this time in the language of voluntary codes of practice, of the self-refuting assertion that the forest is infinite and eternal.