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.

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