Annie Proulx (b. 1935) is a contemporary American writer. Her epic novel ‘Barkskins’ traces two wood-cutting families across eight generations, beginning in what is now modern Canada at the start of the 17th Century. The book’s ecological message concerning this violent and rapid destruction of the world’s forests is unavoidable. However, numerous descriptions of forests where characters see them only in terms of their economic value contrast with other passages where ancient woodlands are given a majestic and almost sacred quality. This is seen especially in the case of Charley, one of the book’s later characters, who is appalled by his ancestors’ rapacious and cavalier treatment of the earth and those most closely attuned to it. Charley views forests as something of wonder and of intrinsic worth. His almost visceral reaction to nature’s destruction and passion for conservation gives the sense that nature in its entirety must be preserved and even revered.
“Tell me what you thought of the forests.”
“I saw many, many plantations of pine in orderly rows. But I did not consider them to be forests.”
“Indeed. Then what in your consideration is a forest?”
Charley said slowly “I am sure that wild 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 for the benefit of humankind”. He stopped.
“I see, ‘living for itself’. Yes of course, but that is not managed land, where we plant and watch over trees to provide revenue to the owners, lifetime jobs to workers, shade and pleasure to nature lovers. Wild forests cannot be managed. This is why we cut them and benefit from their wood, then replace them with trees. Your idea of a forest living for itself is not part of modern life. This is what Austin Cary is trying to teach – that timber can be grown as a good crop that makes good profit and can be renewed endlessly. On one side he has to persuade the men who want to cut as they always have and who see his talks as attacks to ruin their business. On the other side are people not unlike you who see the end of the forests, disaster for the rivers. Even changes in the weather. He has to convince them that forest crops are the way to keep a steady supply and control erosion.”
They heard the light ticks of sleet on the window glass. Dieter narrowed his eyes. Chicago had long hard winters, and was it possible this one was persisting so deeply into spring? It was possible. Charley seemed not to notice the sleet but talked on in his low voice.
“I see little merit in rows of pine trees. There is no diversity and the vaunted utility is an illusion. What of the rural people who once went into the wild forest for a hundred reasons? Why do we assume they have no rights to continue their traditional woodland familiarities?” He noticed the fine layer of dust on everything in Dieter’s office – globe, bookshelves, chair rungs, windowledges. There was dust on Dieter’s ideas.
“Charley, you are missing my point. Here in America the cast of mind is fixed on taking all. My plea for replanting is still a peculiar idea to them. You may be right to say the old forests are imperilled, but this is, unfortunately, a matter of politics. You are wrong, too, when you say German forests are only managed plantations – there are no people in Europe as passionate for wild forests as the Germans. In you I see the German streak, partly romantic, partly rebellious. And I wish you could understand that there are hidden complexities in the managed forests of which you know nothing”.
“A pity you cannot grow barkless planks. It is no use, Father – I have seen what I have seen and cannot accept tree plantations as a greater good.” He could see Dieter was working himself up, his bald pate shone red and he pinched his lips in and out.
“Then you had better become a botanist” – Dieter spat out the word – “and continue your adventuring”. He got up and left the office.
Charley waited. Dieter’s anger was rare but he was angry now. His temper would not last, never did last. He would come back. And in a while Charley heard the outer door open, heard Dieter say something to Miss Heinrich, heard her answer. He came in, spicules of melting ice on his shoulders. He nodded at Charley, drew out a bottle, went to the cupboard and took out two glasses, poured for himself and Charley.
“Forgive me, Charley”. He swallowed some whiskey. Sighed. “I had ideas and feelings similar to yours when I was young but over the years I learned that the entrepreneurial spirit of this country could not be dampened. We can’t be wild animals. We are humans. We live in a world that is a certain way and forests must adopt to the overwhelming tide of men with axes, not the reverse. I came to believe that planting trees was a kind of forest continuation, not perfect but better than stumpland. We call such plots ‘forest’ and we believe that is what they are. Also I have never thought that the German management could be less than superior.”
“Father, it reeks of the eighteenth century. It no longer fits. It is also true that there is too much cutting. The old forests are going and once they are gone we will have to wait a thousand years or more to see their like. Though nothing will be allowed such a generous measure of time to grow. Most wild American woodlands have already been savaged.”
“I need a real cause, Father, if I am to work at anything. I am no businessman. And I may indeed write a book. Although I know pitifully little and one lifetime is not enough to study even a single tropical forest tree. I want – how can I describe it. I want to discover the dynamo, the central force of the wild forest – all my interest lies in searching out that vital force”.
Questions for Reflection
- Charley thinks forests should be left to be as wild as possible, whereas his father Dieter believes they need to be managed in order to be protected. Who do you agree with?
- What do we lose when we fail to preserve Nature?
- How can humanity best strike a balance between stewarding nature (like using the wood from forests in order to build houses) and protecting it?
- What is special about forests which might enable them to be seen as particularly good examples of God’s creation?
Wendell Berry (2015), Our Only World
Thomas Berry (1988), The Dream of the Earth
Janine Benyus (2002), Biomimicry