Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Barkskins – One on One With Annie Proulx

Within the Southminster United Church on Friday night, over 200 heads nodded in accord with American novelist Annie Proulx as she and Charlotte Gray discussed the themes in her novel Barkskins : ecology, greed, the loss of culture, and the impact of humanity on a landscape. These are issues that a Canadian audience can relate to, especially one based in former Bytown, “lumber capital of North America.” It was evident from the discussion and the engagement of the audience that Proulx has struck a chord.

Proulx shared her story of the novel’s genesis, which began on a camping trip when she was only 11 years old. With roots in her childhood enthusiasm for the natural world, she said, “the idea of the disappearance of the woods began to take hold” as she traveled across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula some 20 years ago. She spotted a sign telling of a great forest of white pine that had stood, yet no trace of it remained. “All they had left was the sign,” she said, and the pathos of it drove her to write. Still, the story took a long time while Proulx completed other projects, gathered research, and mulled over the scope of the tale. “I began to see what an immense and frightening subject I had chosen,” she remembered, “the book was really about climate change.” Since she felt ill-equipped to tackle this technical subject, she focused on deforestation, and specifically the story of characters involved in the chopping of the great forests in North America.

The result is akin to a great Canadian novel, conscious of the landscape, its destruction, and the effect on its people. Gray noted how the story seemed not to recognize the border between the United States and Canada, to which Proulx replied that her approach is to consider a landscape without political lines.  “I imagine it in an earlier time,” to find where the story is really located. Gray also mentioned how the novel handled its Indigenous characters with a cultural sensitivity not common for American writers.  Proulx said, “I was intensely aware of the problems of cultural appropriation,” and that she had sought expert advice because she needed the Indigenous characters to be fairly and accurately represented.  “Those people equal the forest.” Her compassionate depiction resonates with Canadian readers struggling to integrate Indigenous history within the Western narrative.

Although Proulx spoke about these themes with a light tone and some optimism, she was passionate in asserting that, if possible, we must take action to revitalize the forests. Toward the end of their lively discussion, Gray challenged Proulx to assert an opinion on the effectiveness of sustainable forestry practices, which the characters in Barkskins eventually attempt. Proulx wasn’t sure. “It’s hard to remake a forest,” she said, “once it’s gone it’s gone. Fixing this is harder than anybody can imagine. It’s everybody’s business.” She encouraged the audience to start thinking about our history with forests, and the fact that we are indeed forest creatures. “If you have access to a forest, renew your acquaintance.”