Some 30 years ago, the celebrated author Annie Proulx was driving through the backroads of Michigan's Upper Peninsula when she came to a highway junction, marked only by an apparently closed laundromat. “Across the road” she told Our Planet “was a large sign, announcing that in that place in the nineteenth century had grown the finest white pine forest in the world. There was not a single white pine in sight”.
She believes that this was the “likely starting point” for her latest novel, Barkskins, which illuminates how human greed has destroyed the world's forests. It “developed over years of observing small changes”, she says, but “this was the experience that started me thinking about forests and how easily they could disappear, even without a sign to tell they once existed.”
Proulx's novels often focus on humanity's relationship with nature. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Shipping News features people hit by the collapse of Newfoundland's fisheries; Brokeback Mountain, which won a National Magazine Award, is set in the wide spaces of Wyoming. She was brought up in New England “in a family that took forests, clean air and rivers as a given and regarded nature as a constant source of interest. The natural world was the real world for me and my extended family. We went into the forests and swamps for fiddleheads, blueberries, wild strawberries, butternuts and beech nuts. We tapped maple trees for sap to make syrup.
“More than just an appreciation for trees and growing things, this childhood gave me a sense of the stunning complexity of the still-extant New England ecosystem.” Then, she adds, “somehow I managed to live most of my life in rural places where the hand of nature still held the cards.
“So for me it was the slow realization that this world was disappearing in my lifetime that directed my attention to the evidences of climate change, particularly in the forests which sequester CO2 and keep the world’s atmosphere clean and refreshed. I came to believe that climate change was perhaps the greatest event to ever face the human species, and the evidence that our species had also created this crisis was mind-rattling enlightenment.”
Some ten years ago, she says, “I knew I wanted to write a novel about climate change. But I found the subject so massive and diverse, so tangled with unknown links and inter-species dependencies that it would take many lifetimes to understand. I decided to write about one facet of climate change — deforestation and the human role in it.
“If our species hopes to continue living on the earth as in the past, maintaining and fostering forest ecologies is literally vital. We are inside the gates of ‘The End of the World As We Know It’.”
While we know the importance of the Amazon forests, “the northern circumpolar boreal woodlands have perhaps an even larger role in maintaining all life. The boreal forests of several nations sequester billions of tons of carbon dioxide. They powerfully affect the temperatures of the oceans’ conveyor belts and hence convection and weather. They cleanse the atmosphere of pollutants and infuse it with medicinal aerosols. And they are being destroyed.”
Despite the “inevitable, deliberately ignorant despoilers who seize everything they can for their own benefit without thought of sustainability” she does not despair. “There are signs in recent decades that we are beginning to grasp how very important it is not to exhaust resources of forest, ocean, river, earth and air and how difficult it will be to achieve a sustainable future.” But “there is a terrific lag between what we know and what we do.”
She notes how indigenous people managed to live in harmony with the natural world for millennia. “If it is not too late, if the knowledge has not been lost, certainly it will be a great day if the dominant faction ever recognizes they can learn from native people how to live in a sustainable way.
“Do I think this will happen? I am not without hope because there are many thousands of ordinary people who are getting the idea that the peril of our ways is real. Nearly every country has numerous citizen science projects, setting out seedlings, growing endangered plants, counting birds, gathering samples of seaweed, measuring tree girths, gathering plastic from ocean beaches and waterways, observing insect behaviour. In the citizen science project movement I do have some hope.”