Annie Proulx on how Americans change and are changed by land
SEATTLE — Annie Proulx is 80 years old and still not sure where she belongs. Standing in her home east of Seattle, the writer studies a photograph of a cottage she occupied in Newfoundland, the setting of her prize-winning 1993 novel, “The Shipping News.”
“I fell in love with that landscape,” Proulx says, speaking like a woman describing an important relationship from the distant past. “But ultimately, I did not belong there.”
After 20 years in Wyoming — several spent building a dream home she later sold — Proulx had a similar epiphany about that state. As she had with Vermont, Texas, and New Mexico, and any number of places where she’s lived.
Now she’s made a similar discovery of the wooded idyll east of Seattle.
It isn’t helped by the fact that she recently learned she is allergic to red cedar, a serious problem as her home is surrounded by it. Proulx laughs as she explains this; she moved here to finish her extraordinary new work, “Barkskins,” a novel about climate change and the rapacious destruction of America’s landscape in which one of the book’s central characters is the forest itself.
“Barkskins,” a slang term for lumberjacks, trails two families across four centuries — the Sels and the Duquets and their competing ways of making a living off the forests. René Sel, the paterfamilias of one clan, comes to New France in the 17th century as indentured labor and his offspring intermingle with Native Americans and toil in the dangerous tasks of felling timber and shipping it downriver to Penobscot Bay.
Meanwhile, the descendants of Charles Duquet (later changed to the less ethnic-sounding Duke) follow a different path, entitled by their God and Bible, they become land speculators, forever searching for virgin forests to chop down and turn into capital. They employ Native Americans to do the hard work.
Proulx’s own family likewise came to New France in dire poverty long ago and worked like the Sels. But she is not here to lay blame. What she wants is to show how it happened, to tell that story. “There was this massive, massive woods and only a few hundred people,” Proulx says. “Nobody was going to miss a few trees. You can’t work backward and start laying on blame. It just has to come as this is what was done.’’
In many ways “Barksins” is the masterpiece Proulx was meant to write. Besides her family connection, there is also one more personally felt. “My earliest memory in life is sunlight patterns on the ground coming down through the leaves of a tree,” she says, sitting at a wooden table in her airy kitchen.
Proulx was born Edna Ann Proulx in Norwich, a heavily wooded part of Connecticut, and grew up moving frequently for her father’s work. He was vice president of a textile company, and her mother was a painter. They vacationed in Baxter State Park in Maine.
The landscape made an enormous impression on her. “We could go out and find trailing arbutus in the spring,’’ Proulx says, dressed in black sweater and loosely fitting black pants. “We could find blood root. We could find lady slippers that are very rare now.’’
It’s beginning to get hard to remember a time before Proulx was a household name, but it didn’t happen overnight. After abandoning studies for a doctorate she lived in small towns across Vermont, making a living as a freelance writer. She wrote a series of how-to books on fence building and cider making and for two years published her own newspaper.
She made her fiction debut in 1988 with “Heart Songs and Other Stories,” published the year she turned 53. She followed up swiftly with two novels, “Postcards” (1992) and “The Shipping News” (1993), the tale of a lonely newspaper in Newfoundland, which won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.
The theme of how Americans change and are changed by the landscape runs through her work. Besides “Barkskins’’ the three volumes of stories Proulx wrote about Wyoming, which included “Brokeback Mountain,” later made into an Oscar-nominated film, and “That Old Ace in the Hole,” her 2002 novel about factory farming in Texas, all revolve around how Americans occupy and move across the landscape.
From Proulx’s upstairs writing studio it’s clear how seriously she takes this obsession. Proulx sold thousands of books, which once filled her Wyoming home. All that remains are some novels, a rack or two of poetry — including the work of Les Murray — and shelf after shelf of books about the North American landscape, like William Cronon’s 1983 classic, “Changes in the Land,” which describes the different notions of ownership Native Americans and colonists had about dominion.
Proulx spent years in these books, as well as traveling to archives in Australia and New York, and also to New Zealand’s Waipoua Forest, where some trees are estimated to be thousands of years old. “What I do is really try to immerse myself in the period for the food, the clothing, the music, the language, the slang,” says Proulx. “So when it comes time to write I feel like I’ve been living there for a long time.”
And a grim life it was 400 years ago. Men and women were felled by ax, arrow, gunshot, log, scalping tools, cancer, even a candle tipped over by a cat’s tail. Proulx does not have an obsession with death, she says, she’s simply being realistic. “Lots of things could go wrong,” she argues. “And once you have people who would constantly use axes for whatever, you’ve got a recipe for a lot of blood.”
Of course the character that gets felled most frequently is the forest itself, which is demolished in New England and the Carolinas, then in Michigan, and onward west, before the Duke company branches out to Australia, New Zealand, and even Brazil.
As good as “Barkskins” is, Proulx still worries it’ll miss its mark. “We don’t see what we’ve done wrong because we’re bark skins,” she says. “We’re too thick skinned; we’re too enclosed to see it.” Fifteen years ago, when she was living in the Rockies, Proulx says she watched this in action. “The trees started to turn red. Then we had some very hot, dry years and in came the bark beetles, and the trees began to die. Whole mountain sides would turn red and then gray. People on the East Coast had not a clue that this was happening, but it was one of the nice little side effects of global warming.”
Perhaps this is why Proulx plans to keep moving. She returned to Vermont recently and decided it had changed too much for her to return. “I don’t like Seattle because of the traffic and craziness and because of the huge disparity in income,” she continues. “But I like the peninsula. I like the plants and animals. I like the landforms. I like the trees that have escaped annihilation. I love the rivers.”
Proulx walks me downstairs past hallways of art and muses as she opens the door. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do, whether I move or not. I should definitely move out of here because every tree out there is a red cedar.”
John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist’’ and editor of Freeman’s.