At one time, forests, seemingly endless and eternal, covered much of North America. These forests were occupied by aboriginal people who understood the symbiotic relationship between humans and the forest ecosystem. As the Europeans arrived, wood became more than a source of shelter and heat: it became a commodity. Annie Proulx’ Barkskins is the story of the rise of the lumber industry and the subsequent decline of the forest.
When Charles Duquet and Rene Sel arrive in the New World in 1693, they are indentured servants. They are immediately confronted with “dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.” They must work for the cruel Claude Trepagny for years before acquiring land to work as their own.
Rene Sel works diligently, chopping trees and clearing the forest, waiting for his promised land. Eventually he marries Mari, a Micmac woman, producing several children.
Charles Duquet, however, will not be subject to Trepagny’s whims and disappears into the forest, eventually joining the fur trade. Duquet shows himself to be a skilled businessman, driven by ambition. Unlike those around him, he sees an opportunity in the infinite forest that surrounds him.
He starts his own logging business: Duquet and Sons. Over the years it becomes Duke and Sons, taking the English name to reflect the changing times. Duquet, like other Europeans, has no qualms about removing the forest; it is an endless and renewable resource.
Rene Sel’s descendants, part French and part Micmac, lose their Micmac heritage over time. European ideology becomes the predominant way of thinking: land is there for the taking and humans must bend it to our will. It is the white man’s duty to cut down the savage forests and subjugate its inhabitants.
Fast forward to today. Sel and Duquet descendants, still working in the woods, become biologists and activists. Even those in the lumber industry finally begin to understand that the vast ecosystems of old growth forests can never be replaced.
Of course, there is much more to this 700 page story. At its heart, Barkskins is a family saga. Generations of Sels and Duquets are born, grow, marry, have children (often with each other) and die. It is also a history, not only of logging but ideology. Proulx explores the idea of man versus nature, and asks whether the two are indeed in conflict. Perhaps, as the first peoples of this continent believed, we are one.