Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

This is the fifth installment of our blog series An Engineer Reads a Novel.   Annie Proulx’s epic novel Barkskins is a sweeping history of our ruinous human appetite for profit and “progress.” ...

This is the fifth installment of our blog series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


Annie Proulx’s epic novel Barkskins is a sweeping history of our ruinous human appetite for profit and “progress.” The novel spans more than three hundred years and four continents. Its sentences are lyrical, sensory wonders that rebuild lost worlds.

We first meet two French woodcutters, René Sel and Charles Duquet, when they arrive in “New France,” in 1693. Both are amazed by the forests they behold. Sel marries into the Mi’kmaw tribe; greedier Duquet forms strategic alliances and rebrands himself “Duke.” Both men’s descendants advance the tale; the reader is aided by two family trees illustrating the intersections of French, indigenous, and other cultures over the book’s time line. Proulx does not belabor names and dates, and only occasionally lapses into expository passages that have characters remarking upon news of the day. Instead, Barkskins presents vivid scenes and set pieces. The economy of Proulx’s storytelling is remarkable: in less than two pages, one Sel descendent marries, becomes a father four times over, and grieves the death of his young son.

Despite the epic scale, the drama is human: the tragedy of a bad marriage; the family wrangling over heirloom furniture; the hazards of greed and pride; the capriciousness of death, especially before modern medicine could combat infection. Proulx’s characters meet with untimely ends via a shoe nail that “went awry,” sled rides, cholera, malaria, a fire caused by a cat knocking over a candle, and a fast freeze overtaking and stilling a whole ship, as well as the inherent dangers of woodcutting and logging.

Even with such omnipresent peril, many scenes are comic. Proulx beguiles us into bemused empathy for ruthless Charles Duke, who finally obtains the coveted luxury of a gentleman’s custom wig, only to find it heavier and hotter in the wearing than he’d expected, and is then forced to chase down the thief who snatches it from his proud head. The novel’s historical sweep allows readers to follow the ignominious fate of the wig, which to Duke’s grandsons is a ratty thing best suited to the needs of nesting birds.

Throughout, the novel calls to mind the imagery of Thomas Cole and his Hudson River School cohort of landscape painters. Cole planted his easel in the Catskills early enough to observe—or, at least, to portray—the transformation of a dark, hostile landscape with only occasional evidence of Native habitation into a civilizing, then an industrializing, world. In Cole’s later works, the foreground almost always contains at least one tree stump. Proulx’s French characters see themselves as “taming” and “conquering” the terre sauvage. In 1693, Proulx tells us, “the young men had never imagined country so wild and wet, so thickly wooded.” Sel and Duquet’s haughty seigneur proclaims at the same moment: “We are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.”

Thomas Cole, <i>Landscape with Dead Tree</i> (1828)

Thomas Cole, Landscape with Dead Tree (1828)

The engineering professor David Billington used to begin his Princeton course on “Engineering in the Modern World” by showing students two Cole paintings, one early and one late.1 The difference between the early painting of forbidding wilderness and a later work like The Pic-nic (1846) was that people became comfortable with the technology that could deliver them safely into that landscape: the steamboat and railroad that carried people up the Hudson for a casual outing. Billington claims that “nature had been domesticated,”2 and that Hudson River paintings reveal a peaceful coexistence between nature and human civilization. By contrast, historian Leo Marx wrote of the same time period that “agents of urban power had been ravaging the countryside.”3 As Proulx herself told an interviewer, when she looks at a William Henry Jackson sketch, she sees that the artist perceived “a place of romance,” even if to her own eye the scene “looks rough and ruined, the ground studded with dozens of stumps that must once have been forest.”4 She concludes that the artist “lived in a time when cut-over woodland was progress, not desolation.” Her novel shows, though, that many in the past—the Mi’kmaq, in the 17th century, and German “forest managers,” in the 19th—already understood the destructiveness of clear-cutting, and tried in vain to communicate it. Even her rapacious Duquet recognizes that “the forest had been corrupted” by the construction of a village, grain, and sawmills—though he endeavors in the same breath to persuade himself the forests are truly “vast and eternal.”

The novel turns next to 1836, when the Dukes employ a German “landlooker” to extend their enterprise from New England to Michigan. He offers a perspective on forest management that includes a grasp of ecosystem interdependencies. The Duke descendants disregard these European thoughts with characteristic New World exceptionalism: “Cut ’em down. That’s forest managing.” Proulx neatly places the Dukes in the long history of prideful Americans scorning European expertise and systems: No thanks; we got this. As Carroll Pursell has written, “the most important fact about the history of early American technology … is that the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution happened at the same time.”5 The American colonies shook themselves free of British rule, and as Pursell puts it, “set out to erect an empire of their own.”6 Early American ideas of technological progress favored individual enterprise and agronomy over the mechanization of the industrializing “Old World.” The United States stubbornly continued fueling its industries with wood-based charcoal long after Europeans had converted to coal; we had those “limitless” forests, after all. Alexander Hamilton’s plea for publicly supported invention was countered by Thomas Jefferson: “While we have land to labour then, … let our workshops remain in Europe.”7

That’s American swagger and grit: pioneers who answer to no one. This cartoon of masculinity is, lamentably, our default engineering culture.8 Proulx indicts the settlers’ “crazy taste for invention and improvement.” Her loggers are entrepreneurs, proud of the risks they’ve taken and of their own self-perceived heroism. “No one helped me! Charles Duquet insists, “I did everything myself! I endured! I contended with powerful men. I suffered in the wilderness! I accepted the risk I might die!” Duquet does not claim to have contributed to societal “progress”; his pronouncement is only “insensate” fury, “a life’s pent-up rage.” The loggers display cowboy bravado: “He threw his words down like playing cards.” Zane Grey wrote in 1918 of his fictional transcontinental railroad surveyors, “Only inspired and dauntless men could have entertained any hope of building a railroad through such a place.”9 For Grey’s engineer hero, the risk was part of the appeal: “It sort of draws me—two ways—the wildness of it and then to accomplish something.”10 Proulx’s narrator describes the “daring men” inventing and “penetrating the wilderness”: “In the lumber camp,” she tells us, “they were a brotherhood of the ax,” united by “a kind of pride in excess and risky work.”

The distinction between native and imported views is intensely gendered. Proulx’s French seigneur states, “To be a man is to clear the forest.” The Mi’kmaq, on the other hand, “were so tightly knitted into the natural world that their language could only reflect the union.” Here, “knitted” is a feminine word choice, in contrast with the masculine assault of the French and English arrivistes.11 René Sel and his Mi’kmaw wife, Mari,


stood opposed on the nature of the forest. To Mari it was a living entity, as vital as the waterways, filled with the gifts of medicine, food, shelter, tool material … One lived with it in harmony and gratitude. She believed the interminable chopping of every tree for the foolish purpose of “clearing the land” was bad. But that, thought René, was woman’s talk. The forest was there, enormous and limitless. The task of men was to subdue its exuberance, to tame the land it grew on.

Despite observations like these, for 477 of its 700-plus pages Barkskins more or less ignores female ambition or fulfillment. Mari Sel, the Mi’kmaw mistress of one Frenchman, is transacted into the wife of another, and “in the garden she felt snared.” One Duke descendant’s red-lipped “flying tigress” of a wife is swiftly declawed and transformed into a “goddess mother.” Ah, but then Proulx gives us Lavinia Duke. Her stated ambition to be a timberwoman, no matter how many men find it “preposterous,” is coincident with the arrival of German forest management techniques, and with the exciting possibility of a transcontinental railway accompanied by telegraphic communication: at last, progress has become a teensy bit progressive. “Lavinia was charmed by the idea of words traveling along coppery wires like ducks swimming across a river inlet.” First among her lineage, she yearns to “learn the mathematics of scaling” a forest, in order to predict and manage it with order. (Here, scaling refers to the consideration of how many trees can be cut without destroying the forest’s sustainability, and to the multiple “scales” of plants and animals involved in such a calculation.)  In acknowledging the “mathematics of scaling” as, also, “the art of scaling,” Lavinia gives a reader hope that she might “knit” together these perspectives.

When Lavinia partners with the reforestation-minded German, she pitches “headlong into the most brutal and fierce love,” and the couple travel to New Zealand to make reparations to the sacred kauri trees. “One must have faith in the power of a seed,” says her husband. “We plant them for the health of the world rather than for people not yet born.”

For all Proulx’s attention to the actions of the woodcutters—their finely manufactured axes, the dangerous dance of the early logrollers—she gives the novel’s most powerful agency not to her human characters, but to nature. “The forest clenched into itself as though inhaling a breath.” Water has a particular animating power. “Rivers were the thing, ever-changing, muscular waterways that challenged one to decipher their linear characters.” So does fire. The blaze that kills one Sel descendant and triggers a catastrophic cascade for Jinot Sel is a “ravening, demonic beast,” whose “lusty springing flames” can only represent nature fighting back against the loggers: “Fire greedily gobbled the landscape.” Another “epic wildfire strode out of New Hampshire and incinerated fifty miles of seacoast forest, eating deep miles inland.” And nature fights human ravages: a Michigan trail is so overgrown that the Dukes’ guide notes, “Nature is taking it back.” Hard not to think, again, of Thomas Cole, and of his five-part The Course of Empire: in the final stage, after the empire has fallen, vines and greenery overtake the ruined architecture, reclaiming the landscape.

Thomas Cole, <i>The Course of Empire: Desolation</i> (1836)

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation (1836)

All through Barkskins, Proulx shows us her literary equivalent of Cole’s ax-sawn foreground stumps: the impact of her foresters’ rapacity on the environment is clear to the readers, and to some characters, if not to the profit-minded men who go on refining their axes and chopping. Ashy soil won’t grow crops: “Few seeds sprouted. Those that managed to send up shoots withered when no rain came. The wells quit. … By September potato plants prostrate, maize stalks like faded paper foretold a hungry winter. Even impious men prayed, staring up at the monotone sky.” Moose, and later caribou and beaver, disappear from Mi’kmaw territory in Nova Scotia; and the life-giving, powerful water dries up.

The artful novelist Annie Proulx can make her characters recognizably human and generate mirth at their foibles, but she cannot make them anything but dead wrong. When we celebrate only subduing and conquering, rather than understanding and collaborating, “inspired and dauntless” men do make a mess. (Empathy and ethics may be an engineer’s most important tools.) Here, Barkskins and its readers have one up on the novel’s characters; and the novel shows its hand early. As Rene Sel “felt the power in [his] ax, its greedy hunger to bite through all that stood in its way” in 1693, “the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human life to animals, trees to flesh and bones to grass shivered as each tree fell and one by one the web strands snapped.” There has been, Proulx is telling us, a great disturbance in the force. We are on page 12 of a 717-page saga. Already by the mid-18th century, in Proulx’s novel, the landscape has been deformed: “Once illimitable forest filled the horizon. Now there were dozens of streets and the forest was a distant smudge.”

Headlong human momentum toward environmental destruction and eventual climate change is the novel’s powerful undertow, and alas for us all, there’s not much suspense as to its vector. That’s a problem for the novel, especially once we’re on more familiar, recent ground. Proulx’s vivid scenes give way to sermonizing. Despite the many continents her Barkskins
visits, despite perilous voyages over land and sea, we know all along how this is going to end.

Barkskins speaks for the trees.12 Progress, however, marches on. “Technology shaped crazy daydreams into real hissing screaming machines that leveled the last of the ancient forests on the continent.” The Mi’kmaw tribe and its ways are as devastated. Even Lavinia Duke, after a greedy lawyer absconds with much of her fortune, is moved to clear-cut the kauri after all. Still, decades later, her son has come to appreciate the complexity of the forest in a way that does synthesize the industrial and natural, secular and spiritual, First Nations and all that followed: “I want to discover the dynamo, the central force of the wild forest—all my interest lies in searching out that vital force.” This sounds like, and may well be, inchoate malarial delirium—but it just might also be Proulx’s feverish glimmer of hope. icon

  1. Two such also launch Billington’s The Innovators (Wiley, 1996). The book’s subtitle, “The Engineering Pioneers Who Made America Modern,” makes clear the author’s allegiance.
  2. See Billington, The Innovators, p. 4, and Billington’s “Engineering in the Modern World” lectures at Princeton University, as quoted here.
  3. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 32.
  4. Cressida Leyshon, “This Week in Fiction: Annie Proulx Discusses Her Upcoming Novel, ‘Barkskins,’” Page-Turner (blog), New Yorker, March 14, 2016.
  5. Carroll Pursell, The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology, 2nd ed. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), p. 35.
  6. Ibid.
  7. A 1781 letter from Jefferson quoted by Harold Evans, They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine; Two Centuries of Innovators (Little, Brown, 2004), p. 18.
  8. See Jenn Stroud Rossman, “Too Bad about the Trees,” Public Books blog, June 2, 2016.
  9. Zane Grey, The U.P. Trail (Harper & Brothers, 1918), p. 17.
  10. Ibid., p. 26.
  11. Tricky Proulx uses “knitting” to describe the “brotherhood of the ax” as well, a welcome hint of Brokeback Mountain intimacy in a Zane Grey world.
  12. Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (Random House, 1971).
Featured image: Thomas Cole, The Pic-Nic (1846)