(29. - 1054.) Greenwood by Michael Christie - In 2038 seekers of the experience of trees come to the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral on an island off the coast of British Columbia. A “Great Withering” has killed most of the world’s trees. Great dust storms have caused economic havoc and rib retch, a virulent new strain of tuberculosis, which is killing untold numbers of children. The seekers, known as “Pilgrims”, are wealthy world citizens who have isolated themselves from the wretched masses of poor people. Canada known as water rich and tree rich is a refuge for the rich.
The signature tree on the island is a Douglas Fir. It is 1200 years old and rises 230 feet high into the sky to touch the clouds.
Forest Guide, Jake Greenwood, has a Ph.D in dendrology (botany specializing in trees) from the University of Utrecht . She was a child prodigy in her knowledge of trees. While taking Pilgrims around the island she notices a pair of ancient firs have some patches of browned needles and areas of spongy bark. Has the Withering come to the island? She takes specimens to study.
Abruptly we are taken back to 2008 to the life of Jake’s father, Liam Greenwood, (a man she never knew) who after a bizarre upbringing (his mother gave him marijuana at 13) has established a business renovating homes with reclaimed wood (old barns are a source).
His special talent involves “book matched” boards:
…. Taking two successive slabs sawn from the same log, and then attaching the nearly identical pieces side by side, in mirror image, creating the almost uncanny effect of the spread pages of an open book ….. After he’s joined the live-edged planks with butterfly keys and applied numerous applications of tung oil and two coats of polyurethane, the wood’s unique figuring, burl, and honey-tinged grain pulse with life, like a solar system that has been frozen for centuries within the wood and is only now being revealed.
He is an artist in wood.
The book moves back further to 1974 when Jake’s mother, Willow Greenwood, is becoming an eco warrior or terrorist depending on your perspective.
The book goes even further back to 1934 when Jake’s grandfather, Harris Greenwood, a lumber baron, is surviving the Great Depression and her great-uncle, Everett Greenwood, is living a simple existence in the woods of New Brunswick.
Despite great wealth Harris is a lonely man. He creates a unique position. Harris. Blind, he seeks out:
… a visual assistant … Someone to illuminate his dealings, energize his spirit, brighten his days with well-chosen words of observation, and brighten his nights with readings of the finest literature. A describer. At this juncture of his long, solitary life, Harris Greenwood is weary of darkness.
The concept of such a position captivated me. Greenwood hires Liam Feeney, an Irish logger/poet.
Feeney conjures up magnficient descriptions. As they leave British Columbia on a ship for Japan Feeney describes a forest:
“Fog seeps between the brindle stalks,” Feeney begins, “and the sun, hooded with sea-borne mist, burns among the striving arms of branches …..”
Greenwood pays his describer very well.
At the same time Everett is tapping maple trees to make enough syrup to sustain his life.
The participants in this part of the story illustrate how Christie fully develops his characters. Even characters who may be in the book for but a few pages are well described. Examples include the industralist, R.J. Holt, who dominates the economy of the province of New Brunswick and his young mistress placed in seclusion to deliver his child and his huge brutish enforcer / aide, Harvey Lomax, who has 7 children.
Everett finds the baby hanging on one of his trees and flees New Brunswick pursued by the enforcer.
And the book then goes yet further back to 1908 when two boys of about 9 are found after a train crash in Eastern Ontario. Unable to identify them, the villagers call them Harris and Everett. With no one willing to parent they exist on their own in a shack on a woodlot with doubtful provisions from the widowed Mrs. Craig.
The orphans are dubbed Greenwood. Thus the family name was chosen from the trees with which generations of Greenwoods over the next century would be obssesed. All of them have a grand passion for trees yet each is so different in their passion.
As the book gradually works back through the 20th Century and into the 21st Century there is an epic journey across Canada. The unease and tension building in that trip provoked an anxiety for the characters I have seldom experienced in my reading life.
Everett spends time in 1934 upon a farm on the edge of Estevan here in Saskatchewan. It is in the prairie part of the province most sorely afflicted by the drought of the 1930’s. While the Dirty Thirties were a grim time for farming everywhere in Saskatchewan, on the prairie as a region without wild trees, except in scattered valleys, it was hard for even the planted trees to survive.
At the end we are back in 2038 with Jake facing a difficult personal future and the future of the earth at peril. Could it really be that all the trees of the planet will be lost? I hoped the ending would see a good future for her and earth. I like to hope for fictional characters.
It is hard to describe the rich lush writing that winds through decades of fascinating characters. I found I needed to read it over a period of a couple of weeks of modest pages per day so I could absorb each revelation and shift in the plot. The Greenwood lives are difficult. They are a self-destructive clan. While all lives have challenges the Greenwood’s have less joy than most and a scarcity of loving relationships.
Christie describes the aching consequences of an injured heart:
“.... So know this, your father loved you with everything he had. He just didn’t have much left.”
I rarely venture into the future, especially the future of great disasters. I acquired Greenwood as it was on the shortlist for the 2020 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. I am even more unlikely to enjoy such fiction but Greenwood is so unsettling, compelling, even enthralling. And, as we live amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, it feels uncomfortably real. Upon reading the book I understand why it won the Arthur Ellis Award. Greenwood is far from conventional crime fiction but it is great literature.