When Infinity comes to an end: Barkskins by Annie Proulx and For the Felling of An Elm in The Harvard Yard By Adrienne Rich

Some things seem just too painful to think about. Sometimes  caring friends say, "Why don’t you think about something else; there is nothing you can do." But maybe thinking about it, writing about it, is a start.

 

For The Felling of an Elm in The Harvard Yard

By Adrienne Rich

They say the ground precisely

Swept

No longer feeds with rich decay

The roots enormous in their age

That long and deep beneath have

Slept...

 

What if it was true; that America is not the promise land? What if, like so many other new frontiers, America began as a depository for people that Europe had no place for? A place for the un-heard. And what if the unheard utilized the practice of exploiting other un-heard's to build their wealth?

 

“Here grew hugeous trees of a size not seen in the old country for hundreds of years, evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distinct from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage.”

 

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx begins with this premise and it’s historical rawness is strong. Yes, it is a novel, but the forest as a metaphor for the unheard is timely. With a seemingly limitless resource (trees) dwindling in the span of a generation and threatened to the point of extinction in three, we realize our power and our ignorance in one fell swoop. Both the Native peoples and the trees are systematically exploited and destroyed during the span of the book and at the same time, the trees and the Indians are the key to its survival.   Our purity and infinitude are simultaneously questioned as a result of our competent destructiveness and they (purity and infinitude) are counted on for the necessary healing.

 

So the great spire is overthrown,

And sharp saws have gone hurtling

Through

The rings that three slow centuries

Wore:

The second oldest elm is down.

 

It wasn’t all pleasure in the forest, and the impulse to control the wild can, from a certain perspective, be understood. We all want to feel safe.

 

“Bebites assailed them, miniscule no-see-ums like heated needles, black-flies with a painless bite that dispersed slow toxins, swarms of mosquitoes in such millions that their shrill keening was the sound of the woods.”

 

But this book reminds me how far from center we can travel. Fueled by greed and self-centeredness we wander into the realm of destruction. On the other hand, the authors persistence in illustrating the characters creativity and intelligence surrounding difficult circumstance, allows us to experience how close to center we always remain.

How do we act in this world so that we honor the un-heard?  In what way can we walk without crushing the unseen? Yogic tradition has texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Yoga Sutras that offer us tenants, traditions, and practices to help guide our way. But one might ask, as the consumer lifestyle we as American lead begins to inspire the rest of the world, are we setting a good example?

...The shade where James and

Whitehead strolled

Becomes litter on the green.

The young men pause along the paths

To see the axes glinting bold...

 

I am reminded of the yoga practice when Proulx describes the seminal character, Rene Sells, chopping down the trees of New France.

“Rene chopping trees, felt not the act but the pure motion, the raised ax, the gathering tension in the arms and shoulders, buttocks and thighs, the hips pivoting, knees loose and flexed, an then the swing downward as abstract as the shadow of a stone, a kind of forest dance.”

 

Here we see swinging an ax can be an embodiment of presence. Does that make the act any less destructive? Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, gives us countless practices to bring us to this exact state. But are we brave enough to see the outcomes of our action and change our course. Can we embody respect and preservation of the whole?

At first, the forest is infinity in the story. The lives of the native people are perfectly intertwined in the workings of the massive eco-system that is the woods. There is life and death but the infinity of regeneration is based on a balance that arises from mutual respect.

 

"They do not have orderly lives as we do. Their time is fitted to the abundance crests of the animals, fruits, and fish- that is to say, to the seasons of the hunt and ripening berries. One of the most curious attributes is their manner of regarding trees, Plants, all manner of Fish, the moose and the bear, and others as their Equals…. To them the trees are Persons.”

 

Much of the book whispers about the synthesis of the native peoples and the trees in a life that is neither grand nor insignificant. A symbiotic relationship that does not offer eternal youth or everlasting life, except in the form of a world that both provides and takes away.

 

“ How big is this forest? Asked Duquet in his whining treble voice. He was scarcely larger than a child. “It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has seen its farthest dimension."

 

Personal success and accomplishment is integral in our modern understanding of yoga. After all, what is the benefit to the purchaser?  This is the number one question considered in marketing the practice; it’s classes, workshops and trainings. I get it, but Barkskins reminded me of the joy that arises from receiving no benefit at all. If we work for the benefit of others we become the beneficiary of community. Proulx suggests just this.

 

“In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit."

 

These guardian spirits are not real; they are the “stories” of a people who care for and respect the trees. People who live among the trees as equals.

With the destruction of this “story” the forests fall. Settlers come in droves, the landscape and ultimately the climate changes. The balance has been tipped and the wealth is distributed to a few. This wealth is not stumbled upon. The book points to the driven mind that sees money and prosperity at the expense of all else. Clothing, wigs, ivory teeth, and mansions are on the bucket list in the 1700’s.

Has anything really changed? Has anyone questioned the real cost of things when the unheard still stand invisible?

Wonder Exhibit at the Renwick, Tree by John Grade

Wonder Exhibit at the Renwick, Tree by John Grade

 

...Watching the hewn trunk dragged

Away,

Some turn the symbol to their own,

And some admire the clean dispatch

With which the aged elm came

Down.

 

We only have one world and as far as anyone knows, we only have one life. Are you living it in a way that your children will be able to breath the air, swim in the oceans, and love their little life too?

 

Or, as Mary Oliver says,

"...have you gone crazy for the power of things?"

 

Barkskins is just over 700 pages. I am reading it for the second time, straight through. I could not comprehend the names,  the French and what I would call Proulxisms the first time. The story is painful, apt, and like Bosch, confronting me with a perspective I need to see.

 

I recommend it, take the story to heart and see what you shall do.

 

 

 

 

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