Trees… if you love adventure and the outdoors, they are all around you, all the time. They form the backbone of the wild places we recreate in—and yet we often take them for granted. We walk, ride, ski and run past them. Yet, whether we realize it or not, we feel better when we’re around them. They calm us, they provide us with oxygen, they shade and shelter us. Trees are a very real and integral part of human and planetary survival, happiness and connection. (The Japanese practice of Forest Bathing is trending for a reason.)
In his latest novel Greenwood, Canadian author Michael Christie puts trees at the centre of his multi-generational tale of the Greenwood family. It begins in a dystopian near-future, where a climate change calamity known as the ‘Great Withering’ has wiped most of the trees from the planet. One of the few places with intact, mature old growth trees is a private island hidden among the Gulf Islands on the BC Coast. Like the ‘Tree Museum’ that Joni Mitchell sings about in her song "Big Yellow Taxi," wealthy people glued to their smart phones pay big bucks to spend time on this island, away from the dust storms and blistering sun that ravages most of the planet. One of the tour guides there is Jacinda (Jake) Greenwood, a tree biologist plodding her way through tree tours in order to stay on the island and away from the calamity on the rest of the planet.
From here, Christie takes us on a brilliantly-crafted tale of the family, starting in 1908 with Jake’s great grandfather and great granduncle—one an eventual timber baron, the other a drifting hobo. Then onwards through the other key years of 1934, 1974 and 2008—where the Greenwood tale slowly unravels. Intertwined in the family tale is an inextricable relationship each has with trees—be it her great grandfather Harris Greenwood who destroys them for profit, or her grandmother Willow Greenwood who dedicates her life to protect them.
Christie probes the essence of trees and the intrinsic and practical value they hold for each of his characters, and in essence for each of us. On one level, Greenwood is a gripping yarn that follows the dramatic and tragic tale of a family trying to navigate the dark secrets of their past, while on the other it’s a tale of trees—and what we’ll face if we don’t care for them like we do our own children. It’s a brilliant, essential work that utters a subtle yet urgent warning about the future of our planet.
Michael Christie (2019) credit: Cedar Bowers
Frank: What inspired you to write a family saga centered around trees?
Christie: I’ve always admired novels that traverse generations and that portray great societal transformations, and I suppose I (quite naively it turned out) wanted to take a crack at one for myself.
Initially, I had some notes for characters involved with climate destruction, and environmentalism, carpentry and the timber industry, but the idea to lay the sections of Greenwood out like the concentric growth rings of a tree was what really kicked the project off. My wife and I own some property on Galiano Island, and we were in the process of clearing the land of some of its red cedars and Douglas firs so that we could build a little cabin, and after I cut down a fairly small tree I looked down at the stump and had a kind of revelation. It looked like a book: the yearly growth rings like pages, each building outward from the tree’s narrative beginning. And so I got the idea of giving my book this structure, one that mimicked a cross-sectioned tree, and the writing really flowed from there.
Aside from its structure and its historical sweep, the desire to write Greenwood also stemmed from the fact that in the last ten years I have witnessed my two children enter this world and have also witnessed both my parents leave it. And so I suppose I’ve been thinking a great deal about death and birth and this chain of being that we’re all a part of, and I wanted to write something that spoke to this.
I really related to the character of Everett Greenwood, the tree-tapping drifter and brother of timber baron Harris Greenwood. Is there a character in the novel that you relate to most? Are there bits of you in all the characters?
Everett Greenwood is one of those characters who felt like an undeserved gift when I first encountered him in my early drafts. He embodies so many traits that I admire: a kind of stoic resourcefulness, a sense of selflessness and resiliency. But he also harbours his share of damage, which is something I can also identify with, I suppose. So yes, I identify with Everett as well. But there are bits of me in all my characters. In Lomax, the drug-addicted family man who is pursuing Everett; in Liam Feeney, Harris Greenwood’s straight-talking assistant with an explosive secret; in Willow Greenwood, the tireless environmentalist who’d rather spend her life in a Westfalia rather than in the clutches of a soulless career; and in Jake Greenwood, an overqualified tour guide for the wealthy trying to hold on to the last scraps of hope and humanity in the face of ecological collapse. They’re all me. And my hope is that readers will see parts of themselves in these characters as well.
A good chunk of the novel takes place in depression-era Canada, stricken by poverty and drought. The writing is incredibly evocative, transporting the reader to that time. How did you research this section?
Firstly, I did a ton of reading. This included novels, memoirs and historical accounts of that time, with a particular focus on the Canadian experience of the Great Depression. I also watched some great films like Days of Heaven, There Will Be Blood and The Dust Bowl, the PBS documentary by Ken Burns that communicates powerfully (and terrifyingly) the sheer magnitude of human desperation at that time. It’s so easy to remember the Dust Bowl only as an economic disaster rather than as also an environmental one. But it was the first time North America lost control of things like soil erosion and proper farming practices, with disastrous results. Judging by our current woefully insufficient preparations for the much more massive climate threats that we’re facing now, I doubt we learned our lesson.
But beyond the reading and research, the depression-era has always been a period that has fascinated me. I grew up near the railway tracks in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and there was always this sense that we weren’t that far away from the hardships of the Great Depression. I even rode a freight train to Winnipeg once in my youth, which was thrilling, and fairly scary, especially because you’re afraid of getting caught and you never sure if you’re on the right train. So that was the end of my hoboing career. But it was an amazing experience. You see a part of the landscape you’d never see from the road.
There are a couple of lines about children imparting meaning to life that really stood out for me. Everett says of Pod, the child he’s caring for, “I never had a knack for living before she came to me. It was more like I was killing time before I was gone,” and, “A person never knows they’re starved for something until they get a taste for it.” Is this how you felt before you had your own kids? Do you think these are universal truths?
I’m always careful when discussing the transformational nature of parenthood, because I have many friends who have quite understandably chosen not to have kids (often for environmental reasons) and also other friends who are unable to conceive for whatever reason, and I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that they lack the opportunity to connect with a deeper meaning in their lives. But with that said, and speaking only for myself, having my two sons has been the most amazing, positive and steadying experience of my life. I have a pet theory that if you only live for yourself, only ever guarding your own safety and satisfaction and development and enjoyment, then you will never truly experience what it means to be human.
You give very detailed accounts of the effect of opium on the character Lomax as he uses it to deal with physical and mental pain. How did you research opium and its effects? To me, his character represents a growing (and relatable) segment of present day society and the opioid crisis. Was this intentional?
In my younger years, drugs (at least the drugs that were available at the time) were fairly interesting to me. It was a misplaced sense of curiosity I suppose, but it also stemmed from what I have only identified in retrospect as a kind of emptiness that I was harbouring since I was young. I do quite a bit of cross-border travel, so I’m not going to get into the specifics of my research on opium. But I will say that I took a surf trip to Indonesia in the late nineties, and that experience benefitted me greatly while writing the character of Lomax.
Beyond that, I’ve been involved with addiction professionally in my life as well. In the 2000s, I worked for many years in a homeless shelter on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, housing and assisting people who were struggling with a complex array of issues, which usually included drug use and some kind of mental illness. So I’m very familiar with, and very sympathetic to, people who use drugs for whatever reason, and the current opioid crisis just breaks my heart. Those drug company executives who pushed Oxycontin into impoverished and hurting communities are some of the lowest, most despicable people on Earth, in my opinion.
The novel starts and finishes in a dystopian future where most of the world’s trees have been wiped out by a climate change catastrophe. Is your novel a warning of such and event, or are you hopeful for a better outcome?
The warnings are already constant and convincing, for those who are heeding them, at least, so I don’t really see it as my job to provide more. Close to my home, the western red cedars of Galiano Island are all browning and withering as I write this, because a series of successive dry seasons has stressed them to the point of total collapse. These are trees that have grown here for centuries that are now simply giving up. And I can tell you: it’s completely gutting to watch. So the Great Withering that I’ve written about in my book didn’t even require much imagination at all, it pains me to say.
But I do have some hope, founded mostly upon the incredible resourcefulness and resilience of average human beings when an undeniable crisis is at hand. Look at WWII or our response to the Great Depression for inspiring examples of this resilience. Because if the oceans continue to acidify, and global temperatures continue to rise, and the aquifers dry up and large swaths of arable land turn to desert, then many, many human beings are going to die. All we can do now is try to minimize that number. But if we’re going to turn this ship around we’ll need to surrender our addiction to absurd levels of consumption and our extreme selfishness and our belief that something other than ourselves will come and save us. Will we do it? I’m not sure. But I’m ready to get to work.
Greenwood is published by McClelland and Stewart and was released on September 24th, 2019.