Greenwood, the title of the novel and the name of the family it concerns. But as we slowly discover, all is not as it seems. The novel stretches forwards to 2036 and backwards to 1908.
Michael Christie has envisaged a time when after the felling of many of American and Canadian ancient woodlands, there has come the Withering, a climate change catastrophe which has killed nearly all of the trees anywhere on the continent, causing a great dust and a choking of the population, save in a few isolated places like the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral, where Jake (Jacinda) Greenwood works as a Pilgrim Guide. The wealthy tourists visit the last remaining ancient forests to see these huge and awe-inspiring trees, many of them just saplings when Shakespeare was writing his plays, but even as she is spouting the approved script, Jake has recognised something that her bosses will not tolerate – the trees are dying.
This is not the first, or the only, novel that relates our human life directly to the trees. Overstory by Richard Powers (listed for the Booker Prize in 2018) also explores the lives of trees and the eco-warriors who try to preserve them and Deep River by Karl Marlantes tells the story of the great rape and felling of American trees for building everything – railways, houses, factories and the race to the bottom as more and more trees went and the dust storms grew.
In fact the desolation has gone on for centuries in practically every country. Samuel Pepys, and even Geoffrey Chaucer, oversaw the felling of ancient trees for the British Navy. It is hard to believe now, how many oak trees were felled to make one battleship. When the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s favourite battleship, was lifted from the seabed, it was estimated that at least 600 trees were felled to build her. And she was only the largest of a fleet of nearly 50 similar, though smaller, vessels. The British Navy continued building ships with wood up until the 1800s, which will have accounted for the loss of nearly all Britain’s ancient woodland. The inhabitants of Easter Island used every tree they had to build boats, houses and for domestic use, then they had to abandon the island. We have always wantonly destroyed forests and we are still doing it. And there are still eco-warriors desperate to prevent the damage.
Greenwood is also the story of a family whose roots came from different places but meshed together, in much the same way as tree roots combine underground and symbiotically aid and warn other trees of present conditions. In 1908, after a train crash, two boys are found to be the only survivors. They are not brothers exactly, but in their wisdom, the townspeople put them together and so a fraternal bond was formed.
Years later, one of them is faced with a decision that will cause ramifications of a different sort, and will bring them together in extreme circumstances. Each time, the generation will be added to by one single infant and slowly, slowly until we arrive at Jacinda, we will be allowed to discover the series of events that have led to her being a guide in the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral.
A complex, tender and subtle story of a family; allied with a telling warning to the despoilers of the ancient woodlands. 2038 is terrifyingly near, can we reverse the damage that we are doing in time to avoid the catastrophe described within these pages?