Michael Christie’s intricately-constructed eco-novel dramatizes a multi-generational saga dominated by trees.
Michael Christie’s second novel is like a well-built house, with solid sections, precisely fitted together – so it is perhaps not surprising to discover the author, a former carpenter, lives in a house he built with his own hands. The structure of a novel is architectural, indeed cathedral-like in complexity (and to echo this, the grove at the heart of the novel – a priceless remnant of old growth redwood on a remote island off the coast of Vancouver – is referred to as the ‘Cathedral’). Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller suggested that they are three essential phases to the construction of a piece of writing: ‘a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.’ Certainly, we can see evidence of the latter two in this finely fashioned, and beautifully-woven novel. Adopting a technique of biomimicry, Greenwood is structured like the rings of a tree. The outer ring is the framing narrative set in an eco-apocalyptic 2038 in which a biocatastrophe known as the ‘Withering’ as decimated the tree population of the planet, resulting in toxic dust-storms, climate refugees, and a general breakdown of society, which only the super-rich can escape the consequences of. Elite eco-tourists visit some of the only remaining redwoods to have survived the catastrophe on the semi-fictional ‘Greenwood Island’, (loosely based on Galiano Island, off the coast of British Colombia, where the author lives with his family in his handmade wooden house). An over-qualified guide forced to suck up to the corporate dollar due to her crushing student debt, Jacinda (or ‘Jake’) Greenwood discovers she may be descended from the original owner of the island, the timber tycoon, Harris Greewood, just as the world around her is collapsing. Within this frame there are sections set in 2008, 1974, 1934, and 1908, which chart the unusual providence of Jacinda’s possible ancestor and the fate of her descendants (not so much a family tree, as a ‘forest’, as Jake eventually reflects – each independent, but connected to and supporting the other members of the ‘fictional’ construction of the family). Each of these sections is well-researched and well-dramatised, although the longest – set in the dust bowl of the post-crash Thirties – is the most impressive and comprehensively realised. This is really the heartwood of the novel, or perhaps that should be the xylem, the outer ring of a tree, just below the bark, where the nutrient-filled sap flows, drawing water and minerals up from the roots to feed the growth of the tree. The double-portrait of the ill-starred brothers – Harris and Everett – and their inner circle provides the ‘engine’ of the plot, and it is Hardyesque in its scope and fatalism. Outside of this, the sections seem, at times, a little wooden – solidly hewn, yes, but lacking in some vital spark. It is interesting but perhaps unfair to compare Christie’s substantial endeavour with Richard Power’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory. Both display a profound knowledge of tree’s – with Christie as a worker of wood, perhaps having the edge. But Greenwood lacks the breathtaking scope and vision of Power’s novel, which transcends the mere mimetic in its daring shift into the non-anthropocentric. Whileas Christie’s prose always stays on the surface, the material – depicted in a solid, convincing way, without a doubt, but never transcending itself. Nevertheless, the plight of the characters, who suffer the vicissitudes of fate, is affecting at times. And there are moments of rare poetry, notably when a cyclone sucks ten thousand books out of a hobo library, up into the air, making a sound like ‘birds’. And the concentric structure of the novel shows a poetic touch to. At one point a dying man realises time ‘is not an arrow. Neither is it a road. It goes in no particular direction. It simply accumulates—in the body, in the world—like wood does. Layer upon layer. Light then dark. Each one dependent upon the last. Each year impossible without the one preceding it. Each triumph and each disaster written forever in its own structure.’ Christie seems to be implying that the fates of each of the characters is written into their nature. What that suggests in a wider sense of the human condition, and our problematic relationship with nature, it is hard to say. There is certainly a profound reverence for trees here, but also a pessimism about our collective fate, and treatment of the planet and each other. This is just realism, you may add – but where does it leave the reader? Greenwood is an ambitious ecological novel, but one that seems to lack a clear message. Perhaps Christie wishes for the reader to make of the generational tale of dysfunctional lives what they will. We are left staring at the wonder of the forest of interconnected lives who share this small, vulnerable ball of dirt we call home. If the novel ‘achieves’ anything it must this – the simple, but powerful, act of attention and appreciation.
‘There now, I have chopped off half the winter.’ Traditional tale ending.
Chapter 33: The Way it Happened
The old man sat back in his battered armchair and groaned. ‘Ah, my bones. This cold has made them worse than usual. They ache like a seawife’s heart for her drowned sweetheart.’ Snorri wore a thick Icelandic cardigan, patterned with snowflakes and sunflowers. His craggy face was like a map of sorrow and hardship, and yet there was a spunk of fire in his eyes beneath the kindling of his eyebrows. In contrast to his stiff, jagged body his hands were mercurial, conjuring gods and monsters out of the air with the simplest of gestures.
Around him in the Harbour Master’s Office, where he had temporarily taken up residence, sleeping in the lighthouse, and running a scratch school in the office while the main school remained closed, were the children of the community, those ‘not too old’ for stories or too young to understand, although some infants lay curled against their mothers, who helped run a makeshift nursery between them. Others had ‘called by’, on some vague errand, and lingered in the doorway, eavesdropping with a mixture of scepticism and amusement.
Snorri’s afternoon story sessions were becoming a popular fixture of the community. In the gulf left by online entertainment folk had taken to making their own again – board games, singalongs, drumming circles, and storytelling.
‘So, nobody wants another story do they? You look tired. Perhaps you should all go home and have a nap…’
‘One more story. Please…!’ cried the children.
He raised his bird-hands in mock defeat. ‘Very well then. Only one more mind. Then it’s hometime. Otherwise I’ll be run out of town, for leading you all into the hillside of tale like some Pied Piper. Which one shall it be? Scary? Sad? Funny?’
‘Tell us about the end of the world again!’ someone cried, and others joined in, echoing the sentiment.
Snorri laughed, stroking his fox-like beard. ‘The one I told yesterday? And the day before that? Ah, you have appetites worse than Thor! Y’know, once he dressed up as a woman to fool the king of the Frost Giants and win back his hammer, Mjolnir. Thrym liked the look of this fine figure of a woman – bearded and bicepped – so much he decided to marry her. At the wedding feast Thor ate a whole ox from tail to horn, eight mighty salmon, all the cakes and sweets, and two barrels of mead, which impressed Thrym even more!’ Everyone laughed and Snorri went to get up and leave.
‘Stay! We want our story!’
‘What?’ He smacked his forehead. ‘Plain forgot! My memory! It’s like a Swiss cheese in a colander!’ He settled down again, scanning the eager faces, lit by the candles set up around the room. ‘Very well, then. Let me tell you about the end of the world. This is the way it happened…’
‘Our Eddy, yes! Eddy Leif Redcrow of Gimli, Manitoba! Icerider! He who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean on his iron steed! Friend of giants and foe of demon raiders! He had a difficult job to do! He had to reach Law Rock, the ancient rock in Thingvollr, the crack in the world, where all the laws of Iceland were proclaimed. Why? Because there he had to recite the Runestone given him by his grandfather, my old dear pal, Running Bear, may his spirit be at peace in the arms of the Great Creator. If he could he could bring an end to the war of the gods that had locked the world in an icy embrace. He could bring an end to the end. Unfortunately, between him and his goal there was that loathsome trickster, Loki, and his hellish hordes: wolves! worms! trolls before them! Ice Force shock troops behind! The chasm of the sundered world below!’
The audience gasped in delightful terror.
‘But our hero was not alone! Oh no! He had mighty friends! Odin One Eye, the Allfather, riding his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir! Tear, god of war, who, with one hand could do more damage than a ten men with twenty! Rig, the guardian of Bifrost, blower of the great horn that woke the gods! And the rest of the Raven god’s crew – Will and Way, his powerful brothers! Fearsome Frey! And let us not forget the formidable Fenja, the frost-giant’s daughter who had melted Eddy’s heart! They led the Wild Hunt into battle – the final battle that they would fight! Many others had been lost along the way. It had been a hard road. But soon all would be reunited in Odin’s hall! This was the day foretold by the Weird Sisters! Ragnarok! The twilight of the gods! The world had endured the terrible Fimbul-Winter! Frost giants had walked the Earth, crushing humanity beneath their big boots! The Death Ship, Naglfar, made from the untrimmed nails of the dead, had sailed. The legions of Hel herself had sallied forth, raining down fire on the world! Surt woke up and his breath choked the sky! The Sons of Muspel rode out and nowhere was safe! Even Gimli!’
He looked around at the adults, who now were hooked too.
‘Yet Gimli was foretold to be where survivors of the end of the world would live … it is the place protected from the fire! We’re tough! We fight! And we protect our loved ones! But without Eddy’s bravery we would never know safety! The place more beautiful than the sun would always live in the shadow of conflict! And so the Wild Hunt had to do what they did, for us all. For communities like us across the world. For people who didn’t even believe in them, who didn’t even know they existed! Their sacrifices that day would be forever unknown if not for the one who survived … but I get ahead of myself! All things in order. Everything and everyone must play their part in the web of wyrd. Ask the Weavers!’ He pointed at the women in the room. ‘They know! They understand! The warp and weft… there must be a pattern to it, a sequence!’
‘We’d better not let you near a loom then!’ one of them called, and they all cackled.
‘Harrumph!’ His frown melted into a smile. ‘So, the Wild Hunt fought against Loki and his lackeys – and what a battle it was! There, where the world is sundered. If it was not already so, the force of their clash would have broken it in twain! What a sound! The Earth shook!’ He stamped his feet up and down on the floor-boards, making a dull rumbling sound. ‘The sky was shattered by lightning!’ He weaved his hands back and forth, his rings glinting in the candle-light. ‘Crash! Boom!’
The young audience gasped in mock-terror and delight, while some of the adults rolled their eyes.
‘The outcome of such a battle was very close. Very close indeed. Such valour! Such deeds were seen on the Plains of Vigrid that day! It was the ultimate Holmgang—’
‘What’s that?’ asked a wide-eyed child.
‘Well, little one, I’m glad you asked. Holmgang is a Norse custom for settling disputes. The two feuding parties would go to an island to sort out their differences – only one was allowed back. It was a fight to the death. As it was that fateful day! One by one, the mighty gods fell – like tall trees in the forest. The Allfather is eaten by Fenris the Wolf in gigantic gulp…’ Roaring, Snorri used his arms to mime the jaws snapping shut. ‘Like that!’
The audience gasped.
‘Tear is torn apart from Garm, Hel’s own hound, while slaying it with his dying breath!’ Snorri growled and howled. ‘Frey and Surt destroy each other. Biff! Bash! Pow! And Rig, wily Heimdal, runefather and friend to all, falls at the hands of Loki, even as he delivers a fatal blow to that double-tongued trickster! And like trees in a storm, the rest of the Elders of the Wild Hunt topple. But they’re deaths are not in vain! Eddy reaches Law Rock, guarded by Fenja! He pulls out the runestone and … he can’t read it! It’s all in runes! A fatal flaw in the plan! All their deaths in vain!’ He smacks his brow in disbelief.
‘No!!!’ the children cried out.
‘Except … Fenja, she blows wisdom into his mind – puff! Like that! And suddenly, he can understand the markings! A-ha!’ He points a finger up in the air.
‘A-ha!’ the children echoed, mirroring his gesture.
‘He starts to recite the runic inscription, as the gods die around him, and the remains of Loki’s horde swarm towards the rock! Fenja fights them off as best she can, but she is hideously outnumbered. She can only hold them off for so long… All seems lost…’
Snorri looked around and saw even the adults were awaiting his next words with baited breath. The candle-light seemed frail in the gloom. This golden circle of humanity, so precious, so fragile.
‘Then Eddy’s words, spoken with power – he’s not a rocker for nothing – were finished. There was a vacuum of noise into which all the din of battle was sucked.’
Snorri paused for effect. You could hear a pin drop.
‘And then a great blast of energy rippled out from Law Rock across the Thingvollr, across Iceland, across the Atlantic, across the world! KA-BOOM!’ He clapped his hands. ‘Eddy released the Ragnarok runes, encoded on the Vérendrye Runestone, lost but found, right herein Manitoba! Preserved for centuries by the Redcrows! The tablet crumbled to dust and blew away in an icy breath of wind. Whoosh!’ He flicked his hand.
‘Whoosh!’ the children copied.
‘Eddy lay unconscious on the Law Rock. All was still and silent. Slowly, painfully, he revived. A patch of blue appeared in the sky overhead, and a shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom. Sunlight! Golden, like the hair of his beloved… Fenja! He got up and saw her at the foot of the rock, her broken body on a pile of the demon hordes. “No!” he cried, and stumbled down to her. Her body was limp and lifeless. He held her in his arms and wept. They had won, but at what cost?’
Snorri looked slyly about the room and saw there was not a dry eye. Satisfied, he continued. ‘Eddy sat there for a long time, holding the body of his sweetheart, amid the corpse-strewn battlefield, a feast for crows. If the Valkyries moved among the valiant, taking them to Valhalla, he could not see. All he saw was the white landscape running red with blood, his heart as black and as cold as the rock he sat upon. Then a slit appeared in the freezing air, glowing bright blue. It widened and heightened until a giant was framed. It was the King of the Frost Giants! Eddy was too weak, too bereft, to move, to react. If his time had come, so be it. But the frost giant wept too – tears of ice – and, reaching down, tenderly picked up Fenja and, turning back into the portal, carried her away. ‘Wait! Stop!’ he cried, but it was futile. The King disappeared into Jötunheim, but, strangely, the portal remained open – and looking closer, Eddy could see, on the far side of the mountainous plateau, another portal, and through that, he saw … home! Gimli!’
A cheer went up.
‘And so he took his leave of that place, where his words had healed the wound of the crack in the world. He stepped through the portal and …’
The arrival of another made Snorri stop and everyone looked up.
In the doorway, looking weak, but alive, was Eddy Redcrow.
‘Hey there! Am I missing anything?’
Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020
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