Tag Archives: Environmental

Greenwood – a review

Michael Christie’s intricately-constructed eco-novel dramatizes a multi-generational saga dominated by trees.

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Greenwood – a novel of a family tree in a dying forest

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.

Kevan Manwaring, 10 Mar. 21

Greenwood is published by Scribe

Writing the Earth (part 1)

Cli-Fi: Writing the Land, Awen, 2003; An Ecobardic Manifesto, Awen 2004; Lost Islands, Heart of Albion, 2008

Climate Fiction, popularly abbreviated as ‘cli-fi’ is literature that deals with climate change and global warming. Traditionally such works would have been categorised as Speculative Fiction, but in a world of increasingly frequent extreme weather events, where many institutions, authorities, and governments have declared a Climate Emergency, cli-fi appears to chart the state of the modern, not near future, world.

My connection to creative writing that explores environmental issues started with my very first poetry, penned in the first year of the 90s – so I have a 30 year connection to the subject, long before Cli-Fi became a trendy tag. Much of my early poetry was inspired by the landscape and an ecological sensibility (and still is). This was performed at open mics and appeared in my home-made chapbooks throughout that decade. By the end of the 90s I had become the Bard of Bath, and had started to get my work into print.

In the early Noughties after working towards an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing at Cardiff University, I started to teach creative writing in earnest. I applied for a small grant, which enabled me to run a series of workshops on ‘Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath’s environment centre, during the spring and early summer of 2003. This resulted in Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words, which I put together with my students. It raised funds for the local Friends of the Earth group, and I got a piece in the Bath Chronicle, with me appearing next to Terry Coulson, the much-loved and missed chair (he died a year later). To publish the anthology I created Awen Publications, a small press, which I ran for ten years. It specialised in writing with an ‘ecobardic’ sensibility, an ethos outlined first by the storytelling group I was in (Fire Springs) and then adopted by the press. An Ecobardic Manifesto: a vision for the arts in a time of environmental crisis came out in 2004, and as a co-author, can be included as my second substantial environmentally-themed publication.

And for my third in this survey of my personal Cli-Fi list I would now turn to Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden (Heart of Albion Press, 2008). Imaginary, otherwordly and lost islands frequently feature in literature. This study considered these mythic isles in the context of climate change and Earth itself as a threatened ‘island’. I think of this as my ‘Climate Change’ book, as in it I looked hard at the (then still) emerging facts about humankind’s decimating impact on the Earth’s biodiversity, and regulatory systems. Concerns about this stem back decades, indeed centuries (Victorian polymath John Ruskin first noted the impact of pollution on air quality and cloud formation). I certainly became concerned about it from the late 80s, when the Ozone layer and the effect of CFCs upon it first appeared in the media, alongside campaigns to Save the Whale and the Amazon rainforest. That famous footage of the hole in the Ozone layer above the Arctic chilled me to the core, and prompted me to join many eco-protest marches. When awareness grew of the potential for sea levels to be effected by global warming I started to think about islands and the many legends of lost ones. I started to research it in earnest and visited as many as I could – writing a draft of the book on Bardsey Island, off the Llyn Peninsula. With the publication of Lost Island, I felt I had truly nailed my colours to the mast. I was green, through and through!

I continue my potted history of personal Cli-Fi in the next blog…

To purchase any of the titles mentioned visit: www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk

My prize-winning science fiction/cli-fi novel, Black Box, has been adapted into an exciting audio drama by podcast wizards, Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. The pilot episodes (1-3) are being launched 27 November, 4 December, and 11 December, 2020. FFI: https://www.buzzsprout.com/411730

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https://ko-fi.com/kevanmanwaring