It is 2038 and Jake, a botanist, is guiding a group of pilgrims through the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral on an island off the British Columbia coast. Tech giants, movie stars, and investment bankers flock to this exclusive ecological resort to see one of the last remaining old-growth forests on the planet and come in contact with a nature that’s otherwise nearly extinct.
That’s how Michael Christie’s astonishing new novel, Greenwood, opens. After the environmental crisis known as “the Great Withering,” much of the world is a dust bowl; climate refugees trek across the continent as children die of a horrifying new strain of tuberculosis called “rib retch.” With aquifers drying up in the United States, Russia under totalitarian rule, and even New Zealand experiencing a coup, “water- and tree-rich Canada has become the global elite’s panic room.” The Canadian prime minister is the most powerful politician in the world.
We should be familiar with the general scene. Many of the best literary novels featuring climate change are apocalyptic, doom saying. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, the first instalment of which was published in 2003, imagines the human world ripped apart by ecological disaster, rampant inequality, and careening biotech; Omar El Akkad’s 2017 American War is set in a near future where global warming has triggered a second civil war in the United States. In genre novels, meanwhile, aspects of climate change take on a monster-of-the-week quality: the Ross Ice Shelf breaking free in an ecothriller is a new version of the nuclear sub gone rogue during the Cold War or the Nazi on the loose in London.
Climate change presents writers with the opportunity to grapple with perhaps the biggest problem humanity has ever faced, but the books that have resulted, increasingly known as “cli-fi,” have often been one-note, reluctant to move past apocalyptic dystopia. One reason might be that, almost by definition, the genre exists to scare readers into making meaningful changes to their behaviour or politics. It screams shocked portents of how bad things will get if we do nothing. Advocates for cli-fi, such as American journalist Dan Bloom, who coined the term, make jealous comparison to Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel, On the Beach, in which a nuclear war wiped out most of the world. Selling more than 4 million copies, Shute’s novel is credited by many for changing the way we think about nuclear weapons.
Morally charged fiction can be signally powerful, from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But, in 2017, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson wrote that he was worried that climate novels may “hew too closely to established apocalyptic tropes that audiences easily ignore after decades of exposure.” That is, trying to replicate the impact of Shute’s book might not work because we’ve grown too familiar with the end of the world. It feels like just another story. A related problem is that most people don’t like feeling hectored, being told what to do, or being told what’s good for them. Researchers have examined ways that doom mongering can lead to depression and apathy. The standout climate-change novel, at least in terms of exploring our inaction, might have been written in the nineteenth century: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, the story of a layabout Russian aristocrat with two letters of very bad news to attend to, who may be able to fix the problems if he can only answer them. He knows perfectly well that it’s time to get out of bed, decides to get out of bed, is about to get out of bed—but somehow hardly moves all day.
If, as Atwood says, climate change is “everything change,” it requires a new lexicon and a new philosophy: a conceptual shift as large as the global transformation to a zero-emissions economy. Christie’s novel Greenwood shows us one version of what this imaginative possibility might look like. Among much else, it’s a thorough rethinking of the relationship between people and the natural world, tracing our changing involvements with nature, over time, as exploiters, protectors, and transformers. In particular, through an immersive, sensuous use of language and metaphor, it explores not only the ways people exist in nature but also the ways nature exists in us—a note that apocalyptic fiction sometimes overlooks.
Aformer carpenter, homeless-shelter worker, and professional skateboarder, Michael Christie is the author of The Beggar’s Garden, a 2011 collection of short fiction set at the margins of modern urban life, and If I Fall, If I Die, a 2015 novel about a sheltered eleven-year-old boy’s relationship with his agoraphobic mother. Greenwood is Christie’s most ambitious work yet, a densely plotted family saga told over more than a century. We follow the Greenwoods’ changing fortunes through their ties to the trees of Greenwood Island: from lumber magnate Harris Greenwood, who burns down half the forest, in 1934, to spite a competitor; to his brother, Everett, who brings a baby to shelter in a cabin on the property; to Willow Greenwood, a radical environmental activist; to her son, Liam, who becomes a master carpenter; to Jake—Jacinda Greenwood—the young scientist who finds herself first working on Greenwood Island and then, as an unexpected heir, in possible possession of it.
The novel is not a tract, and that’s part of why it works so well. Woven with subplots so rich that any one of them could be a novel of its own, Greenwood’s power comes from the unusual depth of its different characterizations of nature. Harris knows how to negotiate the sale of enough Douglas fir for Imperial Japan to build 70 million feet of railway sleepers, but wood, for him, is more than a commodity to be stacked and shipped. He sees a wooden house as a living, imperfect thing, “moving moisture through its capillaries. Breathing and twisting, expanding and contracting. Like a body.” When they were boys, it was said, his brother Everett “could tell red oak from black oak or birch from poplar just by the music of their leaves.”
Nature imagery seeps into sentence after sentence. Harris’s assistant is described in arboreal terms: “Even after weeks abroad, the scent of the forest—fir sap and cedar tannin—still clings to Feeney.” Everett mostly dreams of trees: “I think if you ever cut my head open, it’d be one big root ball in there, all tangled and grown together.”
The characters are surprisingly unsentimental. One says that we shouldn’t impose our stories on trees at all: “They stand. They reach. They climb. They thirst. They drop their leaves. They fall. You see, Jake? We make them human. With our verbs. But really, we shouldn’t. Because they’re our betters. Our kings and queens.” And the natural world is often presented as ruthless and unforgiving rather than mystical or consoling: “Mother Nature’s true aim is to convert us people back into the dust we came from, just as quick as possible.”
Christie seems determined to present, almost simultaneously, a spectrum of possible relations to nature. When we see them all laid out, we can reflect that any single notion about what “nature” is is partial. Christie’s organization of the novel’s contents suggests a related idea about time. Time is not an arrow, Liam Greenwood reflects. “It simply accumulates—in the body, in the world—like wood does. Layer upon layer.” The book moves backward, stopping at different points as if travelling back through the growth rings of a tree trunk. Then, after reaching the centre, the heartwood, it starts moving forward in time again. Christie returns to the same characters at different periods, contextualizing individual passions and desires, such as Willow’s love of the forest and Liam’s skill and care as a carpenter, and rendering them as points in a repeating, shifting constellation. By decentring individual stories, Greenwood shifts away from human chronology into a broader one.
Paradoxically, what makes Greenwood an essential climate-change novel is that, rather than obsessing over a single, final apocalypse to come, it attempts something much harder and more ambitious: to transcend altogether the tropes of victim and antagonist. What climate fiction might need—what we all might need—is to get beyond the idea of humans as despoilers getting their comeuppance and to instead present humanity and nature as deeply, ultimately, endlessly interconnected.
Other writers have arrived at this idea. Seán Virgo’s short story “My Atlantis,” published in the 2017 anthology Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change, edited by Bruce Meyer, lays out what a different relationship to nature might feel like in fiction. The story, about an aging man who returns to his home island for his brother’s funeral and encounters a landscape irretrievably altered, engages less with plot—the story of climate change and its effects—and more with the mood of climate change: “And out in the shrinking, occluded wild spaces, there is silence, and starlight and dreams, and the last of darkness.” Harold Johnson’s novel Corvus tries something similar, at least on the biotech side, when it describes its protagonist flying a bioengineered raven suit: he’s at once human and animal and something else altogether.
The lesson from Christie and Virgo and Johnson to novelists who want to write about the spectacle of arid landscapes and poisoned seas seems to be: don’t. Don’t try to scare us into action—it just makes us want to put pillows over our heads. Rethink. Help us look more strangely at our current moment.
Greenwood even offers a rare sentiment in the climate emergency: hope. Not of a naive kind that says some technological or policy fix, right around the corner, will correct everything for us, but something harder, earned from past crises. Reading an old diary that belonged to a relative a century ago, a book that seems to tie together the various legacies around Greenwood Island, a character in 2038 imagines what its author is really saying about the Dust Bowl—a period of severe dust storms that destroyed crops on American and Canadian prairies during the 1930s, which remains arguably one of the worst environmental crises of the twentieth century. “Take heart, she seems to say. The world has been on the brink of ending before. The dust has always been waiting to swallow us.”
However much we may believe that the world is ending now for the first time, Greenwood reminds us that we have been somewhere like this before. Maybe that’s one way fiction can face something unthinkably terrifying—even if, as a species, we can’t.