Ottawa Writers Fest: Michael Christie gets down the wood with his latest novel

Michael Christie. Photo: Cedar Bowers

If a tree fell on Greenwood Island some time in the near future, every one would hear. After all, in Michael Christie‘s new novel, Greenwood Island is one of the last refuges of the primeval forest that has been destroyed by what is known as the Great Withering. The book is called — what else — Greenwood (McCelland & Stewart).

But it is more than a story about a forest, the novel also peels back the rings of a complex family tree full of disaffected children, carpenters, lumber barons and eco-warriors.

And it all started on the stump of a 45 year old Douglas fir that was cut on Galiano Island where Christie built a timber frame home for his family a few years ago. The fir wood is dense and heavy and strong with a tight grain, he said.

“I was cutting down a tree to clear room for a driveway. It was a small tree but I cut it down and it fell. I was just sort of sitting there looking at the stump and it dawned on me that it looked like the pages of a book.

“The stump was, in a way,  telling the story of a tree’s life and it came to me that I could transport that into a book and tell a story that way.” The tree provided a natural calendar for his created humanity.

There is a discipline called dendrochronology, Christie said, where the rings are studied and offer up climate history and other scientific data.

“Trees in a way are record-keepers. It is fascinating the way they extend so far beyond our own lifetimes.”

Trees are also connected by root systems and form an underground network that in some ways could be seen as a kind of brain, he said.

It all sort of fit together, he said, as writing about family is a subject he has returned to in his writing.

“The interconnections between people, the intergenerational connections and also people who are forging families out of thin air — that’s what my imagination gravitates towards,” he said.

The central figure at the start of the book is a young scientist reduced to being a  tour guide named Jacinda ‘Jake’ Greenwood who discovers she is actually related to the people who at one time owned the island where she is working.

The fact that the book is set in the future when the effects of climate change are fully upon the world, is not far removed from today.

“There are signs of climate stress all over the place. On Galiano, the western red cedar trees — these are trees that have been around for 500 years — are browning and dying because of drought stress now.

“Living on an island like that you do get a sense of how rare this kind of nature is going to become and is already. And what a commodity it might turn into when it becomes more and more scarce.”

That idea gripped him and he repaired to a little cabin he has on Galiano Island where he writes. All this while he was building his house.

“I’d get the kids off to school and go out there. I’m in that cabin from 9 ’til 3 every day. This book took an enormous amount of research. And a plot of that scale took a whole lot of work and a lot of mistakes were made.” The cabin is reminiscent of a small shed on Cape Breton Island where Alistair MacLeod wrote books such as No Great Mischief. Christie is friends with MacLeod’s son Alexander and the tiny space inspired Christie.

In the book the idea of the eco-tourist is been taken to the nth degree as now wealthy individuals commune with the giant trees in their last strongholds, much as people now roll across southern Africa watching as the elephant herds grow smaller and smaller and the rhinos fade into the dust.

“It used to be that the splendour of nature was available to everyone and it was a democratic thing. Unfortunately as these things become more and more scarce we are going to see this limiting and hoarding of these places.”

“This is not a piece of propaganda but at the same time, what we can do as fiction writers is humanize things and make people feel these things that we all kind of know about but might be having trouble connecting with.” He said reading fiction helps him retain more information than a news report on climate change.

“My intent on writing the book was to provide a kind of call to action and a declaration of the wonder of trees. They are something we have been entwined with since our very evolution. They have kept us alive and allowed us to thrive. If we destroy them we are only endangering ourselves.”

Christie says he’s never really been a “hippy-dippy” guy. But moving to Galiano Island and just being in the forest in a deep way has changed his perspective.

“Time spent among the trees increases our creativity and makes us happier. This is stuff that has been studied and demonstrated.”

Christie’s wife, Cedar, grew up on Galiano Island and her parents gave a chunk of land for them to build upon. The couple figured their two young children would benefit from growing up there. They also have a place in Victoria, but they spend most of their time on Galiano.

Christie has worked with wood and the book does reflect a lot of the details of a life doing that kind of work. One of the characters, Liam, who is also Jake’s father, is a carpenter.

Christie had thought of a career as a carpenter. his grandfather was one, but only as a fall back if writing didn’t pay off.

The house he built was constructed from wood that was cut down on the property to clear the site for the home. He had it milled by two guys named Gordie and Gord — kid you not. The house is made of Douglas fir and western red cedar.

“Wood is a limitlessly fascinating material,” he said. “It is such a gift to humanity.”

These days, though, he is able to focus on fiction. He also had good luck with his first novel If I Fall, If I Die which also made the Giller long list and a collection of short stories called The Beggars Garden made the same list. Money left over from those books helped build the house.

“Just to be on one of those lists is an honour.”

Christie joins a long list of writers from this part of the country including Esi Edugyan and Steven Price. They all meet on occasion at Munro’s Books on Government Street near the Empress Hotel in Victoria, where Christie recently launched his novel. The store was founded in 1963 in another location by Jim and (the) Alice Munro.

“B.C. is a great place to connect with other writers and to get some work done. I think sometimes if you are in Toronto you can end up doing a million things. I sort of like being outside the centre of publishing in Canada.”

In town: Michael Christie will be in Christ Church Cathedral at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m. on a panel with Johanna Skibsrud. For tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.