Jake, a central character in Michael Christie’s novel “Greenwood” believes the following about trees: “That even the most impenetrable mysteries of time and family and death can be solved if only they are viewed through the green-tinted lens of this one gloriously complex organism.”
This seems to be the underlying metaphor for “Greenwood”—that families can be seen not as family trees, but as complex forests.
“I’ve always loved the epic family saga that features a family tree diagram at the beginning of the book, to help the reader keep track of who is related to who,” says Christie. “And while I wanted to attempt to write a book in this tradition, I also aimed to question the idea of what a family really is, and to suggest that maybe the metaphor of the single tree is ultimately insufficient to the task of capturing the infinitely complex relations of a family. And that, yes, maybe we should think of human relations more like interrelated forests.”
“Greenwood” is the 2022 Whatcom READS selection and is described by the Whatcom READS selection committee as: “Set in the Pacific Northwest, Michael Christie’s “Greenwood” opens in the near future in one of the last surviving old-growth forests in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. The narrative skillfully navigates a cross section of generations, themes, and times. As Christie peels back those layers, he exposes the heartwood of what it means to struggle, survive, and thrive; in essence, what it means to be human.”
Whatcom READS celebrates reading, readers, and strong communities through the shared experience of one book. Entering its 14th year, Whatcom READS is presented by all the public and academic libraries in Bellingham and Whatcom County—Bellingham Public Library, Bellingham Technical College, Northwest Indian College, Western Washington University, Whatcom Community College, and Whatcom County Library System. Village Books is a community partner and donates 10% of sales of the book to Whatcom READS. The book is available in print, eBook, and eAudiobook through all of the aforementioned libraries, and is also available as a book club kit through the Bellingham Public Library featuring 10 copies and suggested discussion questions.
Christie, an award-winning author who is a former carpenter and homeless-shelter worker, divides his time between Victoria and Galiano Island, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and two sons in a timber-frame house that he built.
Christie will be in Whatcom County for several Whatcom READS events taking place March 3-5, 2022.
“As I wrote the novel, I found it astounding how entwined tree metaphors are with the way we understand ourselves and our own stories,” he says. “I suppose I’m suggesting that it’s our deep interrelatedness, both to our families—this includes our ancestors and those we chose to be related to—as well as to our communities and to our environment and the plant and animal worlds that is the most important aspect of our being.”
Both of Christie’s parents died while he was writing the book, and his two sons were born.
“It would be very difficult for me to disentangle the loss of my parents and the birth of my two sons from the creation of this novel. These four events happened over an eight-year period, which felt like a flash,” Christie says. “But in my simultaneous feelings of crushing grief and overwhelming joy, I ended up spending a great deal of time considering what a family really means and began to truly accept the fact that lives both begin and end. And that our time on this Earth is not unlimited and should be savored and valued. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was working my way through all this as I wrote, and I’m in a much better place after completing the book.”
For his own reading, Christie likes books in print, but doesn’t judge those who like the portability and ease of the digital format. “But,” he says, “there really is something about the physical book that feels like a sacred presence. One that I love to keep on my shelves, like an old friend.”
Christie grew up in a house full of books. His mother regularly took him to their public library branch where he read for hours, which he says is probably where his connection to libraries comes from.
“‘Greenwood’ is brimming with important books and journals and slipcases and letters and telegrams and libraries,” he says. “This was no accident; a book about trees is also a book about paper.”
About six years ago, Christie and his wife acquired some land on Galiano Island. Trees were brought down to clear the site for their house, which they had milled into lumber to use to build. “I’d done some construction in my younger years, but had never built an entire house before,” Christie says. “I threw myself into it and made plenty of mistakes and learned a whole bunch of things along the way.”
The house is now complete, and Christie says he finds great joy in it every day.
The author grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, a small city on Lake Superior a two-hour drive north of Duluth, Minnesota. “It was a cold, rugged, and pretty remote place to grow up,” he says, “with a massive swath of trees and lakes surrounding it, and pretty much nothing else.”
His current Galiano Island home, on the surface, could seem very different from Thunder Bay. “It’s stunningly beautiful and temperate [for Canada],” Christie says. But in some ways, the two places are quite similar. “Galiano attracts a certain kind of person; one looking to live in an unconventional way. And I only realized lately that I’m most attracted to these marginal places. The edges are always where the interesting stuff happens.”
Christie says he was completely obsessed with trees while writing the book—and quite likely still is.
“I live among some pretty majestic specimens, so it’s hard not to be,” he says. “The complexity of a single tree is something that science is only beginning to understand. What could possibly be more amazing? They make sugars and oxygen from sunlight and carbon dioxide and water, creating zero waste. And at the same time, they reproduce themselves and provide us with fruit and a wonderful building material? Imagine if our scientists invented something that incredible. They would win the Nobel Prize!”
One of the highlights of Whatcom READS each year is the program’s community events, which take place in conjunction with the selected book.
“With “Greenwood,” we can explore together questions of climate change, family, Pacific Northwest botany, intersectional environmentalism and so much more,” says Committee Chairwoman Ann McAllen. “The list of community programs is rich and varied, but it all starts with the book.”
Aspiring local writers have already submitted their work to the Whatcom WRITES challenge and will share their entries in February at Village Books. And Allied Arts of Whatcom County invites artists in all media to the Art Challenge, which will be on view when Christie is scheduled to visit in March.
Christine Perkins, executive director of Whatcom County Library System says that authors are always impressed when they see what their book has inspired. “It’s a special moment for them to realize that they have fostered this creativity in others.”
Upcoming Whatcom READS Events
Fiction and Climate Change Literature
January 22, 2022
11 a.m. to 12 p.m. (free)
Wood Songs with local
luthier Devin Champlin
January 27, 2022
7 p.m. to 8 p.m. (free)
reading with Washington State Poet Laureate Rena Priest
Feburary 3, 2022
7 p.m. to 8 p.m. (free)
Intersectional Environmentalism: The Key to Fighting Racism and Climate Change
February 10, 2022
7 p.m. to 8 p.m. (free)
For a complete list of events and for pre-registration, please go to whatcomreads.org/events/.