The Language of Trees, by Steve Wiegenstein (2017)

Wiegenstein portrays the environmental degradation of the Ozarks in his third entry of the splendid Daybreak series, which began before the Civil War with Slant of Light (2012) and continued with This Old World (2014), set during the Ozarks version of Reconstruction.

The woods that cover today’s Ozarks, mostly hickories and oaks, represent second-growth, but in the 19th Century tall, magnificent pines were in great demand for the industrial East. A  rapacious corporation arrives near Daybreak, buys land, builds a company town and a dam, and proceeds to saw lumber. Daybreak has a large stand of harvestable trees, and the corporation wants them. The utopian colony has never quite recovered from the Civil War. Selling the trees means easy money, but they can only be cut once and at a great price environmentally.

Leadership at Daybreak is in flux. Charlotte, widow of James, is the titular head, but she is old and weary and gladly cedes authority to her sons, Newton and Adam. They are the natural heirs, even though Josephine, daughter of Marie and bastard half-sister to the boys, seems to have more talent for administration. Both Newton and Adam have a gift for gab, though Adam fancies himself a poet and is easily drawn in by get-rich-quick talk.

Newton’s weakness is the flesh. One of Wiegenstein’s more compelling portraits is of a free-love cult that moves in nearby, and covets membership in Daybreak. The patriarch pretends friendship with Newton and provides him with one of his concubines, clouding the young man’s judgment and drawing in question his ability to lead Daybreak.

Then there’s J. M. Bridges, the lumber company’s go-to guy, a decent fellow caught up in the late 19th Century’s vision of American primacy and the awesome future industrialization will bring. Bridges is stricken by the cynical Josephine, while she, soured on marriage by her violent stepfather, can’t help but respond to his guileless, clumsy courtship.

Even world-weary Charlotte merits a suitor, a Thoreau-like character who doesn’t try to be a suitor, merely a friend.

Eventually, the machinations of the corporation blow up in violence, but a lot of timber remains, and the corporation remains intact enough to cleverly threaten Daybreak’s trees—and the existence of Daybreak itself. Weigenstein saves some things for the fourth installment, which is in-progress, but The Language of Trees stands alone and complete as the portrait of a transitioning, utopian experiment threatened by base American greed. Still, you’ll want to read the first two volumes. Buy them. Get your library to buy them.

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