North Woods by Daniel Mason

This is the most wonderful book and will definitely be in my top ten for this year – if not at the number one slot. It tells the story of a plot of land over the years from the time it is first used by a couple of young lovers running away to some indeterminate time in the future. A cabin is built which is then turned into a house and it is there that we meet the people who inhabit the land.

She looked then much as she does now: a clean facade of lemon yellow, with white shutters on the windows and a tall black door. A home of perfect symmetry, were it not for the ell on her left flank. In the dooryard, we planted the sapling that would one day grow into the noble elm that now stands forty feet and gives us shade in summer.


We meet Osgood who becomes an apple breeder, his twin daughters who fall foul of jealousy and kill, painters, men who love each other, families and sometimes lone men all who are attracted to the place for its trees. Told through letters, self-penned stories, news articles, photos, footnotes and in one case psychiatric notes, the story goes round and round with future house holders hearing the ghosts of the house’s past. And the land? It is cleared, becomes overgrown, cleared and becomes overgrown again and again in a never ending cycle but what does change are the plants that grow there. Because it isn’t only people that move onto the land but also diseases, so we see Dutch Elm disease and Ash dieback amongst others. The description of the sex of a dutch elm disease beetle is so well described and accurate with a little anthropomorphism thrown in.

The description of seeds blowing landwards off a ship that has moored and dumped its ballast is fantastic and all told as footnotes for no one ever sees this process.

On landing, the ballast is removed and dumped into the harbor. Much of it – the stones, the shells, the beads, the spectacles – sinks to the bottom of the bay. But the seeds, many of the seeds, enough of the seeds, rinsed loose of their swadling earth, are freed into the breakers and float to shore.

It is warm; within weeks, they have germinated, begun to grow, to flower to set seed of their own.

Then, one by one, and by the millions, they make their way west.


So, just like people, nature is constantly on the move. It has always been changed by humans and humans by it.

There is also the wild cat, the catamount, that keeps making an appearance. Once native to the land but eventually only there as a hunted and stuffed ornament on a desk, it does eventually break free and possibly kill someone who had undesirable ideas for the land – a touch of magic or folkloric happenings that sometimes survive through storytelling.

I did have to work quite hard to keep up with the book, the dates are not stated so you have to work out roughly what era you are in and keep track of the ghosts circling around. It tells the history of a small plot of land, not of the people who were there before the settlers, but from then on and it is fascinating. It is succession illuminated and a message to us all that it will continue even if the climate and therefore the plants change. The forest and the trees are everything and witness it all.

New Words

I often come across new words so here is one for this book

She drummed her fingers thoughtfully agaist her cheek, and registered, deep within her belly, a borborygmic protest against her gluttony.


Definition – a rumbling or gurgling noise made by the movement of fluid and gas in the intestines.

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