In a world ravaged by global warming and deforestation, it seems incomprehensible to imagine the perspectives of the first settlers: encountering the wilderness of North America and seeing nothing but wildlife and never-ending forests.

In her latest novel, Barkskins, Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain, The Shipping News), takes us back to follow two families over four centuries: one family exports timber, another thrives through land speculation, and both decimate forests – without realizing the implications or consequences.

“You can’t fault people for chopping down forests if they didn’t realize what was going to happen in the future,” Proulx said in an interview with Boston Public Radio Thursday. “We can sit here and say, ‘Oh, they were bad people’. But they weren’t bad people, they didn’t know, until a certain point was reached.”

That point came in the 19th century, when Vermont farmer George Perkins Marsh noticed that plant and animal life had change, forests were disappearing, and some animal species were beginning to languish. Marsh gave a speech in 1847, warning his fellow farmers that clearing the land of trees would not only hurt their individual welfare, but would also compromise the community's well being.

Nobody paid much attention to Marsh or his book, Man and Nature, America's first ecological study. According to Proulx, we continue to ignore the warning signs, forging ahead with deforestation. “Things are still going on as before, but now we know,” she said. “There’s something in human nature to be unable to let a figurative axe drop from their hands. Once we start on taking a resource, we keep taking.”

To hear Annie Proulx’s full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.