In 1997, a symbolic Sitka spruce tree known as the golden spruce was cut down illegally in the dark cover of night. The deed took place in British Columbia when a marginally-employed logger and layout engineer, Grant Hadwin, systematically sawed the 300-year-old tree so that it was left teetering without the strength to withstand a strong wind. A day later, the massive giant crashed down. In Hadwin’s mind, the act was a political statement against the greed and short-sightedness of industrial logging corporations. But to many, his actions were environmental terrorism.
The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed is a non-fiction nature book that systematically investigates the meaning behind the golden spruce tree to three main groups of people, and the motives that lay within the man who actually felled it. This book is part mystery, part natural history, part ethnography and shot through with excellent narrative storytelling.
Author John Vaillant has a way of gathering fact after fact like so many vibrant colored strings and then weaving them into a multi-colored and multi-dimensional tapestry. The book’s structure is an investigation of various people groups and their attitudes toward using natural resources: the early sea-faring westerners that came to British Columbia for the sea otter fur trade, then stayed for the seemingly limitless timber; the Haida indigenous people that happily sold the otters and timber in their territory; and the loggers that happily plundered the old-growth forests, convinced that it would regrow by the time they were done and that they could cut it all over again. The picture that emerges from this is a detective’s tale that presents the facts of a case as well as how these facts were perceived by the various people groups involved. It is this latter part that infuses Vaillant’s work with a deep literary value.
From a biologist’s perspective, the golden spruce itself was a freak of nature, an aberrant one-in-a-billion mutant that took root on the banks of the Yakoun River in the Queen Charlotte Islands and defied all odds to grow into a towering perfectly-cone-shaped Sitka spruce. People described its golden-hued needles as “luminous” and were happy to just enjoy its aesthetic appeal. Scientifically, it lacked the pigments and proteins in its needles that act like sunscreen and allow the chloroplasts to function properly. In fact, its chloroplasts could only absorb reflected light, direct sunlight would have fried it. For most trees, such a defect would be crippling. Yet the golden spruce grew for 300 years and — against all odds — also grew a perfectly symmetrical cone shape. The mutation lent it a golden color, and the sunlight reflecting off its needles was said to cast an other-wordly glow. Its unique siting on Haida Gwaii, shrouded in fog and rain most of the year, allowed the tree to survive and even thrive despite its genetic defects.
From the perspective of the indigenous people who lived near to the golden spruce for hundreds of years, the tree embodied their own origin myth and its existence paralleled their own. Readers learn two myths of the golden spruce, both of which have unexplained parallels that are true to life. In these myths, the golden spruce’s felling could be interpreted as the beginning of their people’s end.
From the perspective of loggers that, in the later years of the golden spruce’s life, infiltrated the virgin old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, the tree was nothing more than an unhealthy Sitka spruce specimen. At first, Sitka spruce was not an especially valuable economic commodity; but then the airplane industry discovered its lightweight, strong properties and it came into demand.
But one logger held a very different perspective. Grant Hadwin witnessed — even participated in — the clear-cutting of massive swaths of old-growth forests in British Columbia. He’d also had a vision of the effects of industrial logging which turned him into a sort of self-appointed messianic messenger of a more environmentally-sensitive approach to logging that placed limits on extractive methods and profits to save old-growth forests. Hadwin grew frustrated that so much attention and protection was given to one mutant tree, the golden spruce, while tourists, policymakers and citizens turned a blind eye to the wholesale destruction of the entire forest surrounding the golden boy. So he struck it down.
He was arrested, but then let go and ordered to appear for a day in court. Hadwin had so angered the Haida that some people wondered if they would take care of him in their own way. Still, he set out by sea kayak for his day in court. He never arrived. Whether he drowned in rough seas, was met by vigilante Haida on the open water, or simply chose to disappear into the British Columbia or Alaskan wilderness remains an open question.
Vaillant gives a serious and thorough treatment to Hadwin’s character. He examines his early teenage years, a history of mental illness in his family, his genius in logging and laying out logging roads in rough terrain, his marriage and his relationships. As a reader, you get to know Hadwin on a deeper, more multi-faceted level than his own neighbors likely knew him. This deep look at a principal historical figure lifts him from being just a historical element into being a true character.
But Vaillant also cultivates a parallel theme between the biological uniqueness of the golden spruce and the outstanding uniqueness of Hadwin’s personality. Consider this passage:
When the golden spruce fell, it knocked down every tree in its path. From a distance it looked like the wreckage left by a lightning strike, or a freak wind, which in a way, it was. After all, what were the chances? The golden spruce was one in a billion, and so was Grant Hadwin. “Whoever did this,” said a MacMillan Bloedel spokesperson shortly after the tree was found, “had to be hell bent.” He was referring not just to the logistical details, but to the raw effort required to access the tree, and then to cut it down in the middle of the night. It is hard to imagine anyone else with the same combination of motive, obsession, endurance, and skill required to do such a thing. (145-146)
This comes at the end of a chapter’s worth of details about Hadwin’s extremely high physical endurance for hiking through old-growth, lugging logging equipment, being able to swim through freezing waters and stay exposed in freezing weather for long periods of time, seemingly unfazed. Vaillant knits this portrait of Hadwin based upon interviews with his former logging colleagues, bosses, family members, enemies and friends.
He extends the same depth of attention to all points of focus in this book, and the result is an engrossing who-dunnit tale that sweeps readers into worlds of myth and greed. This book is light on science, though there is a little, and heavy on exploring the meaning of nature and its role in human lives.