This is the Life: ‘Golden Spruce’ offers insight into history, culture

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I’ve just finished reading The Golden Spruce, a Governor General’s Literary Award winner for non-fiction written in 2005. It was highly recommended by a friend and it turned out to be much more than I expected.

Like many, I recall the news coverage when the famed golden Sitka spruce tree was cut down in 1997. It seemed like a merely savage act then, but the book provides remarkable detail about the history of logging in North America, the culture of West Coast Indians, including the Haida, and of what were the Queen Charlotte Islands then and now comprise Haida Gwaii.

Author John Vaillant, who was born and raised in Massachusetts and now resides in Vancouver, is also a journalist who has written for, among other magazines, the New Yorker. The Golden Spruce has the feel of the sort of lengthy, thoughtful features that made me fall in love with the New Yorker 25 years ago.

First, the tree. The Golden Spruce was of the Sitka variety, those extraordinarily tall and straight West Coast trees that were for more than a century logged for use as spars and masts for ships around the world. The tree in question was one of nature’s true anomalies — an almost pure golden coloured evergreen that was as healthy, or healthier, than the green sisters and brothers that surrounded it. No other competing example has ever been found. Not surprisingly, the tree’s uniqueness and beauty made it the stuff of Haida legends. It was, after all, 300 years old when a career logging specialist of questionable sanity spent a night with a chainsaw, masterfully making cuts so the tree would remain standing until the next strong wind. It fell on the following day.

In weaving the story of a strange and wonderful tree, a bright logging road layout specialist, a First Nations people who were complicit in the destruction of the forests they called home, an insatiable demand for timber and fibre, and human history on this continent, Vaillant provides readers with an education that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

Who would have thought that the same market pressures that nearly wiped out the sea otter in the Pacific Ocean and the American buffalo on the prairies in the 1800s would have such similarities to the demise of old growth timber in North America? After reading Vaillant’s description of how logging has dramatically changed our entire continent, I suddenly realized that it should be no great surprise that climate change is occurring at an ever more rapid rate. How couldn’t it?

Much of the reporting after it was discovered that Grant Hadwin had cut down the Golden Spruce centered around his mental health and the terrorist-like action he had undertaken to highlight his fears about the impact of industrial logging. Then, when Hadwin disappeared out onto the water, supposedly on his way to Queen Charlotte City for his court case, it shifted to whether he had died dramatically in the roiling winter waters of the Hecate Strait, been accidentally or intentionally killed, or made a detour into the wilderness, having carefully planned his own disappearance.

Vaillant examines each possibility, but he subtly leads us to consider Hadwin’s true motivations, explaining that there is credible research that indicates some mental illness results when people become overwhelmed by the hopelessness of what mankind does in the name of progress and profit. My own conclusion was that Hadwin was trying to point out that the Golden Spruce was a distraction that took our own, and that of the Haida people, attention off the more important fact that the forests surrounding it were being raped beyond recognition.

Often compared to John Krakauer and Sebastian Junger, Grant Hadwin has the ability to provide global context to a small act, to give readers a basis for understanding some of the complex issues we face as a species. If I had three thumbs, they would all be pointing upward for The Golden Spruce.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.