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The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed

by John Vaillant

It’s obvious how trees in myth and literature enter the public imagination – Eden’s tree of knowledge, the Bodhi tree, Tolkien’s Ents, H.C. Anderson’s fir tree – but how trees become famous in real life is a bit of a mystery. They are valuable, sure, but important, or special?

On the Queen Charlotte Islands in B.C., a towering Sitka spruce with golden needles became something of a legend. Sacred to the local Haida, it was known as “Elder Spruce Tree” (the only tree the Haida ever named), and considered to have once been human. The residents of nearby Port Clements were enamoured with the strange, luminous tree and built a small tourist trade from it. Botanists thought it was probably the only tree like it in the world. Even loggers revered the tree, saving it from the massive clearcutting that is standard practice in B.C.

Equally famous and irrevocably paired with the golden spruce is a man named Grant Hadwin. Renowned for toughness and stamina among his logging colleagues, Hadwin took a 10-day leave from a job and, apparently, had a vision. He returned to work a different man. He told his supervisors that logging was wrong. He suddenly stopped working in the forest and started writing wild letters to the government and media. One night he furtively cut deep into the golden spruce, enough to destabilize but not down the tree. Two days later it fell. Hadwin later disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

Why did Hadwin do it? He believed, according to a treatise he wrote, that it was an act of protest against the logging industry. How could people single out this “pet plant,” as he called the tree, when thousands like it were cut down every day?

Vancouver-based writer John Vaillant wrote about the felling of the golden spruce for The New Yorker in 2002, and that article became the foundation for this book. It was an excellent article, and it’s a great story, with enough “myth, madness, and greed” to make any publisher salivate. The corresponding and conflicting interests of the Haida, Hadwin, and the logging industry makes for a nice arc.

This makes the thin and fragmented book all the more disappointing. Vaillant ambitiously tries to dig up the backstory of all three factions when the material could be enough for three books of suitable depth.

Interesting, deserving topics like the Coyote myth or Hadwin’s schizophrenic brother are barely introduced before the book moves on, much like the B.C. clearcutters, knocking off the top without disturbing the roots. In fact, a full third of the book passes before Grant Hadwin even appears.This would be forgivable if only the most interesting and crucial plot points in Hadwin’s story weren’t the ones being glossed over. Hadwin’s life-altering vision, for example, warrants less than a page. His failed marriage and children are barely mentioned. His travels from B.C. to Alaska, then Washington, D.C., then Miami, Moscow, and finally Siberia, distributing clean needles and condoms, are far too odd to be mentioned only in passing, as they are here.

Vaillant does excel in his brief histories and appreciations of the Queen Charlottes. The opening chapter about the region is positively lush with verdant, laudatory prose, of the appreciation-of-place variety, where phrases like “wild native Eden” tend to spring forth and thrive. This is a kind of nature writing best taken in small doses, but Vaillant does it sufficiently well.

Beyond that, the book is thick with natural and human history. Vaillant does not shy away from the complex relationships between natives and explorers. He cuts subtle, thoughtful paths through the region’s history, from the 18th-century Nor’westmen to logging giant MacMillan Bloedel, from the early Haida to Hadwin’s misadventures.

The Golden Spruce’s strength is definitely objective fact rather than human interest, complexity of story rather than psychological depth. We learn what a high rigger does and how spruce were used to build airplanes in the First World War. But the book doesn’t adequately explore the intrinsic motivation behind the story – the why and how in the most intimate, psychological, human sense. How can loggers claim to revere the forest they destroy? Why do the Haida name this tree and no other? How can we love a single tree but be indifferent to untold thousands? How can we love a tree at all?

Before he disappeared Hadwin told a reporter for the Queen Charlotte Islands Observer: “We tend to focus on trees like the golden spruce while the rest of the forest is being slaughtered…. Everybody’s supposed to focus on that and forget all the damage behind it. When someone attacks one of those freaks you’d think it was a holocaust, but the real holocaust is somewhere else. Right now, people are focusing all their anger on me when they should focus it on the destruction going on around them.”

Maybe we fixate on the golden spruce because we think, falsely, that it is like us: beautiful and unique in a forest of uniformity. Maybe it’s because the big picture is too huge and messy to summarize. Or maybe just a harder sell. Unfortunately, this book only skims these questions.