A bizarre, beautiful mutant tree is the seed from which author John Vaillant sprouts a fact-filled, immensely readable tale of logging and its impact in the Pacific Northwest.
It begins with a giant Sitka spruce growing on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.
This nearly 200-foot-tall tree was covered in bright golden needles, “fantastically rare,” Vaillant writes: “From the ground, its startling color stopped people dead in their tracks; from the air, it stood out like a beacon and was visible from miles away.”
The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed tells of the life and death of that tree, which was cut down in 1997 by a disillusioned former logger. Like nonfiction writers John MacPhee or Jon Krakauer, Vaillant weaves facts into a compelling tapestry, with rich, layered prose, a fine eye for detail and a solid central theme he builds like a sturdy wood cabin. The Golden Spruce is a meditation on what the spruce itself meant, and a springboard for him to look at the conflict between man and nature in the Northwest.
Vaillant meanders a lot in his chronicle — the golden spruce disappears from the book for whole chapters at a time — but who can fault him when the digressions are as interesting as they are here? And they all relate back to the book’s central theme: the inherent tension between man and nature in this part of the country.
We learn the history of the Haida Indian tribe of the Queen Charlottes, who revered the golden spruce and were devastated by its destruction. We also get capsule histories of Northwest exploration dating back to the days of Captain Cook, and a detailed portrait of logging in the Northwest.
But perhaps most strikingly, Vaillant tracks down the sad tale of Grant Hadwin, who killed the golden spruce. Hadwin is like a character spliced together from Jack London and Edward Abbey books, with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson – from a wealthy Vancouver, B.C. family, he grew up to become a rugged outdoorsman, a logger legendary for his stamina and his fierce individualism.
Not a team player, Hadwin still managed to make a solid living working for logging companies. But as time passed, he grew more and more disturbed by what he saw as a greedy corporate mentality taking over the woods, and particularly the spectacle of clear-cutting. He became erratic and radical – some think he was suffering from mental illness.
One cold night in January 1997 on the Queen Charlotte Islands, Hadwin strapped a chain saw to his back, swam across an icy river to where the golden spruce grew – and cut it down. He meant it as a statement. A rambling letter he sent to area newspapers included lines about “a wake-up call,” and his “rage” toward those responsible “for most of the abominations toward amateur life on this planet.”
The golden spruce, an impossible rarity, was gone. Hadwin’s position was: why get upset about one special tree when thousands of ordinary trees were cut down every day? But few saw it his way, judging from the outcry that ensued.
In the end, Hadwin vanished, presumed drowned while crossing the perilous Hecate Strait in a kayak on his way to a court hearing. But his body was never found, and those who knew him believe he had the skills to easily escape into the woods and start a new life somewhere far away.
The tragic irony for Hadwin is acute: in trying to make a stand for protecting the trees, he destroyed an icon for the Haida and became vilified by them. If he hadn’t disappeared, he might well have been killed.
Trees are a pretty political issue in the Northwest, but Vaillant straddles a moderate line for most of the book. He does come down firmly against the corporate-driven clear-cutting of forests. He takes readers through the development of logging, from hair-raising, brutal work by men and mules in the woods to the encroachment of mechanization and farmed harvests.
Loggers themselves are mostly represented as tremendously brave, hard-living men working one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. (There’s more than one injury related here that will make a man cringe in horror.)
The logging industry has been forced to change as once-inexhaustible supplies of old growth turned out to be finite. Some of the old loggers Vaillant profiles are a bit like Hadwin, loving the woods but distressed to see their final fate under man’s never-ending thirst for wood. “I never dreamed the old growth would be finished,” one longtime logger tells Vaillant.
Vaillant has written a story nearly anyone can enjoy - those left or right of center might quibble with certain points, but it’s overall a remarkably even-handed and thoughtful book. The Golden Spruce is worth reading for anyone interested in where the Northwest has been, and where it’s going.