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.