Monday, February 10, 2014

The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

In 1997, a man chopped down a giant, beloved 300-year-old Sitka spruce in the middle of the night (!) as a protest to logging practices. His whereabouts remain a mystery. John Vaillant investigates the entire amazing affair in The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed.

There are so many intriguing parts to this story, including:

Mythology - The Haida nation held this particular tree in special regard. Vaillant also includes early history of the First Nations along the West Coast and the years of initial contact and trade with Europeans.

Greed - Humankind's unquenchable appetite for natural resources. Trees are being cut down faster and faster, leaving vast wastelands behind. Vaillant points out, however, that "Logging is the prerequisite for life as we know it. [...] In this sense, the woodcutter has been the pointman for Western civilization (indeed all civilizations)."

Madness - My favourite aspect of this book. Grant Hadwin, the man who cut down the sacred tree, is a fascinating character. He was a hellion as a child. "Grant's first day of kindergarten ended early when he was sent home in a cab with a note pinned to his sweater that said, 'Do not send this boy back.'" He worked in forestry most of his life. He underwent a mysterious spiritual awakening in the woods that changed his life. He became passionate about saving the environment. He travelled with condoms attached to his hat, proselytizing safe sex, and donated thousands of dollars to homeless shelters and food banks.

Doctors who evaluated Hadwin found he had "very overvalued ideas about the environment." I agree with Vaillant, who writes, "This is a decidedly sinister assessment: how, one might well ask, is it possible to 'overvalue' air and water?"
Haida canoe at
VanDusen Gardens, Vancouver

In addition to being captivated by the main story, I learned all kinds of things. There's a photo of an ox team hauling logs circa 1900 through what is now downtown Vancouver. It looks like Stanley Park... why did this surprise me? There's information for gardeners who aspire to cultivate evergreens with golden needles. There's mention of the giant glass sponge reef, "last vestiges of the most massive entity that ever lived," found in the ocean near Haida Gwaii (seen online here).

The CanLit book club that I host at Jasper Place Library had a wide-ranging discussion on The Golden Spruce last month. It prompted one member to propose a group road trip to Haida Gwaii. This was met with much enthusiasm. Someday, I would love to go there.

In high school, I was torn between two career possibilities: librarianship or forestry. Grant Hadwin received a forest technology diploma in 1973 -- the very same certificate that I had considered. I'm very glad to have instead chosen the path that held no ethical ambiguity. I love working at the library.

A few suggestions for further reading: Monkey Beach (Eden Robinson) for a novel set within the Indigenous communities and mythologies of the West Coast; Red: A Haida Manga (Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas) for more about the revenge culture within the Haida Nation; The Wild Trees (Richard Preston) for more about people with a passion for giant trees; Eating Dirt (Charlotte Gill) for a tree-planter's perspective; Empire of the Beetle (Andrew Nikiforuk) for more about human folly regarding forestry; Jack Pine (Christopher Patton) for an all-ages book about agriculture versus forest; and The Wayfinders (Wade Davis) for more about ecologically sustainable living.

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