The golden spruce A true story of myth, madness, and greed

John Vaillant

Book - 2005

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New York : W.W. Norton 2005.
Main Author
John Vaillant (-)
1st ed
Physical Description
xiii, 255 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., map
Includes bibliographical references.
  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue: Driftwood
  • 1. -- A Threshold Between Worlds
  • 2. -- The Beginning of the End
  • 3. -- A Boardwalk to Mars
  • 4. -- The People
  • 5. -- Wildest of the Wild
  • 6. -- The Tooth of the Human Race
  • 7. -- The Fatal Flaw
  • 8. -- The Fall
  • 9. -- Myth
  • 10. -- Hecate Strait
  • 11. -- The Search
  • 12. -- The Secret
  • 13. -- Coyote
  • 14. -- Over the Horizon Epilogue: Revival Wood Measurement
  • Bibliography
  • endnotes
Review by Booklist Review

This powerful and vexing man-versus-nature tale is set in an extraordinary place, Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands, and features two legendary individuals: a uniquely golden 300-year-old Sitka spruce and Grant Hadwin, a logger turned champion of old-growth forests who ultimately destroys what he loves. With a firm grasp of every confounding aspect of this suspenseful and disturbing story and a flair for creating arresting allegories and metaphors, Vaillant conveys a wealth of complex biological, cultural, historical, and economic information within an incisive interpretation of the essential role trees have played in human civilization. Breathtaking evocations of this oceanic realm of giant trees and epic rains give way to a homage to its ghosts, for this is the sight of a holocaust, where the creative and dauntless Haida were nearly decimated by Europeans who also clear-cut the mighty forests. It is this legacy of greed and loss that rendered the immense golden spruce, a miraculous survivor, sacred, and that drove Hadwin to cut it down. This tragic tale goes right to the heart of the conflicts among loggers, native rights activists, and environmentalists, and induces us to more deeply consider the consequences of our habits of destruction. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2005 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The felling of a celebrated giant golden spruce tree in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands takes on a potent symbolism in this probing study of an unprecedented act of eco-vandalism. First-time author Vaillant, who originally wrote about the death of the spruce for the New Yorker, profiles the culprit, an ex-logger turned messianic environmentalist who toppled the famous tree-the only one of its kind-to protest the destruction of British Columbia's old-growth forest, then soon vanished mysteriously. Vaillant also explores the culture and history of the Haida Indians who revered the tree, and of the logging industry that often expresses an elegiac awe for the ancient trees it is busily clear-cutting. Writing in a vigorous, evocative style, Vaillant portrays the Pacific Northwest as a region of conflict and violence, from the battles between Europeans and Indians over the 18th-century sea otter trade to the hard-bitten, macho milieu of the logging camps, where grisly death is an occupational hazard. It is also, in his telling, a land of virtually infinite natural resources overmatched by an even greater human rapaciousness. Through this archetypal story of "people fail[ing] to see the forest for the tree," Vaillant paints a haunting portrait of man's vexed relationship with nature. Photos. Agent, Stuart Krichevsky. 8-city author tour. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

For more than 300 years, a most unusual and revered Sitka spruce tree, with golden rather than green needles, grew on the western coast of British Columbia. But in 1997, a former logger named Grant Hadwin caused a public outcry when he surreptitiously cut down the tree, which was more than 20 feet around and 16 stories tall. Vaillant, who first wrote about the tree's death in The New Yorker, delves into the story behind this defiant act of protest by a one-time lumberjack who realized that the voracious timber industry was causing irreparable damage to the forests he loved. After providing a history of the resident Haida Indians before white men arrived, Vaillant discusses the timber industry's encroachment, the loggers' perilous work, and Hadwin's eventual transformation into an environmentalist. Because the golden spruce was sacred to the Haida and so special to the local people, Hadwin was threatened and arrested, and his strange disappearance before his trial became the subject of much speculation. Filled with interesting characters and fascinating details, Vaillant's engrossing account is recommended for public and academic libraries, especially those with Pacific Northwest or environmental collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/05.]-Ilse Heidmann, Washington State Lib., Olympia (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Nature essay meets true-crime tale. Canadian journalist Vaillant's debut begins with a mystery: A beachcombing biologist turns up a broken kayak on the shore of an uninhabited Alaskan island and, lucky day, begins to disassemble it for its parts, only to discover scattered camping gear and other equipment that pointed to either foul play or terrible accident. That suspenseful setup is left hanging as Vaillant switches into ecologist mode, explaining the dynamics of the Northwest's rainforests, where "there is no graceful interval between the ocean and the trees; the forest simply takes over where the tide wrack ends, erupting full-blown from the shallow, bouldered earth." On the rainy Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, a region of astoundingly tall trees, one stood taller than all others; born around 1700, this "golden spruce" had found a place at the heart of the native universe and had been set aside by generations of loggers who had worked the country. Having provided a history of logging and an appreciation of Haida lifeways, the author moves toward its strange center: the tale of an "upper-middle-class prep school refugee" who had found something approaching refuge in the remote woods and become a master logger, widely praised for the quality of his work. "He was opinionated and eccentric, but he was also a strenuous provider," Vaillant writes, a sober and industrious fellow who snapped; he now became an anti-logging activist, and somewhere along the way, for reasons of his own, he hit on an idea to commit an act of eco-sabotage that would call attention to the plight of the old-growth forest. Vaillant's start-and-stop narrative yields whiplash here and there, but he ably covers all the bases: the logger's actions may have been local, but they had wide-ranging implications, and Vaillant pauses to consider them all. One of them is surprising: the tree, once little known, "has become the most widely dispersed Sitka spruce on earth." Vaillant's tale of how it got to be so is of unfailing interest. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Prologue: Driftwood Small things are hard to find in Alaska, so when a marine biologist named Scott Walker stumbled across a wrecked kayak on an uninhabited island fifty kilometres north of the Canadian border, he considered himself lucky. The coastal boundary where Alaska and British Columbia meet and overlap is a jagged four-way seam that joins, not just a pair of vast - and vastly different - countries, but two equally large and divergent wildernesses. To the west is the gaping expanse of the North Pacific Ocean, and to the east is the infinity of mountains that forms the heart of what some in the Northwest call Cascadia. The coastline where these worlds meet and bleed into one another is sparsely inhabited and often obscured by fog, the mountains sheared off by low-lying clouds. At sea level, it is a long and convoluted network of deep fjords, narrow channels, and rock-bound islands. It is a world unto itself, separated from the rest of North America by the Coast Mountains, whose ragged peaks carry snow for most of the year. In some places their westward faces plunge into the sea so abruptly that a boat can be fifteen metres from shore and still have a hundred and fifty metres of water beneath her keel. The region is sporadically patrolled, being governed, for the most part, by seven-metre tides and processions of sub-Arctic storms that spiral down from the Gulf of Alaska to batter the long, tree-stubbled lip of the continent. Even on calm days, the coastline may be shrouded in a veil of mist as three thousand kilometres of uninterrupted Pacific swell pummels itself to vapour against the stubborn shore. The combination of high winds, frequent fog, and tidal surges that can run over fifteen knots makes this coast a particularly lethal one, and when boats or planes or people go missing here, they are usually gone for good. If they are found, it is often by accident a long time later, and usually in a remote location like Edge Point where Scott Walker anchored his seventeen-foot skiff on a fair June afternoon in 1997 while doing a survey of the local salmon fishery. Edge Point is not so much a beach as an alpine boulder field that, at this point in geologic time, happens to be at sea level. It lies at the southern tip of Mary Island, a low hump of forest and stone that forms one side of a rocky, tide-scoured channel called Danger Passage; the nearest land is Danger Island, and neither place was idly named. Like much of the Northwest Coast, Edge Point is strewn with driftwood logs and whole trees that may be a metre and a half in diameter and stacked twenty deep. Burnished to silver, this mass of wood, much of which has broken loose from log booms and transport barges, lies heaped as high as polar winds and Pacific waves can possibly throw it. Even if a man-made object should make it ashore here in one piece, it won't last long after it arrives; within the course of a few tide cycles, it will be hammered to pieces between the heaving logs and the immovable boulders beneath them. In the case of a fibreglass boat - such as a kayak - the destruction is usually so complete that it makes the craft hard to recognize, much less find. When a fibreglass yacht was found in a location similar to Edge Point three years after it had disappeared without issuing a distress signal, the largest surviving piece was half a metre long and that was only because it had been blown up into the bushes; the rest of the sixty-foot sloop had been reduced to fragments the size of playing cards. This is why Scott Walker considered himself fortunate: he wasn't too late; parts of the kayak might still be salvageable. The beaches here serve as a random archive of human endeavour where a mahogany door from a fishing boat, the remains of a World War II airplane, and a piece from a fallen satellite are all equally plausible finds. Each artifact carries with it a story, though the context rarely allows for a happy ending; in most cases, it is only the scavenger who benefits. Scott Walker has been scavenging things that others have lost here for more than twenty-five years, and he has acquired an informal expertise in the forensics of flotsam and jetsam. If the found object is potentially useful or sufficiently interesting, and if it is small enough to lift, the beachcomber's code will apply. Walker was abiding by this code when he happened upon the broken kayak and began tearing it apart for the stainless steel hardware. But when Walker lifted his head from his work he noticed some things that gave him pause. Strewn farther down the tide line were personal effects: a raincoat, a backpack, an axe - and it was then that it occurred to him that his prize might not have simply washed off some beach or boat dock down the coast. The more he noticed - a cookstove, a shaving kit, a life jacket - the narrower the gap between his own good luck and someone else's misfortune became. This wasn't shaping up to be a clean find. Walker deduced from the heavier objects' position lower down in the intertidal zone that the kayak had washed ashore and broken up on a low tide. The lighter objects, including large pieces of the kayak itself, had been carried farther up the beach by subsequent high tides and wind, and it was these that set off alarm bells in Walker's head. Despite being wrapped around a log, the sleeping bag was still in near-perfect condition; there were no tears or stains, no fading from the salt and sun; the life jacket, too, looked fresh off the rack. Even the cookstove appeared salvageable; wedged between rocks at the water's edge, it showed only minor rusting. Winter storm season, the most effective destroyer on the coast, had only just ended, so this wreck had to be recent, thought Walker, perhaps only a couple of weeks old. He debated throwing the stove and sleeping bag into his skiff, but then, after considering some possible accident scenarios and recalculating the uncomfortable distance between a stranger's horror and his own delight, he decided to leave these things where they lay. Besides, he thought, they might be needed for evidence. No one would miss the stainless steel bolts, though, so he pocketed them and headed down the beach, looking for a body. Walker never found one, and it was only through the Alaska state troopers in Ketchikan, fifty kilometres to the north, that he learned the story behind his chance discovery. The kayak and its owner, a Canadian timber surveyor and expert woodsman named Grant Hadwin, had been missing - not for weeks, but for months. This man, it seemed, was on the run, wanted for a strange and unprecedented crime. Excerpted from The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed by John Vaillant All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.