The Golden Spruce is the story of a glorious natural wonder, the man who destroyed it, and the fascinating, troubling context in which his act took place.
A tree with luminous glowing needles, the golden spruce was unique, a mystery that biologically speaking should never have reached maturity; Grant Hadwin, the man who cut it down, was passionate, extraordinarily well-suited to wilderness survival, and to some degree unbalanced. But as John Vaillant shows in this gripping and perceptive book, the extraordinary tree stood at the intersection of contradictory ways of looking at the world; the conflict between them is one reason it was destroyed. Taking in history, geography, science and spirituality, this book raises some of the most pressing questions facing society today.
The golden spruce stood in the Queen Charlotte Islands, an unusually rich ecosystem where the normal lines between species blur, a place where “the patient observer will find that trees are fed by salmon [and] eagles can swim.” The islands’ beauty and strangeness inspire a more personal and magical experience of nature than western society is usually given to. Without romanticizing, Vaillant shows that this understanding is typified by the Haida, the native people who have lived there for millennia and know the land as Haida Gwaii – and for whom the golden spruce was an integral part of their history and mythology. But seen a different way, the golden spruce stood in block 6 of Tree Farm License 39, a tract owned by the Weyerhaeuser forest products company. It survived in an isolated “set-aside” amidst a landscape ravaged by logging.
Grant Hadwin had worked as a remote scout for timber companies; with his ease in the wild he excelled at his job, much of which was spent in remote stretches of the temperate rain forest, plotting the best routes to extract lumber. But over time Hadwin was pushed into a paradox: the better he was at his job, the more the world he loved was destroyed. It seems he was ultimately unable to bear the contradiction.
On the night of January 20, 1997, with the temperature near zero, Hadwin swam across the Yakoun river with a chainsaw. Another astonishing physical feat followed: alone, in darkness, he tore expertly into the golden spruce – a tree more than two metres in diameter – leaving it so unstable that the first wind would push it over. A few weeks later, having inspired an outpouring of grief and public anger, Hadwin set off in a kayak across the treacherous Hecate Strait to face court charges. He has not been heard from since.
Vaillant describes Hadwin’s actions in engrossing detail, but also provides the complex environmental, political and economic context in which they took place. This fascinating book describes the history of the Haida’s contacts with European traders and settlers, drawing parallels between the 19th century economic bubble in sea otter pelts – and its eventual implosion – and today’s voracious logging trade. The wood products industry is examined objectively and in depth; Vaillant explores the influence of logging not only on the British Columbia landscape but on the course of western civilization, from the expansion of farming in Europe to wood’s essential importance to the Great Powers’ imperial navies to the North American “axe age.” Along the way, The Golden Spruce includes evocative portraits of one of the world’s most unusual land- and seascapes, riveting descriptions of Haida memorial rites, and a lesson in the difficulty and danger of felling giant trees.
Thrilling and instructive though it may be, The Golden Spruce confronts the reader with troubling questions. John Vaillant asks whether Grant Hadwin destroyed the golden spruce because – as a beautiful “mutant” preserved while the rest of the forest was devastated – it embodied society’s self-contradictory approach to nature, the paradox that harrowed him. Anyone who claims to respect the environment but lives in modern society faces some version of this problem; perhaps Hadwin, living on the cutting edge in every sense, could no longer take refuge in the “moral and cognitive dissonance” today’s world requires. The Golden Spruce forces one to ask: can the damage our civilization exacts on the natural world be justified?
John Vaillant has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, and Men’s Journal among others. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and children. Of particular interest to Vaillant are stories that explore collisions between human ambition and the natural world. His work in this and other fields has taken him to five continents and five oceans. The Golden Spruce is his first book.
“Balanced and gracefully written. . . .Vaillant explores the subtleties of [Hadwin’s] inner conflicts. . . . Vaillant’s multi-layered book is a rich investigation of all the factors that went into Hadwin’s act of arboreal vandalism.”
“[A] sense of the rank, dark underbelly of the [Queen Charlotte] islands permeates the book, whose engrossing narrative passes through the often lethal life of the logger, to the bloody battles of the Haida and the ravaging of the forest itself by a detached corporate entity unconcerned with the past or future.”
–Times Colonist (Victoria)
“A beautifully rendered account of cultural clash and environmental obsession.”
"A page-turner as dramatic as a novel. . . . The story is as majestic as the golden spruce, and we are fortunate to have a writer of Vaillant’s exceptional skill to tell the tale."
"A scrupulously researched narrative worthy of comparison to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild."
—Entertainment Weekly (Editor’s Choice)
"Vaillant writes eloquently of West Coast rainforests, quirky characters drawn to a dangerous but lucrative life in logging and Hadwin, who disappears into the BC archipelago, presumed dead. We also learn a great deal about forest ecology and the crime of 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. . . . Vaillant paints a haunting portrait of man's vexed relationship with nature."
"John Vaillant has written a work that will change how many people think about nature. His story is about one man and one tree, but it is much more than that. Logging is a brutally dangerous profession that owns the dubious distinction of having killed and maimed even more men than commercial fishing. Loggers’ work is both heroic and sad, and only a writer of Vaillant’s skill could capture both aspects of their dying world in such a powerful way."
—Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm
“Compelling. . . . Handily marries reportage with keen historical insight. . . . [Like] Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger, Vaillant deftly peels away the surface story to explore the psychology below. . . . An intense mystery and a sweeping history, The Golden Spruce makes for a terrific read.”
—Robert Wiersema, National Post
“Fascinating. . . . Both a gripping wilderness thriller and a sharply focused summary of forest politics, Queen Charlotte Islands history, and Pacific Northwest biology. Essential reading.”
—The Georgia Straight
“Vaillant writes eloquently of West Coast rainforests, quirky characters drawn to a dangerous but lucrative life in logging and Hadwin, who disappears into the BC archipelago, presumed dead. We also learn a great deal about forest ecology and crime of clear-cutting.”
“In rich, painterly prose, [Vaillant] evokes the lush natural world where the golden spruce took root and thrived, the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. . . . Vaillant is absolutely spellbinding when conjuring up the world of the golden spruce. His descriptions of the Queen Charlotte Islands, with their misty, murky light and hushed, cathedral-like forests, are haunting, and he does full justice to the noble, towering trees. . . . The chapters on logging, painstakingly researched, make high drama out of the grueling, highly dangerous job of bringing down some of the biggest trees on earth.”
—The New York Times