Vaillant, John. The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed. 2006. Vintage Canada, Toronto, Ontario.

“A culture is no better than its woods.” W. H Auden, p. 215

“How would you convince people that material temptations, social status, and educational institutions, are used to preserve and perpetuate the status quo, with very little real consideration for life on earth?” Grant Hadwin. p.171

The main threads of this engrossing work are the lives of one obsessed man and a mutant Sitka spruce in Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands, BC). The fabric is an impressive swath of the history of coastal BC, of globalization, privatization, and resource-depletion from centuries past, long before those terms were invented. A deserving winner of the Governor General’s award, Vaillant has done an incredible job of writing a fast-moving and gripping story while including and connecting not only the history of this region, but global trade, geography, botany, cultural studies and a fair amount of psychology and philosophy. The main myths are poignant stories of Haida culture but also include a few of the dominant culture of Canada. The greed and madness revealed in this story, far from being that of one man, are of all humanity.

Grant Hadwin, an experienced BC woodsman of amazing strength and determination, on a dark night in 1997 alone The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant: A book review by Theresa Wolfwoodwith a chainsaw, killed a 300 year old spruce with golden needles. A golden spruce is a beautiful rarity in itself, but this was also one of a few old growth Sitka spruce – a tree that only grows in the temperate rainforest of the northern Pacific coast. Hadwin’s life is in the centre of this understanding of his shocking vandalism. This golden tree was sacred to the Haida but was also visited and studied by scientists and tourists. In his last writings Hadwin refers to the tree as a “pet” tree of the logging companies who have stripped the life and beauty of so much of BC in their zeal to profit as richly as possible while still possible. Although considered by many to be mentally disturbed or mad, Hadwin challenges us in these messages to recognize the madness of our society. He chopped down the tree (with later apologies to the Haida) in order to make a point about our short sightedness, greed and stupidity as we destroy nature while we attempt to separate ourselves from it. He attacks sees how proud we are of our technological powers as we clear cut paradise.

Hadwin wrote, “…re-examine your perspective…we tend to focus on individual trees like the Golden Spruce while the rest of the forests are being slaughtered.” Even though most people did indeed fail to use the event to focus on massive destruction of our biosphere, a Haida ex-logger agreed that it was “a great idea”. It was MB’s (MacMillan Bloedel, the lumbering giant of the time has since been sold to Weyerhaeuser of the USA, another sign of our times, and most recently re-sold. TW ) pet tree.” The ex-logger explained the prevalent attitude as, “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.” Sea otters, salmon, buffalo, and many species have been depleted by this twisted logic – and still we continue.

After he confessed to the act, Hadwin left Price Rupert on some of the roughest water in the world, saying he intended to kayak to his trial at Masset on Haida Gwaii. He never arrived. Months later his kayak and some belongings were found on an island. Many people believe that Hadwin, the mythic man of the woods, is still alive. Meanwhile, a rooted shoot from the tip of the felled giant has been planted in a park in Port Clements in Haida Gwaii where residents still mourn the loss of their sacred spruce.

Science and commerce pursue the dream of replicating and controlling nature – a myth in itself. So next time you go to the USA (where else?) to show the kids Disneyland or loose your shirt in Las Vegas, you can pick up a puny, stunted graft of the famous tree for only $40 at retail nurseries. By the end of the book, it is clear where the madness is rooted and if we realize and respond to this book, the death of the golden spruce may have served a purpose.

Filed under Book Reviews, John Vaillant