Book Reviews

The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

W.W. Norton, US and Knopf Canada

It’s not often one comes across a nonfiction book with this much in it—raw and unforgiving nature, hardy and rapacious humans, the science and practice of perhaps the world’s toughest forestry, some major environmental issues, and a genuine psychological thriller and mystery story to boot. John Vaillant puts all this—and more—into his exciting and eminently readable first book, The Golden Spruce.

He sets his story in the remote and forbidding temperate rain forest of coastal British Columbia, where the trees grow tall and thick right down to the sea, the coastal waters run deep and dangerous, and both the native Haida tribespeople and the explorers, settlers, and company men that came later lived rough and ready lives exploiting the region’s once-immeasurably rich flora and fauna. Together they hunted the sea otter to near-extinction in the nineteenth century fur trade, then turned to the huge timber resources at hand by the early 1900s. The area is still a major logging center, and therein lies the heart of Vaillant’s intriguing tale.

His story centers around a massive, 300-year-old golden spruce, a unique and odd mutant whose needles were bright yellow rather than green. Because of its striking nature, the tree had become not only an important mythical symbol of tribal well-being and longevity for the Haida but also an important scientific and tourist attraction. It was set in a grove that had been preserved by the logging company from the heavy first-growth cutting elsewhere in the area.

Enter Grant Hadwin, a brilliant and experienced local forester who had worked several years for the logging companies scouting out new areas for cutting. As time went by, he became increasingly alienated and disillusioned with what he saw as the industry’s shortsighted practices that decimated large areas of this magnificent and unique rainforest. He became more bitter, more extreme, and perhaps even delusional in his criticism. In a final epiphany, Hadwin apparently became convinced that the golden spruce was really only a misleading token rather than a positive symbol of conservation and that its destruction, instead of its continued preservation, would draw greater attention to his cause. So he sneaked into the grove one night and by himself cut into the tree (no mean feat alone and in the dark, as Vaillant vividly describes), purposely so weakening it that it fell in the next heavy wind a few days later.

The entire community was outraged, especially the Haida for whom the tree was so culturally significant. Hadwin openly admitted his act and was slated to go to trial for it. Out on bail, he set out in a kayak across the treacherous Hecate Strait the day before the trial, ostensibly to arrive the next day on the island where the court was located. He never showed up there and has never been seen since. Whether he perished en route or absconded elsewhere remains a mystery, but his kayak and gear were later found relatively intact on another island. A very experienced and accomplished woodsman, Hadwin could well have survived alone in the forest for some time if that was indeed his intention. (Not among the Haida, however, who gladly would have lynched him given the chance.)

Vaillant relates this intriguing morality tale of man and nature with great skill, weaving it into a broader tapestry graphically depicting the rugged region’s history, the Haida culture and society, the loggers’ life, and the timber industry itself. He treats the obvious issues in a very balanced and nuanced way. Environmentalists will of course like this book, but it is written—and written exceptionally well—for anyone seeking a truly entertaining, compelling, and important story of the Pacific Northwest.

Reviewed by
James Rosenthal