golden spruce

🕔Sep 07, 2005

In the tradition of Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the book The Golden Spruce tells an astonishing true story of a furious man’s obsessive mission against an industrial juggernaut, the struggle of the Haida people to save their world, and the mysterious golden tree that binds them all together.

When a kayak and camping gear are found on an uninhabited Alaskan island just north of the Canadian border, they re-ignite a mystery surrounding a shocking act of protest that made international news.

On a winter night in 1997, a logger-turned-activist named Grant Hadwin plunged into the frigid waters of the Yakoun River in the Queen Charlotte Islands, towing a chainsaw behind him. When he was done, a unique spruce tree—50 metres tall and covered with luminous golden needles—was teetering on its massive stump.

The tree, which thrived despite its chlorophyll deficiencies, baffled scientists. A luminescent wonder, it was sacred to the Haida on whose land it had stood for over 300 years.

It drew tourists to Port Clements, and was a living symbol of Haida myth.

The loss of the mythic golden spruce united loggers, natives and environmentalists in sorrow and outrage. But while heroic efforts were made to revive the tree, Grant Hadwin, the tree’s confessed killer, disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

John Vaillant’s article on the death of the golden spruce was published in 2002 in The New Yorker, and this book has grown out of it, dramatizing the destruction of a deeply conflicted man and the wilderness he loved; in so doing, it traces the rise, fall and rebirth of the Haida nation, and exposes the logging industry—the most dangerous land-based job in North America—from a point of view never explored in contemporary non-fiction.

Published in May, 2005, here follows an excerpt:

By John Vaillant

Chapter Nine


_I will tell you something about stories

[he said]

They aren’t just entertainment.

Don’t be fooled.

They are all we have, you see,

all we have to fight off

illness and death._

—Leslie Marmon Silko, ceremony

When the golden spruce fell, it knocked down every tree in its path. From a distance it looked like the wreckage left by a lightning strike, or a freak wind, which in a way, it was. After all, what were the chances? The golden spruce was one in a billion, and so was Grant Hadwin. “Whoever did this,” said a MacMillan Bloedel spokesman shortly after the tree was found, “had to be hell-bent.” He was referring not just to the logistical details, but to the raw effort required to access the tree, and then to cut it down in the middle of the night. It is hard to imagine anyone else with the same combination of motive, obsession, endurance, and skill required to do such a thing.

The golden spruce fell in such a way that the last six metres or so hung out over the river, and it was a sorrowful sight: the still-luminous golden boughs thrown up like skirts, exposing the dark green underlayer; the sheared stump so startlingly white in the dark forest; the damage so small, relative to the great size of the tree, and yet so thoroughly irreparable. On Sunday, January 26, three days after the golden spruce was discovered by the wife of a MacMillan Bloedel employee, the tree became the subject of a sermon in Masset’s Anglican church. But it felt more like a eulogy. “This was not just a physical tree of unusual beauty,” proclaimed the Reverend Peter Hamel, “it was in fact a unique symbol of the islands and ourselves. It was a mythic tree that sustained our spirits whenever we saw it. . . . The presence of this tree . . . brought us together and lifted us from the familiar to the divine.” Hamel then called upon the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth to say what he could not:

Oft have I stood

Foot-bound uplooking at this lovely tree

Beneath a frosty moon. The hemisphere

Of magic fiction, verse of mine perhaps

May never tread; but scarcely Spenser’s self

Could have more tranquil visions in his youth,

More bright appearances could scarcely see

Of human forms and superhuman powers,

Than I beheld standing on winter nights

Alone beneath this fairy work of earth.

“Confining the spiritual to the inner dimension of life,” concluded the Reverend Hamel, “has given licence to the violent exploitation of nature. The trees who clap their hands at God’s justice suggest otherwise. All of reality is the realm of the spirit, of transforming upward encounter. The destruction of a tree, and in particular the golden spruce, has deep implications for us. This gift from Mother Earth connected us with our deepest spiritual needs. Its senseless destruction wounded each one of us as much as the loss of its wondrous beauty in the sacred grove by the Yakoun River.”

Excerpted from The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed. Copyright ©2005 John Vaillant. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.