The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed

by John Vaillant
256 pages,
ISBN: 0676976468

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Golden Growth
by Theresa Kishkan

On January 20, 1997, a former timber-cruiser, Grant Hadwin, cut into an ancient spruce tree growing on the Yacoun River on the Queen Charlotte Islands, a process that precipitated the tree's fall several days later. It was a rare mutant form of Sitka spruce, Picea sitchensis 'Aurea', intensely golden in colour, a tree sacred to the Haida people with an honoured place in their culture. Hadwin then wrote arrogant letters to the press in which he denounced university trained professionals and said his actions were a wake-up call.
From this account of the spruce and the man who brought it down, John Vaillant has created an intricate prism through which we are shown many linked stories on the subject of the great tree and the surrounding forest, sometimes simultaneously. "When I stood among those big trees," wrote a pioneer woman shortly after her arrival on the coast, "I felt so afraid . . . " Many years later, at a ceremony for the fallen spruce: "The elders were crying, praying in their own language," recalled Haida Marina Jones ". . . You could feel the heaviness-it was like losing one of our children. People were wearing their blankets inside out."
Tales of trees abound here, and tales have a way of shape-shifting. In the case of the golden spruce itself, there are a few versions of the story of its origins. The most intriguing one, from the Haida, is the tale of K'iid Khiyaas, the boy who survives a cataclysmic event and is turned into a tree, the golden spruce. Other versions speak of an old woman and her nephew surviving a terrible event and of the two of them being turned into a pair of golden spruce trees, a male and female. There is also the botanical story of the tree with its details of vascular systems, photosynthesis and decay. Then there is the story of what logging has done to trees on this western coast. It is Vaillant's particular gift to take the reader from a moving account of a memorial potlatch for a man on whose traditional ground the golden spruce grew, to a history of logging, without missing a beat. He comments on the Haida sense of time and events as being elastic, able to contain within them divergent story arcs and meanings. His own approach in this book is equally elastic; he provides narratives that run parallel for a time then divide, heading into separate forests. "The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife," we are told by Robert Davidson, the Haida artist. "If you live on the edge of the circle, that is the present moment. What's inside is knowledge, experience, the past. What's outside has yet to be experienced. The knife's edge is so fine that you can live either in the past or in the future. The real trick is to live on the edge."
The book has been structurally organized to take the reader from a wide-angled view to a microscopic view, through the lenses of both science and mythology, chapter by chapter, incident by incident. The first chapter opens with a densely-textured evocation of the Northwest coast's temperate rainforests, detailing in loving detail the tangled excess of this biotic region. It takes us across the wild Hecate Strait: "She's a black-hearted bitch," says one veteran fisherman of the Strait. "Sometimes I think she just wants to keep the Charlottes for herself." It continues to the banks of the Yacoun River on Graham Island, and it concludes with the birth of a single tree: "Shaped like a teardrop and about the size of a grain of sand, the seed would have appeared identical to all the others that had been peppering the forest floor for millennia . . . "
Vaillant is scrupulously objective in his presentation of Grant Hadwin. He portrays him as a bright but difficult man who made a living in the woods, taunted grizzly bears, drank heavily until he married and fathered children, and then had an experience which may have been a spiritual awakening but seems more likely to have been a psychotic episode. Paranoid and troubled, Hadwin focused his attention for a time on those bureaucrats governing forest practices. His terrible act is described with marvelous attention to atmosphere:

"Having sealed his saw, wedges, gas and oil . . . into inflated garbage bags, he . . . descended the steep bank of the Yacoun . . . The temperature was near zero when Hadwin slipped into the current and swam across, trailing his equipment behind him . . . There was no one around for miles . . . The tree stood just back from the riverbank as it had for the past three centuries."

I found myself holding my breath, even though I knew the outcome. Or did I? I knew one outcome at least. But as Vaillant reminds us over and over, there are many versions of every story. While Grant Hadwin thought he was doing something heroic, "he was-like every logger-also carving his way into the past. Tree rings that had been hidden since Harry Tingley picnicked there with his father, since the last smallpox epidemic emptied the surrounding villages, since Captain Kendrick was riddled with grapeshot, since a time before Captain PTrez and Chief Koyah were born-all this fled by, unnoticed, in a flickering of a comet's tail of sawdust."
Vaillant's objective delineation of Hadwin's history and actions is admirable, but for me there was a little hinge in the story which opened a door to admit the possibility of judgement. A phone conversation is recounted between Guujaaw, the charismatic president of the Council of the Haida Nation, and Grant Hadwin:

"He didn't seem crazy," Guujaaw recalled. "He sounded normal . . . as if what he'd done was no more than throwing a rock through a window. I asked him why he did it, and then I told him the story of the golden spruce and he said, 'I didn't know that.' . . . "

The reader recalls the bombastic rhetoric of Hadwin's letters to the press after his act and wonders if the whole thing might be reduced to such ignorance and self-regard.
John Vaillant's painstaking reconstruction of the events following the tree's fall reads like a fast-paced thriller. Hadwin buys a kayak and survival gear and paddles north, into nothingness. There are Hadwin sightings-or are there? His gear is found on a beach but much of it is in good condition, as though abandoned by choice and not by tides.
And as for the golden spruce, there is some hope that a version of it might continue on the banks of Yacoun River in the form of cloned cuttings. Vaillant is particularly insightful about the process of cloning and its relative merits and difficulties. (The tree was sterile and unable to produce viable seed.)
There are moments when the pace of this book falters, when the lenses cloud. I am thinking here of the moment when a discourse on logging, already a little tedious (one industrial accident after another), is held up by a too-lengthy description of the evolution of the chain-saw. However, such lapses are few and far between. For the most part the reader is happy to move from story to story because John Vaillant is such an engaging guide. This is a book packed with beauty, violence, the clamour of many voices speaking at once, outlaws and visionaries, at cross-purposes, and the sense throughout is that its author has understood the importance of what Robert Davidson called "the edge of the circle," the present moment, in which the past and the future can be apprehended and embraced.

Theresa Kishkan is the author of the novella Inishbream (Goose Lane, 2001), and the novel A Man in a Distant Field (Dundurn Press, 2004)

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