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

By John Valliant

Knopf Canada (2005)

 

I picked up a copy of John Valliant's "The Golden Spruce" in a gift shop on BC ferry last week, the woman next to me said "It's wonderful, you have to get it." I'd never heard of the book, but I couldn't pass up an endorsement like that. I'm glad I seized the opportunity. "The Golden Spruce" is a truly remarkable book. I would have written a more detailed review, had I not felt compelled to pass on my copy to someone else as soon as possible.

"The Golden Spruce" is the story of a rare luminous Sitka spruce that grew for 300 years in the Yakoun Valley on Haida Gwaii (aka the Queen Charlotte Islands) off the coast of British Columbia. The tree was sacred to the Haida people and beloved of loggers and evironmentalists alike. The book grew out of an essay that Valliant published in the New Yorker in 2002, available here.

Valliant packs an astonishing amount of geography, ethnology, and botany into a 230-page book. He explains how the ecosystems of Haida Gwaii and the Northwest Coast give rise to massive old growth trees, like the Golden Spruce. The story of the Golden Spruce is set against the history of the logging industry in British Columbia. Valliant describes in vivid detail how men with chainsaws fell massive trees and haul them out of the forest.

The Golden Spruce was a one-of-a kind specimen, a healthy Sitka spruce with only a fraction of the usual amount of chlorophyll. It wasn't just yellow, it was luminous. The tree was sacred to the Haida people, so much so that they assigned the tree ("K'iid K'iyass") an official spokesman. The Golden Spruce was also beloved by loggers and other residents of the Islands. The logging company MacMillan Bloedel preserved the tree on a tiny "set aside" even as it continued to clear cut nearby.

One freezing night in 1997 a former timber scout named Grant Hadwin committed a spectacularly violent act of environmental protest. Hadwin had been a successful forest worker until an epiphany in the bush convinced him of the error of logging industry's ways. Hadwin explained in a his manifesto that he targeted the Golden Spruce because it was MacBlo's "pet plant"--a mascot that served to distract the public while the company laid waste to the rest of the forest. Hadwin disappeared before he could stand trial for the crime. His abandoned kayak was later found on another island.  Some people think that Hadwin, a woodsman with legendary survival skills, might have faked his own death and gone into hiding in the wilderness.

Valliant reflects at length on the post-contact economic collapse of the Haida people. It's a cautionary tale for modern-day British Columbia, which as Valliant explains,is consuming its  old growth forests at an alarming rate.

Shortly after Western explorers arrived in Haida Gwaii in the late 1700s, the islands became ground zero in a global otter pelt craze. Foreign traders were willing to pay the Haida the equivalent of thousands of dollars per pelt. At first the otter trade made the Haida fabulously wealthy, and their culture flourished, but the otters were soon hunted to extinction. When the otters died out, the Haida economy collapsed.

"The Golden Spruce" is a magnificent portrait of the Pacific Northwest. Highly recommended.