Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Golden Spruce

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the woods. We lived in the country and both my parents are pretty outdoorsy so it's no real shock that we spent a good portion of our summers camping and that family holidays generally meant a pattern of hiking one day, sightseeing the next. One of our holidays took us to the West Coast, and the size of the trees on Vancouver Island totally blew my mind. How could you ever destroy such a tree, I wondered. Well, John Vaillant did some research. In The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed Vaillant uses one tree – and one man – to explore what happened when forestry took off as an industry.

The Golden Spruce is one of those non-fiction endeavours that leaves you a little breathless in its ability to tie extensive and detailed research with a compelling storyline. But Vaillant didn't just do that once, he did it three times – exploring the Haida people and colonialism, the tree and its forest, and Grant Hadwin and the mining industry – and then braided all his pieces together. Like the best layered narratives, removing one of these elements would mean taking out a vital part of the story Vaillant is telling, which is found as much in the little details as it is in the bigger picture.

The golden spruce is exactly that: a spruce tree that grew with golden needles instead of green ones. For a tree to sprout with that kind of genetic anomaly is rare, Vaillant finds out, but not as rare as you'd think; for a golden spruce tree to not just survive, but flourish, is practically unheard of. If high school teachers could describe photosynthesis the way Vaillant does, they would have all their students hanging onto their every word. But Vaillant's description of the spruce range beyond the biological into the mythical and the social, because it seems everyone in the Haida Gwaii (BC's Queen Charlotte Islands) has a theory about the spruce, including the loggers.

Forestry took off on the West Coast hundreds of years ago. The trees were enormous and old and very straight, all attributes colonizers look for when assessing trees. And the English needed a lot of trees, for ships, house, forts, fires, you name it (and Vaillant does). From this need for trees comes the forestry industry, which has devastated BC's rainforest, but it fascinating to read about. I'll admit that I was never all that interested in logging, but Vaillant's explanation of procedure and character is truly absorbing. He develops logging all the way to present day, which is where we find Grant Hadwin, the logger turned environmental crusader who eventually hacks the golden spruce to death.

But killing the tree has affects he perhaps couldn't envision. The Haida – the islands' Native inhabitants – are devastated by the loss of this spiritual centre. Vaillant gives a similar historical and social analysis to the Haida as he does to the tree and logging (and Hadwin), but he resists tokenizing them. The Haida are not stand-ins for "the old ways," nor do they represent a pure relationship with the earth (so often in stories about nature and its destruction, this is the role Aboriginals are given). Rather, the Haida are complicated, both in their relationship to logging and the land. For Vaillant, nothing is one dimensional. 

It's hard to believe that a book, ostensibly about a tree, could be dramatic. But The Golden Spruce is a real page-turner, and as the narrative moves around in time and place, a sense of dangerous inevitability starts to build. Vaillant doesn't use this book to preach lessons, but he does give a conscientious reader enough information and history to understand the possibilities and their likely outcomes. The Golden Spruce is a book about a forgotten (or ignored) history, but Vaillant gives such vitality to it I find it hard to believe it could remain tucked away for much longer.

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed
by John Vaillant
First published in 2005 (cover image shown from Vintage Canada edition)

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