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guest review: The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant, from Pops

Some of you will recall that I enjoyed John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children. So I am of course interested in his creative nonfiction, as well. Here’s Pops to fill us in.

golden spruce

On its face, this is the true tale of a man who in 1997 secretly felled the genetically & culturally distinct Golden Spruce at the north end of Haida Gwaii – Queen Charlotte islands of British Columbia. But to disclose this shorthand version is not to spoil the narrative, for it only raises questions: Why was this such a compelling and violent act? Why did he do it? Can it be justified? Can we find wider meaning in the tragedy? And there are more.

Vaillant only gradually provides the tale’s factual skeleton, which reveals no satisfying answers in itself. More significantly, he offers us the chance to learn: about the Pacific northwest temperate rainforest that is so special on this earth; about the people who have inhabited the region for untold millennia, with an oral history linked to special places – and trees; about the waves of outsider “discoverers” that washed on meager shores to harvest the land’s natural riches; and about the logging sub-culture that, while professing its love of trees, is dependent on a timber economy that to this day acts to diminish the forest ecosystem while serving an insatiable global market.

It is only after five chapters of grounding that we first meet the disturbing – and disturbed – character, Grant Hadwin. Yet Vaillant continues to serve up nuance and insight as the narrative unfolds in bits and we wrestle with those questions. His tone suggests a colloquial & confident familiarity with facts – a reflection, no doubt, of both keen research and personal observation by this BC-based author. A fine storyteller, his voice is largely dispassionate and unsentimental, floating above temptations to judge or conclude. As literature is a human realm, one naturally expects telltales of an author’s values; here they are mere wisps – candid, balanced, welcome.

Where some details of Hadwin’s mystery are not known, Vaillant does not embellish or needlessly speculate. There are end notes, but few and spare. It is revealing that the story brings the author to mention Ted Kaczynski – but then also Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Scarlet Pimpernel and others. While citing some authority on obvious questions of Hadwin’s mental state, these are not hyper-analyzed. This is refreshing candor consistent with Vaillant’s approach to our limits of understanding.

Indeed, uncertainty of both man & nature is part of our landscape in this saga, as is myth. We are drawn in and encouraged to embrace it. Both natural & human elements of the story’s terrain are informed by the depths of Haida thought and oral history. Vaillant deftly wrestles with the challenges involved, e.g. western “rational” thought ill-equipped for such murkiness; and the tenuous continuity of oral history in a culture nearly extinguished by disease and genocide. He notes: “Time and events are clearly elastic in this version of the story… It is exactly this willingness to host the implausible that makes the islands and their surroundings so extraordinary.”

Logging is treated to a similar reflective treatment, involving our conflicted history of rich benefits, wanton destruction and tragic social dependence. For not the first time, we must glance in a mirror: “in this world, a certain tolerance for moral and cognitive dissonance is necessary.” This account reminds us that, like other chronicles of exhausted natural resources, logging created a culture that also produces human victims, “expendable canaries in the coal mine of resource extraction,” with collective social consequences.

Vaillant’s generous background-telling is no mere regional history or delivery of anecdotes; it can be a gift for those willing to receive – an unusual opportunity to crawl inside forest richness, stretch for cultural understanding, examine our own heritage in new ways and view events from the eyes of others. And the accumulating awareness is not always comfortable, in the way that keen perception often is not: sometimes painfully intimate, sometimes achingly universal, often irresolute and incomplete.

Each chapter opens with a quotation. One is from William Blake: “A fool sees not the same tree as a wise man sees.”

In the end we must recognize this tale is about a tree, not a man. Our young civilization still has much to learn, in the limited time remaining to act; and it is often original cultures and nature’s wonder doing the teaching. In the context of deep time and an infinitely special place, this man’s story is brief and largely complete: he lived, he acted, and he is gone. But as both Haida cultural lore and our lauded science both suggest, the tree’s story reaches far back in time, is inescapably interwoven with the place, and stretches well into the future beyond our knowing.

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