Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Golden Spruce

To the natives of Haida Gwaii it was a mythical symbol that had stood on their homeland for hundreds of years. To loggers and environmentalists it was symbol of what was being lost in the rain forests of BC to axe and machine. To all, it was a wonder -- a unique golden Sitka spruce tree, surrounded by a stand of its green brethren until a winter night in 1997 when it was cut down in a bizarre environmental protest.
John Vaillant's award-winning book The Golden Spruce recounts the tale of Grant Hadwin, a long-time forester and expert outdoorsman, who came to hate the destruction being waged in the forests and fought against it, while at the same time apparently descending into madness and psychosis. Struggling to find a way to protest the destruction of the forests, he made his way to Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), took a chainsaw to the golden spruce, and escaped back to the mainland. He was quickly arrested, but possibly believing that his life would be in danger should he use public transportation to return to Haida Gwaii for the trial, he chose instead to kayak solo from Prince Rupert on the mainland to the islands across Hecate Strait which at times can be one of the nastiest pieces of water on the BC coast. Although he was an experienced outdoorsman, he was at best a novice kayaker, and he paddled out into the winter's fury and was never seen again.
But Vaillant's book is about more than just Hadwin's collapse into depression. Vaillant recounts the history of the Haida, their encounters with European explorers and the near destruction of their native culture that those encounters wrought, and the significance of the golden spruce to Haida culture. He also explores the history of logging in British Columbia, and the all-too human dichotomy that many loggers feel -- that the destruction and raping of the forests is awful and regrettful, but hey, it's a living.
Although Hadwin's kayak was found smashed up months later on a small island in Alaska, some believe that he staged the wreck and simply disappeared into the wild he loved so much and knew so well. Some think that if anyone could have pulled off a disappearing act in the middle of absolutely nowhere with little or no supplies, it was Hadwin. He'd done it before.
The Golden Spruce is a terrific book that I can't recommend highly enough.
2012 Addendum: The Vancouver Sun updated the Golden Spruce story here.

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