John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce

Times have been tough around Book Addiction HQ these days: lots of work to do, some large-scale family things, and by far most importantly a Saturday memorial service for Ranger Clark, one of the world's great six-year-old boys, who was a friend to my daughter and who meant a lot to us. I've been reading, because it keeps me sane, but I haven't had the energy to do much reflecting back.

And that's a shame, because I've got three really sharp books in my "Completed" pile, starting today with John Vaillant's deservedly acclaimed The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed. I think "true story" is a bit of a stretch, since there's a healthy dose of speculation in the discussion of the eventual fate (still unknown) of Grant Hadwin, the book's (pro/an)tagonist, but that's the kind of uncertainty that adds up to myth in this book.

If the story's unknown to you, basically it's about a logging contractor named Grant Hadwin who in 1997, as a political protest, cut down a 300-year-old, 200-foot-tall Sitka spruce that had an extremely rare genetic mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green, and that was sterile to boot and so could not reproduce other spruce with the same mutation. The scientific explanation is that there was next to no chlorophyll, but the tree survived and thrived because it was in one of the few places on the planet that offered enough indirect sunlight to do what it needed to grow (reflected off a smooth stretch of river) along with little enough direct, hot sunlight that it wouldn't be burned to death. The Haida have a mythic explanation for it, which includes elements like those in the story of Lot's wife (woman/pillar of salt = boy/golden spruce).

Thing is, this book is really well built, as well as thoughtful without edging over into polemics. There are important questions at play here, and while it'd be interesting to know more about Hadwin's family history of mental illness, and about his troubling (to me) relationship with the much older Cora Gray, Vaillant manages to use all these potentially titillating elements in service of the right questions to ask. On the working success of a logger, for example, whose work can ruin the nature that provides much of his delight in the world:
The evaluation of success involves a strange and subjective calculus: at what point does the brown cloud over an industrial city become a "problem" as opposed to a sky-high banner proclaiming good times? When does the ratio of clear-cuts and Christmas tree farms to healthy, intact forests begin to cause aesthetic and moral discomfort, or real environmental damage? How does one gauge this in a place as big as British Columbia, or North America? (p.98)
Vaillant's not in the business of answering these questions - that's our job, mine and yours - but in The Golden Spruce he gives us a story that'll let us exercise our intellects honestly on them.

Grant Hadwin, for his part, saw the golden spruce - Kiidk'yaas - as a fetish object. It was saved from logging along with the grove it stood in, while huge swathes around it were liquidated. The forest companies could be praised for their actions in leaving it to stand, while barely altering the scale or pattern of their logging practices that were coming under such intense pressure throughout coastal British Columbia. What Grant Hadwin did was remove the fetish object, to see what value the grove had without it. He didn't know the tree's importance for the Haida, he misjudged the nature and quality of public response, and his philosophic reasoning was negatively affected by his mental illness, but what seems to have been his intended goal doesn't sound that strange to me: to draw attention to a logging company's exploitation of Western culture's (or possibly humanity's) forest fetish to distract potential protesters' attention away from the despoliation of Haida Gwaii, and more generally of coastal forests in the Pacific Northwest.

To go back to the title: "myth" refers to the Haida, to individuals working in the logging industry, and to people who like nature; "madness" refers to Grant Hadwin, but possibly also to logging practices and (in Hadwin's view) to anyone who doesn't take up arms against the planet's oppressors; and "greed" refers to the logging companies - and possibly to individuals working in the logging industry, though their circumstances are more delicately handled than that.

Heck of a book. I'm glad to have given away a few copies of this one already, before having read it, because I'd have given it away more quickly and more often if I'd actually read the thing beforehand.


SBFH said…
I really enjoyed this book when I read it some time ago. Your post reminds me of that - I should dig it out again...
richard said…
Thanks for the note, Kyla. Yes, I really liked The Golden Spruce as well, and it was a hit at the book club - I don't think a single person objected, which would be a first if it's true.
sexy said…
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