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Sep 01

Book Review: The Golden Spruce

I’ve just finished reading The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed by John Vaillant (2005). It tells the story of Grand Hadwin, who sawed down the Golden Sitka in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands in 1997. The tree was a unique Sitka Spruce with golden needles — a “freak of nature” that shouldn’t have survived, but had — that was sacred to the Haida people.

I picked the book up because it had an Into the Wild appeal (a book I’ve read twice, as well as seeing the movie). And there are some similarities between the main characters. However, Vaillant weaves a much larger story around Grant Hadwin and the Golden Spruce, providing wide-ranging background on the cultural and geographical history of British Columbia, the history and beliefs of the Haida nation, and the evolution and impact of the logging industry.

This story takes place at a complicated intersection of culture and commerce, and it’s really a story about sustainability and how our insatiable need for wood has destroyed virtually all the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. It also seems to me that the lessons of the Golden Spruce have parallels in our use (and misuse) of other natural resources.

There were a lot of facts that I found fascinating, like this tidbit:

As early as 1605, samples of white pine from Maine were being sent back to England for testing by the Royal Navy, and by 1691 England’s “Broad Arrow Policy” was in effect. Reflecting the wholesale audacity of the times, this highly unpopular decree stated that any trees twenty-four inches or more in diameter located within three miles of water were automatically the property of the king. Lest there be any confusion about whose woods these were, the royal mark of the broad arrow was blazed on their bark. The marked trees were considered so valuable that mast ships — custom built to accommodate long timbers — traveled in convoy with armed escorts.

It was this search for trees for ship’s masts (who knew??) that first led the British to plunder the old-growth of the Pacific Northwest. But it was the advent of the chain saw after WWII, accompanied by ever-more-efficient methods of felling trees and extricating them from the wild, that tipped the balance and led to wholesale destruction of old-growth forests. Vaillant provides fascinating descriptions of the dangerous life of loggers, and of the machines and methods that were developed over the last century (which continue to make logging an incredibly dangerous profession).

What the chain saw and its mechanical attendants — the bulldozer, log skidder, and self-loading logging ruck — have done is reduce the great trees of the Northwest down to objects that a man of average size and physical condition can fall, buck, load, and transport. Today, a tree ten feet across the butt can be felled in ten minutes flat, and bucked up in half an hour. Afterward it is a matter of moments for a grapple yarder — essentially a huge mobile claw on caterpillar treads — to pick up the multiton logs and load them onto a waiting truck (no need for a spar tree anymore). In theory, then a 200-ton tree that has stood, unseen, for a thousand years and withstood wind, fire, floods, and earthquakes can be brought to earth, rendered into logs, and bound for a sawmill in under and hour — by just three men. In 1930 it would have taken a dozen men a day to accomplish the same thing. In 1890 it would have taken them weeks, and in 1790 it would have been a matter of months — assuming they were even able to fell the tree.

It’s a smart book on many levels, weaving together complex threads into a compelling tale that left me thinking about the true costs of the 20th century — and what, if anything, we can do in the 21st to undo some of our destruction and restore a sense of balance (impossible to replace thousand-year-old trees, of course, but maybe some recompense is possible in other places and with other natural resources).

Grant Hardwin was probably more than a little crazy. But, like many loggers Vaillant spoke to, he loved the wild places he was helping to destroy. So it’s a crazy I can relate to.