Monday, May 9, 2011

The Golden Spruce

A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed

Winner of the Governor General’s award for non-fiction in 2005 for its combination of fine writing, gripping story, and fascinating detail.

The setting is the BC rainforest and the Queen Charlotte Islands, where trees "like Tolkien's Ents" can be found.

The backstory includes the troubled history of the warlike Haida, whose totem poles were at one time cut down and used for pilings; the hair-raising dangers of logging as experienced by chokermen, whistlepunks, donkey punchers, and high-riggers; and the deadly waters of Hecate Strait (between the BC mainland and the Queen Charlottes) with its overfalls, blind rollers, clapitos, and katabatic winds.

But in the end what makes this book so compelling are its elements of Shakespearian tragedy. The people and events will stay with you for a long time to come.

The Greed

The forest industry in BC has clearcut an unimaginable amount of rainforest and left behind “traumatized landscapes.” Worst of all is the removal of old growth trees that have lived for centuries and whose harvest resembles “terrestrial whaling.” BC, the author notes, “has been described as a banana republic, only with bigger bananas.”

The Myth

One tree on the Queen Charlotttes was utterly unique, a Sitka spruce with golden needles. An "arboreal unicorn" is how the author refers to it, while another person said, “This was not just a physical tree of unusual beauty, it was in fact a unique symbol of the islands and ourselves. It was a mythic tree.” According to the Haida, the tree had once been a human being. MacMillan Bloedel had abstained from harvesting it.

The Madness

A gifted and formidable woodsman working in the logging industry became disillusioned with the devastation it was causing. After suffering a religious experience, he cut down the sixteen-storey Golden Spruce to publicize his concerns. He called it a freak, MacBlo’s "pet tree." He wrote, “We tend to focus on the individual trees like the Golden Spruce while the rest of the forests are being slaughtered.”

He refused to travel by public transport to the Queen Charlottes for his trial because he feared that he would be murdered. Instead he set out by kayak and was never seen again. Many people, including former colleagues and Haida elders, believe he is still alive. His former wife called him “indestructible.”

The Author

John Vaillant is also the author of another fascinating book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.