November 5th, 2012

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The Golden Spruce

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed
John Vaillant
W.W. Norton & Company, 2005

The Golden Spruce in 1984.
Photo by Mike Beaureguard, from Wikimedia Commons

The Golden Spruce was an anomalous tree that should not have survived, but did, for hundreds of years. Its outer needles were too pale to photosynthesize properly, and its inner needles were too shaded to have received enough light. Yet it lived and prospered for hundreds of years, a tree of ancient legend to the Haida when Europeans arrived in the 18th century.

To tell the story of the Golden Spruce and its eventual destruction, Vaillant combines threads of history, ecology, biography, journalism, and economics without losing pace or losing track of the plot. One question he asks (and makes a good case for) is whether forestry or agriculture made a greater change on the face of the planet. Removal of the forest, after all, has to come first.

And he describes the rapacious destruction of the Pacific Northwest rainforest in truly harrowing terms. It’s not just that the forests were clearcut, but that trees considered commercially valueless (such as Western Red-cedar) were chopped down and thrown aside. The most accessible areas in the British Columbia rainforest were on steep river slopes, resulting in massive erosion.

Until late in the 20th century, the British Columbia rainforest was considered nearly infinite, that it would never be completely logged. It is only recently that we are at last slowing down. Vaillant gives us the details of the logging industry, and the effects it has on the people who work in it and live in the areas affected by it, without editorializing, letting their words and objective descriptions speak for themselves.

Grant Hadwin was one of the people working in the logging industry. He could (and did) go into the forest with nothing but matches and coffee and survive for weeks. His job was to plan roads to logging areas. At the time he did this, it was truly independent, with little or no oversight. But he came to despise the logging industry, became unemployable, tried to make a living at other occupations but the constraints of civilization were too tight.

He focused on the Golden Spruce — allowed to live in a memorial ten-acre patch — as a symbol of all that had gone wrong with the industry. He cut it down in January, 1997, in an evening raid that included swimming across a near-freezing river and climbing a steep bank. The job was considered expert by all who saw it.

Attempts to grow the spruce from cuttings were unsuccessful. Grant Hadwin disappeared on his way to trial. There is much, much more in this book.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.