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>The Golden Spruce

February 7, 2011

>If you could recommend one book that everyone in the world should read, what would it be? Hard question, isn’t it? I’m not sure I could come up with just one. But I notice that readers of non-fiction often have one particular pet book, and it’s almost always interesting and rewarding to read it. In addition to what I learn, I see the person who recommended it to me from an unexpected angle.

So when a friend of mine on FB recommended The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed, by John Vaillant, I told her I wanted to read it and she brought her copy right over to my house. Feeling like I’d better seize the moment, I plunged into it immediately, and fairly soon got bogged down. I kept plugging away, though, and discovered by the end that reading this book is like going to the opera–you really should know the story ahead of time. I think it would have been a better book if the newspaper story that appears in the epilogue had appeared instead in the prologue:

Picea Sitchensis ‘Bentham’s Sunlight’–Fresh Graft $20.00
NEW! A piece of history from a legendary 300 yr. old Golden Sitka Spruce growing wild on fog shrouded Queen Charlotte Island in Canada, sacred to the Haida Indians, with a tragic end. In 1997 a protestor felled this tree in protest to general apathy towards clearcutting. He disappeared before he made it to his court appearance, presumed dead, with only the remains of his broken and battered kayak to be found, and some rudimentary camping gear. A story that has it all–history, sacred symbolism, tragedy, mystery. Grafting material was taken from the downed tree and efforts have been made to graft on to the original rootstock.

There, now, you’re ready to read this book. And it really is a fascinating story; I was glad, by the end, that it had been so enthusiastically recommended.

The prologue tells the story of someone discovering a wrecked kayak on an island near the Canadian border, and then the first chapter plunges into an explanation of the climate and conditions in “North America’s coastal temperate rainforests”–you know, a bit north of where the photos of giant redwoods come from and where one of my favorite childhood movies, The Gnomemobile, was filmed. The first chapter ends by zeroing in on the Queen Charlotte islands and one particular tree that grew there, a golden spruce that was “sixteen stories tall and more than twenty feet around” and is described (in a later chapter) as a tree that had “peculiar radiance, as if it were actually generating light from deep within its branches” and was called “the Ooh-Aah tree, because that’s what it made us all say.”

After many chapters about the dangers of the waters off the coast of British Columbia, the history of logging in the Pacific Northwest, and the childhood and logging career of Grant Hadwin, the person who destroyed the golden spruce, you finally have enough background to understand the story of greed. After that you get to hear the story of myth and finally Hadwin’s madness. The background is essential, though. One of the points of the book is that most people–certainly me–are even less aware about where the paper for their books and houses comes from than they are about the origins of the beef they eat. Not only that, but “there is another reason we are so far removed from this process…and that is because, in most cases, the process is so far removed from us. Old-growth loggers are latter-day frontiersmen letting the light into the last dark corners of the country; we don’t see them because they are pushing deep into places where the bulk of the population wouldn’t last twenty-four hours.”

Vaillant made me think of other books I’ve read, like the one by Conrad Richter about prehistoric Ohio entitled The Trees. In fact, Vaillant observes that “out here, the empty spaces still look like wounds, like violations of the natural order, but back east–that is, from Chicago to Babylon–we find this hard to visualize because the clear-cutting happened generations before any of us was born. Treeless expanses look normal to us–‘natural,’ even.”

Also, as I said, Vaillant made me think of that 1967 movie The Gnomemobile, which centers around a lumberman setting aside some acres of forest rather than cutting down all the trees that are home to the gnomes and their forest friends. Vaillant tells me that “these ‘set-asides’ were generally miniscule, seldom amounting to more than five or ten acres–nowhere near big enough to serve a significant conservation function for the ecosystem. Their primary purposes were recreational and symbolic–the briefest of nods to the great forest that had once stood there.”

The Haida Indians’ myths about the golden spruce are myriad and at least partially untranslatable, but Vaillant tells some of the variations that center on humans becoming trees, one a complete story about a boy and his grandfather fleeing from winter’s destruction of their village and tribe, with the grandfather instructing the boy not to look back, and the boy disobeying and becoming rooted, eventually turning into the golden spruce.

The madness of the man who destroyed the golden spruce in an effort to protest the methods of modern logging is told in all its complexity and pathos. This is the part of the book that gave me some insight into why the friend who lent it to me finds it such a fascinating book, as she’s a psychologist by day; there’s a revealing passage about Hadwin seeing himself as a visionary:
“Nowadays someone who gets blindsided by such a sudden and mind-altering experience might call it an epiphany, an awakening, or a religious experience while a professional might call it a delusion, a hallucination, or a psychotic episode. The truth is often somewhere in the elusive middle, and yet billions of people continue to be guided in their lives by just such liminal figures–most of whom–like Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and Brigham Young–are long and safely dead. Were they alive today, they might be languishing in a heavily medicated limbo.”

Hadwin’s symbolic act didn’t produce the results he wanted in the local community; Vaillant reports that “most people up here feel about Hadwin the way people in the States feel about Timothy McVeigh: he’s an outsider who came into their place and killed something precious.” But since Vaillant published this book in 2005, the act’s symbolic resonance has been amplified.

From the person who reacted with some degree of scorn to a handwritten sign on a dispenser in a midwestern campus restroom reminding me that “these towels come from trees” to the person who is now thinking about the many rolls of paper towels we use each week for cleaning out our rabbit cage, Vaillant’s book has brought me to a new degree of tree awareness.

Do you have a pet book I should read? (I can’t promise I’ll get to it right away unless you bring it to my door.)

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2011 12:23 pm

    >"Good Wives" by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  2. February 7, 2011 1:51 pm

    >I already tortured you with two of my favorites đŸ˜› While I wouldn't call either of them feel good books, both really made me think hard about the issues they each tackled.

  3. February 7, 2011 2:09 pm

    >I don't have any one book I think everyone should read. But one I find myself recommending often is A River Sutra by Gita Mehta.

  4. February 7, 2011 3:00 pm

    >How have I never heard of the Gnomemobile? Aren't those the kids in Mary Poppins? WTH? I will have to rectify that situation very soon.I'm not sure I could get through that book, frankly. There are many books I think are important for everyone to read, two being I Captured the Castle and Cold Comfort Farm. Can't think of any non-fiction right off the bat.I'm curious, though, to know what Elizabeth's favorites are.

  5. February 7, 2011 7:04 pm

    >Lemming, someday I'll look for that one, not because I care much about the topic but because it will give me some insight into you.Elizabeth, they made me think, too, and I like having read them.Harriet, I have ordered a used copy of The River Sutra!FreshHell, yes they are the kids from Mary Poppins!I've read both of your picks (heavy on the C alliteration, there!) and you're about to read one of Elizabeth's–The Wasp Factory. (The other one she recommended to me and I read is by the same author.)

  6. February 7, 2011 8:12 pm

    >I don't have one book, either. Hmm. I'll think about it.But this one seems incredibly sad.

  7. February 8, 2011 3:02 am

    >ReadersGuide, I didn't find it sad. Sobering, maybe, but sad usually means inaction to me.

  8. February 9, 2011 1:44 pm

    >Lass, I'm going to trust you and try to read Fante's book, even though what I've read about it makes me suspect that his character will annoy the heck out of me. But maybe not…or maybe since I'm forewarned, I can milk a snide pleasure from expressing my irritation after I've read it.

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