15 November 2012

An Adventurous and Cautionary Tale of (Non)Fiction: A Review of John Vaillant’s 'The Golden Spruce'

I recently finished reading John Valliant's The Golden Spruce for a graduate-level STS course at Virginia Tech. So immersed in the topic and jazzed about the writing style, I feel compelled to share my review with those beyond the classroom. Without further delay, what follows are my thoughts about an engaging book and important topic. Hopefully my words will foster some feedback and encourage critical thinking about our relationship with nature.

From the first pages of the acknowledgements section (where the author mentions the generous participation of wide assortment of people from various (and at times competing) groups: Native Americans, University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers, representatives from timber industry giant Weyerhaeuser, among various other government representatives and civilians), it is clear that John Vaillant’s text will cover a vast thematic terrain. In fact, the protagonist and the events leading up to the book’s climax require Vaillant to explore an expansive geographic and thematic space. 

Like any good historical narrative, Vaillant combines dynamic personalities with captivating adventure. The Krakauer-style runs throughout The Golden Spruce, but Vaillant’s text is not in any sense an imitation of the former’s prose style. Vaillant combines keen observation, historical accuracy, journalistic narrative all into a Jack London like plot--except everything in Vaillant’s book is painfully real. With a guide book like description, Vaillant vividly recreates the stunning beauty and stark danger of the Queen Charlotte Islands and surround areas. This treacherous areas off the coast of British Columbia “represent[s] a sort of existential intertidal zone--not just between the forest and the sea but between the surface and the spirit worlds.”[1]  In this space the cognitive dissonance that permeates the history of the timber industry is all too apparent. The challenge of reconciling conflicting ideologies is perhaps most starkly obvious in the life and actions of woodsman, timber surveyor, and eco-terrorist Grant Hadwin.

Vaillant relies upon a series of short and interconnected episodic chapters to lay the necessary foundation to support such an intricate narrative. While it might take awhile to arrive at the climactic destination, the importance of each chapter (and the various characters, scenes, and incidents contained therein) cannot be overlooked. Vaillant knew where he wanted to take reader and seems to have worked backwards to connect the beginning and end with a series of detailed anecdotes that propels readers through time, culture, and geography.

Within in the first ten pages of the book, Vaillant reveals the mysterious conclusion of Grant Hadwin’s misadventures. “The kayak and its owner, a Canadian timber surveyor and expert woodsman, had been missing--not for weeks, but for months. This man, it seemed, was on the run, wanted for a strange and unprecedented crime.”[2]  Such an early presentation leaves readers to wonder why this ecologically-attuned man would perform such an ecologically-destructive act. It is the subsequent search for Hadwin’s means and motive that The Golden Spruce explains the historical, cultural, ecological, and personal significance of Pacific Coast trees/timber and more specifically of K’iid K’iyaas (the Haida name for the golden spruce). Tracing a path of celebration, utilization, and deforestation from Mesopotamia through Europe and into New America, Vaillant describes the pivotal role wood has played throughout human history and evolution. Acknowledging the universal importance of wood (e.g. heat, light, shelter, clothing, weapons, etc.), Vaillant is quick to point out the particularly significant role trees and wood products have played in the formation of a distinct North American identity.

Image of K’iid K’iyaas courtesy of Bondi Resort Blog
Interweaving historical events and characters into a lengthy and detailed narrative of the places and peoples associated with the golden spruce, John Vaillant’s text is richly detailed with a broad, yet focused, purpose. With the golden spruce acting as a sturdy narrative trunk, Valliant’s book branches off into various extended historical episodes that explore humanity’s complex relationship with the environment. Perhaps the most significant critique of the book is the vast number of pages required to arrive at the pivotal moment when, under a cloak of darkness, Hadwin masterfully employs “a Humboldt undercut and...a series of ‘cookies’...leaving just enough holding wood so that the golden spruce would remain standing until the next storm.”[3]  However, it is the broad and branching narrative that allows Vaillant to achieve his analytical depth; which is where the true power of the text resides. Branching into histories of people, places, practices, and the associated technological and ideological developments, The Golden Spruce presents readers with a story about the dynamic connections among human beliefs, relationships, and actions. More importantly though, the book demonstrates the array of consequences that stem from such a complicated web of existence. The felling of K’iid K’iyaas is undoubtedly the focal consequence, but, in the grander scheme of human-environment relations, it is but one of many serious issues.

After nearly ninety pages, the story’s main human character is finally introduced by name. With examination of Grant Hadwin, the narrative begins to loop back and connect to the initial vision of the destroyed kayak and supplies scattered along the Mary Island shoreline. In his treatment of Grant Hadwin (more prolonged and in-depth than with other actors), Vaillant makes clear the cognitive dissonance that is quite common amongst loggers. Alongside the adoration for the dense and vast coastal forests and an intense desire to be outside, timber professionals are actively (and efficiently) participating in the deforestation and consequent elimination of the very areas and occupations they so covet. Vaillant points out the remarkable degree that Hadwin struggled to hold onto these competing ideals. In an industry where “awareness causes pain,”[4]  Grant Hadwin was hyper-aware and thus afflicted by intense pain of this double bind. Thus, he embarked on a quest to fell one symbolic tree in order to illuminate the implications of felling all the trees.

Vaillant points out the human tendency (regardless of culture, time, or place) to view resources in terms of their vastness and seemingly endless abundance. Unfortunately, any sense of humbleness quickly gives way to economic-oriented extraction. “That something as small as a man could have any impact on such a place seems almost laughable. In a geography of this magnitude, one can imagine how it might have been possible to believe that the West Coast bonanza would never end.”[5]  The Northwest Pacific sea otter trade is but one instance that exemplifies this all-too-common aspect of human nature,
“...despite its practical importance, and despite a necessarily keen sensitivity to the rhythms of the natural world, the West Coast Indians pursued this creature to the brink of extinction. In doing so, they demonstrated the same kind of profit-driven shortsightedness that has wiped out dozens of other species, including the Atlantic salmon, and, more recently, the Atlantic cod. It is an eccentric and uniquely human approach to resources.”[6]
With a rather balanced approach Vaillant addresses the consequences of such an approach, but does so without blaming the West Coast Indians. After all, people of all cultures have a long history of acting shortsightedly with regard to resource extraction. Vaillant aptly summarizes the universal cognitive dissonance as a situation where, “Once aboard a juggernaut like this, it appears suicidal to jump off--even if staying on is sure to destroy you in the end.”  [7] While the geography and resources have shifted, this mindset continues to run rampant. Therein lies the problem.

Readers of various ilks will find much to enjoy within John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce. Whether interested in the history of logging, North American environmental ideologies, First Nations anthropology, labor issues, or looking for a historical crime drama, Vaillant’s book is timely, well-written, engaging, and ultimately an educational cautionary tale. While the author does not take any great effort to conceal his fondness for nature, he does a remarkable job presenting the complicated array of interests associated with golden spruce story. By extension, Vaillant causes readers to acknowledge the complexity inherent to all environmental issues. Never championing nor outright chiding Grant Hadwin, the author presents the main protagonist as a complex and misunderstood individual. In doing so, Vaillant reminds readers to take pause when examining the human-environment relationship. Very intelligent questions are hard to pin down in order to think about, and even harder to answer with any sense of sufficient comprehensiveness. Grant Hadwin’s actions were undeniably radical, but his indictment of the logging industry resonates with many people in the text (and likely with readers as well). We may never know what became of Hadwin, but we can (and should) know that the burden of cognitive dissonance is too much to bear. John Vaillant’s text gives us a reason to make a concerted effort to ask and answer the tough questions about human-environment relations.

  1. John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 28.
  2. Ibid., 28.
  3. Ibid., 134.
  4. Ibid., 98.
  5. Ibid., 90.
  6. Ibid., 44.
  7. Ibid., 49.