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The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed [Paperback]

John Vaillant
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 3 2006
The Golden Spruce is the story of a glorious natural wonder, the man who destroyed it, and the fascinating, troubling context in which his act took place.

A tree with luminous glowing needles, the golden spruce was unique, a mystery that biologically speaking should never have reached maturity; Grant Hadwin, the man who cut it down, was passionate, extraordinarily well-suited to wilderness survival, and to some degree unbalanced. But as John Vaillant shows in this gripping and perceptive book, the extraordinary tree stood at the intersection of contradictory ways of looking at the world; the conflict between them is one reason it was destroyed. Taking in history, geography, science and spirituality, this book raises some of the most pressing questions facing society today.

The golden spruce stood in the Queen Charlotte Islands, an unusually rich ecosystem where the normal lines between species blur, a place where “the patient observer will find that trees are fed by salmon [and] eagles can swim.” The islands’ beauty and strangeness inspire a more personal and magical experience of nature than western society is usually given to. Without romanticizing, Vaillant shows that this understanding is typified by the Haida, the native people who have lived there for millennia and know the land as Haida Gwaii – and for whom the golden spruce was an integral part of their history and mythology. But seen a different way, the golden spruce stood in block 6 of Tree Farm License 39, a tract owned by the Weyerhaeuser forest products company. It survived in an isolated “set-aside” amidst a landscape ravaged by logging.

Grant Hadwin had worked as a remote scout for timber companies; with his ease in the wild he excelled at his job, much of which was spent in remote stretches of the temperate rain forest, plotting the best routes to extract lumber. But over time Hadwin was pushed into a paradox: the better he was at his job, the more the world he loved was destroyed. It seems he was ultimately unable to bear the contradiction.

On the night of January 20, 1997, with the temperature near zero, Hadwin swam across the Yakoun river with a chainsaw. Another astonishing physical feat followed: alone, in darkness, he tore expertly into the golden spruce – a tree more than two metres in diameter – leaving it so unstable that the first wind would push it over. A few weeks later, having inspired an outpouring of grief and public anger, Hadwin set off in a kayak across the treacherous Hecate Strait to face court charges. He has not been heard from since.

Vaillant describes Hadwin’s actions in engrossing detail, but also provides the complex environmental, political and economic context in which they took place. This fascinating book describes the history of the Haida’s contacts with European traders and settlers, drawing parallels between the 19th century economic bubble in sea otter pelts – and its eventual implosion – and today’s voracious logging trade. The wood products industry is examined objectively and in depth; Vaillant explores the influence of logging not only on the British Columbia landscape but on the course of western civilization, from the expansion of farming in Europe to wood’s essential importance to the Great Powers’ imperial navies to the North American “axe age.” Along the way, The Golden Spruce includes evocative portraits of one of the world’s most unusual land- and seascapes, riveting descriptions of Haida memorial rites, and a lesson in the difficulty and danger of felling giant trees.

Thrilling and instructive though it may be, The Golden Spruce confronts the reader with troubling questions. John Vaillant asks whether Grant Hadwin destroyed the golden spruce because – as a beautiful “mutant” preserved while the rest of the forest was devastated – it embodied society’s self-contradictory approach to nature, the paradox that harrowed him. Anyone who claims to respect the environment but lives in modern society faces some version of this problem; perhaps Hadwin, living on the cutting edge in every sense, could no longer take refuge in the “moral and cognitive dissonance” today’s world requires. The Golden Spruce forces one to ask: can the damage our civilization exacts on the natural world be justified?


From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

The felling of a celebrated giant golden spruce tree in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands takes on a potent symbolism in this probing study of an unprecedented act of eco-vandalism. First-time author Vaillant, who originally wrote about the death of the spruce for the New Yorker, profiles the culprit, an ex-logger turned messianic environmentalist who toppled the famous tree—the only one of its kind—to protest the destruction of British Columbia's old-growth forest, then soon vanished mysteriously. Vaillant also explores the culture and history of the Haida Indians who revered the tree, and of the logging industry that often expresses an elegiac awe for the ancient trees it is busily clear-cutting. Writing in a vigorous, evocative style, Vaillant portrays the Pacific Northwest as a region of conflict and violence, from the battles between Europeans and Indians over the 18th-century sea otter trade to the hard-bitten, macho milieu of the logging camps, where grisly death is an occupational hazard. It is also, in his telling, a land of virtually infinite natural resources overmatched by an even greater human rapaciousness. Through this archetypal story of "people fail[ing] to see the forest for the tree," Vaillant paints a haunting portrait of man's vexed relationship with nature. Photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* This powerful and vexing man-versus-nature tale is set in an extraordinary place, Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands, and features two legendary individuals: a uniquely golden 300-year-old Sitka spruce and Grant Hadwin, a logger turned champion of old-growth forests who ultimately destroys what he loves. With a firm grasp of every confounding aspect of this suspenseful and disturbing story and a flair for creating arresting allegories and metaphors, Vaillant conveys a wealth of complex biological, cultural, historical, and economic information within an incisive interpretation of the essential role trees have played in human civilization. Breathtaking evocations of this oceanic realm of giant trees and epic rains give way to a homage to its ghosts, for this is the sight of a holocaust, where the creative and dauntless Haida were nearly decimated by Europeans who also clear-cut the mighty forests. It is this legacy of greed and loss that rendered the immense golden spruce, a miraculous survivor, sacred, and that drove Hadwin to cut it down. This tragic tale goes right to the heart of the conflicts among loggers, native rights activists, and environmentalists, and induces us to more deeply consider the consequences of our habits of destruction. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Amazing, True Story. A Must-Read Book Aug. 31 2005
Format:Hardcover
The amazing and surprisingly gripping tale of the Golden Spruce is one of the best books I've ever read. From the seed of a story about a magnificent and mysterious tree, in a way not unlike the Golden Spruce itself, John Vaillant's story grows into something much more than an interesting and informative book.
To help the reader fully understand the strange sequence of events, Vaillant's book is loaded with historical and factual detail, interwoven into a compelling and vital narrative. Rarely have I learned so much about things around me that have a direct impact on my life while fully enjoying the entire process.
The result is a fascinating and truly important book. And the best investment of my reading time in many, many years.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "A seed like no other" Sept. 15 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Dropped by its parent over three centuries ago, the seed produced something special in the way of a tree. Rising from the soil alongside a river in an island off the West Coast of North America, it produced a Sitka spruce of unusual character. It was a Golden Spruce. When migrating Asian peoples settled on the island it became the source of mythologies, venerated it as part of their heritage. One dark night, however, it was hewn nearly down by a man with a sense of mission. John Vaillant, in a brilliant, comprehensive account of the tree, its worshippers and its changing surroundings, relates how the tree's story is important to us all.

The key figure in this story, Grant Hadwin, was a forester. A man of deep experience in the ways of the forest and how humans interact with trees, Hadwin moved through a succession of roles. He was a timber "cruiser", a man who identifies areas suitable for the lumber industry, a road surveyor for the industry and a confirmed loner. In Vaillant's rendering, Hadwin's enigmatic act is a symbol of much wider issues. The author isn't sympathetic with Hadwin's vandalism, but he understands and imparts well the forces that led to it. The single tree becomes a pivot for an account of the Haida and other aboriginal people along the Pacific Coast. He demolishes the image of the "noble savage" living in harmony with his surroundings. The Haida were raiders, slave-takers and skilled hunters. When the Europeans arrived, the Haida were quick to take up commercial hunting of the sea otters, decimating the population in but three generations. With that source of wealth removed, plus the diseases imported from Europe, the Haida society collapsed, almost as extinguished as the animals they hunted.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read March 2 2013
By Marmot TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Ordered on the advise of a stranger I was takling with who was visiting the west coast. I never heard of the book or Vaillant. Best advise I could have taken, love the writhing and descriptions he goes into.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Great book! April 25 2006
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
This is a very informative and interesting story. This book gives the reader insight into the foresting industry and the things that drive it. In many ways, such a book is just what Hadwin hoped to inspire: I good hard look at the irony of saving one tree while destroying so many. I take away one star because it can be very fact heavy. However, I came away from the reading a much more informed person.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping-and sad-story...elegantly written. Dec 4 2009
Format:Paperback
This book tells the story of the Golden Spruce--and much more. I was expecting a linear account of events leading up to the tragic end of the tree but as I read on I realized that the tale clearly could not be done justice without also relaying the stories of the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Haida people, logging in BC, and the misguided man who was at the centre of the controversy.

Vaillant's writing is elegant and beautifully descriptive; he does an exceptional job of conveying the feeling of a place, a time, a people, and an individual. This book moved me deeply and at times brought me to tears. Perhaps it is Vaillant's portrayal of our relationship--past and present--to our natural resources that invoked my most visceral response.

Not only is this a powerful story, it leaves you questioning your own role in the (ab)use of our forests.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars July 14 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
great book a little too much history.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars July 10 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Great read
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5.0 out of 5 stars Really enjoyed reading it June 29 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Extremely well written and very informative. Really enjoyed reading it.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A terrific book - well written and well researched
A terrific book - well written and well researched. Paints vivid images of life on the west coast.
Published 1 month ago by rob laubman
4.0 out of 5 stars a new find of an author for me
a lovable and readable nonfiction that I couldn't put down for all us lazy self proclaimed intellectuals that want our nonfiction in easy doses. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Lizabeth Leuschner
5.0 out of 5 stars The Golden Spruce
It was a truly exciting book, also set here on Vancouver Island, Canada, where I live. People in the Book club didn't want to try it.
Published 8 months ago by Lyn Ferns
5.0 out of 5 stars Like how John Vaillant writes
Like his othe book about siberian tigers. This is a very informative book as well. Hope that he will continue writing and come up with as interesting books as his first two.
Published 9 months ago by wayne legault
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
This is a well written book.
I am wondering what an update might look like.
I like true stories.
Written by a Canadian.
Published 19 months ago by Sid Harrison
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
I really enjoyed this book. The author does a great job of telling this real life story. He not only brings us into the world of the spruce, it's connection to the native people... Read more
Published 19 months ago by TJH
5.0 out of 5 stars meeting with the fallen tree
The Golden Spruce was borrowed at the start of a trip to Haida Gwaii. This book was a stimulating companion during the 18 hour ferry ride from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert and the 7... Read more
Published on Aug. 24 2012 by Jane Robertson
4.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Tree, Destroyed
"The Golden Spruce" is a non-fiction book by John Vaillant, about a particular mutated spruce tree located on Haida Gwaii, a series of islands off the west coast of British... Read more
Published on Feb. 28 2012 by Alison S. Coad
5.0 out of 5 stars A reason to go to Haida Gwaii
Excellent read and a gifted wordsmith. We just visited the archipelago of Hadia Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) off the coast of British Columbia and saw the remnant of this famous... Read more
Published on Sept. 4 2011 by L. Neish
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