Monday, April 07, 2008
A review! The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed
When I first arrived in B.C. my sister had just moved to Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands). A mysterious place to me, a remote island that I hoped to visit one day, I became further curious when my co-workers started to tell me about what a beautiful jewel of an island it is. Standing out for its uniqueness in marine life, a strong Haida culture and its remoteness, I knew that Haida Gwaii was like nowhere else.
The book The Golden Spruce came up in conversations and people kept telling me I had to read it. Finally, a year after moving here I finally got a chance to pick up John Valliant’s book and soon realized that I would have trouble putting it down. Most of my reading is accomplished on transit and when I opened The Golden Spruce and read Valliant’s opening few pages, I knew through the care he took in describing the Northwest coast that I wanted to savor every word.
Valliant introduces the Northwest coast by describing the landscape this way: “there is no graceful interval between the ocean and the trees; the forest simply takes over where the tide wrack ends, erupting full-blown from the shallow, bouldered earth. The boundary between the two is unstable, and the sea will heave stones, logs, and even itself into the woods at every opportunity.” He then continues, “A coastal forest can be an awesome place to behold; huge, holy, and eternal feeling, like a branched and needled Notre Dame, but for a stranger it is not a particularly comfortable place to be. You can be twenty paces from a road or a beach and become totally disoriented once inside, there is no future and no past, only the sodden, twilit now.”
I closed the book until I could get home and have fewer distractions to take me away from it. Once immersed in the story, the legends and the history, I was able to transit with this book again and enjoyed every moment the bus was slowed by rush hour traffic.
The drama itself could not have been better scripted. Valliant gives us the character of the young logger, Grant Hadwin, who has either gone mad or has turned activist, that cuts this symbolic tree in an act of protest against the clearcutting of the Northwest forests. The Golden Spruce was a 300 year old Sitka spruce that grew 16 stories high and more than twenty feet around that was so unique in its golden colour that it was protected from logging and held legendary significance to the Haida people. When Grant Hadwin cut the tree it changed the landscape of the people and the place forever.He had no understanding of the spiritual significance of the tree to the Haida people who believe that if the tree died so would the Haida nation.
Valliant tells this dramatic story in a way that often balances between the mythic and the real and like the landscape the “boundary between the two is unstable.” While the story is about the tree and the man who cut it down, Valliant puts this seemingly simple narrative into a greater context, depicting the history of Haida Gwaii, the Haida people, and BC’s logging industry. Without this greater context the full significance of the event, the death of this tree, cannot be fully understood. The result is, we are left with a deeper knowledge of a place, a people, and the significance of this one Sitka spruce to all those involved in the drama.
What I most enjoyed was Valliant’s ability to weave all points of view together to give us a whole picture of this event so that we understand the full drama of it and remain with questions. I leave the book with a greater understanding of BC history that is as complex and as many layered as an old growth forest.