The Golden Spruce — Book Review

Post by blogger | August 17, 2012      

Ever since I cut down my first tree at age eight, I’ve been fascinated by logging. Chokers, skidders, chain saws; they’re all good. Or perhaps not.

Lou riding thru forest

Riding on an old logging road in the Pacific Northwest.

Yeah, logging is the great satan according to many, and I’ve viewed it that way many times as well — though I appreciate my wood house, wood fire, and chainsaw (not to mention the roads and trails that logging has created over the years). Love hate, I guess.

John Vaillant, in his book, “The Golden Spruce,” covers logging from both sides. He does that by relating the human perspective. Instead of a diatribe about environmental damage, or a screed about economic benefits vs owls, Vaillant focuses his story on one protagonist’s journey in the world of logging, all leading to an act of eco terrorism committed against native peoples.

Hooked yet? You should be.

The story centers around Grant Hadwin, a backcountry boy who by all accounts was virtually half wild-animal. Grant is able to survive in the backwoods of British Columbia on nearly nothing. He has a sense of his environment such that he’s extremely useful to timber companies looking to figure out access routes.

Thus, Grant has a productive career as a road planner for logging companies, while at the same time gaining appreciation for the primal forests of B.C., where the pillage of old-growth trees has wreaked havoc on a unique resource we’re only beginning to understand.

As for the “Golden Spruce,” it’s a beautiful mutant tree which symbolizes everything. Eventually the tree is the focus of the story.

Vaillant’s pen weaves Hadwin’s story with logging lore and technical info. I read the book while traversing the Pacific Northwest, and found myself looking at the forests up there in a whole new way. Most of what you hike, say, in Washington, has been logged. But without some knowledge of the industry you don’t really know what you’re looking at.

What’s all that old cable lying around, partially buried under tree roots? Could be from an early days aerial tram system for moving logs. What are those notches in the sides of the old-growth stumps still dotting the forest? Aha, that’s where the guys with hand saws stuck boards to stand on so they could saw above the enormous tree’s “buttress.”

Indeed, if “Golden Spruce” suffers one fault, it’s that author Vaillant appears like he’s sometimes trying too hard to shore up his narrative with endless trivia. Yet he presents such in a way that keeps you reading. Take the section on tree falling. Vaillant finds a guy who cut down a red cedar more than 22 feet in diameter, using a chain saw with a 40 inch bar. Over six hours later, the creature falls. Then we move on to how much tree fallers in B.C. are paid, how their pay has dropped, and what deadly mistakes they can make. The latter was interesting, I’ll admit.

For example, regarding the use of felling wedges (plastic blocks pounded into the chainsaw cut to attempt tipping the tree the direction you want it to go), Vaillant: “It takes a certain kind of person to bang on something wider than his front door, heavier than his whole house, and twenty stories tall when it’s doing a snake dance.” Interesting reading, uh huh.

Or take this one: “[The chainsaw is] a super-charged extension of masculine will that is impossible to ignore.” Now you know why I have a 24 inch bar instead of a 20.

Beyond logging trivia we do have the story of Hadwin. Basically the man loves the natural environment and ends up making his living off logging. But at the same time he sees how logging can either be done sustainably — or destructive of the last remaining old growth. Meanwhile, the man is also battling what sounds like bi-polar disorder. In my view, he takes things too personally.

It all comes to a head when Hadwin becomes sensitized to the poorly managed logging of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Some of the archipelago had been “shaved bald,” with permanent damage from erosion. At the same time, a small forest preserve called a “set aside” had been created about the unique Golden Spruce. Such set asides are patently ridiculous as they serve no conservation purpose, they’re merely insulting mini-parks for humans to gloat over a few remaining thousand-year-old trees. At least that appears to be what Hadwin’s take was. So he swims a river with his chainsaw sealed in a plastic trash bag, and cuts down the sacred tree.

Like most good books of this sort, including THE good book, “Golden Spruce” leaves you with one burning question: Prophet, or maniac? Read it, and let us know your take.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


19 Responses to “The Golden Spruce — Book Review”

  1. Forest August 17th, 2012 10:29 am

    O.K., Lou, you’ve certainly sold one more book for Vaillant. I’m a licensed Forester in both Maine and New Hampshire and have made my living by buying & selling wood for the past 30 years. Certainly the issues and choices that the author covers are ones that those of us in the business struggle with every day. In the time I’ve been at it, I’ve never met anyone who got into the business because they wanted to wipe out the forests that they call home.

    The minutia of the logging scenes makes the book sound even more readable and believable as far as i’m concerned. Sadly, all my saws have had only 18″ bars. 😉

  2. Lou Dawson August 17th, 2012 10:32 am

    Forest, drop back by and let us know what you think of the book. And thanks to Zach for recommending it to me.

  3. AndyC August 17th, 2012 10:57 am

    Lou, if you like bed-time reading to put you to sleep, you might try reading my book that tries to reconcile the diverse values people find in forests in a way that allows economically efficient, ecologically beneficial, active management of forests that include timber harvesting:

    Carey, Andrew B. 2007. AIMing for Healthy Forests: Active, Intentional Management for Multiple Values. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-721. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.

    It is long (425+ pages), but well illustrated, and FREE for the asking:

  4. dillon August 17th, 2012 11:34 am

    I liked the book. My favorite part? The recipe for eggs ala Angus –
    17 hard boiled eggs
    1 cup cutty sark
    serves 1

  5. Dan August 17th, 2012 12:29 pm

    After, or before the aforementioned recommended reading; If you have the opportunity, hike the 18 mile Hoh River Valley trail and imagine harvesting those trees 100+ years ago, with the contemporary equipment. Then think about the fact that pretty much most of western WA and the Lower BC mainland looked like that prior to the 1860s. The best thing about climbing Mt. Olympus is the incredible forest walk. However, you may not be all that engrossed on the walk out. 18 miles is a long way, even if it is a first class trail…too bad the Park Service won’t permit mtn. bikes on that trail, but I digress.

  6. cam August 17th, 2012 1:28 pm

    Great read! if you think this one was packed with trivia…try reading his book “The Tiger” it makes the Golden Spruce seem very tightly edited;)

  7. Kirk Turner August 17th, 2012 2:01 pm

    Glad you enjoyed this read! Unless Zach beat me to it, I think I actually recommended it to you when we were down at Adams. I had to read it for a GUR diversity class at the University of Utah a few years back and had a hard time putting it down even on Christmas break!! I thought the history of the region was fascinating. As someone who enjoys recreating in the outdoors as much as possible, forest use, management and preservation is an interesting topic. I think its valuable to see different sides of the equation, my girlfriends father is also a career Forester (like Forest) for the past 25 years….until he recently sustained a possible career ending hand injury (jury is still out on his recovery). Definitely not simple stuff…..

  8. Lou Dawson August 17th, 2012 2:09 pm

    Kirk, actually, you are correct! Sorry about that. All you snowboarders look the same (grin). Good recommendation, I’d never tracked what happened up there with the special tree and such. Strange how the twisted eco terrorism targeted the native peoples, one has to wonder if it was really intended to do so… definitely leaves you with some questions.

  9. Kirk Turner August 17th, 2012 2:27 pm

    Snowboarder!?!? lol Tlt 5’s and waybacks last I checked did not fit that nomenclature, but yes indeedy many many unanswered questions……..

  10. ptor August 17th, 2012 2:34 pm

    I had the good fortune of visiting the Golden spruce while spending a summer on Haida Gwaii (The Queen Charlotte Islands). I cried and almost went off the deep end myself when I heard it had been cut down because I knew how much it meant to the Haida people with whom I had been privileged to get to know personally.
    I too had always been torn inside to see the heartless resource extraction by multi-nationals on the island and most everywhere else in BC.
    I can sympathise with Grant in certain ways except for taking it out on a beautiful tree. The Haidas themselves were “loggers” and used trees but remain in stark contrast to modern clearcut operations. BC would be a much richer place if logging were done right. But hey, Kanada and Amerika are just genocidal corporations run by foreigners that have taken advantage of people without proper education, spiritual awareness and morality, so what does one expect?
    I look forward to reading the book someday.

  11. ptor August 17th, 2012 2:41 pm

    P.S. I don’t know if the book mentions it but the word was Grant did feel the remorse for what he had done and tried to paddle Hecate Strait between Prince rupert and Haida Gwaii to face his trial in court. He never made it and the locals say he was taken by the Orcas. From what I heard it was never an assault against the Haidas, just the strongest message he could muster.
    Ironically, it was Macmillan Bloedel, the evil multinational, that had preserved the tree from grafts it had taken of it that were being cultivated at UBC. The Haida legend was that when the Golden Spruce died, it would be the end of the Haida people. It still lives and so do they.

  12. Tim August 17th, 2012 6:56 pm

    haven’t read the book, but read this excerpt years ago and it’s a pretty good version:

    valliant’s second book, i believe, the tiger, was amazing.

  13. RandoSwede August 18th, 2012 6:26 am

    Golden Spruce was a great read.
    So here is a recommendation from the other side fo the coin: Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill. It tells of the funky culture surrounding Canadian tree planters, reforestation in BC and thes seasonal world the planters occupy. Vaillant himself has written fine reviews…

  14. Canadian August 18th, 2012 9:35 pm

    I am not familiar with the success rate of the grafts of the golden spruce done by Macmillan Bloedel, but the grafts done by the BC Ministry of Forests are not thriving. I’m told they are hanging on, but barely. Our grafters are probably the best in the province as they do all our seed orchard grafts.

    On another note, I agree with Cam, try his next book: ‘The Tiger’. Really good, read; I couldn’t put it down.

  15. Lou Dawson August 19th, 2012 10:42 am

    Ptor, the book implies that Grant perhaps felt something about what he’d done, and my not have known how much of a tragedy he’d created, but he was most certainly not ignorant. As for his attempt to paddle Hecate Strait with dishwashing gloves and a plastic rain jacket, the book makes it pretty clear that was outright suicide. Sad, but unfortunately probably true. The only real problem with the book is it’s overall pretty sad, not exactly an upper. Lou

  16. Eric Steiger August 19th, 2012 3:23 pm


    Great to see your ever-increasing apprecetion of thing NOrthwest. Yes, the Golden Spruce is a great book. Had win grew up a couple of blocks from me but was a bit older so I didn’t know him. Maniac yes, prophet too maybe but the main thing about him was his total disregard for the native people for whom the golden spruce was something special. My read on it was that in his frustration at the hypocrisy of the big logging companies, he forgot entirely about the regular people, thus putting himself in the position of pissing off everyone, including those that might have otherwise agreed with him. I think that makes him for like Ted kazinski than Jesus.

  17. Lou Dawson August 19th, 2012 5:10 pm

    Eric, yeah, that’s my take. In the end, the guy was battling mental illness, no way around that.

    As for appreciation, I’ve been appreciating for decades but only blogging for 8 or 9, I guess blogging is the great life shortener, or extender, or something like that anyway (grin). And it’s still wet and scrappy up there, no two ways about it. That’s what makes it great.

  18. Eric Steig August 19th, 2012 7:49 pm

    Sorry for the embarrassing typos by the way — that’s the trouble with iPads. I even misspelled my own last name, thanks to Apple’s too-enthusiastic autocorrect.

    Wet and scrappy indeed — here it is August and we’ve got a fire going to warm up the kids after swimming!

  19. Lou Dawson August 19th, 2012 8:24 pm

    No worries about the typos, when we have time, we’ll fix ’em. Lou

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