I absolutely loved John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce. I could hardly put it down which is somewhat surprising given that non-fiction is something I struggle to get through. However, Vaillant writes The Golden Spruce like a mystery novel, keeping back key facts and points until he must reveal them, a tactic that I think pays off by the book’s end. The book is about a Golden Spruce tree that lived some 300 years on the Queen Charlotte Islands until it was cut down in a bizarre act of environmental protest by Grant Hadwin in 1997. In the ensuing controversy and leading up to Hadwin’s court date, he disappeared after attempting to solo kayak the Hecate Strait, one of the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable bodies of water. Vaillant uses this mystery to not only give a thoroughly detailed history of the Queen Charlotte Islands, logging practices in British Columbia, and the geography of the Pacific Northwest, but he also gives a sizeable dollop of environmental reflection on our paper-hungry society. Near the end of the book, he writes “most people alive today will witness the end of old-growth – big tree – logging, an industry that has been practised continuously and with undiminished zeal in the Northern Hemisphere for at least five thousand years” (212). This fact was enough to stop me in my tracks: our society is facing multiple crises right now, but the situation with trees seems to be particularly acute. We are quickly approaching the point where we will have completely logged out Canada. And this is no mean feat, because when Europeans first stumbled onto the scene, the continent was largely forested with an incomprehensibly vast systems of trees stretching from the Atlantic right to the Pacific. After this is gone, there really is no where else to go for the wood we need for everything from lumber to paper to any kind of paper product you can think of including cellophane. In a way, it’s like the oil crisis, except we haven’t been using oil for five thousand years. Trees literally have been a key component of all human civilization. Scary stuff indeed.
One of the things that I have really enjoyed in the process of doing this reading challenge is noticing the way certain books line up with each other. In this case, The Golden Spruce is a great counter-part to Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt. Both deal with the logging industry and both share the British Columbia geography. They also both end up at the same conclusion: that we are in deep trouble and it’s not clear what kind of solutions will get us out of this fix. It would be easy to let this problem prevent us from doing anything – call it environmental apathy. Yet, I believe that such intractable problems present an opportunity for thinking up innovative solutions to the problem. These may not be new solutions – I have a sense we are going to look more frequently to the past for solutions to technology-created problems – but they will be solutions that take the long-term into account instead of short-term profit. Of course, this could also be wishful thinking. Capitalism is showing no signs of going away any time soon. Vaillant does a good job in his epilogue showing signs of hope in the Queen Charlottes, and I think we need to focus on these stories rather than being paralyzed by a sense that nothing we do matters.
Overall, I loved this book. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in environmental issues, or anyone living in Canada for that matter. It is exceptionally well-written and not at all preachy (even though this review is …).
Vaillant, John. The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2005. Print.