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

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Overview

"John Vaillant takes us into the heart of North America's last great forest, where trees grow to eighteen feet in diameter, sunlight never touches the ground, and the chainsaws are always at work." "When a shattered kayak and camping gear are found on an uninhabited island, they reignite a mystery surrounding a shocking act of protest. Five months earlier, logger-turned-activist Grant Hadwin had plunged naked into a river in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands, towing a chainsaw. When his night's work was done, a unique Sitka spruce, 165
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The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed

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Overview

"John Vaillant takes us into the heart of North America's last great forest, where trees grow to eighteen feet in diameter, sunlight never touches the ground, and the chainsaws are always at work." "When a shattered kayak and camping gear are found on an uninhabited island, they reignite a mystery surrounding a shocking act of protest. Five months earlier, logger-turned-activist Grant Hadwin had plunged naked into a river in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands, towing a chainsaw. When his night's work was done, a unique Sitka spruce, 165 feet tall and covered with luminous golden needles, teetered on its stump. Two days later it fell." The tree, a fascinating puzzle to scientists, was sacred to the Haida, a fierce seafaring tribe based in the Queen Charlottes. Vaillant recounts the bloody history of the Haida and the early fur trade, and provides harrowing details of the logging industry, whose omnivorous violence would claim both Hadwin and the golden spruce.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"There was only one giant golden spruce in the world, and, until a man named Grant Hadwin took a chainsaw to it, in 1997, it had stood for more than three hundred years in a steadily shrinking patch of old-growth forest in Port Clements, on the banks of the Yakoun River, in the Queen Charlotte's Islands." Thus began a 2002 New Yorker article by John Vaillaint. From the acorn of that story grew this truly arresting book, which charts the intersection of a scientific mystery and a human enigma. The golden spruce was unique, the outgrowth of a one-in-a-billion seedling that lacked like-giving chlorophyll yet somehow survived. Unlike the tree, which was worshipped as a deity by local Indians, the man was a lone wolf, an angry survivalist stuck in the wrong century. Their dramatic, doubly doomed conjunction imbues Golden Spruce with a tragic significance.
Entertainment Weekly
“Worthy of comparison to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. . . . A story of the heartbreakingly complex relationship between man and nature.”
William Grimes - New York Times
“Absolutely spellbinding.”
New York Times
Absolutely spellbinding.— William Grimes
Sebastian Junger
“John Vaillant has written a work that will change how many people think about nature.”
Frank Clifford - Los Angeles Times
“A haunting tale of a good man driven mad by environmental devastation.... [Grant Hadwin's] appalling tree surgery is as vividly wrought as one of Patrick O'Brian's shipboard amputations.”
Donna Seaman - Booklist
“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.”
Bruce Barcott - Outside
“Vaillant interlaces a well-reported murder mystery with elegantly spun cultural and native history, conjuring the spooky mood of the Northwest forests with the clarity of David Guterson or Jonathan Raban.”
John Marshall - Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“Make some more space on the shelf of Essential Northwest Books. John Vaillant has crafted a debut book that is a stunning look at this region's history and environment.”
William Grimes
The Golden Spruce has architectural weaknesses, but Mr. Vaillant is absolutely spellbinding when conjuring up the world of the golden spruce. His descriptions of the Queen Charlotte Islands, with their misty, murky light and hushed, cathedral-like forests, are haunting, and he does full justice to the noble, towering trees - the Ent-like sequoias, Sitkas, red cedars and Douglas firs - that once stretched, in an unbroken line, from Kodiak Island down to Mendocino. The treacherous waters of the Hecate Strait, which divides the Charlottes from the mainland, inspire some memorable, rip-snorting passages. The chapters on logging, painstakingly researched, make high drama out of the grueling, highly dangerous job of bringing down some of the biggest trees on earth.
— The New York Times
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. Agent, Stuart Krichevsky. 8-city author tour. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT - Nola Theiss
The golden spruce of the title was a giant tree that grew on one of the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, Canada. In 1997, a logger named Grant Hadwin, who became a rabid environmentalist, cut down the tree that served as a unique and sacred symbol of the culture and history of the Haida Indians as well as a living representation of what we have lost through the greed and destructiveness of the logging industry. Hadwin's act was meant to show the world what it was losing by destroying the very thing he wanted to protect. Soon after he mysteriously disappeared while on a kayaking trip. Vaillant describes the life of Hadwin to try to understand his actions, but he also uses this strange act and disappearance as the centerpiece of his story of the Northwest: its history of violence, culture clashes and quest for wealth. He also tells of the troubling relationship man has with nature and the impact of man's ability to destroy that which seems larger and more powerful than himself. The book is filled with the history and culture of the area and its people and is filled with thoughtful insights.
Library Journal
Vaillant covers a real mystery: why logger-turned-activist Grant Hadwin chainsawed a gorgeous Sitka spruce that stood 165 feet tall-and then disappeared. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Nature essay meets true-crime tale. Canadian journalist Vaillant's debut begins with a mystery: A beachcombing biologist turns up a broken kayak on the shore of an uninhabited Alaskan island and, lucky day, begins to disassemble it for its parts, only to discover scattered camping gear and other equipment that pointed to either foul play or terrible accident. That suspenseful setup is left hanging as Vaillant switches into ecologist mode, explaining the dynamics of the Northwest's rainforests, where "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." On the rainy Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, a region of astoundingly tall trees, one stood taller than all others; born around 1700, this "golden spruce" had found a place at the heart of the native universe and had been set aside by generations of loggers who had worked the country. Having provided a history of logging and an appreciation of Haida lifeways, the author moves toward its strange center: the tale of an "upper-middle-class prep school refugee" who had found something approaching refuge in the remote woods and become a master logger, widely praised for the quality of his work. "He was opinionated and eccentric, but he was also a strenuous provider," Vaillant writes, a sober and industrious fellow who snapped; he now became an anti-logging activist, and somewhere along the way, for reasons of his own, he hit on an idea to commit an act of eco-sabotage that would call attention to the plight of the old-growth forest. Vaillant's start-and-stop narrative yields whiplash here and there, but he ablycovers all the bases: the logger's actions may have been local, but they had wide-ranging implications, and Vaillant pauses to consider them all. One of them is surprising: the tree, once little known, "has become the most widely dispersed Sitka spruce on earth." Vaillant's tale of how it got to be so is of unfailing interest. Author tour
From the Publisher
“Balanced and gracefully written. . . .Vaillant explores the subtleties of [Hadwin’s] inner conflicts. . . . Vaillant’s multi-layered book is a rich investigation of all the factors that went into Hadwin’s act of arboreal vandalism.”
Edmonton Journal

“[A] sense of the rank, dark underbelly of the [Queen Charlotte] islands permeates the book, whose engrossing narrative passes through the often lethal life of the logger, to the bloody battles of the Haida and the ravaging of the forest itself by a detached corporate entity unconcerned with the past or future.”
Times Colonist (Victoria)

“A beautifully rendered account of cultural clash and environmental obsession.”
Maclean’s

"A page-turner as dramatic as a novel. . . . The story is as majestic as the golden spruce, and we are fortunate to have a writer of Vaillant’s exceptional skill to tell the tale."
Vancouver Sun

"A scrupulously researched narrative worthy of comparison to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild."
Entertainment Weekly (Editor’s Choice)

"Compelling."
Toro

"Vaillant writes eloquently of West Coast rainforests, quirky characters drawn to a dangerous but lucrative life in logging and Hadwin, who disappears into the BC archipelago, presumed dead. We also learn a great deal about forest ecology and the crime of clear-cutting."
Canadian Geographic

"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. . . . Vaillant paints a haunting portrait of man's vexed relationship with nature."
Publishers Weekly

"John Vaillant has written a work that will change how many people think about nature. His story is about one man and one tree, but it is much more than that. Logging is a brutally dangerous profession that owns the dubious distinction of having killed and maimed even more men than commercial fishing. Loggers’ work is both heroic and sad, and only a writer of Vaillant’s skill could capture both aspects of their dying world in such a powerful way."
—Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm

“Compelling. . . . Handily marries reportage with keen historical insight. . . . [Like] Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger, Vaillant deftly peels away the surface story to explore the psychology below. . . . An intense mystery and a sweeping history, The Golden Spruce makes for a terrific read.”
—Robert Wiersema, National Post

“Fascinating. . . . Both a gripping wilderness thriller and a sharply focused summary of forest politics, Queen Charlotte Islands history, and Pacific Northwest biology. Essential reading.”
The Georgia Straight

“Vaillant writes eloquently of West Coast rainforests, quirky characters drawn to a dangerous but lucrative life in logging and Hadwin, who disappears into the BC archipelago, presumed dead. We also learn a great deal about forest ecology and crime of clear-cutting.”
Canadian Geographic

“In rich, painterly prose, [Vaillant] evokes the lush natural world where the golden spruce took root and thrived, the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. . . . Vaillant is absolutely spellbinding when conjuring up the world of the golden spruce. His descriptions of the Queen Charlotte Islands, with their misty, murky light and hushed, cathedral-like forests, are haunting, and he does full justice to the noble, towering trees. . . . The chapters on logging, painstakingly researched, make high drama out of the grueling, highly dangerous job of bringing down some of the biggest trees on earth.”
The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393328646
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/17/2006
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 204,831
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

John Vaillant has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, and Men’s Journal among others. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and children. Of particular interest to Vaillant are stories that explore collisions between human ambition and the natural world. His work in this and other fields has taken him to five continents and five oceans. The Golden Spruce is his first book.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue: Driftwood

Small things are hard to find in Alaska, so when a marine biologist named Scott Walker stumbled across a wrecked kayak on an uninhabited island fifty kilometres north of the Canadian border, he considered himself lucky. The coastal boundary where Alaska and British Columbia meet and overlap is a jagged four-way seam that joins, not just a pair of vast – and vastly different – countries, but two equally large and divergent wildernesses. To the west is the gaping expanse of the North Pacific Ocean, and to the east is the infinity of mountains that forms the heart of what some in the Northwest call Cascadia. The coastline where these worlds meet and bleed into one another is sparsely inhabited and often obscured by fog, the mountains sheared off by low-lying clouds. At sea level, it is a long and convoluted network of deep fjords, narrow channels, and rock-bound islands. It is a world unto itself, separated from the rest of North America by the Coast Mountains, whose ragged peaks carry snow for most of the year. In some places their westward faces plunge into the sea so abruptly that a boat can be fifteen metres from shore and still have a hundred and fifty metres of water beneath her keel. The region is sporadically patrolled, being governed, for the most part, by seven-metre tides and processions of sub-Arctic storms that spiral down from the Gulf of Alaska to batter the long, tree-stubbled lip of the continent. Even on calm days, the coastline may be shrouded in a veil of mist as three thousand kilometres of uninterrupted Pacific swell pummels itself to vapour against the stubborn shore.

The combination of high winds, frequent fog, and tidal surges that can run over fifteen knots makes this coast a particularly lethal one, and when boats or planes or people go missing here, they are usually gone for good. If they are found, it is often by accident a long time later, and usually in a remote location like Edge Point where Scott Walker anchored his seventeen-foot skiff on a fair June afternoon in 1997 while doing a survey of the local salmon fishery. Edge Point is not so much a beach as an alpine boulder field that, at this point in geologic time, happens to be at sea level. It lies at the southern tip of Mary Island, a low hump of forest and stone that forms one side of a rocky, tide-scoured channel called Danger Passage; the nearest land is Danger Island, and neither place was idly named.

Like much of the Northwest Coast, Edge Point is strewn with driftwood logs and whole trees that may be a metre and a half in diameter and stacked twenty deep. Burnished to silver, this mass of wood, much of which has broken loose from log booms and transport barges, lies heaped as high as polar winds and Pacific waves can possibly throw it. Even if a man-made object should make it ashore here in one piece, it won’t last long after it arrives; within the course of a few tide cycles, it will be hammered to pieces between the heaving logs and the immovable boulders beneath them. In the case of a fibreglass boat – such as a kayak – the destruction is usually so complete that it makes the craft hard to recognize, much less find. When a fibreglass yacht was found in a location similar to Edge Point three years after it had disappeared without issuing a distress signal, the largest surviving piece was half a metre long and that was only because it had been blown up into the bushes; the rest of the sixty-foot sloop had been reduced to fragments the size of playing cards. This is why Scott Walker considered himself fortunate: he wasn’t too late; parts of the kayak might still be salvageable.

The beaches here serve as a random archive of human endeavour where a mahogany door from a fishing boat, the remains of a World War II airplane, and a piece from a fallen satellite are all equally plausible finds. Each artifact carries with it a story, though the context rarely allows for a happy ending; in most cases, it is only the scavenger who benefits. Scott Walker has been scavenging things that others have lost here for more than twenty-five years, and he has acquired an informal expertise in the forensics of flotsam and jetsam. If the found object is potentially useful or sufficiently interesting, and if it is small enough to lift, the beachcomber’s code will apply. Walker was abiding by this code when he happened upon the broken kayak and began tearing it apart for the stainless steel hardware.

But when Walker lifted his head from his work he noticed some things that gave him pause. Strewn farther down the tide line were personal effects: a raincoat, a backpack, an axe – and it was then that it occurred to him that his prize might not have simply washed off some beach or boat dock down the coast. The more he noticed – a cookstove, a shaving kit, a life jacket – the narrower the gap between his own good luck and someone else’s misfortune became. This wasn’t shaping up to be a clean find. Walker deduced from the heavier objects’ position lower down in the intertidal zone that the kayak had washed ashore and broken up on a low tide. The lighter objects, including large pieces of the kayak itself, had been carried farther up the beach by subsequent high tides and wind, and it was these that set off alarm bells in Walker’s head. Despite being wrapped around a log, the sleeping bag was still in near-perfect condition; there were no tears or stains, no fading from the salt and sun; the life jacket, too, looked fresh off the rack. Even the cookstove appeared salvageable; wedged between rocks at the water’s edge, it showed only minor rusting. Winter storm season, the most effective destroyer on the coast, had only just ended, so this wreck had to be recent, thought Walker, perhaps only a couple of weeks old. He debated throwing the stove and sleeping bag into his skiff, but then, after considering some possible accident scenarios and recalculating the uncomfortable distance between a stranger’s horror and his own delight, he decided to leave these things where they lay. Besides, he thought, they might be needed for evidence. No one would miss the stainless steel bolts, though, so he pocketed them and headed down the beach, looking for a body.

Walker never found one, and it was only through the Alaska state troopers in Ketchikan, fifty kilometres to the north, that he learned the story behind his chance discovery. The kayak and its owner, a Canadian timber surveyor and expert woodsman named Grant Hadwin, had been missing – not for weeks, but for months. This man, it seemed, was on the run, wanted for a strange and unprecedented crime.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What would you say to Grant Hadwin, if you could meet him?

2. Do you agree with John Vaillant when he says that “It seems that in order to succeed – or even function – in this world, a certain tolerance for moral and cognitive dissonance is necessary”? (page 220 of hardcover)

3. Which parts of the book do you find most stimulating? Why? Do you have any criticisms of The Golden Spruce?

4. Do you find The Golden Spruce to be a dispiriting or inspiring read? What do you leave it thinking?

5. Discuss The Golden Spruce as a Canadian book: what does it tell us about our experience of nature, our economy, and how we see ourselves?

6. Would you recommend The Golden Spruce to someone else? Why, or why not?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 18 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2012

    Captivating Story

    Never would I have thought that I could be captivated with a book dedicated to a tree but the author takes you through from ancient history to the present day. It is a story of Native American stories, beliefs, and history and on into the logging industry and conservation. All along however there is a criminal story going on in the background and ocasionally in the fore front. This book could be a novel if the story weren't so true. This book held me captive for four solid days of reading. Vaillant has done a tremendous amount of research. His writing skills compare to those of some of the best history writeds of the day.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2007

    A reviewer

    This book is excellent, it surveys not only the particular event of the tree being cut, but also a complete history of logging and man's connections to the woods around him. I loved this book and would recommend it to history buffs and conservationists alike

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2007

    Moving and thought provoking.

    Like Krakauer John Valliant captures the restless nature of men for whom the earth has become too small. Will there still be men like Grant Hadwin on this earth in hundred years? I doubt it. Grant was as unique and strange as the tree he killed. Both stood out among their peers, both had to adapt to survive in their environments. But while the golden spruce became healthy and was loved, Hadwin descended into madness and alienated people. Did he see a kindred spirit in the tree? He saw it as sickly yet celebrated. Was he jealous? More important than psychosis of Hadwin and his horrible deed is the history of conquest, logging and greed in a remote area of British Columbia. Valliant's detailed writing paints a tragic portrait of the clear cutting of one of the last great forests on earth. The dry data on board feet shipped, acreage felled and square miles decimated are mind numbing. To read this book is to understand that humankind is totally insane. Just like the evil Hadwin we are hell bent on destroying everything we love.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2006

    Environmentalists must read this book!

    This book contains a history of logging, an environmentalist in the making, a story of greed and a tree that binds all of these elements. I like the way Vaillant weaves the story of a people and a tree through a fascinating history of the Northwest. This well documented work contains all the elements of a great mystery.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2005

    A Northwest Must read

    If you live in the Pacific Northwest or you just love Ecotopia, this is a must read. Its descriptions will bring you to the Queen Charlotte Islands. You will feel the chill of the cold Pacific and the mystery of the mist that enshrouds and nourishes the most beautiful part of North America.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2012

    The Golden Spruce is a must read

    Do you love trees ..... absolutely fascinating slow boil of history, trees and a crazy man ... or was he?

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 22, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Anyone interested in the environment will thoroughly enjoy this well-researched and written book.

    This book is a wealth of information on a time of growth in the US and puts a piercing spotlight on our methods of logging to satisfy our voracious need for lumber. It really made me realize how little logging was regulated and how much damage has been done by clearcutting and machinery. The Golden Spruce was a lovely, one-of-a-kind spruce in Northern British Columbia which was revered by the Haida people. It was destroyed by one man whose style reminded me of Ted Kazinski's response to what he perceived as society needing a wake-up call. I am so glad I read it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2005

    facinating and enjoyable

    This is part science, part cultural history and entirely interesting. Who would have guessed logging and sociology and nature could be intertwined in a story so well? And a true one at that. I believe anyone with even a remote interest in the Pacific Northwest or forests, or Native Americans will find this book unforgettable. I hope the author writes more.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2014

    A Gem for Nature Lovers

    Vaillant has become one of my favorite authors

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