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  • TITLE: The Golden Spruce
  • AUTHOR: John Vaillant


Eight-hundred years to grow, and twenty-five minutes to put it on the ground. It's sad, but it's a living.

veteran British Columbia logger, p.213



Having lived 25 years in the Pacific Northwest, this is a story close to my heart. I have not experienced the Queen Charlottes and very little of Vancouver Island, but I have walked the rain forests of the Olympics and Cascade forests. There is a nurturance, a blessing to be discovered among those decorous and sedate landscapes not found in predominately pine forests of lower latitudes. It's quiet, it's soft, it's unbelievably green, and it's an accord that always kept me peaceful, calm, and aware of some monumentous yet devilishly-subtle revelation of its nature that I could never quite fully comprehend. Dealing with an acolyte, the forest seemed a place always equitable, charitable, wise. I guess it is best described as a feeling of harmony and repose. I have heard residents call it their cathedral.

And the golden spruceor Kiidk'yaa in native Haida tonguewas something many people considered an alter of sorts. A rare mutation had turned the needles a lively yellow on this 300-year-old, 160-foot tall, sitka spruce close to the banks of the Yakoun River, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada. On January 20, 1997 a well-known and highly-skilled forester named Grant Hadwin, after swimming across the arctic-cold Yakoun in the veil of darkness, took his Stihl 066 and slotted the tree so it would fall in the next strong breeze. A couple of days later, it did.

Apparently, Hadwin felt the general public could not see what was happening to the forest for the trees. Unfortunately, the protest and outrage from Hadwin's act did not fall on government officials and their greasy-hand allocations of cutting permits, or to self-serving lumber companies who saw these "decadent forests"(1) as nothing more than money. No, Hadwin became a pariah for most Northwest communities; shunned, hated, and unharbored. One highfaluting Canadian columnist equated the golden spruce's demise to losing Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Even the Haida indians who started the human history of the area, demanded his head for "a deliberate violation of our cultural history"(p.136).

This is the same indigenous population that was nearly eliminated by 18th Century Europeans.

First of all, these white explorers lusted for sea otter pelts just as their east coast brothers did for the beaver. They encouraged competition between the tribes to the point of warfare which led to the extinction of the northwest sea otter in the 1850s. When these new Nor'westmen seized the land for their governance, they eliminated Potlatch gatherings, making them the natives' sole trading partners. Missionaries burned their totem poles and kidnapped their children and sent them to residential schools to be assimilated into the dominating culture. Then, of course, there was the gift of smallpox, killing 9 out of every 10 Haidas.

By modern times, most of the easily-logged valleys and plains had been denuded, so companies such as MacMillan Bloedal(2) with their contracts, deeds, and permits, were slowing down their onslaught, forced to take the less-desirable trees along the slopes and mountain tops. In fact, Grant Hadwin had a role in this devastation, as he was considered one of the best road scouts into the forests to lay out the way for the machinery to find the trees. And what glorious tools were brought along: the chainsaw slumped the axe's heavy work, the bulldozer, log skidder, and self-loading logging trucks. By the end of the 20th century, technology made it possible for 3 men to take a 200-ton tree, drop it, and pack it off to a sawmill in less than an hour. At the beginning of the century, "it would have taken a dozen men a day to accomplish the same thing"(p.219).

But forget for a moment Hadwin's certainly-debatable protest actions that were meant solely for the logging industry, and consider what man has taken away from this earth, forever. 90% of the old growth forests are gone in America, 60% in Canada. Sure, those trees played a major part in "the taming of the West" for those so-lauded souls who held Manifest Destiny as a commandment. In this very important position, those remaining Western trees "represent the bones of our collective body"(p.83). Certainly there is squandering when such abundance is present, or, as President Regan supposedly said as late as the 1960s, "If you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen them all"(3). And this is what a Haida logger said about the industry in mid-20th century: "They bullshitted us. They said when we finished logging [the Queen Charlottes] we could start over. . . A lot of mistakes were made; the government didn't keep an eye on the big companies"(p.114).

Did Grant have a genuine epiphany out there alone among the ferns, moss, majestic treesall glistening from 180 inches of rain a year? I don't know, but it appears he caught his spirituality around the same time people find their mid-life crisis. He certainly realized the importance of ancient woodlands and it wasn't in their devastation. He wrote letters, he started manifestos and petitions; everybody around was aware of his new "eco warrior" posturings. Murdering the golden spruce was not an act driven by insanityit was a rending communique from a vanquished soul desperate to stop what he perceived as an event horizon against Nature herself. Like Pope Francis said recently, "We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves." Intuitively, Grant also saw the arrogance and false eminence of the woodcutter as "the pointman for Western civilization [who has] imposed a tidy 'rational' order on nature's apparent chaos"(p.85) and made it slick for future human habitation and endeavors. As a being so attuned to the woods, he wanted them thought of as sacred, not "savage and dreary" and "even more grim and wild"(p.86), as even early fervent eulogist Henry David Thoreau called wilderness. Or, falling prey to this "enemy to be overcome"(p.89) attitude with the following logic of making old grown trees into millions of board feet of money. When claiming resources that's considered a necessity, it's easy to imagine trees like air and water: "free and infinite"(p.86).

Except they are not, and Grant Hadwin's act was like a doogie in the offering plate proving it.


We tend to focus on the individual trees like the Golden Spruce while the rest of the forests are being slaughtered. Everybody's supposed to focus on that and forget all the damage behind it. When someone attacks one of these freaks you'd think it was a holocaust, but the real holocaust is somewhere else. Right now, people are focusing all their anger on me when they should focus it on the destruction going on around them.

Grant Hadwin, Queen Charlotte Islands' Observer


Grant was arrested, of course. He made bail, trial was set, and, since he lived on the mainland, he decided to kayak to the island courthouse because he was afraid of being physically waylaid and harmed mingling with the area's disgusted public. That would mean he'd have to cross Hecate Strait, "arguably the most dangerous body of water on the coast"(p.160), in February. Stories of death and destruction in these waters abound. But, all agreed, Grant was no ordinary man and if anyone could make it, he could.

Well, he didn't, apparently. His kayak and some camping equipment was found on an island to the north, three months after Grant's launch. The search had been off for awhile, and his discovered belongings just added more speculation to his disappearance(4). Maybe the epitaph here is best said in the words of W. H. Auden, from Bucolics II: Woods: "A culture is no better than its woods."

And maybe, just maybe, somewhere out there Grant and D.B. Cooper are sitting around a campfire, passin' a bottle and laughing their asses off.


1) Besides being the best source for knot-free, prime board lumber, ancient trees are long past their rapid growth stage and rot is often present. The logging industry wants them out and down. The clearcut allows for planting of "tree farms", those biological deserts void of any diversity and treated like modern retail outlets: volume and speed produce the most profit. "Get that old shit off the landscape so I can get a decent crop out there!"(p.225).

2) Today MacMillan Bloedel is part of Weyerhaeuser, controller of over 6 million acres of timberland.


4) Two stubborn facts lead toward the conclusion that his busted-up kayak was a ruse: he purchased $300 worth of food before leaving, and his axe was found above tide line. Remember, Grant, "with very few resources, could be dropped anywhere on earth and come up smelling like a rose," said Cory Delves, one of Grant's former supervisors (p.209). Or maybe someone picked him off with a scope rifle. I guess not all of us want Grant to have made it somehow, and is incognito somewhere else.


text only © copyright 10/07/2015 by Larry Crawford

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