7 May 2020

The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

I love trying to decide on what book I should read next ... I always overbuy and still have books sitting on my shelf from three Christmases ago. It doesn't mean I don't want to read them, I just never know what I'm going to feel like reading after finishing one book. I've spent the last year alternating between fiction and nonfiction and that's my only real guiding rule. But I had to break it and read two nonfictions back-to-back because Ben shamed me into reading The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed which he bought me for Christmas two years ago.

Ben picked out two books for me that year, with a mountaineering one (Touching the Void) being the second selection. I love to space out my Everest books (Into Thin Air, Dark Summit) so decided I would start with The Golden Spruce. John Vaillant's book has been something I've been eyeing in Indigo for a few years. The title grabbed my attention and I liked that it was a Canada Reads book and about a Canadian issue.

[...] They offer a graphic measure of the true value of wood, a substance whose importance in our history and evolution is almost impossible to overestimate."

The "golden spruce" was a tree in British Columbia that literally looked golden. When I googled photos of it I was honestly shocked by how stark it stood out against the regular forest. The beautiful tree was cut down by an eccentric ex-logger who felt he was making a political statement. Vaillant covers the importance of the tree to the Indigenous communities in the area and how devastated they were when it was destroyed.

The first third of the book is dedicated to the history of the forestry industry in Canada, specifically on the west coast. I will say that this section was very dense and while there were a few facts I found really interesting/quotable, it felt like a bit of a slog.

I loved learning about the different types of jobs in forestry (back in the day) and what kind of personalities gravitated to them, but hated hearing about how some of the technologies have changed. My favourite position to read about was for "fallers," the individuals who had this insane sense of space and how a tree might come down. The job was incredibly dangerous and even though there were plenty of fatalities you finished the book surprised there weren't even more.

The nonmeasurable, nonintellecutal awareness - what some call 'bush sense' - is probably what keeps woodsmen alive. Not only will a good faller have a better feel than most for how a tree will behave in a given situation, he may - like a gifted athlete - also have more 'time' in crucial moments to take in and process information and then determine the correct course of action - not by thinking, but by intuiting at a hyper extrasensory level (although dumb luck is a factor too)."

author John Vaillant
Vaillant was pretty forthcoming with how dangerous these careers could be. He recounted a few grisly scenes with one I can't forget ... a man who got trapped between a bunch of logs and spent hours screaming for his mother to "have mercy" and bash him over the head with a rock.

And loggers have everyone beat when it comes to variety: pilots generally crash and fishermen generally drown, but loggers are killed and maimed in a chilling assortment of ways that combine aspects of industrial accidents, warfare, and torture."

It was also pretty depressing to get an idea of how much deforestation we are responsible for, and how many animals we eradicated in the process. Vaillant describes all the cute characteristics of sea otters ... about how they love to play and will often float on their backs holding hands for hours ... he ends with "apparently, they were incredibly easy to kill." Again, this was the area of the book I found to be both interesting and incredibly boring.

Vaillant moves on from the logging industry to talk about the former-forestry-worker who "felled" the Golden Spruce. I thought Vaillant did a good job with Grant Hadwin's character description ... he really makes you understand Hadwin's family history of mental illness and why he felt vindicated in his decision to cut down the golden spruce. Hadwin's hatred of the forestry industry is well documented - he wrote plenty of letters to all levels of government - but his personal demons are better mapped out by Vaillant's interviews with family members and an ex girlfriend. I'm a little disturbed to say I thought Hadwin was hot when I saw photos of him.

This was the information that sort of "woke me back up" in my reading of The Golden Spruce but once it got to setting the trial I lost interest again. This is an interesting story but there are times that it gets lost in the writing ... too much detail about one thing, not enough about another.

The Golden Spruce
One thing I wish there was more of was a history of these sorts of crimes. It's difficult to wrap your mind around how important this tree was to the Haida people, and an official criminal trial almost seems extreme. Vaillant does quickly mention a 1989 case where a man named Paul Cullen poisoned a 500-year-old oak tree in Texas. He claimed his motive was unrequited love and the city's residents erupted.

I'll end this review by saying I'm not really sure why this didn't work for me. I think I wanted to be more interested in the story then I actually was. I'm 90 per cent sure Ben won't read this review, but even if he does I hope he isn't offended. I know I'll love the mountaineering book.

1 comment:

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