I have been thinking about trees quite a lot recently. Perhaps that is because the massive trees surrounding my home are pictures of incredible beauty as they groan under the weight of winter snowfalls, or perhaps it is because I just read the novel “The Overstory”, by Richard Powers, a love story to trees, or perhaps because I’ve just written a long essay which reflects on my own lifelong love affair with trees for my followers on Patreon (link below).
Myth, Madness & Greed
One thing I didn’t mention in my Patreon essay is a book I learned about at a reading more than 10 years ago, “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness & Greed” by John Vaillant.
You might have heard of the Golden Spruce. One in a million, a freak mutation, a tree more than 200 years old, a Sitka spruce with a rare genetic defect that produced only golden needles that was cut down in 1997 by an enigmatic character called Grant Hadwin.
Hadwin wanted to draw attention (ironically) to what the logging industry was doing to the last wilderness of old growth trees.
His logic, twisted as it was, centered on the fact that all around the protected pocket which contained the Golden Spruce, clear-cutting of the ancient forest was going on unhindered. It was only this twisted genetic ‘freak’ of a tree, apparently, that was deemed worthy of protection.
So, to show what other people felt about the daily devastation meted out to other, “normal” trees on a daily basis, Hadwin destroyed this utterly unique beautiful being which had a spirit and a name and was – in an unprecedented move – given a “funeral” when it fell.
A ghost held by the spirit of the tree he killed
Hadwin himself was a logger-turned-activist, his own motivations conflicted and complex. His own fate remains uncertain; the kayak in which he set off into a winter storm in the British Columbia waterways, in order to reach a court for a mandated court appearance connected to his act of destruction, was found some four months later on a beach upon quite a different island. The kayak was in pristine condition; his sleeping bag, still inside, without rips or tears; all supplies still intact. He may be dead. He may still be out there somewhere, a sort of Flying Dutchman, a ghost held to these shores by the spirit of the tree he killed.
The death of the Golden Spruce appears to have had some positive repercussions, in that local people (the Haida tribe) and the white loggers who work the forests of British Columbia seem to have woken up to the potential catastrophe of the total destruction of the last temperate rainforest stands left on the planet, and have stood up – together – to the megacorporations whose intention seems to be to log every last old-growth tree they can gain access to.
Yes, I live in the modern world where a certain lifestyle is expected and demanded; yes, I have written a megabook with 500+ pages a copy, and yes I know that the paper didn’t come from Mars; yes, I know that in order for some to survive others must be sacrificed (peace, G’kar of Babylon 5, who first spoke those words) – and yes, I am just as conflicted about the whole thing as anyone else is.
I wept when I first heard of the death of the Golden Spruce; I wept when Vaillant read an account of it from his book; and yes, dammit, I also mourn those other trees, the ones with no distinguishing features, the ones that grew in quiet obscurity for a thousand years and who should have fallen to no chainsaw just to produce planks or dining rooms tables for the hungry consumer.
The lost forests
We will probably never see the likes of those trees again. I miss their presence in this world. Our grandchildren might well believe that the natural state of the Pacific Northwest mountains is something like the Highlands of Scotland – and why not? Those Highlands were once thickly covered with forest, as was central Europe. Who remembers those trees now?
The book addresses very important questions but I don’t know if there are any real possible answers. We have moved far past the point of no return, and have been beyond it for some time. But at least the spirit of the lost Golden Spruce has found a voice, and a story which it is uniquely qualified to tell. It deserves to be read, and widely.
Oh, and the book itself was printed, as the author said he insisted, on recycled paper.
Book details: The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant published by W. W. Norton & Company.