The Golden Spruce

Two hundred years ago, on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia, the forests were dense with trees more than a hundred feet tall and nearly twenty feet in diameter. Among them grew one beautifully abnormal tree: a Sitka spruce whose needles were golden instead of the usual green. The tree was important to the Haida, the fishing people who lived on the islands, and they called it K’iid K’iyaas, “Elder Spruce Tree.” Even when Europeans discovered that the trees of the islands were useful for ships’ masts, and then for lumber, and when they began to clear-cut huge swaths of the forest, the Golden Spruce was left alone.

Over time, the Haida were largely absorbed into the larger Canadian culture, losing many of their stories and artifacts. The trees, too, were disappearing, and author John Vaillant gives a fascinating close-up account of the dangerous work of felling and transporting trees. One man, Grant Hadwin, was an expert logger, until he came through a “spiritual emergency” and became an anti-logging activist instead. In a dramatic gesture of protest, to call attention to the destruction of the forests, he cut the Golden Spruce down.

Readers who come to this work having heard about the felling of the tree from news accounts will be surprised at how little of the book is taken up with the incident. Hadwin's mysterious actions are related with as much detail and insight as one might wish for, but it is a brief story. Vaillant rounds out The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed with the history of the Haida and of the logging industry. Ironically, the loss of the Golden Spruce provided a period of unity for Haida and Europeans in the area, as all came together to mourn the tree that had been so important to all of them.