Killing the Golden Spruce The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed tells the story of a sacred tree, a logger-turned environmentalist and a shocking act of environmental protest in the woods of British Columbia. Michele Norris talks with author John Vaillant.
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Killing the Golden Spruce

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Killing the Golden Spruce

Killing the Golden Spruce

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Along the Pacific coastline, in British Columbia, at the rugged boundary where ocean and earth meet, stands Canada's rapidly dwindling old-growth forest. That's the setting for John Vaillant's latest novel, "The Golden Spruce."

Mr. JOHN VAILLANT (Author, "The Golden Spruce"): (Reading) `A coastal forest can be an awesome place to behold: huge, holy and eternal-feeling, like a branched and needled Notre Dame. Underfoot is a leg-breaking tangle of roots and branches, and every 15 meters or so your way is blocked by moss-covered walls of fallen trees that may be taller than you and dozens of meters long. In here, boundaries between life and death, between one species and the next blur and blend. Everything is being used as a launching pad by something else. Everyone wants a piece of the sky.'

NORRIS: That's John Vaillant reading from "The Golden Spruce." The book tells the story of a shocking act that took place in those woods in 1997, the destruction of a towering sacred Sitka spruce. The Sitka, a genetic mutant, was the only known tree of its kind.

Mr. VAILLANT: It was 165 feet tall. It had a trunk as wide as a car, about 7 feet through. And it was covered in luminous golden needles. It was a startling presence in the forest. And I've seen aerial photos taken from 20,000 feet, and you can pick it out of the wilderness.

NORRIS: And it carried a lot of symbolism.

Mr. VAILLANT: Very much so. It meant a lot of different things to different people. The Queen Charlotte Islands, which lie 50 miles off the north coast of BC, are essentially a moated rain forest, and living out there are the Haida Indians and also a number of white loggers. And the tree was sacred to the Haida. They saw it as a human being who'd been transformed. And to give you an idea of the significance of this tree, there's an infinity of trees out there, and it was the only one that the Haida saw fit to name. But, likewise, the logging community near which the tree stood had also embraced the tree, and it was kind of a mascot for them.

NORRIS: So your book centers around two extraordinary characters, if we can actually call the tree a character. But it very much has a life of its own in this story. And the other central character is this legendary logger turned activist named Grant Hadwin. And, in some sense, the two characters had a lot in common. They could both be described as freaks of nature.

Mr. VAILLANT: Yeah. I see both of them as organic outgrowths of their environments, and Grant Hadwin was a third-generation British Columbian. Both sets of his grandparents came West to homestead and essentially cash in on the timber bonanza that was well under way at the turn of the century in BC. And Hadwin grew up in this and in this mind-set, and he apprenticed himself to his uncle at the age of 16, in the '60s, and embraced the industry wholeheartedly. And then he had an awakening in the forest in the early '70s, and he could see the end coming.

NORRIS: But before that, he was someone who built quite a reputation--I kept reading stories about his feats in the woods. And I wondered...


NORRIS: ...`Is this really possible? Did this man really do this?'

Mr. VAILLANT: People who knew him intimately described him as indestructible. He was very, very comfortable being out in the bush for weeks at a time on his own with very little. And his cold-water swimming prowess was the stuff of legend. He'd spent 15 minutes in the Yukon River when it was -30 degrees, you know, essentially a fatal situation, and yet he came out none the worse for wear.

NORRIS: These two characters come together in a tragic set of circumstances on the night of January 20th, 1997. Tell us what happens on that night.

Mr. VAILLANT: Grant Hadwin made his way out to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and he loaded a small chain saw, gas, fuel oil, wedges into garbage bags that he then inflated. In the middle of the night, he went down to the banks of the Yakoun River, which is the largest river in the archipelago. And he swam across this river in the darkness in January, climbed up the other bank, unloaded his gear and proceeded to cut through the golden spruce. And he left it standing. He wedged it up, and he planned the cut in such a way that the prevailing winds, which come from the south end, would cause it to fall across the river toward the tourist trail that led into the tree. It was a very popular tourist site as well.

NORRIS: Hadwin was--he was an experienced, even legendary, timber scout. He was an avid outdoorsman and passionate environmentalist. Why would he do something like this, destroy the thing he loved the most?

Mr. VAILLANT: It's not something we can really look at in isolation. You know, you have to see a guy who went into the woods at 16, who was having misgivings about timber practices from the age of 17 onwards. And so when he got out to the Charlottes to Haida Gwaii and saw this tree--this tree stood on an enormous timber lease held by what was then the country's biggest timber company, MacMillan Bloedel, which has since been bought by Weyerhaeuser. And he knew this tree had been saved by MacMillan Bloedel, and I think what he saw was, `If this is the only tree you care about, then I'm going to cut it down, so you can see how I feel and how so many other people feel about these other forests that are being cut down without a thought.'

NORRIS: What was the reaction to the killing of the spruce?

Mr. VAILLANT: The reaction was extraordinary and, I think, unanticipated by him. People were horrified because I think they'd seen this tree as inviolable. You know, it was just--it had been there for 300 years. It was in a secure location. Who would do such a thing? And so there was this incredible outpouring of grief and community concern, and a funeral was held for the tree. Hundreds of people attended this funeral. They had speakers, microphones, music. It was an extraordinary event.

NORRIS: Your story is not necessarily a whodunit because we know who's responsible for this act, but it's still very much a cliffhanger. At the end we don't know what happened to Grant Hadwin.

Mr. VAILLANT: No, we don't. He confessed to his crime. He was charged with indictable criminal mischief, which is a felony, and he was ordered to appear in court in the islands, 50 miles off the coast. He was afraid to go on the ferry 'cause people had been speaking openly about lynching him. And so he decided to kayak across Hecate Strait, the channel that separates the islands from the mainland, in the middle of winter. And it's an extraordinarily dangerous body of water. He set off, paddled directly into a storm, and he appeared to be heading for Alaska, but it's not clear whether he was making a run for it or if he was island-hopping over to the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii.

For months later a wrecked kayak and all its contents were found on an uninhabited Alaskan island. And the strange thing about this wreckage, which was proven to be Hadwin's, was that it was in near-perfect condition, despite lying on a very exposed beach with active logs bouncing over it with every tide cycle. And despite that, the life jacket looked as if it had just come out of a showroom. So there's four months unaccounted for, and nobody knows.

NORRIS: Still a lot of mystery surrounding Grant Hadwin.

Mr. VAILLANT: Very much so.

NORRIS: How is he viewed by environmentalists, by Indians, by those who live there in the Pacific Northwest? Has he become some sort of John Henry mythic character?

Mr. VAILLANT: He's kind of radioactive. I don't think anybody really wants to touch him because, even to this day, the loss of that tree really, really affects people. And yet there are also some who understood and even sympathized with what he did.

NORRIS: There are efforts to grow another golden spruce, to replace this tree somehow. Will we ever see a tree like this again?

Mr. VAILLANT: We're going to have to wait a long time. The tree has been successfully propagated from cuttings that would have been grafted to other root stock, and these trees are growing. And, you know, one of the wonderful and, to me, encouraging pieces of the story comes at the end--and I don't quite want to give it away here on the air, but the tree essentially escaped with some human help.

NORRIS: Well, John Vaillant, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. VAILLANT: It's my pleasure. Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: John Vaillant is author of "The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed."

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