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Greed, Betrayal and the Murder of the Golden Spruce

John Vaillant's brilliant book lays bare BC's conflicted soul. A Tyee interview in two parts.

Hal Wake 3 Aug

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Vancouver writer John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce is an important and gripping book that plumbs the mystery of Grant Hadwin, the man who, in 1997, cut down the Golden Spruce, a strangely beautiful botanical anomaly sacred to the Haida.

The story in Vaillant’s hands explores rich territory by “dramatizing,” as his publisher notes, “the destruction of a deeply conflicted man and the wilderness he loved; in so doing, it traces the rise, fall and rebirth of the Haida nation, and exposes the logging industry -- the most dangerous land-based job in North America -- from a point of view never explored in contemporary non-fiction.”

Vaillant was interviewed by Hal Wake as part of the Talk of the Town series in Vancouver. The Tyee presents that wide ranging, fascinating conversation in two parts running today and tomorrow.

Hal Wake: Grant Hadwin. Is he symbolic of something and if he is, what would it be?

John Vaillant: I see in him the human, collective struggle to reconcile our appetites and ambition with our need to derive our sustenance, if not wealth, from the planet -- and, at the same time, to enjoy nature and celebrate its beauty and intactness.

I feel that Hadwin lived on the sharp edge of that dilemma. Most of us are more insulated. But Hadwin was right on that razor’s edge.

HW: Tell me about the Golden Spruce and how it came to be.

JV: To understand the tree’s [strange golden colour] myself, I had to think about it in human terms. It’s a bit like a human disease, which is Xeroderma Pigmentosum. Basically it’s a fatal intolerance to ultraviolet light. Therefore, people who have it go out into the sunlight and they blister fatally.

The north coast of BC is so heavily shaded by clouds that that’s one theory as to why the Golden Spruce was able to survive. And this is sort of a bizarre connection: there is a South African family that’s afflicted with Xeroderma Pigmentosum and they have sought refuge in Prince Rupert, with its 250 days of cloud cover a year. Across the strait, the Golden Spruce was seeking and finding the same refuge. I’m reluctant to get into heavy botany now, but chlorophyll which is what enables photosynthesis to occur, broke down in the tree as soon as it was exposed to sunlight. So, essentially, what this tree was doing was growing itself to death by aspiring to be in the sunshine.

HW: Because if it doesn’t grow to the sunshine, it’s going to get crowded out by everyone else. It’s a wonderful contradiction: you have to seek out something that’s going to kill you.

JV: Exactly, and there is something noble and inspiring about that. So, making sense of that puzzle was . . . well, I’m still trying to make sense of it because it doesn’t quite make sense to me.

HW: And there was no evidence that anyone had ever found a tree like that before?

JV: There are other trees that are technically Golden Spruces, but they are much smaller, they are not as golden and they are not shaped as strangely. This particular tree had several characteristics that set it aside. It had a peculiarly perfect conical shape and Sitka spruce is a sort of willy-nilly messy, ragged. But this Golden Spruce was very tidy, very contained. Its needles were all about two-thirds the normal length. The tree's needles grew more densely. It was like a 50-metere tall hedge. It was 165 feet and 300 years old.

HW: The Haida worked this tree into their mythology. Can you tell the Haida story?

JV: I’ll tell it with the caveat that until very recently, stories were in constant flux, evolving and morphing over time and that’s the natural state of narrative. I have a written version of the Golden Spruce story, but I’ve collected many other versions and they are all slightly different, so I can tell you a version of it, I can’t tell you the story. I can tell you six versions if you like.

But the one I’ll tell you begins in the wintertime, some time ago, and with a young man. It’s early in the morning and it’s very very cold, and he rises and he goes down to the inter-tidal zone to relieve himself. Now, normally, he might sit on a tree trunk or a log but it’s so cold he won’t sit down. So, he squats and he defecates. And there in the inter-tidal zone is a vertical turd. A brown tree trunk if you will, so he steps back and laughs at it, he chuckles to himself, and snow begins to fall, which isn’t unusual for that time of year but it keeps falling, day after day after day and the village is buried and the food they had gathered to make it through the winter is consumed and still there is no respite. And people start to starve to death and eventually the whole village is dead, save two people, a boy about 10 years old, and his grandfather. And they realize that if they stay, they are doomed, so they dig their way out and they get some ways away from the village and they realize that the rest of the world is alive.

The birds are singing, the bugs and flowers are alive and well. They keep walking away from this frozen, buried, dead place. The grandfather seems to understand that it’s unsafe to look back or go back. He warns the boy: ‘Don’t look back. If you do, you will go into the next world. You won’t be able to communicate with anybody, you will be able to see people, but you can’t communicate with them.’ The boy is thinking about things. He’s not thinking about his family. He’s thinking about his fishing gear, his favorite possession. And finally, he can bear it no longer and, somewhat like the Greek myth of Orpheus, he turns around. The moment he turns around, his feet take root in the earth and he realizes he’s trapped. He turns and says, ‘Grandfather, I can’t move.’ His grandfather goes to help him and he’s stuck in the ground and he is transformed into what becomes the Golden Spruce.

So for the Haida, who know that story and who tell that story, that tree is a human being who’s been transformed. And there are many, many other versions. There is a smallpox version, there is a people fighting among themselves version. There is a version proclaiming: ‘This tree will stand as long as the Haida nation stands, and when the tree is cut down the Haida will cease to be.’

HW: We can consider the Golden Spruce a character. Now I’d like you to introduce Grant Hadwin.

JV: Grant Hadwin is a West Van boy, third generation. Both sides of his family came across right around WWI to start a new life, to cash in on this fabulous bounty that was waiting out here. One of his grandfathers homesteaded in West Van and they settled there. His father graduated first in his class from UBC’s electrical engineering program in 1930. He was a brilliant guy, had a fabulous intellect. He oversaw the bridge river dam project that powers much of Vancouver. I talked to people who worked with him. A very rigorous guy, very cerebral, and a hardass.

Grant Hadwin was the second child in this family by 12 years. His older brother really towed the line and aspired to be like his father and Hadwin was much more rebellious. I wonder if he was hyperactive because he was very kinetic and athletic. You just have to think about someone like a gymnast or a rock climber or someone who is just so vibrant with the life force that they must move.

HW: And for a while he was a really bad guy, like with the drinking and stuff but then he got married and becomes this incredible cut-block planner. He just goes into the woods and he can lay out how they can devastate the forest, all the while he loves the forest. How did he live this contradiction out?

JV: I think he came at the point of transition. He was raised in a sense of infinite resources. The B.C. of his parents’ days was forests as far as the eye can see, and you can’t cut them down fast enough and they are pretty claustrophobic anyway. His uncle was a logger and that’s who he apprenticed with. His uncle was a true old-school logger and Hadwin aspired to that and then he went off on his own. He was a very independent, stubborn person. He went up to live in Gold Bridge, north of Vancouver, and he had many jobs but he got hired to do road layout. A forest technician’s ticket is what it’s called, and he did have some of his father’s gifts when it came to seeing things, to be able to see patterns and work through invisible terrain. His father did it electronically and Hadwin did it across landscapes.

HW: But how did he deal with the fact that what he was really, really good at was destroying what he cared about?

JV: Well, at 17 I think he understood how destructive clear cutting could be. In the 60s they were using very heavy amounts of Caterpillar bulldozers and things that just stripped the soil right off and he was concerned that nothing would grow back -- and this was as a 17 year old working with his uncle.

Then he went and worked in the gold mines in Gold Bridge, doing blasting and working on the dam and doing all kinds of things, but he was still so drawn to the woods. And that’s the thing. I look at how I enjoy making my living. And it’s the same. He liked to be in the woods, he liked to be in the wilderness, and this is what we all have to deal with and reconcile with. He was tremendously happy there and he was tremendously gifted and he got to see the wilderness, but he was the last one.

HW: What’s the story with the sea otters? The western Europeans came out and started turning things into products but before they got the forests, it was the sea otters. Can you tell us that story?

JV: It was an amazing moment in history. The sea otter was highly valued on the northwest coast, mostly for clothing. The Russians had been trading sea otters to the Chinese since around 1740. The Chinese were paying outrageous amounts for these skins. We’re talking heroin prices. It was a fabulously, deliriously lucrative commodity.

Captain Cook arrived in 1778 and realized how valuable these skins were. When he wrote up his journals from his final voyage that he didn’t survive, people realized what they had over there and there was this frenzy. Russian, French, American, British, some Spanish ships descended on the northwest coast starting in 1785. It was a true frenzy.

The Northwest tribes, the first few times they were fleeced, they gave the pelts away, and then they realized, these folks really, really want these things. These sailors had traveled all the way down to Antarctica and back chasing these skins, some voyages lasting six to eight months. They had gone around the horn against the wind, and they would trade away anything. Their guns, their door keys, their clothes, their spoons. The dynamic changed. The North coast tribes already understood trading very well. There were a lot of similarities between the two sides. Each understood wealth, material possession, status. So there was a common language there, a mutual appreciation for it.

This remote Chinese market created a sort of madness that you see time and time again throughout history. Globalization started a long time ago but this is sort of one beautiful, encapsulated example of how it can disrupt local industry and trade.

HW: Were the sea otter killed off?

JV: Yes, they were exterminated in about 50 years. They breed very slowly and are easy to kill. There were hundreds of thousands of them. The First Nations did the killing, the European traders did the buying and it was a beautiful arrangement. Everyone made money hand over fist, there were potlatches like you have never seen, that’s when the pole carving really exploded. From what I can identify, no carved poles were spoken of before 1790. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there, it just means that people started writing about them at that time. All of a sudden there was this extra wealth, this leisure time, you could have an entire class of artists, some might be slaves, some not, and it completely changed everything there.

HW: I don’t mean to fast forward through the history of logging, but the Sitka Spruce wasn’t considered a valuable tree until around WWI because then you could make airplanes out of it.

JV: The Sitka spruce was one of the biggest trees in the world, all over the place, tens of millions of them on this coast. But people were much more interested in Douglas fir and cedar because the Douglas fir was great for floorboards and trim and studs and cedar was waterproof.

But the Sitka spruce is extraordinarily light, very flexible and very strong, and that’s what you need for airplanes. In 1917 there was this extraordinarily large mobilization of forces in Canada and the US. This was a military operation to go into the Northwest forest and render Sitka spruce for European airplanes. There weren’t any Canadian or American airplanes fighting in the European theatre in WWI. But the French, German and British, that’s where most of the wood went. So fabulous amounts of wood were cut.

HW: So, those planes were made of all wood?

JV: Pretty much. It was used for fuselages, wings, laminated for propellers. I mean you have metal engines and guns and nails and that stuff, but they were mostly wood. The beauty of Sitka spruce is that it can absorb a bullet without shattering unlike hardwoods, so it’s a miraculous substance if what you want to do is build a war plane.

HW: Go back to Grant Hadwin and talk about his ‘spiritual emergency.’

JV: I think Hadwin was a ticking bomb, but I also think he was in a schizophrenic situation. In the sense that he was a guy who was at his best when he was on his own in the wilderness, and the wilderness was receding out away from him. He had built this beautiful house, this three story log cabin that he had made with his own hands, this huge chimney going up 35 feet, the capstone on it is this slab of granite as big as a mattress. He built this thing in Gold Bridge with a beautiful view of the forest.

As the forest melted away before him, because of his own efforts, he found himself in a bind that became untenable, and I think several things conspired. This moral and ethical awaking that, yes, there is an end to it. It’s not as infinite as we were lead to believe, and his neurology caught up with him. His brother was schizophrenic, it came out later in life. He became a recluse and eventually committed suicide. Grant Hadwin saw this happen. His brother is 12 years older so he saw all this happen.

HW: So he leaves and comes back, and people can see a difference in him…

He has a falling out with his timber company. He was telling them, ‘This isn’t working.’ So he quit and started his own lumber company, but that didn’t work either because this is the late 80s and timber prices had tanked, so he was doing road work wherever he could find it. He was up by the Alberta border. I talked to the guy who hired him, and he said, ‘This guy was amazing, he did beautiful work, came highly recommended.’ There was a 10 day gap between jobs. Hadwin goes out camping, comes back, and what really struck me was how this employer, his name was Gene Runtz, doesn’t describe Hadwin’s eyes, but describes THE eyes. He says “The eyes weren’t there anymore. He put this religious bent on what we were doing, saying it’s wrong.’ He was looking at Gene, and Gene was so unnerved by Hadwin’s gaze, he says, ‘The way those eyes were staring at me, peering at me, I said, Well, ok, if you want to leave, then ok.’

I’ve met Hadwin’s son and he has some of that intensity. He has that larger than life, boring-through-you conviction. And imagine that, with the psychological wattage cranked up. I think you would have something quite frightening. . . .

Tomorrow: Vaillant details the downing of The Golden Spruce, and the mystery surrounding the fate of its killer.

John Vaillant has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic–Adventure, Outside and Men’s Journal. He lives in Vancouver with his wife (an anthropologist and a potter) and their two children. Hal Wake, recently named the new artistic director of The Vancouver Writers & Readers Festival, hosted the Early Edition and produced Morningside during his 17 years at the CBC.  [Tyee]

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