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The Lasting Mysteries of The Golden Spruce

Part two of an interview with author John Vaillant.

Hal Wake 4 Aug

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This is the second half of an interview with John Vaillant, author of The Golden Spruce. His book plumbs the mystery of Grant Hadwin, the man who, in 1997, cut down the Golden Spruce, a botanical anomaly sacred to the Haida.

Vaillant was interviewed by Hal Wake as part of the Talk of the Town series in Vancouver.

In the first part of their conversation, the author traced the transformation of Hadwin from an expert at clear-cutting to a fevered crusader for forest preservation. Read that part here. Hadwin’s torment verged into madness, and a terrible plan. Here, Vaillant describes the downing of The Golden Spruce, and the mystery surrounding Hadwin’s fate.

Hal Wake: So you have in Grant Hadwin a logger turned passionate environmentalist. Why did he target the Golden Spruce?

John Vaillant: He described it as a vision. He wrote it down in a document. It’s really quite a beautiful and gentle document. It’s not fire and brimstone. He poses questions. He uses the Socratic method, which most haranguers don’t do. He said, ‘If people are living in a disrespectful way instead of a respectful way and in a oppresive way instead of a compassionate way…” And he lists all these comparisons. He’s describing us as a species.

He distributes the document far and wide. He’s trying to get a hearing. He sends it to judges. He sends it to the Queen. And I think most people put it in the round file and write him off. So I think he became marginalized. I mean, people with that kind of conviction, we see them on the street.

So, as he becomes more marginalized and more mentally ill, he moves farther and farther out. But at the same time, he’s still working. He’s still doing these beautiful [timber clear-cutting] layout plans. Right up to the very end, he was pulling it together and spiraling out, pulling it together, and spiraling out. There was this titanic struggle going on between competence, because he was a huge on that, and this really rigid idea of how things should be.

HW: So he looks up and sees . . .

JV: This Golden Spruce that’s being protected by MacMillan Bloedel [timber corporation] who has the cut block. They aren’t going to cut it down. He sees that and he sees all the other devastation and thinks, ‘This is wrong, to save this mutant tree when all the others are getting cut down. I am going to take the Golden Spruce down.’

He had been following the news and had become very interested in native causes. He knew that Haida Gwaii had become a battleground for loggers and environmentalists and for the Haida who claimed title to the land and forests. He went out to visit with a Gitxsan elder friend of his, who became his companion later in life.

So he saw that this tree was being protected in the middle of this huge cut block. It’s called Block Six, the Haida Block, which was administered at the time by MacMillan-Bloedel, now Weyerhaeuser. He saw this one tree. And you have to understand he’s looking at this from the point of view of a forester, or a logger. He’s thinking, ‘Where's the healthy forest?’ And he sees this clearly unhealthy tree being protected while everything else is being mowed down. And he sees that as the height of hypocrisy.

I don’t think he understood the Haida connection to the tree, I think what he saw was MacMillan Bloedel’s pet tree. So he thought, ‘If this is the only tree they value, how else can I get their attention?’

Now, I want to say that I’m not trying to justify what he did or be an apologist for what he did. But I’m trying to think like him: ‘If this is the only tree that makes you feel, then I am going to cut it down so you can feel what I feel.’

I think that’s mainly what he was thinking about.

HW: How big was the tree across?

JV: It was seven feet through. It was as wide as a car, perfectly healthy. He did it with a very small saw. He tested himself in extraordinary ways, because he had to swim across a river to even get to the tree. At age 45, he came in second in a 50-K cross country marathon. There is a picture of him on the book cover and he looks like Bruce Jenner.

He had swum in frozen rivers thoughout the north country. He spent 15 minutes in the Yukon when it was 30 below zero. The only place he could get into that river was a dam outflow because that was the only place the water was moving fast enough. He put a ladder in the ice, climbed down and hung out for 15 minutes. By then the police had come, the newspaper had come, everyone was alarmed. Some of you know what 30 below zero feels like. If you touch metal at that temperature, it will burn you like fire, and cast iron will shatter like glass. So he climbs out and all the water on his body instantly turns to ice and he makes his way back to his car, and he’s no worse for wear.

So he heads off to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and he does this deed in the middle of the night. It’s winter. It’s just above freezing, The Yakoun River is about 60 feet wide, and runs about five knots, and he has everything in inflated garbage bags. He’s got his saw, his gas and oil and I assume clothes, and some kind of illumination. And also, the trail had been built by Macmillan Bloedel, so he’s going into enemy territory or this strange inner sanctum. He’s violating the inner sanctum of this company.

So he swims across and manages to not puncture any of his gear on the roots and branches, unloads it all, fires up his saw, and he has a 24 or 25 inch bar, and proceeds to dismantle this tree. The tree is leaning away from the river but he wants it to fall across the river towards the trail, so he wedges it up. All the storms come in from the south and south is the direction that will knock the tree over. So he blocks it all up with wedges and holding wood. He’s had to cut window blocks, which are these blocks so that his saw can fit in there. I don’t know how long it took him. It took him hours presumably.

HW: And in the darkness right?

JV: Well, I can only guess that he had a headlamp or something. I can’t imagine him doing it in the pitch darkness. It was raining that day too. There is a huge canopy of the forest and then the sky above that, so you can’t see a thing. So he accomplishes this, packs up all his gear, swims back across the river, gives his gear away to an Anglo guy living in Old Masset.

HW: Who when he found out what that saw had done, dropped it like a hot potato.

JV: Well, yes, here is this white guy, married to a Haida woman, who is holding the saw. He was a suspect for a week. The is a side story but his life was basically ruined for a year or two because of his association with that saw…

So Hadwin flies back to Prince Rupert and sends out a blast fax to the police, The Vancouver Sun, Greenpeace and the Haida nation explaining who he was, why he had done it…

HW: And then he starts arguing with people in the media, sending letters back and forth maintaining his case. They actually thought he might get lynched.

JV: Yes, people spoke openly to me, now years after, of their wishes to do things to him. People were quoted in the newspaper saying what they think needs to be done with this guy. People were talking about what they would do with his various body parts on that stump. I’ve been trying to think of other things that we feel the same way about. It would have to be something beloved that we don’t protect enough or pay enough attention to. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the forest really, these things we take for granted but yet cause us to feel violated when someone comes in from the outside and desecrates it.

HW: So, he is arrested and he goes to his court date in a kayak?

JV: Yes, it sounds crazy. But I think Hadwin would have thought it crazy to have taken the ferry. I think he thought, rightly so, that he would have been thrown off the ferry or that he would be welcomed on the other side by people who wanted to do harm to him. I talked to the police and other people about that time and the term lynching came up a lot. I talked to an officer and he said, ‘The reason we don’t have a lot of trouble here is because the Haida take care of things in their own way.’

Again, you have to think like him. He had to be in control of the situation. And where he felt most comfortable was moving through the wilderness alone. The kayak is the aquatic version of that. He had dealt with everything the coast of British Columbia had thrown at him, so why not Hecate Strait?

Now Hecate Strait is a dangerous body of water. It’s about 100 feet deep but you can have 50 to 60 fott waves in there. You can have powerful winds mixing in there, and powerful currents as well. So there was arrogance in Hadwin but I think he attended to make it.

He contacted the Haida leadership through the media and told them ‘I am going to be on the water near Haida Gwaii and there won’t be any uniforms around.’ And it wasn’t to fight. At least I don’t think so. I don’t know what he was thinking there.

HW: Two or three days later, he disappears. Some of his gear washes up in Alaska. Some people believe that Hadwin didn’t die. What is the evidence that he didn’t?

JV: Those that really knew him and knew his ability and his capacity for planning are the ones who think he’s still alive. They say, ‘I know that guy and he’s not the type to screw up in that way.’

Adding to this is the fact that he bought 300 dollars worth of food before he took off. He was a guy who could live off of nothing. Third, is the fact that his kayak is found four months later at the end of storm season, and storm season is extremely abusive to objects. The kayak is found broken but far from pulverized. The gear is in perfect condition. The sleeping bag and life vest looked like they just came out of the showroom. The zipper worked, there were no tears. The axe was above the high tide line, which confused the RCMP.

The question is, maybe he broke the kayak up and took off. The island it was found on is a five mile swim from any other land mass. But Mary Island is about eight miles square. It’s never been logged. No one lives there. Anyone could hide there, so it’s really not clear.

HW: Do you have an opinion?

JV: I do, actually. There is a perverse wish for him to be out there somewhere. What has been left out of this conversation so far is that he had four children. What attracted me to Hadwin in a way that the Unabomber never could is that Hadwin had a heart, a real capacity to connect with people. And he was connected to his kids. So I don’t think he could have stayed quiet this long and I don’t think he could have stayed away from his kids this long. That’s why I think he drowned. I don’t think he was killed, but he could have been. He easily could have been. People have said, even years after the situation, that they would have run him down.

HW: What is left of the Golden Spruce and the attempts to propagate it?

JV: Well, the Golden Spruce lives and it lives in a surprising variety of places.

Attempts to propagate it started back in the 60’s. MacMillan Bloedel were heavy into propagation at that point but people didn’t understand the process very well. There have been many, many attempts and many failures, but some survived. I’ve seen a 20-footer, directly descended from the Golden Spruce that is outside of Nanaimo in a Mac-Blo engineer’s private plot. It’s going to be 300 years until we know if it really survives and we won’t be around to see how the story ends.

It’s so strange how this tree uses us and our attraction to it for its own ends. There is a butcher from Victoria who loved conifer trees and he got some grafts of the Golden Spruce and he knew another guy who loved conifer trees who lived in Pennsylvania, and his name is Bob Fincham. The butcher mails a seedling to Fincham, who comes home one day and finds a box next to his garage and opens it and there is the Golden Spruce. He has since moved to Washington State. Fincham is also a gifted grafter, so he starts taking cuttings from his little Golden Spruce, which is now four or five feet tall.

There are gold variations of many different kinds of conifers, and this guy has every bizarre one you can imagine. His wife says to me, ‘We have lots of golden trees, but the Golden Spruce is the one that people want to walk toward. 'It has this radiance that the other trees don’t have.’ He’s propagating this tree and he starts to sell them, and he’s selling them all over the world, and he’s been doing it since 1982. So the trees are in Australia, Japan, Holland, Korea, the States and Canada and other places as well.

The Golden Spruce, as far as I can tell, is the most widely distributed Sitka spruce in the world. It’s transcended the environment and its attacker.

Read part one of this interview here.

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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