Ever since I cut down my first tree at age eight, I’ve been fascinated by logging. Chokers, skidders, chain saws; they’re all good. Or perhaps not.
Yeah, logging is the great satan according to many, and I’ve viewed it that way many times as well — though I appreciate my wood house, wood fire, and chainsaw (not to mention the roads and trails that logging has created over the years). Love hate, I guess.
John Vaillant, in his book, “The Golden Spruce,” covers logging from both sides. He does that by relating the human perspective. Instead of a diatribe about environmental damage, or a screed about economic benefits vs owls, Vaillant focuses his story on one protagonist’s journey in the world of logging, all leading to an act of eco terrorism committed against native peoples.
Hooked yet? You should be.
The story centers around Grant Hadwin, a backcountry boy who by all accounts was virtually half wild-animal. Grant is able to survive in the backwoods of British Columbia on nearly nothing. He has a sense of his environment such that he’s extremely useful to timber companies looking to figure out access routes.
Thus, Grant has a productive career as a road planner for logging companies, while at the same time gaining appreciation for the primal forests of B.C., where the pillage of old-growth trees has wreaked havoc on a unique resource we’re only beginning to understand.
As for the “Golden Spruce,” it’s a beautiful mutant tree which symbolizes everything. Eventually the tree is the focus of the story.
Vaillant’s pen weaves Hadwin’s story with logging lore and technical info. I read the book while traversing the Pacific Northwest, and found myself looking at the forests up there in a whole new way. Most of what you hike, say, in Washington, has been logged. But without some knowledge of the industry you don’t really know what you’re looking at.
What’s all that old cable lying around, partially buried under tree roots? Could be from an early days aerial tram system for moving logs. What are those notches in the sides of the old-growth stumps still dotting the forest? Aha, that’s where the guys with hand saws stuck boards to stand on so they could saw above the enormous tree’s “buttress.”
Indeed, if “Golden Spruce” suffers one fault, it’s that author Vaillant appears like he’s sometimes trying too hard to shore up his narrative with endless trivia. Yet he presents such in a way that keeps you reading. Take the section on tree falling. Vaillant finds a guy who cut down a red cedar more than 22 feet in diameter, using a chain saw with a 40 inch bar. Over six hours later, the creature falls. Then we move on to how much tree fallers in B.C. are paid, how their pay has dropped, and what deadly mistakes they can make. The latter was interesting, I’ll admit.
For example, regarding the use of felling wedges (plastic blocks pounded into the chainsaw cut to attempt tipping the tree the direction you want it to go), Vaillant: “It takes a certain kind of person to bang on something wider than his front door, heavier than his whole house, and twenty stories tall when it’s doing a snake dance.” Interesting reading, uh huh.
Or take this one: “[The chainsaw is] a super-charged extension of masculine will that is impossible to ignore.” Now you know why I have a 24 inch bar instead of a 20.
Beyond logging trivia we do have the story of Hadwin. Basically the man loves the natural environment and ends up making his living off logging. But at the same time he sees how logging can either be done sustainably — or destructive of the last remaining old growth. Meanwhile, the man is also battling what sounds like bi-polar disorder. In my view, he takes things too personally.
It all comes to a head when Hadwin becomes sensitized to the poorly managed logging of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Some of the archipelago had been “shaved bald,” with permanent damage from erosion. At the same time, a small forest preserve called a “set aside” had been created about the unique Golden Spruce. Such set asides are patently ridiculous as they serve no conservation purpose, they’re merely insulting mini-parks for humans to gloat over a few remaining thousand-year-old trees. At least that appears to be what Hadwin’s take was. So he swims a river with his chainsaw sealed in a plastic trash bag, and cuts down the sacred tree.
Like most good books of this sort, including THE good book, “Golden Spruce” leaves you with one burning question: Prophet, or maniac? Read it, and let us know your take.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.