Rooted in the remote Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, a golden spruce stood for more than 300 years, capturing the hearts, imaginations and scientific curiosity of local tribes, explorers and naturalists. The result of a genetic mutation, the golden spruce stood out like a miracle in a sea of its ordinary green fellows. The Haida tribe of British Columbia cherished that miracle and wove it into their mythology and very sense of self. Commanded to flee his perishing village without looking back, says Haida mythology, a Haida boy has regrets and turns around for one last look. At that moment, he takes root and changes into the magnificent spruce that is both a miracle and a warning.
It's interesting to note the differences between this myth and the story of Lot's wife, who turned into a pillar of salt when she defied God and cast a backward glance at Sodom and Gomorrah. There is no compassion wasted on the Biblical failure, but the symbolism of the golden spruce, a far more vital and beautiful image than the salt pillar, is more ambivalent. As the boy struggles against his transformation, his grandfather comforts him with these words: "It's all right, my son. Even the last generation will look at you and remember your story."
That cultural icon was shattered when Grant Hadwin stole into the forest with a chainsaw and destroyed the tree. A former forester turned conservationist, Hadwin meant his destruction as a protest against irresponsible logging practices. "We tend to focus on the individual trees like the Golden Spruce while the rest of the forests are being slaughtered," he told a journalist. "Everybody's supposed to focus on that and forget all the damage behind it."
In The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed, John Vaillant tracks Hadwin from his beginnings as a highly paid and highly skilled forester through his conversion to eco-activism and on to a crime that places him, for some, in the same ranks with Timothy McVeigh. Vaillant's book is also the story of the golden spruce itself and of the Haida whose decimation by disease-bearing colonists is the backdrop to the tree tragedy. It is Vaillant's depiction of the Haida that gives his book a hopeful grace note. With the golden spruce's stump as a rallying point, they are lobbying with some success to regain control over their native lands. The future of forests generally, Vaillant seems to say, depends on their success.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.