Journalist and author John Vaillant began his career with a profound interest in connecting stories of adventure with complex social issues. And it was on a reporting assignment to the remote regions North Western Canada that put him on the path of a remarkable narrative steeped in both ancient mythology and a modern controversy at the heart of the environmental movement.
“It was thanks to Outside Magazine that I got up there. I was doing a paddling story for them in Haida Gwaii, which is this remote archipelago off the northwest coast of British Columbia, an extraordinary place, home of the Haida Nation,” Vaillant said. “One way to understand them is the Vikings of the North Pacific. Huge canoes, but they are also a great political force, very powerful environmental advocates. It was also the home of this botanically unique tree, this Golden Spruce. It was 165 feet tall, seven feet across at the base and had golden needles. Every tree from Mendocino to Anchorage, growing in that rainforest band has green needles. And there was one coming up out of that forest. You could see it from 20,000 feet in the air in a plane. There was one golden spire and it was that tree.”
Sitting at the MacLab Bistro at the Banff Center in Alberta Canada, Vaillant and I had the opportunity to talk about this incredible tree. The Golden Spruce is at the center of a film which appeared at the 2015 Banff Mountain Film Festival and sets the stage for a very complicated discussion on the importance of wildlife conservation and the sustainable management of public land. In the film Vaillant helps frame the story behind why this particular tree means so much to the Haida People and their forest home.
The story of the Golden Spruce begins in a village long since reclaimed by the shadows of the forest. It was a time of plenty, but the people were taking too much from the land. A long winter came. The village was decimated by hunger and only two people survived, a little boy and his grandfather. As they fled the village the man warned the boy not to look back. But the boy could not resist. As he turned back to take one last look his feet became rooted to the earth. The spirits transformed the boy into a tree in protest at the ways of the people. And there on the banks of Yakoun is the rare and beautiful tree with yellow needle that shine like gold in the sun.
“It was a unique quirk of nature,” Vaillant said. “The Golden Spruce did actually have a golden aura, a radiance that was derived from a genetic mutation of its needle’s coloring. But for the Hida, what really makes the Golden Spruce stand out is it is the only living being that connects back to that myth time.”
The Golden Spruce was sacred to the Haida People. It was a botanical mystery that was glorious to behold and as an economic driver to the region it was a much beloved tourist destination. Not unlike our own icon National Parks its location and the surrounding area were set aside to be protected and preserved. The Golden Spruce also stood as a living reminder to never again take so much from the land that we might put it at risk.
Tragically though on forest land nearby on Haida Gwaii and on public land throughout North America others trees were being cut down by the tens of thousands in industrial logging operations. Through the devastating practice of clear cutting these ancient forests were being destroyed. So in a violent act of protest meant to point out the hypocrisy of saving one tree while thoughtlessly killing many others a former logger, turn activist by the name of Grant Hadwin took it upon himself to cut down the Golden Spruce in 1997. (The Gold Bough by John Vaillant ~ The New Yorker 2002)
This story and its aftermath are the subject of the best selling book The Gold Spruce by John Vaillant and the feature documentary film by director Sasha Snow called Hadwin’s Judgement. Looking deeply into the heart and mind of a man desperate to save the forest he loves Vaillant offers up an uneasy paradox and this question. Can one atrocity an act of eco-terrorism be justified by the horrific destruction of our natural resources for short term financial gain?
The book, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth Madness and Greed by John Vaillant is an international bestseller . Hadwin’s Judgement is the 2015 Banff Mountain Film Festival winner of the best film on Mountain Environment & Natural History. You can learn more about this incredible film and the story behind it online. Visit hadwinsjudgement.com
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