Myth - The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant (2006)

Chapter 9. Myth

I will tell you something about stories

[he said]

They aren’t just entertainment.

Don’t be fooled.

They are all we have, you see,

all we have to fight off

illness and death.

—Leslie Marmon Silko, CEREMONY

WHEN THE GOLDEN SPRUCE FELL, it knocked down every tree in its path. From a distance it looked like the wreckage left by a lightning strike, or a freak wind, which in a way, it was. After all, what were the chances? The golden spruce was one in a billion, and so was Grant Hadwin. “Whoever did this,” said a MacMillan Bloedel spokesman shortly after the tree was found, “had to be hell-bent.” He was referring not just to the logistical details, but to the raw effort required to access the tree, and then to cut it down in the middle of the night. It is hard to imagine anyone else with the same combination of motive, obsession, endurance, and skill required to do such a thing.

The golden spruce fell in such a way that the last six metres or so hung out over the river, and it was a sorrowful sight: the still-luminous golden boughs thrown up like skirts, exposing the dark green under-layer; the sheared stump so startlingly white in the dark forest; the damage so small, relative to the great size of the tree, and yet so thoroughly irreparable. On Sunday, January 26, three days after the golden spruce was discovered by the wife of a MacMillan Bloedel employee, the tree became the subject of a sermon in Masset’s Anglican church. But it felt more like a eulogy. “This was not just a physical tree of unusual beauty,” proclaimed the Reverend Peter Hamel, “it was in fact a unique symbol of the islands and ourselves. It was a mythic tree that sustained our spirits whenever we saw it…. The presence of this tree…brought us together and lifted us from the familiar to the divine.” Hamel then called upon the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth to say what he could not:

Oft have I stood

Foot-bound uplooking at this lovely tree

Beneath a frosty moon. The hemisphere

Of magic fiction, verse of mine perhaps

May never tread; but scarcely Spenser’s self

Could have more tranquil visions in his youth,

More bright appearances could scarcely see

Of human forms and superhuman powers,

Than I beheld standing on winter nights

Alone beneath this fairy work of earth.

“Confining the spiritual to the inner dimension of life,” concluded the Reverend Hamel, “has given licence to the violent exploitation of nature. The trees who clap their hands at God’s justice suggest otherwise. All of reality is the realm of the spirit, of transforming upward encounter. The destruction of a tree, and in particular the golden spruce, has deep implications for us. This gift from Mother Earth connected us with our deepest spiritual needs. Its senseless destruction wounded each one of us as much as the loss of its wondrous beauty in the sacred grove by the Yakoun River.”

The next day more than a hundred Haida travelled up the Yakoun in order to reconcile with the spirit of the golden spruce. “The elders were crying, praying in their own language,” recalled a Haida clergy-woman named Marina Jones who attended the ceremony. “You could feel the heaviness—it was like losing one of our children. People were wearing their blankets inside out.” Jones salvaged a golden twig from the tree; she had it freeze-dried and she keeps it in a hermetically sealed plastic package, like a piece of the True Cross. Urs and Gabriela Thomas, the proprietors of the nearby Golden Spruce Motel, keep a large golden sprig in a jar of alcohol by the reception desk, where it looks more like a specimen of rare coral than of a local tree.

John Broadhead, a director of a local environmental research group who has worked closely with the Haida for more than thirty years, cut to the heart of the matter when he said, “That tree was a lot more than a tree.” Botanically speaking, the golden spruce was a mutant—a “freak” as Hadwin put it—but it was also the tip of a mythic iceberg, and in this way it was a microcosm of the islands themselves. Some among the Haida refer to the Yakoun as the River of Life, and just as the islands seem to represent the life force in concentrated form, the golden spruce represented a concentrated essence of the Yakoun. In this sense, it has much in common with the more widely known concept of the Tree of Life. This ancient motif can be found today throughout the world—in Sri Lankan temples, Oriental carpets, Middle Eastern and Meso-American ceramics, the Bible, and even on bridge abutments in Southern California, among countless other places and media. The Tree of Life is a symbol of abundance, but it also represents a kind of metaphysical hub around which life and death, good and evil, man and nature, revolve in an endless cycle.

Vestiges of ancient rites related to trees can still be found in many parts of the world, including Europe, Africa, India, and the Far East; a few, such as the maypole dance, the Christmas tree, and the Yule log, have survived the journey to the New World. But the memorial ceremony for the golden spruce may well have been the first of its kind ever to be held in North America. It is probable that nothing like it had been seen anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere since pre-Christian tribes worshiped in sacred groves, the same groves that were annihilated by invading Christian armies and governments—not just for the wood they contained, but for the pagan worldviews they represented. If one looks back far enough, it becomes clear that the Haida’s experience has been shared by almost everyone at one time or another. “Even now,” wrote Pliny the Elder in the first century B.C., “simple country people dedicate a tree of exceptional height to a god….”

On the following Saturday, February 1, a public memorial service to “mourn one of our ancestors” was held on the riverbank, opposite the fallen tree. It was raining—on the edge of snow—when the crowd came to fill the wound in the forest, and the Tsiij git’anee hereditary chief Dii’yuung entered the forest wearing a chilkat blanket woven of mountain goat hair and beating a black drum in a slow death-march cadence. Neil Carey, a U.S. Navy veteran and author who has lived in Haida Gwaii for fifty years, described the ceremony as “one of the largest collections of people from the islands I’ve ever seen in my life. It was just like a funeral, cars were lined up for a mile on both sides of the road.”

It was Ernie “Big Eagle” Collison, also known as Skilay the Steersman, who organized and presided over much of the ceremony. With him were numerous Haida chiefs and other leaders, including Guujaaw, whose name means “Drum.” At various times during the ceremony, the sound of drums grew so thunderous in the crepuscular silence of the forest that the beats seemed almost three-dimensional as they ricocheted off the tree trunks. Meanwhile, the singers’ voices—Guujaaw’s in particular—echoed through the woods as they belted out Haida songs of mourning and renewal. These were sounds that hadn’t been heard on the banks of the Yakoun in ages, not since the great sickness, and the roar of chainsaws that followed, had drowned them out.

The message sent by the chiefs, clergy, and community leaders was one of sorrow, forgiveness, and unity—but also of profound puzzlement: “It’s hard to grasp how people think,” said Chief Skidegate, who stood on a stage that had been built in the forest especially for this occasion and addressed the crowd through a microphone, “how someone could do such a tragic thing.” When Skilay took the stage he looked exhausted and bereft; ordinarily he was a vital man who rarely wanted for something to say, but now he seemed nearly at a loss for words. It was as if the death of the tree had sapped some of his own vitality. He described the ritual as a memorial ceremony to “address the feelings in your heart and in your soul and in your mind, in your fears, in your anger—with the loss of this beautiful tree that means so much to all of us on Haida Gwaii—Queen Charlotte Islands, if you will—and around the world…. People from all over North America have been calling,” he said, “trying to put some understanding into the madness that created this sorrowful situation for us.”

When a journalist asked Skilay if he really believed a little boy could turn into a tree, he retorted, “Do you believe a woman could turn into a block of salt?”

The Haida narrative canon has a lot in common with the Bible in that both contain stories that serve a variety of functions: some are creation myths; some keep track of family and tribal lineage; some are histories of the region and important local events; some are prophecies; and others are told to instruct the young and remind the old. The golden spruce story, as it survives today, falls into the last category; it is a parable. All of these tales, properly told, carry important information as well as entertainment value, but much of this is lost in the twofold translation—first, from Haida into English, and second, from the spoken word to the printed page. Like a play or a song, stories of this kind were intended to be live events, energized by the charisma of the teller and by his or her connection to the audience. As is the case with Bible stories, literal readings of Haida narratives present problems for people seeking “rational,” post-Enlightenment explanations. According to Haida legend, for example, Haida Gwaii is where the world began, and the first humans emerged from a clamshell at a place called Naikoon (Rose Spit), the long, sharply pointed sandbar at the northeast corner of Graham Island. So much of our understanding of “truth” and “fact” depends on context and orientation: to the uninitiated, the “Big Bang” theory sounds as bizarre and fanciful as the Haida story, “Spirit of the Atmosphere Who Had Himself Born.” And yet, the former almost sounds like shorthand for the latter.

Since the Haida had no alphabet or writing, all information was passed down orally, and there were tremendous amounts of it; some Haida stories such as the creation myth “Raven Who Kept Walking” run for forty pages or more, but even at that length, it is almost certainly an abbreviated version of the original. This is not surprising when one considers the incalculable losses suffered by the Haida and their mainland neighbours. A resource map of the Queen Charlotte Islands, published in 1927 by British Columbia’s Department of Lands, assessed the islands’ timber holdings at over fifteen billion board feet. It also indicates that virtually all of the prime forestland in the Yakoun Valley, including that around the golden spruce, had already been “alienated” (a British term meaning leased out). Most disturbing, though, is the map’s tally of the islands’ human population, which put the number of resident Haida at just 645. This startling figure represents a drop of approximately 95 percent from estimated pre-contact numbers (based on villages sites, shell middens, and other related data). Genocide, however passively it may have been perpetrated, is not too strong a word for this catastrophic decrease. Regardless of how one chooses to define it, the Haida very nearly went the way of the sea otter.

After successive waves of epidemics had reduced the Haida population to a skeleton crew, the survivors were in a state of shock, much as survivors of the Hiroshima bombing or the Rwandan massacres would have been. The mortally ill and rotting dead lay everywhere—too numerous to be moved or buried. Every aspect of the culture was effectively shattered, and the most basic activities ground to a halt. Too few people were left to paddle big canoes effectively, or fish, or tell stories, or raise the orphans left behind; many of the skills and much of the knowledge died with its owners. It would be like going to work, to school, to a neighbourhood bar, and finding nineteen out of every twenty people dead or dying with no help in sight. What do you do? Where do you go? By the turn of the century, survivors from approximately fifty villages—some of whom were bitter enemies—had been consolidated, first into five communities and then into two—Skidegate Mission, on the south end of Graham Island, and Old Massett on the north end. Even now, there are still sharp distinctions between, and within, them. “Talking about Skidegate and Masset is like talking about China and Japan,” explained one elder who grew up in Masset. “Although the world has put us together, we know the difference.” To this day, everyone knows who is descended from nobility, and whose ancestors were slaves.

The eradication of the culture continued as survivors were embraced by missionaries who helped to house, feed, and clothe their new charges but did so on Christian terms. Many Haida adopted this new faith, and it may have made a great deal of sense at the time, given the near-total destruction of everything they had previously known and believed. “The island population is now shrunk to not over seven hundred,” wrote the ethnographer and linguist John Swanton to his mentor, the famed anthropologist Franz Boas, in 1901. “The missionary has suppressed all the dances and has been instrumental in having all the old houses destroyed—everything in short that makes life worth living.”

In the course of the mass population losses and subsequent resettlement, nearly all the masks, costumes, and ritual objects that had once formed the material backbone of the Haida’s spiritual life were lost. Some were abandoned or sold off by their owners who no longer had a context for using them and were desperate for cash to buy basic necessities. Others were gathered into piles and burned by missionaries, or confiscated by Indian agents who then sold the artifacts to collectors; anthropologists, too, carried off everything they could. By 1910, most of the poles that had stood on the northwest coast were gone as well: cut down under pressure from missionaries and government officials, or salvaged by collectors; some were cut up for firewood; in at least one case, they were used as pilings to hold up a waterfront boardwalk. A number of the best poles were taken to museums; in most cases, these salvage operations would turn out to be a blessing. But not all the Haida went quietly; at the south end of Prince of Wales Island (Alaska) were several villages of exiles known as the Kaigani Haida. There, a Chief Skowall co-opted the message of local Russian Orthodox missionaries by incorporating one of them, along with a Russian saint and Michael the Archangel, into a huge, new pole.

It must be said that missionaries, like all the other players on the coast, were a varied lot. Some are remembered with great fondness and admiration for their generosity and guidance, while others are sorely resented for their abuse and repressiveness. Following the arrival of missionaries and government agents in the late nineteenth century, a number of Native traditions persisted by simply going underground. As a result, most Haida have a foot in both worlds; the Northwest Coast is home, now, to a diverse pantheon whose representatives range from the deserts of the Middle East to the Pacific Ocean floor.

In the decades following one of the most severe epidemics in 1862, many Haida left the islands to search for work, or simply for a place that was not so badly broken. Some made their way to Victoria, British Columbia’s capital and first city, located at the south end of Vancouver Island. It was an eight-hundred-kilometre canoe journey for the Haida, and en route they were often harassed by tribes whose members they had stolen or murdered years, or decades, before. Once they arrived, Victoria did not treat them much better, and many came to grief there. Before Vancouver surpassed it in the late nineteenth century, Victoria was British Columbia’s centre for logging operations. It is the only place on the continent where one can still see streets made from blocks of end-grain fir, laid together as bricks would be in any other city; the effect is of walking on a giant butcher block table. You would never know it today, but beneath the pretty flowers, elegant government buildings, and picture-perfect harbour are buried the roots of a rough outpost of empire inhabited by colonial government officials, loggers, sailors, Chinese and Hindu labourers—and traumatized Natives from up the coast. Alcohol, prostitution, and venereal disease followed each other closely within the destitute and demoralized Native population, and it was not uncommon for former warriors to end up pimping their slaves, and even members of their own family, once they got to the city. In some cases, prostitution was even used as a revenue generator for funding potlatches, which had been held in secret ever since being outlawed by the Canadian government in 1884.

Still more nails were driven into the cultural coffin when generations of Haida children were taken from their homes and sent to residential schools where they were lumped in with children from other tribes, children like Cora Gray. Many of them did not know English, and Native languages were forbidden. The government’s objective was to take them away from their “unimprovable” parents and turn them into Christian wage earners. To many whites, this no doubt seemed like a completely reasonable, even merciful thing to do. It was clear to them that the old ways were finished, and even if they could be revived, many aspects of that life—slavery, warfare, and raiding, to name a few—were untenable under the new regime. But the result of forced assimilation was, in many cases, an abysmal failure. In addition to being raped, beaten, and generally humiliated, generations of children grew up profoundly disconnected from their families and culture and yet poorly equipped (not to mention unwelcome) to participate in the world of their conquerors. A number of these children, once released from residential school, also drifted south—first to Victoria and, later, to Vancouver—and many never made it back. This practice of what amounted to internment in residential schools began in eastern Canada nearly four hundred years ago and ended only in the 1970s. Legal claims against churches and the federal government for abuse suffered in these institutions now number in the tens of thousands.

The carriers of the culture tended to be those who slipped through the government agents’ net and avoided residential school. These children stayed home with parents and grandparents; they learned the language, the stories, the skills, and a handful began the daunting process of patching together the tattered remains of their ancient legacy. Old Masset’s residents had a coastwide reputation as carvers and canoe builders, and by the turn of the last century, they had somehow managed to retool and were turning out schooners and fishing boats as sleek and sturdy as any on the coast. By the 1940s there was a well-established fleet of Haida-built fishing boats plying the islands’ waters. However, like fishermen and farmers today, these boats were financed with loans, often from the companies who bought their product. During the 1950s, much of the fleet fell into the hands of the fish companies due to unpaid debts, turning many Haida fishermen into hired hands on their own boats. While the art of canoe building has since been revived, the Masset Haida lost the art of modern boat building and, along with it, control of their economic destiny. However, they regained something else that may, in the end, prove more important: their stories and ceremonies—the core of the culture.

The curiosity—and the courage—to revisit these losses did not return for decades. An extraordinary recovery process began in the 1960s when Haida artists began to revive the lost arts of pole carving, mask making, and canoe building. With extensive assistance from a number of committed individuals and organizations from off-island, the Haida have performed a monumental feat of self-reclamation that combined mining the memories of the elders with visiting museums throughout the world in order to reacquaint themselves with all that had been lost, stolen, and sold away during the nineteenth century. And it is ongoing; early films and field recordings made by anthropologists aid them in recalling their songs and dances, and ancestral bones are now being repatriated from museums and given proper burials; artifacts, too, are being returned. The scattered pieces of what was very nearly a lost tribe are gradually returning home.

In 1969 Masset’s first post-missionary pole was carved by Robert Davidson, who was one of the leaders of the Haida renaissance. Davidson’s grandmother wanted to dance at the pole raising, but nothing like this had happened on Haida Gwaii for generations. Lacking anything in the way of the masks or costumes once associated with this activity, she wore a paper bag over her head. It was like a scene from Fahrenheit 451, this elderly woman—one of the last links to a culture that had been thousands of years in the making—shuffling across the floor, leading the others as their feet rediscovered the lost steps, and the words reassembled in their minds and mouths to resonate once again after a terrifying silence. It was this generation—the one that had personally known the smallpox survivors—who saw to it that the golden spruce story, along with so many others, survived to the present day.

ON THE NORTHWEST COAST, stories are considered property, just as land or automobiles are in Euro-American culture, or as guitar tunings are in some Hawaiian families. Some stories are held in common while others belong to a specific clan, or family, who are the only ones entitled to tell it; the same goes for certain dances, songs, and heraldic crests. If you were to ask a Haida in Skidegate to tell you the story of the golden spruce, she would say, “That’s not our story,” and then she would send you up to Masset, several days’ paddle—now, an hour’s drive—to the north. If you were to ask a Masset Haida to tell you the story, he might tell you, if he knew it, but he would probably refer you to an elder in the Tsiij git’anee clan.

The story of K’iid K’iyaas—the golden spruce—was not committed to paper until 1988, less than a decade before the tree was cut down. The carriers of the story, who had learned it in the Haida language, were frustrated repeatedly as they tried to pass it on to Caroline Abrahams, a Haida teenager who collected the story for inclusion in a book on the history of the Yakoun River. Abrahams, who now lives in West Virginia, is, like all of her peers, unable to speak or understand the Haida language (there are fewer than thirty fluent speakers left, and the youngest of them, Diane Brown, is in her fifties; the rest are twenty years older or more). The elders who recounted the story—among them, Abrahams’s grandmother—stopped repeatedly in mid-sentence to say, “There is no word for this in English.” As is the case with the adoption of any conqueror’s language, it is more an act of necessity than a labour of love and the result is often a less-than-perfect grasp. Thus, to read a native Haida speaker’s English version of the golden spruce story is like reading one of The Canterbury Tales in rudimentary Haida. It is impossible to calculate just how much nuance, meaning, and art remain on the far side of the translation, but it is considerable. Still, as with all good stories, the story of K’iid K‘iyaas has some universal qualities; it combines elements of the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and Noah’s Ark with the Greek myths of Artemis and of Orpheus and Eurydice. But this version begins with a boy shitting on the beach.

One winter many years ago, a young man went down to the beach to relieve himself. It was too cold to squat so he stood. When he was finished he looked down and there was his turd, standing straight up like a tree in the snow. The young man thought this was funny and he laughed and laughed. And that is when the snow began to fall without stopping. All the winter supplies ran out, and still it snowed. One by one the villagers died of cold and starvation until only two people were left: an old man and his grandson. They realized their only hope lay in trying to escape the doomed village, and so, with the blizzard still raging, they dug their way out. Once they had travelled for some distance, they were amazed to find the forest alive with summer.

As they walked, searching for a new home, the old man issued a warning. “Don’t look back,” he said to the boy. “If you do, you will go into the next world. People will be able to admire you, but they won’t be able to talk to you. You’ll be standing there until the end of the world.”

But the way was long and tiring, and the boy missed his fishing gear. He couldn’t resist stealing one last look at the only home he’d ever known. But when he did, his feet took root in the forest floor. The boy cried out for help, but despite his grandfather’s best efforts, he remained rooted in the ground. “It’s all right, my son,” said the boy’s grandfather. “Even the last generation will look at you and remember your story.”

It was this boy who became the golden spruce. There are stories up and down the coast of rocks, islands, and mountains representing humans, animals, and spirits who have been transformed; even Vancouver has Siwash Rock, a fifteen-metre-high sandstone pillar representing another disobedient boy who was transformed after defying the gods. But of all the known Haida or West Coast transformations, the golden spruce is the only one that involved a living*11 creature who could be seen by everybody whether they were native or foreigner, believer or skeptic. The golden spruce, in fact, was uniquely suited to bridge the gaps of time and culture. Trees are the only readily visible living things with such tremendous temporal reach, and no other tree was so strangely distinctive, so undeniably Other, that it could be recognized instantly by anyone, no matter what their culture, or at what point in history they came upon it. Left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century. The stump revealed not a trace of rot, even though some internal decay is common in coastal trees more than 250 years old.

In addition to this version of the story about the making of the Haida’s golden boy, there are variations. One tells us that the snow came as a punishment from the creator for intratribal fighting; another attributes this freezing flood to a general lack of respect for nature, demonstrated symbolically by the boy laughing at his own feces. Another version describes the two lead characters as the sole survivors of a smallpox epidemic who wanted to live forever. Yet another take on this tale maintains that the tree would live as long as the Haida Nation, and that its death would herald the end of the tribe. “Regardless of how you state it,” observed the elder Robin Brown, “people are going to contradict you.” While people who have grown up with the written word might view these variations as inconsistencies, it is worth remembering that prior to the publication of the first English dictionaries in the seventeenth century, even spelling was a highly subjective business; each rendering of a word was the result of an individual’s personal decision in the moment. Oral traditions are not so different; each version of a story is highly dependent on a given teller’s memory, integrity, agenda, and intended audience, but it also depends on the current needs of the teller, the listeners, and the times.

At the root of the golden spruce story, though, is a very simple message: respect your elders, or you’ll be sorry. However, beneath this surface layer of meaning, the parable could also be read as a lesson on how to survive the loss of one’s entire village to a massacre or smallpox or, for that matter, how to weather a stint in residential school: don’t look back; don’t try to return to that dead place. But everyone in a position to deny or confirm this, or any other theory, is dead. Even the grandmother who heard this story as a girl and passed it on to her granddaughter has passed on. Like the tree and the man who cut it down, the story is a puzzle or, more accurately, a piece of a puzzle, the whole of which can never be fully known.