The Secret - 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 12. The Secret

Grey, dear friend, is all theory,

And green is the golden tree of life.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, FAUST

FROM THE POINT OF VIEW of physics, all of us are rebels because we spend our lives actively subverting the forces of gravity and entropy, two of the fundamental laws to which all earthly matter must ultimately answer. But the tree is the greatest living symbol of this twofold defiance. Trees are simultaneously photo-and geotropic; that is, they are programmed not only to seek out the shortest path to the noonday sun, but also to directly oppose the downward pull of gravity. This is why most trees tend to be straight, well-balanced, and, relatively speaking, tall. What is more, they pursue these radical objectives tirelessly, in some cases for millennia. Viewed in this way, it could be argued that trees represent aspiration and ambition in their purest forms. Simply by daring to take root and grow, they bellow: “We refute gravity and entropy thus!”

Lots of people take inspiration from trees and forests, and we often like to think of them as sanctuaries of peace and tranquility. But this is deceptive; forests are, in fact, ruthlessly competitive places, where trees—and even branches on the same trunk—are engaged in life-and-death struggles for optimal position. The winner in this slow-motion race for space and light is determined by the tree or branch that photosynthesizes fastest and best. Photosynthesis, the process of manufacturing usable energy (carbohydrates) from sunlight and carbon dioxide, takes place in a tree’s leaves or needles, and is an enormously complex process. Part of it involves the breaking down of carbon dioxide molecules. Our lives literally depend on this, because it is from this gas that the tree derives the oxygen we breathe. The overpowering need for sunlight is one reason West Coast conifers get so tall so quickly. Conversely, when such a tree is grown in isolation from its neighbours, it will concentrate on girth rather than height, resulting in a fatter, bushier version of its lean, competitive counterparts in the forest.

But no matter how vigorous a tree may look on the outside, this, too, is mostly illusion: like the earth’s crust, the live portion of a tree is only a thin veil covering an otherwise lifeless mass. As counterintuitive as it may seem, a dead tree, shot through with moulds, fungi, invertebrates, and bacteria, contains far more living material. The live portion of a healthy tree represents only about 5 percent of the total; the rest is just scaffolding, not unlike a coral reef. Beneath its greenery, a tree is really a series of concentric tubes, each of which performs a specific function—defensive, vascular, or structural.

The outermost “tube”—the bark—functions much like our own skin: it protects the tree from external attacks such as animals, insects, and fire, and also helps to contain the fluids that keep the tree alive. Its thickness varies according to the needs of the tree; while the bark of a beech tree, for example, is less than two centimetres thick, the bark on a big Douglas fir might be twenty centimetres through. Douglas fir thrives in the drier ground of the northwest where thick bark is helpful as a fire retardant. It is also heavy; loggers have been killed on occasion by falling “walls” of this tree’s bark. Just inside the bark is the tree’s vascular system, which is not much thicker than a piece of cardboard. While photosynthate, which originates at the leaves or needles, is drawn inward to feed the rest of the tree, additional nutrients are drawn upward from the earth in a matrix of water through a process called transpiration. In this capacity, a tree operates like a giant straw with many subdividing lines. In the case of a big West-Coast tree, an individual molecule of water may take a week or more to travel from root to branch, and yet such a tree can release thousands of litres of water into the air each day. Under the right conditions, a forest can generate its own fog and rain.

Sandwiched within the vascular system is the cambium; only one cell thick, it is this gossamer-thin “tube” of tissue that actually generates a tree’s wood in the form of annual rings. Inside the cambium and vascular layers is the “dead” central core of the tree; its cells may hold and transport water, but they are not alive in the sense of being actively engaged in the construction or maintenance of the tree. Over time, the water in these cells is replaced with a rigid, epoxy-like substance called lignin, which gives a tree its strength. And this—the tree’s cellulose—is where the money is. An amazing variety of things can be made from it—things as crude as charcoal and lumber, and as refined as rayon and cellophane. Even so, when you compare the elegance, economy, and complexity involved in the making of a tree with our various attempts to exploit it, we look like so many cavemen banging sticks together.

Photosynthesis is a true natural alchemy; it is what allows a plant to, literally, build itself from air, water, and light—from “nothing.” This is an awesome feat on any scale, but it beggars comprehension when one considers the sheer mass of material that must be generated in order to “build” a sequoia, a redwood, or a Sitka spruce tree. In the case of the golden spruce, however, the ability to do this was severely compromised because any needles exposed to sunlight had their chlorophyll drastically depleted. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in leaves and needles and it is what makes photosynthesis possible. In terms of its ability to convert energy, the golden spruce’s impairment could be compared to a person with lungs that function at a third of their normal capacity. For this reason, no one is quite sure why the golden spruce was able to compete so well against healthy trees for three hundred years, or why it was able to grow to over fifty metres tall.

A tree that exhibits this pronounced yellowing is called a chlorotic, and while it is not uncommon to see a chlorotic branch—or “sport”—on an otherwise healthy specimen, it is impossible, in the theoretical sense that the flight of bumblebees is impossible, for an entire tree to be chlorotic and survive. Chlorosis is directly related to the health and well-being of the carotenoids—hydrocarbons which form the red, yellow, and orange pigments found in all photo-synthesizing cells. As unfamiliar as their name may be, most people can recognize them at a glance; it is carotenoids (from the same root as “carrot”) that are responsible for the brilliant fall colours in deciduous (leaf-bearing) trees. While these pigments are present throughout the year, they only become visible as the leaves die back in winter because they break down more slowly than the green chlorophylls that ordinarily dominate a leaf’s colour. In conifers, however, they play a more modest, supporting role; under normal circumstances this order of tree species seldom reveals its carotenoids in any obvious way—hence the nickname “evergreen.” Exceptions to this rule occur most often in the cases of death and disease.

Chlorosis can be caused by any number of things, including infertile soil, bug infestations, girdling (the typically fatal removal of a strip of bark all the way around the tree), and by too much, or too little, sun and/or water. But the golden spruce suffered from none of these afflictions. Not only was it big and old, which translates to “successful” in Sitka spruce terms, but it was growing in prime spruce habitat under ideal conditions. All the trees around it were healthy. Lacking external causes for chlorosis, all the evidence points to the condition originating within the tree itself. Rather than suffering from some pathology, the golden spruce probably had some inherent flaw, most likely one that affected the carotenoids. One of the several functions served by carotenoids is that of a barrier to ultraviolet light; in this capacity they act as a kind of natural sunscreen—a localized ozone layer—to protect the more UV-sensitive chlorophyll. In a plant where the carotenoids are not blocking UV rays as they should, the chlorophyll will break down and the plant will die. As long as such a tree remains shaded, its defective carotenoids won’t be tested, but as soon as they are exposed to direct sunshine, the flaw is revealed. As the undefended chlorophyll deteriorates, the green in the needles is lost, leaving only the faulty yellow carotenoids, which are unable to photosynthesize on their own. Under ordinary light conditions these yellow needles (which are still alive) will usually burn out and fall off. Chlorosis of the kind exhibited by the golden spruce bears some similarities to albinism, but a closer analogy can be found in xeroderma pigmentosum, the exceedingly rare skin disease that makes ultraviolet light fatal to humans. Though profoundly disruptive to a normal life, a person with this disease can protect himself by avoiding sunlight. However, a tree with this condition finds itself in a lethal Catch-22: in its instinctive quest for light it grows itself to death.

Somehow the golden spruce defied all logic by growing tall enough to be exposed to the sun’s full force without being killed in the process. Nor was it seriously stunted or delayed in any way; it was the same size as a normal tree of its age would have been under those growing conditions. And colouring wasn’t the only way in which the tree distinguished itself; as the golden spruce grew to maturity it revealed another peculiarity. Normal Sitka spruce trees are not only promiscuous—they will interbreed with any other spruce that will have them—they are also hermaphroditic, meaning each individual produces its own ovules as well as the pollen to fertilize them. But the golden spruce produced neither, making it, in effect, an asexual, infertile one-off; the chances of such an accident occurring again—successfully—are almost incalculably small.

Not only was the golden spruce sterile and a radically different colour than its normal counterparts, it also assumed a markedly different shape. As noted earlier, Sitka spruce are not particularly tidy trees; unlike many other conifer species, their natural tendency is toward frowsy asymmetry. The golden spruce, however, possessed a hedgelike density and an uncharacteristically conical shape. “It was perfect,” recalled a Haida silversmith and tree faller named Tom Greene. “It looked like a manicured tree.” An American forester and soil scientist named Edmond Packee who spent several years in Haida Gwaii and was familiar with the tree speculated that its compact, tapered appearance was a spontaneous adaptation intended to minimize the UV exposure that more typically wayward branches have to endure. Supporting this theory are photos of the golden spruce that show the dead and bleached remains of limbs that tried to venture out beyond the golden safety zone.

Plant physiologists, like doctors, have difficulty explaining strange behaviour in the absence of pathology. How does one make sense of a specimen that looks “sick” but isn’t? The only way botanists know to explain an oddity like this is with the term “mutation.” But, without analyzing a plant’s DNA, this is a vague explanation at best. A tree, like a person, can in theory be riddled with mutations that are invisible; as long as they don’t impact the individual’s appearance or health, they can go undetected. In an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery, a young forester named Grant Scott wrote his undergraduate thesis on the golden spruce. While he was enrolled in UBC’s school of forestry in the mid-sixties, he spent two summers cruising timber in Haida Gwaii. During that time he got to know the Yakoun Valley very well; not only did he acquaint himself with the golden spruce, but he found its biggest and best-known counterpart about fifteen kilometres upriver in a nearly identical position on the east bank. This Sitka spruce, while technically golden, is less uniformly coloured and more typically spruce-shaped; about thirty metres tall and a hundred years old, it is, one could say, more like what one would expect of a mutant under those circumstances. There are, in addition to this one, a couple of other “golden” spruces rumoured to live on the islands, but like the one Grant Scott found, none of them is as big, yellow, or uniquely shaped as the legendary tree that grew at the north end of the Yakoun.

Back in Vancouver, casting about for a thesis topic, Scott realized that what he really wanted to investigate was this extraordinary tree. But this would be a hard project to sell to his professors, most of whom were focused on the logging industry. Oscar Sziklai might have been a possible adviser if he hadn’t been too busy to trouble himself with undergraduates. It was at this point that a young professor from Yale named John Worrall entered the picture. Worrall was another Englishman, a contemporary of Bruce Macdonald’s, who had been hired by UBC to teach plant physiology. He actively encouraged Scott to pursue the mystery of the golden spruce and agreed to sponsor him. The goal of Scott’s thesis was to determine (a) why the golden spruce was golden, and (b) how the tree could survive with such a crippling disability. According to Scott’s research, it all comes down to chloroplasts, the tiny, subcellular bodies that do for plants what photo-voltaic cells do for solar-powered machinery. It is the disc-shaped chloroplasts that generate chlorophyll, thus enabling photosynthesis to take place. The needles on a tree are essentially vehicles for the chloroplasts, and they function much like solar panels; they are so well designed that chloroplasts will actually reorient themselves within a tree’s needles throughout the day in order to take full advantage of the sun. The flaw, believed Scott, lay in the proteins that bound the chloroplasts together. They functioned normally until they were exposed to sunlight, at which point they would mutate, causing the chloroplasts to become dangerously inefficient. Fortunately for the golden spruce, the needles that weren’t directly exposed kept their integrity and were able to live—even thrive—on reflected light.

Grant Scott’s experiences with the Haida and the natural force of the islands made such an impact on him that instead of pursuing a career in the logging industry, he has become a negotiator and forestry adviser who works exclusively with northern coastal tribes. “Every time I go back there, I feel just the way I did the first time,” he explained from his home on a small island in Georgia Strait. “You just want to go and see what’s over that next hill. Of course,” he added, “you know what’s over there now.” He was referring to clear-cuts.

Trees, like people, mutate all the time, but with each roll of the chromosomal dice there are heavy casualties. The mutation that likely caused the golden spruce isn’t all that uncommon—most tree breeders have encountered golden seedlings at one time or another—it is the Yakoun specimen’s vigorous survival that is truly freakish. And it points to such a mutation being uniquely adapted to the heavy cloud cover of Haida Gwaii. Its location next to the river may have met other preconditions for survival as well: in addition to exceptionally fertile floodplain soil, it could have benefited from a phenomenon called albedo.

When solar radiation encounters an object, it is either absorbed or reflected—usually a bit of both; the percentage that is reflected is called the albedo, and it fluctuates according to the reflectivity of the substance in question. Fresh snow, for example, has an albedo of 75 to 95 percent, which is why alpinists can get sunburned on the insides of their nostrils; a highway, on the other hand, has an albedo of 10 to 15 percent: it doesn’t reflect much, but it gets hotter than hell—just like beach sand. Sunlight reflected off of water still contains everything needed to facilitate photosynthesis (the visible portion of the light spectrum is called photosynthetically active radiation, or PAR), but its albedo fluctuates depending on the sun’s angle: low-angle morning and winter light has a much higher albedo—as much as 100 percent—while the midsummer noonday sun has an albedo of less than 10 percent. The state of the water’s surface is also a factor, but the Yakoun is glassy smooth where it flows past the tree so it wouldn’t have reduced the potential albedo in an appreciable way. Given that there are lots of other tall trees in the immediate vicinity, the only sunlight that finds its way to the surface of the Yakoun is higher-angled midday and summer sun, which translates to a low albedo—just what the doctor might have ordered for a UV-intolerant tree like the golden spruce. It is conceivable that even though the golden, skyward-facing needles were out of commission, the green needles underneath may have been nourished by the albedo bouncing up from below. And though they were dysfunctional, the golden needles may have contributed something as well; while the albedo of a typical conifer forest is only around 10 percent, the golden spruce’s was much higher. Its needles were so reflective that in video footage of the fallen tree shot with a camera light, they are actually blinding. Perhaps, then, the golden spruce’s defect also helped to keep it alive, by reflecting a higher—but not lethal—percentage of the albedo onto the unaffected needles.

But even if this turned out to be the case, so what? From the point of view of the Haida’s oral amalgam of history, myth, and parable, such speculation amounts to little more than a parlour game for botanists. If one were to analyze the mathematical chances of a single tree having not one but at least three highly visible defects that impacted not only its physical structure and ability to photosynthesize but its ability to reproduce as well—and then factor in the likelihood of their occurring in an environment that would somehow enable the tree to survive and flourish in spite of them—one would come up with odds bordering on the infinite. The word “miraculous” might legitimately come to mind, and in a version of the golden spruce story that probably predates the one about the disobedient grandson, a miracle is exactly what was requested.

Hazel Simeon is a Haida artist and a maker of button blankets—ceremonial cloaks—which she sells to the Haida and also to collectors of Haida art, and her specialty is blankets depicting the story of the golden spruce. She speaks Haida fluently and was one of the last islanders to be raised in anything resembling a traditional fashion. As a child in the 1950s, she was told by the elders in her family that she was to be a blanket maker. “They wouldn’t even let me cook or fish,” she said. “They didn’t want me to be distracted.”

Traditionally, button blanket makers are women, but the tight, formulaic designs they use are almost always drawn by men; they are then appliquéd, typically, with black and red felt outlined by plastic or abalone buttons. But Simeon’s blankets are altogether different; rendered in wool, cotton, buckskin, and suede, they may be decorated with golden beads, discs of copper and brass, buttons of abalone, stone, bone, and anything else she is given or manages to find. When she makes a golden spruce blanket, its trunk is also the torso of a man or a woman, depending on which part of the golden spruce story she is telling. According to Simeon, the first tree was a woman and the second tree—the one Hadwin cut down—was a man: the woman’s nephew. They were the sole survivors of a smallpox epidemic; it was clear to both of them that their clan was doomed and that the magic, as Simeon puts it, was finished. Because of this, they requested that the spirits leave a sign that this magic had once existed so that future generations, whoever they might be, would understand who had lived there and the power they had once wielded. The aunt died first and the nephew buried her on the banks of the Yakoun. A golden spruce grew over her grave, and it was a “female” it grew for “about three hundred years” before being struck by lightning. The nephew, by this time, was very old and not feeling well, so he went to his aunt’s grave to wait for death to come. When he died, a second golden spruce grew. This was the sterile male—the last golden spruce.

Time and events are clearly elastic in this version of the story, but it is still tempting to ask if such miracles could occur; they certainly do in the Bible, a text with which most Haida storytellers of the past century are familiar. Still, common sense would say not, and yet scientists have demonstrated that under ideal conditions, a spruce scion can take root simply by being plunged into receptive soil. It would be hard to find soil more receptive than that of the Yakoun Valley. Eagles and ravens are common here, often perching in the tops of trees, where they will clip branches with their powerful beaks. It is conceivable, then, that a clipped or broken twig from the top of the “first” golden spruce could have found its way, stem foremost, into the rich humus of a rotting nurse log or the forest floor. The chances are minute, of course, but no more so than the chances that the golden spruce would have grown in the first place. It is exactly this willingness to host the implausible that makes the islands and their surroundings so extraordinary.

Until a hundred years ago, the golden spruce coexisted with the only caribou known to have lived in a rainforest environment. Before 1908, when the last four specimens were shot by hunters, Graham Island was home to Dawson’s caribou, a subspecies that was probably stranded on the islands following the last ice age. On the other side of Hecate Strait, in a confined area around Princess Royal Island and the adjacent mainland, lives a unique population of white black bears. According to scientists, these kermode bears are the result of a recessive gene—not albinism; they make up about 10 percent of the local bear population, and they interbreed normally with their black counterparts.

Nearby, in the same waters that support the world’s largest octopus (the Pacific Giant), are the last known vestiges of the most massive entity that ever lived. The first signs that something huge and remarkable might be living in Hecate Strait showed up in 1984 while scientists with the Geological Survey of Canada were doing a sea-floor mapping exercise. Using sonar imaging, they observed certain acoustic anomalies that generated what was described as an “amorphous, irregular seismic signature having no coherent internal reflectors.” The source of the cryptic message turned out to be a vast prehistoric sponge that covers hundreds of square kilometres of sea bottom in Hecate Strait, southward to Queen Charlotte Sound. Before this remnant was discovered, silicious (“glass”) sponge reefs of this kind were believed to have been extinct for 65 million years. During their most successful era in the late Jurassic period, 140 million years ago, they covered hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of what was then the ocean floor; their fossilized remains have been found from Romania to Oklahoma. Meanwhile, 250 kilometres southwest of these sponge reefs and more than two kilometres beneath the surface, an isolated group of volcanically heated vents is generating the highest liquid water temperatures ever measured in nature (over 370 degrees Celsius). Surrounded by a virtually lifeless deep-sea desert, these thermal “oases” support a bizarre ecosystem teeming with hundreds of thousands of creatures per square metre.

IN 1977 GORDON BENTHAM managed to get hold of some golden spruce scions from a Vancouver Island nurseryman; like Sziklai’s, they had been taken from about halfway up the tree and exhibited the branchlike plagiotropy common to the species. Once again, only a tiny percentage of the cuttings survived (in private gardens), and among them was the pair that Bentham gave to Roy Taylor in 1983. At the time, Taylor tucked the five-year-old trees into a shady, out-of-the-way spot in UBC’s botanical garden and hoped for the best. A decade later the trees were still alive, but they were only about two metres tall (an ordinary spruce would be close to fifteen metres tall by this time). It was at this point that a UBC gardener named Al Rose took it upon himself to move the golden dwarfs to a somewhat sunnier location, and it was there, next to a quiet path in the garden’s native plant section, that Taylor’s successor, Bruce Macdonald found them. Within twenty-four hours of finishing the Sun article about the felling of the tree, Macdonald was taking calls from CNN, the New York Times, and film crews from as far away as Germany and Japan.

Macdonald immediately notified the Haida tribal council and offered them one of the trees, but this raised a host of questions that neither he nor the Haida had easy answers to. First of all, the cuttings had been taken without Haida permission so they were, in the eyes of some, stolen property; what, then, was the appropriate response to an offer of their return in a radically altered state? Second, the trees had been grown off-island; if they weren’t nurtured by the Yakoun, were they really the same golden spruce? These questions came at a time when North American tribes had begun challenging the rights of museums to the bones and artifacts that were exhibited in their halls and stored in their basements. The Haida, in particular, have had good success repatriating some of this material, but they were ambivalent about Macdonald’s well-intentioned offer. However, they showed enough interest that Macdonald ordered the healthier of the two specimens to be dug up and prepared for shipment to the islands. With its root ball wrapped in burlap, the tree was then taken to the garden nursery, where it was set in a bed of sawdust and left alone except for regular watering. Meanwhile, Canadian Airlines was contacted and they offered to airlift the tree to the islands free of charge. Everything was in place down south, but there was still disagreement within the tribal council about where the tree should go and who should administer it. As the debate wore on, the storm around Hadwin and the tree blew itself out; other issues, among them the continued clear-cutting of the northern islands, pushed their way to the fore. Ordinarily a two-metre Sitka spruce could survive “in storage” almost indefinitely, as long as it was watered, but UBC’s golden spruce was much less stable. Badly stressed by the move, it began shedding its needles, and within six months the tree was dead.

While Macdonald had been making plans to move the UBC specimen, the Haida had been consulting with local foresters at MacMillan Bloedel, who were supporting the Haida in their efforts to save the tree, and plans were being made to take new cuttings. As it turned out, this was the only upside to an otherwise tragic situation: if Hadwin had cut the tree at any other time of year, there would have been virtually no hope of saving it. Scions can only be taken between the months of December and February, when the trees of the North Coast are dormant. The winter months also mark the critical threshold between the summer formation of the next year’s buds and the springtime when they flush, or sprout. The bud is the key to a scion’s success; without one, a scion or, for that matter, a tree has no motive to carry on. Once again, the fate of the golden spruce resided in a tiny, kinetic bundle waiting for a highly unlikely set of circumstances to set it in motion, just as it had three hundred years before.

Another advantage to the tree being on the ground was that it would now be possible to take the most promising scions from the very top where apical dominance—the upward growing impulse—is strongest. While there was some debate among the Haida leadership about whether to try to revive the tree or simply let nature take its course, there was no time to lose and those in favour of taking cuttings prevailed. Even so, it could still be a moot point: given the previous record of propagation attempts, there was no guarantee that these would fare any better. Erin Badesso, a forester for MacMillan Bloedel who was based in the islands, made arrangements with the Ministry of Forests’ Cowichan Lake research station at the south end of Vancouver Island; he then took about eighty cuttings from the tree as it lay dying on the bank of the Yakoun. Amputated tree limbs are treated much like those of human beings: after being wrapped in wet newspaper and plastic bags, the golden spruce cuttings were packed in ice-filled coolers and flown south where they were divided up between three different propagators who would use a variety of methods in order to maximize the odds of success. The bulk of the cuttings were given to Luanne Palmer, an expert grafter at the Cowichan Lake research station, who dropped everything and set to work. Palmer had the sense that she was engaged in a unique undertaking when she unwrapped the scions, which, even in their semifrozen state, retained their striking golden qualities. She had done grafts like these thousands of times before—as many as six hundred in a single day—but never had the stakes been so high. When Sziklai took his cuttings, the parent tree had been alive and well; this time, if the grafts failed, there would never be another chance.

Grafting is an ancient and surprisingly simple process: as one gardener put it, “All you do is attach two wounds together.” However, it helps to have a green thumb and an accommodating plant; roses and fruit trees are the most common candidates, but many conifers are also receptive. Palmer was going to use a side veneer graft, a method that involves attaching a scion about five centimetres long to the stem of a normal Sitka spruce seedling. In the case of a side graft, both scion and rootstock have their bark cut away at the point of contact and are then bound together with ordinary rubber bands; afterward a drop of wax is daubed on the high side of the joint to keep excess water out. Palmer did this about forty times while another forty cuttings were set directly into specially prepared soil. Then, as all those with a stake in the golden spruce held their breath, the little clones were taken to the greenhouse, where nature would take its course. Assuming the scions survived the grafting and planting processes, it would be at least two months before they flushed, indicating that the scion was viable and growing. Once over this hurdle, it would still take at least six months of careful watering and fertilizing before it would be deemed safe to start pruning back the rootstock’s other branches in order to encourage the golden scion to take over as the leader. Even if it survived this step, it would be an additional two or three years before this somewhat Frankenstein-like golden spruce was ready for transplanting. During this lengthy and labour-intensive process, there was a lot of time and space for things to go wrong, but no one doubted it was worth the risk or the trouble. What these cuttings promised that Sziklai’s and Bentham’s hadn’t was a scion that would grow like a tree rather than a branch. If Palmer’s grafts took and things went well, a true golden spruce might once again grace the Yakoun.