EPILOGUE - 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)



How like something dreamed it is.

How long will it stand there now?

—W. S. Merwin,” Un-chopping a Tree”

PORT CLEMENTS HAS SUFFERED much; not only did the town lose its mascot (the golden spruce is the centrepiece for the town logo), but in November of the same year, its albino raven died in a blinding flash when it was electrocuted on a transformer in front of the Golden Spruce Motel. True albino ravens—as opposed to grey or mottled—are all but unheard of. To get an idea of just how rare these birds are, consider this: Alaska and British Columbia, together cover nearly two and a half million square kilometres and contain the continent’s largest populations of ravens, and yet never in the history of bird observation and collection has a true albino ever been reported in Alaska. The Port Clements specimen is the only one ever to have been observed in British Columbia (it has since been stuffed and is now on display in the town’s logging museum). The raven is the most powerful creature in the Haida pantheon; it was Raven who ushered the first humans into the world. According to one famous Haida story, he started out white, only turning black when he flew out of a bighouse smoke hole, having stolen back the light for a world that had been darkened by a powerful chief. In a strange example of mythical consistency, the white raven’s mode of death caused a blackout in Port Clements. Why two unique and luminescent creatures would occur simultaneously against fantastic odds, only to die in such bizarre ways on the same remote island within a few kilometres and months of each other, is anybody’s guess. Science and the mathematics of chance fall short here, so myth, faith, or simple wonder must fill the void.

For most people in the islands, the golden spruce is a fond, sad memory; people who have lost someone dear to them often speak of a light going out in their lives, and so it was with the golden spruce, its loss felt all the more keenly because it had grown in a place where light is such a precious commodity. “It rains a lot here,” explained one longtime resident, “and it’s cloudy; the golden spruce always looked as if it had the sun on it.”

Beneath the scar tissue of forgiveness and philosophical resignation, though, there lies a lingering bitterness that is as pointed as ever. During a meeting with some Tsiij git’anee elders in which they were speculating about the current whereabouts of Hadwin, it became clear that all of them think he is still alive. When one of them suggested that he might come back to the islands, the eldest of them all, a sweet, crocheting octogenarian named Dorothy Bell who is known as “the mother of everybody,” shook her head. “If he does,” she muttered in a baleful tone, “I hope they hang him by his damn neck.” This was five years after the tree had been cut down.

During a similar discussion about Hadwin between a group of tugboat operators, one of them, who had unknowingly crossed Hadwin’s path in Prince Rupert Harbour, said, “I’d have run him over in my tug if I’d known it was him.” Nobody was laughing. The same sentiment was expressed by Dale Lore when a heavy-equipment mechanic named Don Bigg abducted a young Haida woman in December of 2000. After being apprehended and charged in the Masset courthouse, Bigg was put in handcuffs and flown to Prince Rupert in a seaplane along with several other passengers, including the judge who had just heard his case. Halfway across Hecate Strait, however, he decided to exit the aircraft with a 110-pound police escort clinging to his leg. In the end, Bigg went out alone, falling 1,500 metres into heavy seas. His body was never found, but within a week a short, dark joke was circulating: “Hope the bastard landed on Grant.”

Relatively speaking, most people here feel about Hadwin the way people in the States feel about Timothy McVeigh: he’s an outsider who came into their place and killed something precious. If they catch him, he will pay. As far as many Haida are concerned, Hadwin is one more white guy who came out to their islands in order to take something away, only to leave behind yet another imported illness: this time, a new strain of terrorism. Hadwin has paid dearly, though; whether he is alive or dead, he has, for all practical purposes, become what the Haida call a gagiid. The word gagiid (ga-GEET) translates, literally, to “one carried away,” and it refers to a human being who has been driven mad by the experience of capsizing and nearly drowning during the wintertime. Dance masks depicting this creature are notable for their wild, piercing eyes, and for their blue or green skin, indicating prolonged exposure to cold water. The cheeks are sometimes shown studded with sea urchin spines—a graphic demonstration of the lengths to which the gagiid will go to keep from starving to death as he caroms between worlds in a state of violent and solitary limbo. However, with the right equipment, and the proper observance of ritual, the gagiid can be captured and restored to his human state, much as Europeans might treat a traumatized or mentally ill person with love, therapy, or medication.*18

Ian Lordon, the journalist who covered the golden spruce story for the Queen Charlotte Islands Observer, and whose reporting did the most to reveal its nuance and complexity, understood that history was being made on two levels. “We’re witnessing a new Haida story,” Lordon explained: “The Death of the Golden Spruce. In a way, we’re fortunate to witness an occurrence that was worthy of setting this process into motion.”

FOLLOWING THE TREE’S DEATH, a number of ideas were conceived for honouring its memory. Among those suggested were: carving the tree into a totem that would stand vigil over the Yakoun; dividing the trunk into smaller sections which would be distributed among prominent Haida artists for their own interpretations, and milling the wood for guitars. Sitka spruce is one of the best woods in the world for acoustic guitar tops, and a plan was hatched to supply a group of Haida luthiers who were already manufacturing high-end acoustic guitars with wood for a special “Golden Spruce Edition.” Some of the reasons none of these ideas got off the ground were the logistics of moving such a big tree out of a roadless fragment of virgin forest; the fact that spruce is much harder to carve than cedar; and human nature in the form of inertia, internecine disagreement, and simple respect for the dead.

In the meantime, the golden spruce has taken on a life of its own—in fact, many lives; it has, in its turn, become a nurse log. Today, the trunk is covered in a thick fur of young seedlings, each one with every intention of beating the odds. But the tree’s regenerative powers are also manifesting themselves in some far more surprising ways. In a remarkable feat of adaptation, this tree has harnessed the same species that killed it and made it a vehicle for its own success. Unbeknownst to anyone at MacMillan Bloedel, at UBC, or in Haida Gwaii, the golden spruce has become the most widely dispersed Sitka spruce on earth. And all because of one man.

One afternoon in the spring of 1980, a high-school science teacher named Bob Fincham pulled into his driveway in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, where he found a large box sitting by his garage door. Its Canadian return address was unfamiliar to him, but Fincham, an avid conifer collector, is an optimist, and he opened the package with high hopes. Inside were several plants in plastic gallon pots, and among them was a Sitka spruce. Fincham knows a lot about conifers, and he specializes in cultivariants—aesthetically pleasing mutations bred for garden use—but he had never seen one like this. Nor had he heard of the person who sent it to him: a fellow conifer enthusiast and supermarket butcher from Victoria named Gordon Bentham. Bentham, it turned out, was an optimist, too; he had heard of Fincham and his impressive conifer collection, and he was hoping that by sending him one of the golden spruce grafts he had recently acquired, he might get something similarly exotic in return. This unexpected gift was the beginning of a vibrant friendship that lasted until Bentham died in 1991.

Fincham’s golden spruce came from the same generation of grafts as those Roy Taylor had acquired (also from Bentham) for the UBC collection, and like them, this one is stunted, plagiotropic, and has never produced cones; other than that, it is perfectly healthy. It even survived a cross-country move to Washington State, where it lives now on the Finchams’ new conifer plantation, which includes 1,400 conifer cultivars from around the world. A number of them are golden (there are golden cultivars of many conifer species), but according to Fincham, none of them is as brilliant as the one he calls ‘Bentham’s Sunlight.’ “People see it from a distance,” explained his wife, Dianne, “and they want to walk toward it.”

In addition to collecting rare and unusual conifers, the Finchams sell them as well, and since Bob Fincham’s green thumb extends to grafting, he has been quietly sharing Bentham’s Sunlight with the world for more than twenty years. Cuttings of this tree are growing now in Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and throughout the United States, among other places. The present price for a graft in a one-gallon pot is US$40, plus shipping. But competition has been heating up recently, and one of Fincham’s beneficiaries, Collector’s Nursery of Battleground, Washington, has posted the following ad on their Web site:

PICEA SITCHENSIS ‘BENTHAM’S SUNLIGHT’—FRESH GRAFT $20.00 NEW! A piece of history from a legendary 300 yr. old Golden Sitka Spruce growing wild on fog shrouded Queen Charlotte Island in Canada, sacred to the Haida Indians, with a tragic end. In 1997 a protester felled this tree in protest to general apathy towards clearcutting. He disappeared before he made it to his court appearance, presumed dead, with only the remains of his broken and battered kayak to be found, and some rudimentary camping gear. A story that has it all—history, sacred symbolism, tragedy, mystery. Grafting material was taken from the downed tree and efforts have been made to graft on to the original rootstock. Read the full story in the American Conifer Society bulletin, fall 1997.

Fincham is a recognized conifer expert and is working on a revision of Krussmann’s Manual of Cultivated Conifers (Timber Press), one of the standard reference texts on the subject. Unless someone objects before the new edition goes to press, the golden spruce will be included under the name or “epithet” ‘Bentham’s Sunlight.’ In the world of horticulture, the person responsible for naming a new plant or cultivar becomes its “author,” and as it turns out, Oscar Sziklai, the author of Picea sitchensis ‘Aurea,’ was using an epithet that had already been taken. There is, in Australia, a cultivar of Sitka spruce with a sickly green colour—not gold at all—that already goes by this name. But it, too, is invalid because Latinized epithets for cultivars have not been recognized by the International Cultivar Registration Authority—the official arbiter of plant taxonomy—since 1958. That year, a new taxonomic policy was instituted that combines Latin with the author’s native tongue; for example, Fincham’s: Picea sitchensis ‘Bentham’s Sunlight.’ How—or if—the Haida will respond to this remains to be seen, but they have more pressing matters to attend to, the foremost being how to regain control of the islands they have never formally relinquished.

IN THE SPRING OF 2000, Luanne Palmer’s golden spruce grafts were declared ready for transplantation, and they were treated with the kind of care usually reserved for masterpieces and controlled substances. Unaware of Fincham’s clones, the Haida had made it clear that no cuttings could be taken unless their distribution remained under tribal control. Their primary concern was not that different from MacMillan Bloedel’s forty years earlier: they didn’t want the tree, or its branches, to be commercialized or turned into souvenirs by aggressive collectors. The Ministry of Forests agreed to these terms and is holding the cuttings in trust for the Haida in a secure location. Because of where they came from on the golden spruce, there is a good chance that these will be dramatically different from Fincham’s second-generation clones.

The Haida gave the town of Port Clements one of Luanne Palmer’s grafts; it was planted next to a church, in the town’s new millennium park, where it may be the safest tree in Haida Gwaii. The spindly knee-high sapling is surrounded by a two-and-a-half metre chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. In June of 2001, a small group of Tsiij git’anee held a private ceremony during which a second cutting was planted beside the stump on the banks of the Yakoun. Both trees are growing in shady areas where they appear reasonably healthy, with golden needles interspersed among the green. Only time will tell whether they will be plagiotropic dwarfs, as every other artificially propagated golden spruce has proven to be, or if they will live up to the lofty message they carry with them from the golden crown of their mother tree.


Board foot (bf)


12” x 12” x 1”

Cubic foot (cu. ft.)


12 bf

Cubic metre (cu. m.)


420 bf, or 35 cu. ft.

Metric ton


1 cu. m. wood (average)



approx. 128 cu. ft.

A highway logging truck can carry twenty-five 50’ x 2’ logs

(approximately 40 cubic metres).

Haida Monarch and Haida Brave (log barges) can each carry approximately 15,000 cubic metres of wood (approximately 430 truckloads).

A typical big log (32’ x 9’) equals 11,500 board feet (approximately 60 tons).

A typical 2,000 square foot (185 square metres) home uses nearly 16,000 board feet of lumber and 6,000 square feet (560 square metres) of structural panels, such as plywood.

It takes approximately 550 cubic metres of wood to produce a weekend edition of the Globe and Mail, in addition to 13 million litres of water and 7.5 billion BTUs of energy.

It takes approximately 20 cubic metres of wood to produce 10,000 copies of the average book, in addition to 450,000 litres of water and 230 million BTUs of energy.