Book Review: The Golden Spruce

GoldenSpruceThumbby Brad Nelson   5/4/14
For me, the point of book reviews is to connect books with readers and to flex my creative “summing up” muscles. It’s not always easy to get to the gist of an idea…or a book. But if you can (as seen with the generally excellent Amazon.com review system), it can save you a lot of time and money.

The overall point of a review is not to show how supposedly erudite or smart I am. The point is that there are hundreds of thousands of books out there and each one takes several hours or days to read. A book is an investment. It may be an investment in knowledge, entertainment, or both, but it’s not like sitting down and whiling away a half hour on I Love Lucy. (That’s what People magazine is for.)

So what can one say about The Golden Spruce, particularly to a non-environmental-wacko audience? Remember, I don’t say that to insult anyone. But the fact of the matter is, those who have grown up in this culture over the last forty years have been indoctrinated into the Church of Global Warming and other silliness. It’s not silly to value nature in its own right. But it is silly to make a religion of it, especially an apocalyptic, human-hating one. Untold damage has been done to nature and to humans via environmental zealotry. The banning of DDT alone, for instance, is said to be responsible for millions of deaths, especially in poorer countries such as Africa.

Therefore reasonableness (and not necessarily reason…read this excellent short post by Michael Potemra) is what should guide us.

It should be noted, for instance, that the subtitle of the book is “A Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed.” And one could say the same thing about Obamacare and many other liberal/Progressive/Communist schemes. If you read this book as a thinking person, you will walk away with the understanding that it isn’t capitalism that is the problem (which is the justification for the Left’s excesses) and it isn’t government that is the problem (which is the justification for Libertarian’s excesses). It’s the human proclivity to zealousness that is the problem.

Whether talking about the environmental destruction of clear-cutting old-growth forests or the economic and cultural destruction of taking 1/6 of the economy (healthcare) and putting it in the hands of Marxists, it’s the same old story of golden-sprucezealousness. And yutes of today (and their parents) have gotten only half of the story. The half they have been programmed with is that utopia has not come because of greedy businessmen. And if only government were large and powerful enough, and run by the right people, we could have paradise on earth.

Most conservatives are not this naive. They understand that the same impulse that can cause men (and governments, it must be pointed out, which facilitated and profited from heavy logging) to clear-cut huge swaths of forest can cause them to cut down huge swaths of liberty. Unlike libertarians, conservatives are not anti-government. We’re anti-zealotry and pro-reasonableness.

Okay, with that preamble out of the way, is this book for you? Do you have to be a tree-hugger to appreciate it? Do you have to be one of those sorts who actually likes marinating in white guilt in order to thumb your way through this one? Do you have to be the type of person who sees humanity as a virus in what would otherwise be a pristine and paradisal earth?

No, but clearly this book is steered toward that market. Even so, the author does generally tell an interesting tale that isn’t absolutely one-sided.

And it is the tale of a giant mutant golden spruce tree in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. It’s the story of a longtime logger, Grant Hadwin, who one day got a “vision” and appoints himself as the protector of the forests. And presaging the environmental wacko movement, in order to draw “awareness” to the plight of the old-growth trees being cut down, he goes out one night under the cover of darkness and chainsaws this rare tree to the ground.

The book itself is full of interesting information unrelated to this event. This event, in fact, is somewhat clumsily wafted in and through the other information and histories of the region and the people of the Northwest. But there’s enough interest in the peripheral events, and the main event, to hold this hodge-podge together. This Grant Hadwin guy is an interesting character. He’s the envrionmental-wacko version of Daniel Boone in many respects. He was extraordinarily well adapted to the forest, as if he were a human nymph.

You learn of the first Europeans to venture to the Northwest which the author says was the last region on earth, besides the two poles, to be explored. And one reason it remained a new frontier was not just because of its remoteness but that it’s so damn wet. (Not news to me, I can tell you.) He reports that many explorers and traders considered this area harsher to live in than the jungles of Africa or South America. And the author creatively points out that the people who ventured here were as if traveling to another planet, not just another continent. It took months or years to make the journey. And one was completely dependent upon one’s “space vessel” (one’s ship) for all the necessities of life. If you lost that ship, you were done for.

Men were first spurred to this Northwest region in any great numbers by the quest for sea otter pelts which sold for huge profits in Asia, particularly China. And one reason you don’t have to be an obnoxious tree-hugger to enjoy this book is that the author isn’t a complete ideologue when it comes to presenting this history. He notes, for example, that the natives of this region where just as guilty as the Europeans in plundering the sea otters and other resources. And he notes the myth of the “noble savage” and the reality that Native Americans were a very war-like, slave-owning people who had a great impact on their environment.

So this isn’t a completely environmental-wacko tome. The author provides all kinds of interesting information, both on the European explorers and traders, and the natives of this region as well. Of particular mention are the natives (the Haida Indians) who live on Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands. And he does a more than fair job of fleshing out these natives and their way of life without painting them completely as victims or noble savages (although at times he does lay it on a little thick). Again, much of the interest of this books lies in the many little factoids about this region, the natives, the forests, etc. The story of the Golden Spruce is somewhat an excuse to delve into these other subjects.

The Golden Spruce itself was some kind of mutant that did not produce an adequate supply of chlorophyl to color the needles of this spruce sufficiently green. It was also sterile. How it still not only survived, but thrived (its growth was  not stunted), is a bit of a mystery. Some explanations are given in the book, but they do not seem definitive. This tree was a true and unique freak of nature.

And the logger-turned-environmental-wacko, Hadwin, made the point in some of the manifestos he circulated that the regular old-growth trees are a wonder too. It’s just that we got used to cutting them down by the trillions of board-feet. And this is true. The idea that there was a limit to the number of trees you could cut down didn’t occur to anyone — not to business and not to the governments who profited from the clear-cutting as well. The forests just seemed limitless, especially to Europeans who had centuries ago cut all of theirs to the ground.

The author also explores the centrality of wood to Western Civilization, which is certainly true. But as much as he tries to blame “capitalism,” he misses the boat on the total picture as he leaves government and human nature somewhat blameless. So, as thoughtful conservatives, you can read this book for purposes of information and enjoyment and understand that this author can’t sometimes see the forest for the trees, although he does note the important human element that one could call an “arm’s race.”

Once the fur trade started and became quite profitable for the natives (who loved showing off their wealth at a good potlatch), it became near impossible to throttle back. Plenty of natives understood that what they were doing was not a good thing, but if their rival tribes had the superior goods and weapons that were supplied by the trade in pelts, they could not afford to fall behind.

This is somewhat related to the idea of “the tragedy of the commons.” Having said that, one should note that the word “sustainability” means nothing as commonly used by the Left today. It’s become a mere slogan. It’s become another unscientific environmental wacko notion. And that could be the subject for a whole other book because in this one, there is no discussion of this aspect. Nor is this author self-aware enough to extend this idea to what you could call “the tragedy of the Communists” wherein, via demonizing the private sector, government reproduces (and exceeds) all the sins of business and private individuals.

This book is chock full of all kinds of interesting tidbits. But it’s not particularly smart. You will need to fill in a few of the blanks yourself as I am doing here.

In fact, you are pummeled a bit by an anti-logger bias. No doubt this author ran into a rather callous disregard for forests-as-forests by the loggers whose livelihoods depended on logging and, humans being humans, needed to rationalize what they were doing (and, again, these thoughtful factors are not included in the book). He seemed to go out of his way to be an axe-grinder (pun definitely intended). And at the end of the book, the author tends to explode a bit into environmental-wacko-ism, but I just skipped that part.

But this does seem to be a well-researched book. And it’s not all axe-grinding. It is indeed a shame that more of the old-growth forests weren’t preserved. These things take from 400 to 600 years to develop. And you don’t have to be a sissy tree-hugger to appreciate the grandeur of the forest as a forest. Conservatives need not cower in shame because they have been so besmirched and slandered by the zealots as wanting to do nothing more than bulldoze the Amazon. We’re not against government regulation. We simply for reasonable government regulation based on facts, not hysteria or The Church of Global Warming.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ve turned most of you off of this book. But it really is filled with much interesting information, made all the more interesting at least to me because I live in the Northwest. And I do like to spend time out with the trees. It’s just that you will never find me actually hugging them or justifying hatred of mankind as a “virus” because I’ve been propagandized by Marxist, Western-hating wackos. • (1908 views)

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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15 Responses to Book Review: The Golden Spruce

  1. steve lancaster says:

    In Arkansas from the mid 1850’s until the end of WWII foresters harvested thousands of acres of white oak. If you have traveled the rails anywhere in the west from St. Louis to San Francisco you have made that trip on Arkansas white oak. By the 1920’s the white oak was mostly gone and large portions of Arkansas were clear cut. There are only a few white oak groves left in the state on private property and some forest managers are replanting with white oak. However, just because the white oak is all but gone does not mean the forests are gone it just not the same forests that existed 200 years ago. Nature finds a way to renew and regrow under almost any circumstance.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Interesting, Steve. The author made the point that what a lot of people now see as “natural” isn’t quite that at all. For instance, he noted the tree that is on the flag of Lebanon…even though there are now damn few trees in Lebanon. And we tend to think of Greece and Italy as those land-baked open areas of grass, rock, and rugged (and mostly bare) hills. But they used to apparently be highly forested areas.

      Certainly this book does kindle an appreciation for trees. And that’s a good thing.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Does he mention that one reason why there are so few trees in Italy and Greece is that they were cut down for charcoal faster than they could be replaced?

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Here’s what he says about Greece:

          Left behind are landscapes we take for granted, though they bear scant resemblance to their preagricultural states. The Lebanese flag has a cedar tree on it because much of what is now desert was thickly forested before the harbingers of civilization—i.e., woodcutters, farmers, and goats—saw to it that large stands of cedar will never grace the Holy Land again. The stark and sere limestone hills that we think of as typical Greek and Italian landscape were once all but invisible beneath a layer of long-gone topsoil held in place by forests of cedar and oak. The pastoral idyll that is rural Europe was once a pillared and leaf-domed shadowland inhabited by bears, wolves, and tribespeople who held the forest to be sacred. Those witch-and fairy-infested treescapes evoked so vividly by Shakespeare and the brothers Grimm actually existed, but with the exception of a few forgotten pockets and a handful of parks, they have not been seen “in person” for hundreds of years.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            In other words, no mention of the loss of trees for charcoal (i.e., renewable energy). It’s like the local zoo moaning about the loss of orangutan habitat without mentioning that a major reason is that so much of it has been converted to oil palm plantations for biofuel. Everything comes at a cost, but liberal ideology ignores that minor detail.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              There are only two references to the word “charcoal.” One of them notes that potash (derived from charcoal) was a New World export. The other reference notes that charcoal is one of the several amazing things that you can make from a tree’s cellulose (including lumber, rayon, and cellophane).

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Well, given that I already buy books faster than I can read them all, I’m unlikely to consider this one. It would be at the bottom of any priority list.

    When I was in college over 40 years ago, I picked up a number of books on “green” topics (including The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth). These were interesting, and no doubt I took them seriously at the time, though not uncritically. But then, later in the decade, I came across contrary works by other authors, such as Petr Bekmann and Samuel W. McCracken, that provided a very different picture. I had no way at the time of knowing which side was right, but in the end chose the path not based on living life fearfully. Further evidence since then has only confirmed the rightness of that decision. (Incidentally, that decision not to live in fear was repeated after the Oklahoma City bombing. There was a brief moment when I wondered about the safety of going to such buildings, and then I decided that I couldn’t live a life of being afraid of my shadow.)

    There is another excellent account of what can happen when “reason” is taken too far: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. In the end, Rubashov decided to confess not merely because of the physical and psychological torture, but also due to his realization that his alleged “crimes” (which never really happened) were in fact what he should have done in accordance with the “thinking consequentially” of the Party. Basically, if he disagreed with the Leader (such as by preferring submarines to battleships in naval construction, the actual example from the book), then it was his duty to overthrow him (no lack of self-esteem in the Party leadership). The charges against him were the actions he should have taken on that basis; the fact that he didn’t was actually a failure on his part to live up to the Party’s principles.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      It would be at the bottom of any priority list.

      Timothy, there’s a certain Schadenfreude aspect to this book, one that the author doesn’t come to grips with. But here you have this guy who is an “environmental terrorist” (if such a word has any meaning), and yet he makes a great deal of money working for the logging industry. His guilt comes on a little late, but some would say better late than never.

      But no mention is made of this act as “terrorism.” And at the same time, the author says the European are guilty of genocide because of unwittingly bringing European diseases to the natives and wiping quite a few of them out…and then the author immediately fudges regarding that use of the word. It’s not a bad effort in regards to bias, given the culture we live in. But it could have been better.

      So wouldn’t a book about a guy like this tie in with description of other environmental zealots and what some of them have done? Surely he paints the loggers and logging industry as single-minded zealots (and that is perhaps an apt description). But are they the only ones? And is zealotry in a “good” cause okay? We never get much of an opinion about Grant Hadwin. There’s a decidedly lack of awareness and self-examination in this book.

      But I think he does a good job of presenting what information he does give and putting it into a very readable narrative. And it’s far far less caustic than the other environmental books out there. I mean, Jesus, I finally stopped watching nature programs because they became just vehicles for environmental-wackoism. I have no problem with the message of preserving nature in the raw and reporting on the state of things. But it all just became so preachy.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    The author also explores the centrality of wood to Western Civilization

    Does he think it is only Western Civilization which has used wood to improve one’s lot in life? The Japanese have an incredible love of trees. Pine and Japanese Maple are highly valued for building and gardens.

    The Chinese have just about cut down every forest that ever existed in the Middle Kingdom. They stopped using wood for shipping pallets years ago. Russia exports huge amounts of timber to them so they are helping to cut down Siberian forests as well.

    Probably the largest single reason, throughout history, that forests have been cleared is for farm land. The old slash and burn method was used throughout history when farmland was overused and people did not understand how to enrich the soil. It was further used when populations grew. This method is still being used in the Amazon forest on Borneo to clear land for industrial agriculture (read palm oil plantations).

    Finally, the environmental wackos aka “Gaiaists” are a combination of Malthusians and Marxists. So instead of helping mankind, we should not chop down trees, which are renewable, but let people die.

    Hadwin sounds like a self-righteous prig. Obviously, he is a better person than the rest of us. Perhaps a Messianic complex in the Church of Global Warming?

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Does he think it is only Western Civilization which has used wood to improve one’s lot in life? The Japanese have an incredible love of trees. Pine and Japanese Maple are highly valued for building and gardens.

      The book mainly is commenting on the Northwest region and Western Civilization. But here’s one of the references to Japan:

      Once upon a time, the lush coastal forests of Japan were a trans-Pacific mirror of our own; mighty conifers grew there, attaining huge sizes in a climate similar to the American Northwest’s. Today, with the exception of a few lone giants still standing in parks or on temple grounds, those forests are gone.

      Here’s another reference to Japan:

      In 1730 millions of sea otters flourished in the kelp beds that dotted the Pacific coast, from Baja California north to Alaska, and south again along the Aleutian Islands and Kamchatka, all the way to Japan; by 1830 the species had been all but extirpated from most of its range.

      That’s pretty much every significant reference to Japan. And it did mention that this Grant Hadwin guy wanted to move to Siberia because it had some of the last remaining huge forested areas. He did journey to Russia once and quickly got into trouble with the law…but nothing lasting. I’m surprised Sean Penn hasn’t made a movie and turned him into a hero. The cutting down of the Golden Spruce would be softened by playing up the fact that this guy was possibly a little schizophrenic. So, his heart was in the right place, but it wasn’t technically his fault. Blah blah blah. A very easy story to whitewash.

      I also question the motives of the Marxists – and question the wisdom of the useful idiots who fall so easily for this environmental crap. I think it’s a wonderful thing to love nature. And there’s nothing at all wrong with set-asides and minimizing toxic waste, etc. And we certainly do have to learn to place some value on nature as nature for this equation to work. But when motivated by a hatred for Western Civilization, for free markets, and for people, nothing good is going to come from that.

      One could say that environmental zealotry brings attention to certain problems. But the problem with zealotry is, there is no off switch. This zealotry we see today is going right into government where the effects of this zealotry can, and likely will, swamp whatever ill effects came from logging.

      Again, I wish the author was writing to a wider audience than just (presumably) environmental wackos and useful idiots (aka “Progressives”). A book that highlights problems such as rampant clear-cutting is a worthy effort. But without some kind of balance, the whole idea of a “balance of nature” becomes a farce. If you don’t tell the whole story, you’re not doing human kind much of a favor…unless, of course, you suppose that propagandizing is the only way. And it might be. But I hold out hope that if the facts are known, people can make reasonable decisions about such things. Instead, you have environmental wacko-ism running rampant and shutting down industry and livelihoods for no good reason.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        A good look at the Communist handling of environmental issues can be found in Ecocide in the USSR, which I have here somewhere (I used it as a minor source for one of my articles for Salem Press’s The Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues. Naturally, those who worship the State fail to consider what will happen when State and Industry are one.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Thanks for the book recommendation. I put it up on the Bookshelf. I loved this comment by a reader at Amazon.com (which I repackaged as a description for the book):

          It should also give pause to any that still believe that handing the ecology to government will fix anything. The Soviets had government like billy hell, and all they managed to do was make uninhabitable cities, turned farm land into salt marshes, and irradiated large portions of Europe.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        this guy was possibly a little schizophrenic

        Ach so, Doktor Nelson, I think you may have hit upon a major malady of the Left. The question of which is cause and which is effect needs to be studied.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Well, that’s what the book said. He was put on meds, and they seemed to be working. But they’re not sure if he continued taking them or not. Apparently this is (oddly) a very common thing with people. I’ve never heard a good explanation for why people stop taking their meds, especially when they are helping.

          Maybe on some level, people just like being mad as a hatter.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      The Japanese have an incredible love of trees. Pine and Japanese Maple are highly valued for building and gardens.

      This book itself, Mr. Kung, was more a celebration of the Haidi natives and the peculiar story of Grant Hadwin (and the story of this remarkable tree, of course). Despite my criticisms, I wouldn’t list it as your typical environmental propaganda. It seems like a good enough book. And most of my beefs are really with author John Vaillant simply being a man of his time. I guess there is no cure for culture other than to comment on it. I did.

      And although this book has generally a low regard for Western Civilization, I think a fair discussion of this issue is to point out that people value things differently. Indeed, the author did point out that throughout the ages man has considered forests to be not as useful as farmland. He also pointed out that forests were often revered. I think he (being a man of his time) weighted things a bit more toward “the noble savage” view of civilization of people being more “at one” with nature and in awe trees.

      But a further discussion of this topic would have yielded the idea that the woods are where bears and wolves hang out. And the author does touch on some of that. Again, I would call this book grist for the mill rather than a thorough and thoughtful handling of the material. But I would say that only a civilization that is rather fat and happy can afford to wring their hands over the felling of trees. For most of life everywhere on this planet, it was considered an advance to cut down the forests and put the land to more productive uses. Even the Indians did this (as the author mentioned). They set fire to forests in order to encourage grazing lands for their favorite prey.

      One could say that this book takes an honest look at the amazing devouring of the forests in the last fifty years, particularly due to modern machinery. It seems honest to say that no one really believed that they could have this kind of impact on the forest so quickly. But it just sort of happened. And what the book also fails to mention is all the fine things that were made with this lumber. It wasn’t all bad news.

      Granted, I wish they would kept more of the old growth, especially along the shorelines. But it will grow back if given time. And I think set-asides in this regard are a good idea if the government isn’t too heavy-handed about it. They should not do as they are doing in California and shut off the water to farmers to supposedly save some obscure species of fish. Without a doubt, there is the usual smug and self-righteous zealotry behind those decisions by members of The Church of Global Warming who hate business and think they are somehow “saving the planet.”

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