Friday, June 29, 2012

The Golden Spruce: a True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant

A.A. Knopf Canada, c2005.

The most compelling parts of the book for me were the descriptions of the trees and the forest, and the outlining of the various processes and challenges of cutting them down throughout history.

A coastal forest can be an awesome place to behold: huge, holy, and eternal-feeling, like a branched and needled Notre Dame, but for a stranger it is not a particularly comfortable place to be. ...Underfoot is the leg-breaking tangle of roots and branches and, every fifteen metres or so, your way is blocked by moss-covered walls of fallen trees that may be taller than you and dozens of metres long. These so-called nurse logs will, in turn, have colonnades of younger trees growing out of them, fifty years old and as orderly as pickets. In here, boundaries between life and death, between one species and the next, blur and bend: everything is being used as a launching pad by something else; everyone wants a piece of the sky.

The descriptions of the character and temperaments of the loggers, and the lifestyles required for this line of work were also high points of the book. 

Overall it was a mix of history, biology, mystery, drama, ecology, and economics, which blend together in a fairly engaging way, although not always seamless.  Its success as a book club book will depend strongly on how engaged club members are with the subject matter.  There are many books that can engage readers even if the subject matter didn’t interest them at first, but I’ve found that this book isn’t one of them.  Because the author spends a lot of time immersing the reader into the west coast temperate rain forest, if you aren’t happy to be there, then this book may not work so well. 

By the same token, the opposite is also true – if, like me, readers find the above quotation engaging, and have concern for the conservation of North American forests and the state of the environment in general, then they may have more to talk about.

Discussion Questions
  1. Which parts of the book did you enjoy the most?
  2. Did you find this book depressing, or inspiring?
  3. Would you ever want to go to the interior of the forests described in this book?
  4. Vaillant mentions on a few occasions the notion of a “compromise” required by those working in the timber business.  What does he mean by this?
  5. How does Vaillant portray the Haida people?
  6. How is the Golden Spruce tree portrayed in the book?
  7. What did you think of Hadwin’s letter regarding the cutting?  Was he justified in his actions, and how effective was this action? 
  8. What is Hadwin's problem with "university trained professionals?"
  9. Does where the reader lives have any bearing on how this book is received? [How does this book relate to your book club's environment, country and culture?]
  10. What they lack in long term character, beauty or soul, they gain in alleged efficiency and cost effectiveness.”  Can this statement be applied to just about any product or service these days?

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