ASLE-Canada Newsletter
Issue 2: Spring 2006


Diane Guichon
Ecological Tragedy of a Mythic Nature: A review of John Vaillant’s Golden Spruce

Toronto: Vintage, 2005.  (256 pages. $21)

John Valliant’s account of the brutal 1997 chainsaw death of a unique 300-year-old golden Sitka spruce in the heart of the Queen Charlotte Islands by timber surveyor and logger, Grant Hadwin, is a beautifully crafted, lyrically written text that continues the Canadian tradition of mythologizing nature.  The book opens with Milton’s lines from Paradise Lost describing the Tree of Life: “And all amid them stood the Tree of Life, / High eminent, blooming Ambrosial Fruit / of vegetable Gold; and next to Life.”  We are planted firmly in a textual world that, in Lynn White, Jr.’s words, conceives of nature “primarily as a symbolic system through which God speaks to men” (11).

The Prologue welcomes the reader to a western edge of land where tidal surges and driftwood “burnished to silver. . . lies heaped as high as polar winds and Pacific waves can possibly throw it” (4).  Amongst these most violent of Canadian shorelines man-made artifacts go missing (as did Grant Hadwin himself).  The reader becomes a scavenger searching for meaning in a text where language, story, Native totems, and landscape loom large and as grand as any subject in Shakespearean drama.  There can be no wonder that The Golden Spruce won the Governor General’s literary award for non-fiction in 2005: the book possesses all the elements that Canadians love best in the stories we tell of ourselves, all the things we would like to be true.  Canadians like to believe we possess a caretaker’s relationship with the land; that we could live off the land with only a red and white Swiss army knife in our jeans; that we are familiar with and honour Native storytelling; and that we support the green side of environmental issues.  The magic of The Golden Spruce is that, paradoxically, it also shows us that these ideals seldom reflect the truth--even in Canada.

Early in his book Valliant introduces us to the main characters in this West Coast murder mystery.  Nature becomes an anthropomorphized character of mythic stature: the sea heaves stones, logs, “and even itself into the woods at every opportunity” and tree roots “of shore pine and spruce grope for a purchase on rocks” (7).  The Queen Charlotte Islands, known by the local First Nations as Haida Gwaii, are described in reverent terms of a holy and “eternal-feeling, like a branched and needled Notre Dame,” (8) a world wonderfully in balance with itself: “Trees are fed by salmon, eagles can swim, and killer whales will heave themselves into the graveled shallows and stare you in the eye” (11). 

In the chapter “The Tooth of the Human Race,” Valliant draws our attention to the devastation human beings all over the globe have enacted upon the forests that once covered our planet.  Romans, Greeks, Sumerians, Europeans, and North Americans have all displayed a voracious appetite for wood.  Technology has only added to this devastation.  The Industrial Revolution, the invention of the circular saw, the planing machine, and even the readily-disposable paper bag have contributed to deforestation.  Logging in Canada adopted the attitude of not how to preserve the forest, but “how to master it” (93).  Into this philosophy enters one “heroic” logger by the name of Grant Hadwin.

Described as a man of the forest legendary for his ability to lay out wilderness roads that pushed logging trucks and crews into the most remote areas of the British Columbian timberlands, Hadwin is a paradoxical figure, both a lover of the forest and a man complicit in its destruction: “While doing the work he loved he helped to raze the site of many of his happiest memories” (99).  Perhaps his contradictory relationship with the land contributed to his increasingly erratic behavior that included the writing of manifestos, rants, and letters to various political and judicial figures in Canada.  He even turns his critical eye towards the behaviour of university-trained professionals.  Hadwin reminds us that we (those of us working in academia) should beware of how we “create and positively reinforce facades and perceptions until these facades and perceptions are ‘perceived’ to be fact” (107).

Hadwin, a man who quite literally measured his manhood by stretching his penis across a bar-room table, began to feel he personally had to effect change to prevent the terrorism enacted upon British Columbian forests.  Objecting to what he perceived as a “sick tree” kept as a pet mascot for MacMillan Bloedel, he conducts his own act of terrorism: in the dead of a winter night, Hadwin swims across the YakounRiver dragging his chainsaw behind him and proceeds to fell the mythical Golden Spruce with a series of Humboldt undercuts and cookies (134).  

The sheer popularity of The Golden Spruce reminds us that we love stories of myth and mystery.  As ecocritical readers, though, we must be wary of stories that continue to define nature in relation to humankind.  If we continue to project humankind’s speaking voice onto non-speaking subjects in nature, we support an attitude towards natural subjects that fails to truly reflect how such subjects live and act in the world.  Christopher Manes in his essay “Nature and Silence” describes humanism as a “parade of organic forms [that] is transfigured into a forced march led by the human subject” (21).  By continuing to translate and interpolate the existence of subjects within the natural world into our own human myths and stories, we fail to allow the nonhuman world to articulate its own way of being.  Valliant’s book is a compelling read; nonetheless it does suggest that environmental activism should not be carried out in isolation, and that each issue is profoundly complicated with a history of its own that requires extensive research before action is taken.  University-trained professionals beware.

Works Cited

Manes, Christopher. “Nature and Silence.” The Ecocriticism Reader. Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm, eds. Georgia: U of Georgia P, 1996.

Vaillant, John.  The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed.  Toronto: Vintage, 2005.

White, Jr., Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.”  The Ecocriticism Reader. Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm, eds. Georgia: U of Georgia P, 1996.

Note on Contributor

Diane Guichon is a second-year Masters student in the Universityof Calgary’s English Department. She is a recipient of the SSHRCC Graduate Scholarship Award.

Cindy Spence

A review of Being Caribou, by Karsten Heuer
Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2006

Karsten Heuer’s first-person narrative of his five-month, physically demanding and spiritually challenging attempt to shadow the migration of the Porcupine caribou herd across the northern-most reaches of North America adeptly mingles science and politics with the rhythms of nature. 

Heuer’s writing moves from the scientific language of quantities, dates, and GPS readings towards the language of myth, dreaming, and instinct.  In the Prologue he admits his disbelief when an old man descended of the Athapaskan hunters of the Arctic shares a secret: “Back then people could talk to caribou, and caribou could talk to people.”   It required fourteen months and more than 1500 kilometres of Arctic landscape and wildlife for Heuer to understand and achieve the truth of this statement. 

Leanne Allison, Heuer’s wife, traveled beside him filming and documenting their undetermined journey across the Arctic.  Their willingness to journey into the Arctic without a clear idea of their route or destination (other than the general area of the caribou calving grounds in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve) harkens an image of the great explorer setting out into an unknown landscape.  Indeed, within the first seventy pages the couple encounters every imaginable stereotype necessary for a good Arctic adventure: snowstorms, wolves, grizzly bears, isolation, lack of food (which must be dropped in to the couple by airplane every fortnight), blinding snow, burning sun, a physically demanding landscape that wreaks emotional havoc, and bugs, lots of bugs.  Yet these two humans survive the harshness of the landscape to, as the title indicates, become caribou. 

The narrative contains diary entries, presumably transcribed from Heuer`s personal journal.  These diary entries contain the book’s most poignant prose, a writing that borders on the poetic.  It is within these entries that we find raw fear and emotion; we witness the transformation of Heuer from a scientist who prizes maps and known, quantifiable facts to an instinctual being who values dreams and the rhythms of the landscape. 

Perhaps the only failure of the book is its direct impact on the political stage, although it is not for lack of trying.  Heuer and Allison have been featured in books, magazine articles, films, documentaries and reviews, yet the information and knowledge they gained about the Porcupine herd does not hold sway with any of the politicians in Washington, D.C.  Despite meeting with aides and lobbyists, as described in the Epilogue, Heuer sadly reports the reality of politics: when it comes to oil development, minds are already made up.  As one aide bluntly commented, “the bottom line for voters on this issue [the opening of ANWR to oil drilling] is cheap gas.”

Heuer`s boldest statement affirms the Athapaskan hunter’s claim, that humans and caribou can converse.  He believes that caribou have a language among themselves, a thrumming, as Heuer calls it, that can be heard by humans and that occurs at significant moments in the caribou migration.  This thrumming has not been documented by any other researchers or explorers, yet Heuer believes it could be a keystone to communicating between and with the caribou.  Allison, too, heard the thrumming, although not as early in the journey as Heuer.  Heuer believes that through the combination of thrumming and Heuer and Allison’s presence in the landscape,we talked to caribou, and caribou had talked to us.”  He writes of leaving the Arctic with more questions than when he arrived, questions about dreaming, thrumming, and instinctual ways of knowing and existing, all questions stirred and generated by the animals.  Heuer`s desire to understand these questions close the book. 

Heuer’s book cogently, and perhaps subconsciously, merges the human and non-human elements of the Arctic landscape.  The book represents an attempt to articulate the unknown, to question and validate the importance of myths and dreams, to generate discussion that will lead to greater understanding of the Other, and to record a fantastic and worthy journey into the wilderness of the Arctic and of the soul. 

Note on Contributor

Cindy Spence recently graduated with a Master of Arts degree from the Universityof Calgary.  Her thesis is titled, “Hitch-Hiking in the Canadian North: Clair W. Dawson`s 1916 Journal and Correspondence.”

Angela Waldie

A Review of Phantom Lake: North of 54 by Birk Sproxton
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2005. 214 pp. Paper $29.95

“My story is shot through and through with strands of North,” writes Birk Sproxton in the concluding pages of Phantom Lake, a compelling exploration of the significance of personal, literary, geologic, and historical narrative to Sproxton’s understanding of his “home place” (195). Although Sproxton now resides in Alberta, in Phantom Lake he focuses on his childhood home of Flin Flon, Manitoba, where he frequently travels to reconnect with family, spend summers at various lakeshores, and read and record his attachment to this realm of genealogical and geologic memory. “Towns must be imagined into existence,” he writes, as he notes the importance of novels such as J.E. Preston-Muddock’s The Sunless City (1905) and Douglas Durkin’s The Lobstick Trail (1921) to the conception of Flin Flon (86). Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, a grocer-explorer who tunnels to the centre of the earth in The Sunless City, appears alongside prospectors, explorers, and surveyors, such as Tom Creighton, Kate Rice, David Thompson, and Joseph Burr Tyrrell, in Sproxton’s reflections on Flin Flon. By blurring the delineation between literary and historical aspects of place, Sproxton invites the reader to consider the power of literature to inform history.

The fifteen personal essays of Phantom Lake are arranged neither chronologically nor according to a geographical linearity. Instead, they continually intersect with one another as Sproxton engages in exploration, archival research, and personal recollection to illuminate his portrayal of Flin Flon. As I encountered the myriad names of towns, ghost towns, lakes, rivers, highways, and back roads that recur throughout these essays, I found myself searching the book for a map. But as there is no such static reference included with the text, I wonder if Sproxton intends to convey that the region surrounding Phantom Lake and Flin Flon is not easily mapped. It consists of a layered literary and geologic past, and is characterized by the fluid shift from camp to boomtown to ghost town that typifies a resource-based economy. Sproxton blends the fictional and historical past of Flin Flon with his childhood memories and contemporary visits so seamlessly that a map might hinder the confluence of past and present in this memoir.

Phantom Lake reflects tensions familiar to many who have grown up in small, resource-based Canadian towns. While Sproxton acknowledges a retrospective awareness of the environmental degradation caused by mining and smelting, he reveals the effects of these industries as being an accepted part of life in his hometown. Smoke from the local smelter was a quotidian presence. “We grew in it,” he writes. “The plant breathed smoke; and so long as the stacks snorted smoke into the sky, the town was alive and kicking” (46). The smelter smoke was most visible in its absence, as smokeless days indicated the economic uncertainty of shutdowns or strikes. Sproxton’s essays provide vivid depictions of the environmental consequences of mining—a lake drained and converted to a tailings pond, others polluted with mercury, and a town where weather predictions can be based on glances towards the ever-present stream of smelter smoke. Yet Sproxton complicates these details by portraying families reliant on the mining industry for their livelihoods, in a place where one of the only alternatives to work in the mines is to leave one’s home and seek opportunity elsewhere.

Encouraged by his father, Sproxton avoided a life of underground labour by obtaining a series of university degrees that led him to a career in post-secondary teaching and writing. Yet the fascination with words that drew him away from Flin Flon also drew him back, to mine personal and collective memory, landscape, and archives. Reflecting on the significance of geology and literature, Sproxton asserts that “rocks and books are pre-texts of place” (35). Sproxton’s excavation of Flin Flon informs the ecocritical concern with linking environmental history—in this case, grounded in the very bedrock of the Canadian Shield—to personal and collective articulations of place. The essays of Phantom Lake could be used, either individually or collectively, in courses concerned with the imbrications of literary, personal, industrial, and ecological history. For those familiar with the Flin Flon area, this collection offers the pleasure of revisiting known landscapes from varied directions and perspectives. And for those unfamiliar with this region, Phantom Lake offers the opportunity to visit this realm “North of 54” with a guide fluent in the history and lore and of this land.

Note on Contributor

Angela Waldie is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Calgary.  Her research interests include western Canadian and American literature, ecopoetry, bioregionalism, and literary ornithology.  Her dissertation will focus on expressions of species extinction in Canadian and American literature.