Cutting Down the Golden Spruce

The story of a man who destroyed a famous golden tree.

By Mark Rickerby

6th October 2011

On the shores of one of the vast islets that weave through the mountainous forest of the Queen Charlotte Islands in the Pacific Northwest, there was a spruce tree with leaves that shone with a mysterious golden luminance.

The Haida people, who lived amongst millions of these forest giants did not give individual names to any, except for the lone golden tree. They called it ‘K’iid K’iyaas’, the ‘Elder Spruce Tree’. In their mythology, it was seen as a human who had been transformed. A memory of a prophecy passed down the generations, which said that the fall of the tree would coincide with the last generation of Haida.

In the 20th Century, the tree was known to many locals as a tourist attraction. One of the logging companies—who busied themselves clear cutting the valleys beyond Vancouver—built a roadside rest area and fashioned a walkway into the forest for travellers to come and take a closer look. Many people who saw the golden tree up close described it as a strangely moving and beautiful experience.

Scientists eventually studied the tree, and concluded that its luminance was due to a strange genetic mutation that rendered the tree unable to produce and circulate chlorophyll. By all logical reckoning, a tree with such a mutation should never have survived at all, but it did survive, and over hundreds of years it grew to the height of the surrounding forest.

In 1966, a young man named Grant Hadwin left his middle class Vancouver home in turmoil. His desire for freedom and an easy-going existence conflicted with his parents expectations that he would attend college and gain entry to a respectable professional career. He headed north, finding work with an uncle who owned a logging company, and began to settle in to the environment. The lone outdoor lifestyle suited his temperament, but the reality of the logging horrified him—heavy machinery scraping whole forest mountainsides down to bare rock. After years working in logging, drilling, and prospecting, he gained a promotion which put him in charge of surveying for saleable timber deep in the forest wilderness, and laying out the access roads that would allow the logging company to reach deeper into the rugged terrain.

Hadwin’s wilderness experience and natural talent for geography meant he was brilliant at his job, but the consequences of what he was doing gnawed at him. Colleagues described him as ‘out of time’, talking about sustainability and forest management years before anyone else in the industry recognized these concepts. He began inserting critiques of the company into internal memos.

By the mid 80’s, these continuing conflicts of interest rendered him unable to maintain his job. Drifting from place to place and putting his family under an enormous strain, Hadwin’s eccentric behavior became increasingly bizarre. Stuffing his bags full of thousands of hypodermic needles and condoms, he began a ‘world tour’, with the intent of being an ambassador for safe sex and clean needle exchanges. Dressed in tight shorts, boots with spurs, and a cap covered with needles and condoms, he travelled to cities like Miami, Moscow, and Washington, where his efforts did not go entirely according to plan. Months later, he attacked a truck driver with a crowbar, and was remanded in a psychiatric facility.

Now estranged from his family, Hadwin spent further years trying to raise awareness and educate the public about various fringe issues but his bellicose temperament and lack of authority failed to win him any significant support.

In 1997, unstable and volatile, Hadwin travelled out to the Queen Charlotte Islands again. He obtained a chainsaw, and various pieces of rigging equipment in the logging town opposite the hill where the golden spruce grew. In the middle of the night, he plunged into the near freezing waters and swum across the gap, carrying his equipment in a sack. With his logging experience, Hadwin was able to cut into the tree in a way that ensured it would fall in spectacular fashion, at a time when it would be clearly visible to onlookers. The next morning, the people in the town watched their beloved tree topple.

Hadwin made no attempt to conceal his identity and he was outspoken in claiming responsibility. He was soon arrested. A letter that Hadwin faxed to the media claiming responsibility, used words like ‘hatred’ and ‘rage’ towards the ‘university-educated professionals’ who he saw as responsible for most suffering in the world. He claimed that he cut down the tree to protest at the way logging companies had been laying waste to the North Pacific rainforests.

The Haida people were traumatically affected by the fall of the tree, which brought to life the prophecy foretelling the end of the tribe. Hadwin’s former employers, the logging companies, sent out press releases rallying against him. The event received widespread news coverage across Canada.

In the days following, local radio stations began to receive violent death threats towards Hadwin, such that he decided to go by kayak to the regional court where he was due to appear, rather than travel by bus or plane. By the day of his court case, he had disappeared, and was never seen again.

Weeks later, Hadwin’s shattered kayak and several items of his outdoor gear were discovered on the rocky beach of a remote forest island. It is not known whether he drowned, or whether he fled into the forest and roamed, living off the land.

There’s something immensely human and tragic about this story that fascinates me. Not just the aspect of the magical tree or the mentally disturbed rampage, but the fact that the tree was not destroyed by greed and ignorance, but by a man who claimed to be protesting against greed and ignorance.