Nature essay meets true-crime tale.
Canadian journalist Vaillant’s debut begins with a mystery: A beachcombing biologist turns up a broken kayak on the shore of an uninhabited Alaskan island and, lucky day, begins to disassemble it for its parts, only to discover scattered camping gear and other equipment that pointed to either foul play or terrible accident. That suspenseful setup is left hanging as Vaillant switches into ecologist mode, explaining the dynamics of the Northwest’s rainforests, where “there is no graceful interval between the ocean and the trees; the forest simply takes over where the tide wrack ends, erupting full-blown from the shallow, bouldered earth.” On the rainy Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, a region of astoundingly tall trees, one stood taller than all others; born around 1700, this “golden spruce” had found a place at the heart of the native universe and had been set aside by generations of loggers who had worked the country. Having provided a history of logging and an appreciation of Haida lifeways, the author moves toward its strange center: the tale of an “upper-middle-class prep school refugee” who had found something approaching refuge in the remote woods and become a master logger, widely praised for the quality of his work. “He was opinionated and eccentric, but he was also a strenuous provider,” Vaillant writes, a sober and industrious fellow who snapped; he now became an anti-logging activist, and somewhere along the way, for reasons of his own, he hit on an idea to commit an act of eco-sabotage that would call attention to the plight of the old-growth forest. Vaillant’s start-and-stop narrative yields whiplash here and there, but he ably covers all the bases: the logger’s actions may have been local, but they had wide-ranging implications, and Vaillant pauses to consider them all.
One of them is surprising: the tree, once little known, “has become the most widely dispersed Sitka spruce on earth.” Vaillant’s tale of how it got to be so is of unfailing interest.