Tag: John Vaillant

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2020

The year is drawing to a close, and I’ve left it to the very last minute to name my top picks from this year’s reading! These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2020. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

From the Ashes

Cover image for From the Ashes by Jesse ThistleFrom the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies. Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself.

Categories: Canadian, Memoir

The Golden Spruce

Cover image for The Golden Spruce by John VaillantSometime around the year 1700, a spruce seed took root in the fertile soil of the Yakoun River valley on Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of what would become British Columbia, Canada. Despite a rare mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green—a flaw that should have impeded its ability to photosynthesize—the tree that became known as K’iid K’iyaas or the golden spruce, grew to be a giant that stood on the banks of the river until 1997, when it was deliberately felled as a protest again the logging industry. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home. The Golden Spruce is part history of the logging industry, and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people. The early part of the book is dedicated to the history of the Haida, and the North American logging industry, as well as a brief foray into the fur trade that preceded it. Vaillant treats this all as necessary context before introducing Grant Hadwin, the man who destroyed the tree in the dark hours of January 20, 1997. The Golden Spruce is a sad and disturbing story of destruction, ignorance, and waste. According to Vaillant, “left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century.”

Categories: Canadian

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Cover image for A Mind Spread Out on the GroundAlicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.

Categories: Canadian, Essays

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David QuammenZoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, when the fragile ecological balance of the world is disrupted in a new way, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Author David Quammen is a journalist with a long history of covering zoonosis, with the consequent experience in translating a highly technical subject for a lay audience. I read a variety of pandemic books this year, but if you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. You’ll emerge from Spillover with a much better contextual understanding of our current situation, armed with many of the essential concepts for understanding the virology and epidemiology underpinning the ongoing public health conversations that have been dominating our discourse over the past year, and will no doubt continue into 2021.

Categories: Pandemic, Science

We Have Always Been Here

Cover image for We Have Always Been Here by Samra HabibSamra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her. In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her parents. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong they did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step.

Categories: Canadian, Memoir, LGBTQ+

What were your top non-fiction reads this year? Did you read any pandemic books, or did you avoid the subject like the plague?

The Golden Spruce

Cover image for The Golden Spruce by John Vaillantby John Vaillant

ISBN 978-0-393-07557-1

“The golden spruce was one of the few mature Sitka spruce trees still standing at the north end of the Yakoun River, and as such it had become even more of an anomaly than it already was.”

Sometime around the year 1700, a spruce seed took root in the fertile soil of the Yakoun River valley on Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of what would become British Columbia, Canada. The first recorded European contact with the islands would not take place for another seventy-five years. Despite a rare mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green—a flaw that should have impeded its ability to photosynthesize—the tree that became known as K’iid K’iyaas or the golden spruce, grew to be a giant that stood on the banks of the river until 1997, when it was deliberately felled as a protest again the logging industry. In that time, the golden spruce had become a legend amongst the Haida people of Masset, as well as a symbol of the village of Port Clements. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home.

The Golden Spruce is part history of the logging industry, and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people. Vaillant beautifully describes the temperate rainforest landscape, writing that “a coastal forest can be an awesome place to behold: huge, holy, and eternal-feeling, like a branched and needled Notre Dame.” The early part of the book is dedicated to the history of the Haida, and the North American logging industry, as well as a brief foray into the fur trade that preceded it. Vaillant treats this all as necessary context before introducing Grant Hadwin, the man who destroyed the tree in the dark hours of January 20, 1997. A former logger and industry consultant, Hadwin had specialized in laying out the logging roads that would enable the companies to haul massive equipment into challenging terrain, and extract the wood once it was felled. In short, he made possible the very destruction he came to oppose. Vaillant interviews several current and former loggers also caught in this cognitive dissonance between love for being in the wilderness, and making a living by pillaging it, representing a variety of positions on the issue.

In the summer of 1987, on a mountainside near McBride, British Columbia—a small town about two hours east of the larger mill town where I grew up—Hadwin had a vision. A doctor Vaillant spoke with, who specializes in this kind of decompensation, called it a “spiritual emergency.” Having already become disillusioned with the practices of the logging industry in the mid-eighties, his failed attempts to advocate for restraint and moderation became unhinged. His employer at the time compared it to the difference between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Following the vision, Hadwin believed “he was not only forgiven for his prior sins but chosen to represent the Creator of all Life and carry a message to the rest of humanity.” However, it would be a decade before this delusion manifested in an act of destruction that shook the country.

Like most of British Columbia, Haida Gwaii is unceded territory; no treaty exists, and no compensation has been made to the Haida people for all that has already been taken from them. On that dark January night, Vaillant describes how another piece of their culture was destroyed: “as far as many Haida are concerned, Hadwin is one more white guy who came out to their islands in order to take something away, only to leave behind yet another imported illness; this time, a new strain of terrorism.” From his Prince Rupert hotel room, before his disappearance, Hadwin admitted he didn’t know the Haida legend when he cut down the tree. As his friend Cora Grey, an Indigenous woman from Hazelton, put it, “he could only see MacMillan Bloedel. He didn’t see no legend about the Haida when he did that.”

For those looking to understand why Hadwin would destroy K’iid K’iyaas and think he was striking a blow against the logging industry, there is little satisfaction to be had in The Golden Spruce. Using all the skills he picked up during his years in the industry, Hadwin destroyed the structural integrity of the tree, ensuring that it would fall the next time the wind blew up. This happened two days after his nighttime expedition. Fortunately, despite the tree’s popularity as a tourist attraction, no one was hurt. The golden spruce trail and view point were on the other side of the Yakoun River. By the time the tree feel, Hadwin had left Haida Gwaii, and returned to Prince Rupert on the mainland. From his hotel room, he issued a press release decrying the hypocrisy of the logging industry, entitled “The Falling of Your ‘Pet Plant,’” which reads as a deranged screed against “university trained professionals” whose “ideas, ethics, denials, part truth, attitudes, etc., appear to be responsible for most of the abominations, towards amateur life on this planet.”

As Vaillant chronicles, Hadwin was charged for the act, and it is here that the story takes an even stranger turn. Believing his life to be in danger if he took a ferry or plane to his court date in Masset, Hadwin took his life into his own hands, and set out from Prince Rupert in a kayak in February 1998, disappearing somewhere on Hecate Strait or Dixon Entrance. His wrecked kayak and much of his equipment—in surprisingly good condition after four months on the Northwest coast—were found on Mary Island in June. Belief that he faked the wreck remains common amongst those who knew him and his outdoors skills, as well as among the people of Haida Gwaii.

With the tree felled, and Hadwin vanished into the wild, the last part of the book becomes about the grief of the community, and the futile efforts of the scientific community to put right the destruction he wrought. The golden spruce was unique and irreplaceable. Although two cuttings of the tree were located in the University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens, they were not thriving. Controversy erupted amongst community members and Haida leadership about whether the return of a cutting should be accepted, and if it should be planted on the site of the felled giant. In the end, although more cuttings were made from the fallen tree, and two were planted in Port Clements, the golden spruce has largely been left to nature, where it has become a nurse log for the surrounding forest. The Golden Spruce is a sad and disturbing story of destruction, ignorance, and waste. According to Vaillant, “left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century.”

You might also like The Nature Fix by Florence Williams